This post is the first in a series of articles detailing a recent trip that I just made to Kashmir. We traveled to some known destination as well as some remote areas of the state; places that only a few people have heard the name of. On a certain day of the trip, we actually reached the last point till where civilian vehicles were allowed. Standing there, I could clearly see the India – Pakistan border; hills that I was told by the soldiers there were part of Pakistani territory. After returning from the trip, when I sat down to write about my experience, it just made sense to first answer the question that I have been most frequently asked; both before and after the trip. Is Kashmir safe for tourists?
To be honest, there is really no direct yes or no answer to this question. I have always believed that a person’s safety is in their own hands. It is driven by their own judgements, decisions and actions. The same rule applies to Kashmir as well; and to any other destination as a matter of fact. My idea of writing this article is not to pass a verdict on whether or not Kashmir is safe for tourist; but rather to jot down a few of my own observations. Being as neutral as I can, I will just mention the facts that I observed; and you can then decide whether or not you want to travel to Kashmir.
Is it Safe for Tourists to Visit Kashmir?
This was not really my first time in Kashmir. I have been there before a few times, but only while on my way to Ladakh. So during those trips, I only covered the Jammu – Srinagar highway; stayed in Srinagar for a night; and then traveled to Leh while crossing towns like Ganderbal, Kangan, Sonamarg and Drass on the way. This was more of a passing through rather than visiting Kashmir. So this time, my idea of the trip was to arrive in Srinagar and then spend days while exploring Kashmir.
The itinerary I prepared included famous destinations like Gulmarg and Pahalgam; and some interior and remote areas that rarely any tourists goes to. A more detailed write up of the trip will follow later but the questions and the opinions I encountered were more or less the same; irrespective of the place.
The first thing that you would notice after arriving here is that it is just the usual everyday people. People you will meet in any part of India. People going about their daily lives trying to make ends meet. It is just the regular shops, tea stalls, dhabas; portraying a perfect image of how any Indian city looks on an average day. There is no monster lurking in the dark; ready to pounce upon and kill you. There are no sinister people around eyeing you suspiciously. It is just another day in just another place for common people like you and I. You will walk down the roads and nobody will even notice you.
And then you will finally get talking to some of the locals and tell them that you are a tourist there. Shortly after, you will be presented with the question that I guess is on every Kashmiri’s mind. I will quote here, not exactly word by word, but the gist of the story is more or less the same.
“ So what did you think? What is your observation? Did you feel threatened here? Do you think Kashmir is unsafe? Were you harmed in any way? Media always portrays such a negative impression about Kashmir, scaring people from visiting here. Did you notice anything negative? What will you tell about us when you go back home?”
Every single person I spoke to in Kashmir asked me this set of questions. They are all just so worried about what rest of the country thinks and talks about them. I won’t be exaggerating if I said that to some extent, it hurts them deeply to know that people of India think of Kashmir as a sinister and dangerous place. And I am really talking about the educated and sensible lot here; not the ones that get involved in the stone pelting incident. After seeing all the clashes with armed forces and the violence on TV, it was really a little hard to believe watching these people worry about their image.
Am I then saying that there is nothing wrong in Kashmir and all is well? Of course not. I noticed at several places walls like in the picture below; texts about freedom and an “Azad Kashmir”. There was one instance when I clearly heard someone shout “Pakistan Zindabad” from a car that drove by. No one can deny the fact that there have been incidents of tourists getting hurt and dying in Kashmir.
But once you start talking to people in Kashmir, you will realize that they all have different opinions on the matter. Some people are happy with the state being a part of India while others think it would have been better if they were a part of Pakistan. Some people would be in favor of Kashmir being an independent state; not tied to either India or Pakistan. Majority of the people however cannot care less as long as they are left to go through their lives peacefully. This is the average common man who is only concerned with the safety of his family and loved ones.
During my trip, I celebrated Eid in Srinagar; rode through the Srinagar city in dead of the night; visited areas like Shopian and not even once I was bothered by anyone anywhere. If it wasn’t for our motorcycles, I don’t think anyone would even have noticed us. If you travel through remote Kashmir villages, you will hear comments like “Ye aazadi vazadi sab Srinagar walo ka drama hai, hamein kya matlab is sabse”. These are the villagers, the shepherds who are only driven by earning their daily meals and keeping their families fed. They don’t know or care about the politics of all of it.
How to Travel to Kashmir Safely
There are several things that I observed in Kashmir that are worth mentioning but it will just result in a way too long post. I will add those details later in the travelogue but for now, let me answer the question of whether or not Kashmir is safe for tourists. The answer is a definite yes as long as you practice a few precautions as mentioned below.
Do your Home Work
Being at the wrong place at the wrong time is what I call. This is the first and most important part of the trip. Before your leave home, make sure that you keep a close check on the news for any word on protests or violence. Now when I say violence, I do not mean the clashes and encounters that go on between Indian army and the militants. That over last few decades has becomes an everyday routine here. Militants continue to cross the border over and our armed forces continues to kill them one by one. This happens in areas close to the border or remote villages and you will not be bothered by this too much.
What will however definitely impact you is incidents like curfew or wide-spread stone pelting in the valley. If there has been continued violence for several days altogether in multiple parts of Kashmir, then you are better off cancelling your trip and wait for things to calm down.
