Frontline: A great place for a holiday, but war has removed it from the itinerary

THE KASHMIR VALLEY
Click to follow
The Independent Online
YOU CAN still go to Kashmir on holiday, if you have a hide like a buffalo and don't mind ignoring the British High Commission's strongly wordedadvice not to. But although the weather is fabulous, it's a bit like going to Weston-super-Mare or Southend-on-Sea in November. The ingredients for a happy holiday are all there, but in among all the wrong ingredients they just end up looking out of place, as if they are bizarre mistakes.

The Kashmir roads have been built by a government agency called Beacon, which likes to draw attention to its achievements by planting signs every few hundred yards emblazoned with cheery slogans. Be Happy on Beacon Road, they urge. Meadow of Flowers, declares another. Here is where the Valley Sings and the Heart Calls, raves the next. A platoon of the Border Security Force in hard hats and flak jackets, automatic rifles at the ready, crunches past and crosses a bridge built in haste by army engineers after the previous one was blown up.

And halfway to Sonamarg, a beautiful valley that has become the main staging post on the way to the Kargil area, the sign reads: India is a Bouquet, Kashmir a Rose in It. Convoys of army trucks grind endlessly past.

Kashmir is famous for Dal Lake, on which Srinagar, the capital, is built, and Dal Lake is famous for houseboats. The ghosts of Srinagar's past when it was a British watering hole crowd around. Walking down the Bund, along one spur of Dal Lake in the salubrious part of the city, you understand at once the inspiration behind it: the prom at Eastbourne. While there are no cream-painted Edwardian wedding cake hotels, or tea shops, or B&Bs, the houseboats strike the right note. Moored just opposite the Bund, strung with fairy lights, glistening (unlike anything else in Kashmir) with fresh paint, they have seaside guesthouse written all over them.

The houseboat owners, egged on by the Tourism Department, splashed out on paint and fairy lights this year in the hope that the bad times were over - and up to mid-May they were. Nearly 150,000 tourists came to Kashmir in the spring - more than for the whole of 1998. But then the Kargil war broke out and they all disappeared.

Houseboats were introduced into Kashmir by the British when the Maharaja forbade them to buy property or build houses here. Kashmir was, for the British, one of the great might-have-beens of the Indian Empire. In March 1846 the Raj sold Kashmir to a Hindu nobleman and warrior, Gulab Singh, for 7.5 million rupees, plus annual tribute of one horse, 12 goats of approved breed, (six male, six female), and three Kashmir shawls.

There were sound geopolitical reasons for the sale - Britain needed to secure this northern flank while it concentrated on exterminating the Sikhs in the Punjab - but for decades afterwards British visitors and residents gnashed their teeth at the thought of what they had let slip through their fingers. For the Valley of Kashmir is unquestionably the most beautiful spot in the Indian subcontinent; even hill stations such as Shimla, the British summer capital, do not bear comparison.

After the sale the British tried to claw back what little they could from the understandably possessive maharajas. The houseboat was a crafty dodge that let them spend comfortable holidays in the state without the benefit of owning their own homes there.

According to Sir Francis Younghusband, a British resident in Srinagar at the turn of the century, they were introduced by one T Kennard in the 1880s, and quickly caught on. "In midsummer they are hot abodes," Younghusband wrote, "but they form a most convenient and luxurious mode of travel. Each would contain probably a couple of sitting rooms with fireplaces, bedrooms and bathrooms, and with a cook-boat attached for cooking and servants, the traveller launches forth ... and drifts lazily down the river."

Dal Lake's houseboats go nowhere these days, as far as I could see. With the water level plummeting from lack of rain this year many are actually stuck in the mud.

The lake itself is not what it was, either. It has long functioned as Srinagar's sewer, which is not disastrous because it is well flushed by mountain streams and underwater springs. But the city is growing, mountain streams are silting up because of excessive logging, and illegal land reclamation is squeezing the lake. Add these together and it spells trouble.

The state has promised bold measures to address the problems, but a budget squeeze has put them at risk. Dr Kundangar, the eminent limnologist who runs the Ecological Monitoring Laboratory at the lakeside, fears it could become a cesspool within 30 years.

For the moment, however, parts of Dal Lake remain a fair image of paradise - once you get the soldiers and pillboxes out of the frame. There is nothing good that can be said about an insurgency that has cost 50 lives a week for the past 10 years, except perhaps this: the petrification of Kashmir's tourist industry has left Dal Lake suspended in time. There are no motorboats here, no sprawl of boarding houses or tourist knick-knackeries along the shoreline. They built a four-lane road along the foreshore 15 years ago, but only two lanes are in use, plied mainly by autorickshaws and jangling horse-drawn tongas.

The traffic on the lake consists solely of shikaras, flat- bottomed, double-ended vessels driven by paddles. In the sleeker, neater shikaras, the odd tourist is punted about, maharaja style, reclining on huge sprung bolsters under flapping curtains and canopies. Against the backdrop of dark mountains the peace is interrupted only by the cries of kingfishers and reed warblers. There's no peace like war.

Comments