Stick to main tourist Areas
Tourism plays a great part in lives of the people of Kashmir. A major part of their livelihood depends on it and even they realize it. They will do their best to ensure that tourist destinations like Gulmarg, Sonamarg and Pahalgam do not get disrupted by any protests. They do so to ensure that the tourist flow in the valley continues. Unfortunately it doesn’t help much because people are still afraid to visit here anyways. But if you were planning to travel to Kashmir, they you are better off keeping only the main tourist routes in your itinerary. Avoid going towards remote regions. I am not saying that you cannot do so because even I traveled through some remote areas as well but that is not really everyone’s cup of tea.
Just to be on a safer side, for your first trip to Kashmir, stick to the main tourist areas and avoid the lesser known places. Once you have been to the state and have an idea about things here, you can then plan on visiting rest some other areas. Even the clashes between Indian Army and militants usually happens in the small far off villages that you should avoid.
Stay on the main routes
This will apply for both Srinagar city and rest of Kashmir. Stay on the main roads and highways. While in Srinagar city, do not go wandering around in “narrow galiyan” or local “mohallas” where you have no business visiting. When going to other tourist places, stick to main highways and do not take any shortcuts through some villages.
Avoid Google Maps
This will be in continuation to the point above. Google Map by default will show you the quickest way possible; which may include getting off the main road and crossing through residential colonies. If you are on a motorcycle then it will try to navigate you through some really narrow streets and slum type areas. This happened with me as well a few times and I even had to turn the bike around after getting stuck in a narrow gali. Just stay on main broad roads and if you are not sure, then ask the locals, cops or Indian Army personals for directions. I would advise against relying on Google maps here.
Be a Tourist
When you are in Kashmir, you got to be a tourist and be as loud about it as you can. Do not act like you belong here. Hang a huge camera around your neck, put a hat on or hold a map in your hands. The idea is to let others know that you are a tourist here. People of Kashmir are very sensitives towards tourists and will do anything to ensure their safety. There have been incidents when the entire stone pelting stopped because a tourist got caught in between.
Get a Postpaid Connection
Prepaid connections do not work in Kashmir so it would be wise to get a postpaid connection before traveling here. BSNL has the widest coverage here so if possible at all, get a BSNL / MTNL postpaid connection. If not, then at least carry a postpaid SIM with you because the moment you cross over into Kashmir, your prepaid phone will be as good as paper weight.
Keep a Local Contact
I know it will not be an option for majority of the tourists but if you have a local contact in Kashmir, it would work for better. That way, if something goes wrong, then you will have a local person that you can rely on.
During my trip, I stayed at Hotel Grand Valley Inn and the folks over there were very nice. The hotel is run by a family who lives nearby. They are an open minded well educated lot; and if something goes wrong, you can rest assured that they will even shelter you in their homes if needed. The hotel is quite close to Shalimar Bagh, Nishat Bagh and Dal Lake so location-wise too it is a great choice. Give my reference and you can even get a discounted rate here. Their number is 9906571500. These people treated me so well that I woulnd’t mind calling this hotel my second home in Srinagar.
Stay inside the Hotel
If things go wrong while you were in Kashmir, then stay inside your hotel for as long as required and only try to get out when things calm down. Do not take a chance of crossing through while the problem still remains. No one is going to attack you inside the hotel but you may become a victim if you were out on the roads amidst the violence.
Do not be where you do not Belong
And by this, I mean areas where you know something may go wrong. I will quote an example here. My trip to Kashmir happened to be in the same week that Eid was. I did not plan it that way but rather booked the tickets without checking the date of Eid. So while I was there, I did not go to Eidgah in Srinagar for my Eid prayers because I was told by the locals that there is a high chance that things may go wrong there. I offered my prayers at a local mosque instead. Similarly, you should too stick to areas where as a tourist you will go. Do not be curious and go wandering around in all the wrong places.
Is Kashmir Safe for Tourists – Conclusion
And I think that pretty much covers it all. As long as your follow the points above and keep yourself safe, you will travel through a very scenic part of our country and return home safely. Amarnath Yatra happens every year, no one is bothering them. In fact, when Amarnath Yatris got stuck after the floods of 2014, it were the Kashmiri people who kept them fed and cared for until they were evacuated.There are temples here in the valley. The Maharani temple in Gulmarg sits atop a hill in a Muslim majority region and it is safe and well cared for. There is a church as well there barely 2 minutes of walk away. You will find “Om” written at several places on the walls as you travel through; I saw one in Shopian. There are several Sikhs living in Srinagar and plenty of Hindus running their “Shudh Vaishno Dhaba”.
If Kashmir was really as menacing as everything thinks, all this would have vanished long ago. A local out here said to me “Aap Kashmir ko Dil se Jeeto, Zor se nahi” and I agree to it. Visit here, experience the scenic beauty and make these people that they are part of a larger dream that we all call “India”.
I hope the information posted above was of help. In next part of this article, I have provided details of my Kashmir trip, including the itinerary I followed and places visited. If you have any other questions; please feel free to ask in the comments section below or at our Community Forum; and I will be glad to answer.