Kashmir: is it safe?

 “… I saw your blog regarding your trip to Kashmir and its very beautiful. I had a friend from Kashmir but unfortunately he died due to some injury caused in protests this year. I wanted to know from you that is Kashmir peaceful right now because i wanted to visit. Also is there a separate process to apply visa or from Indian embassy. Also if you can tell me what is the problem there? Is Kashmir a part of India or is it Occupied. I never asked my friend about this but after his death i want to go there coz he was a really good person…”

I received this email from a random reader arriving to my Travelogue, and recalling that I had actually wanted to write about this long ago after the Kashmir trip (which remained undone thanks to 2011 blogging hiatus), so I thought of writing this here now. First of all, I feel sorry for the Kashmiri friend’s death. When I bought ticket to India in late 2010 (for trip in April 2011), I had not actually thought of visiting Kashmir. All I wanted to see was Taj Mahal and common cities in India. I am not sure what was the reason Az suggesting it either, as eventually I knew that he didnt actually know much about it =.= and it was me who did the research before our trip, places to visit, transports, etc. And it turned out to be our main destination (we spent one week in Kashmir out of 2 weeks total in India) and our best decision ever to go there.

Like many others, I grew up knowing Kashmir as a “not a safe place”. Back in 1999 in Masjidil Haram in Makkah, the Imam repeatedly included Kashmir (and Chechnya) in the mass du’a every night during prayers, and it promptly made me imagine they were having war. Although not actually following its updates until few years back and I havent really came across any proper news about Kashmir, it still somehow remained as unsafe place to me.

During UIA, I met many students from Kashmir and India. When Ummatic Week comes (the university’s annual inter-cultural feast), one would see Kashmir has its own booth and India has its own booth. When I asked, the Kashmiri students simply said their culture is totally different than India’s, regardless, now we’re talking about foreign students in (Islamic) international university in Malaysia, and everyone is Muslim.

I didnt bother about Kashmir that much until the moment Az suggested to visit there. After a little research, you’ll know that Kashmir is visitable.  While the more conflicting it sounds, the more curious I became about this region! And it became more exciting when I learned that this region offers really beautiful places that you cant wait to see for real.

Okay, back to the email’s questions…..

1) Is Kashmir peaceful right now?

I’m afraid I’ll answer from my own perspective only, which could not be fact. When we visited there in April 2011, it was all calm (okay, there was actually an incident in a mosque during Juma prayer when an Imam was killed, which was beyond our sight and didnt affect the trip so let’s keep that aside for now). It was worse when our friend Manu had been there earlier, I think in 2010. He and his friends went at the time when there was curfew for days that they had to remain staying in hotel without going out to places.

I can say it can always be safe for tourists.  I have come to know that tourism is the main economy contributor to this region. There are alot of tourists from other states in India as well as foreign coutries visiting Kashmir every year. You can always refer to forums like IndiaMike – Jammu & Kashmir and I remember there’s a thread somehow giving updates about safety in Srinagar (if there was riot, curfew, etc) before you decide to go. But in case you already have tickets, it wont matter that much :) Only it’s best to remain as tourist when you’re there – avoid discussing about the political situation in Kashmir, and never express your opinion or side regarding that. Another thing, we’re advised to not to go out at night. You will get to see Indian and J&K army on the street in many places but they give no harm. We even feel it safer with their existence, anyhow.

2) Is there a separate process to apply visa or from Indian Embassy?

If India’s region of Kashmir is concerned (Srinagar as capital), of course you’ll need Indian visa. As for April 2011, double entry visa (valid for 6 months) costs RM170 for Malaysian. Although not being mentioned in anywhere as far as I check online, I somehow prefer not mentioning Kashmir as “places to visit” under the application. We just put Delhi, Agra and Punjab instead.

3) What is the problem there? Is Kashmir part of India or is it Occupied?

From my little understanding from random readings and class discussion in uni, I learned that India and Pakistan used to be one nation in the past, and the British came, then later gave them independence. Kashmir being a region in the middle of two, has been in conflict ever since. Politically, the region has been divided partially to India and another to Pakistan. Although, again concerning India’s Kashmir, the people there don’t feel belong to India by culture (and possibly religion) hence the urge to gain its own independent state. But so far, it’s still officially, part of India.

Back to UIA days, once in our Leadership class, there were 2 Kashmiri students, and our lecturer happens to be an Indian from Kerala. I remember we ended up having a thoughtful discussion about this, when one Kashmiri student gave a public speech about his home place. They raised the concern of they prefer to have independent from India, because Kashmiri is a Muslim region. Imagine what our Indian lecturer’s response. Smiling, he said something like, “I’m also Muslim but we dont have to get indepenence from India because of that”. And another Kashmiri argue “Our culture is just different”. Oh well. If you’re talking about culture differences of India from North to South, there’s heaps. Anyway, I learned something, without really having my own opinion.

 

So, when we were really in Kashmir, we got to see things right before our own eyes. We came across many locals in Kashmir, and at times when he thinks appropriate, Az would repeat the same ice-breaking talk by first cheerfully claiming that this place is far more peaceful than we thought or said from media, and shortly we would somehow, manage to make them express their thoughts, and hope for an independent Kashmir. In streets, there’s sight of their hearts voiced out into verbal expression. Longing for freedom.

Although, NOT all Kashmiri wants independence. From our little “survey”, it can be concluded that majority of Kashmiri people (at least who talked to us) who live in Kashmir and make a living here, they want an independence state. On the other hand, we also met Kashmiri who live in Kashmir but has family actively running business and studying in Delhi, they prefer to be in India.

As our Kashmiri-origin CouchSurfer host in Delhi says, this thing can be a never ending issue.

Read Our Travelogue for Jammu & Kashmir, India.

Last day in Delhi

Finally, after 2 weeks being in India, we have to realize that this wonderful journey has come to its end *sad*. Mr Bashir invited us to join him at his house for breakfast, and his resident apartment is located only a few blocks away from the shop office apartment (where we always had breakfast and dinner with the rest of the family, and other guests). And for the first time we personally met Mr Bashir’s wife, she’s a great lady and we both talked about many things, Mr Bashir gladly shared of how they both met (and later Az, delightedly wanted to share our stories as well =,=) and some valuable advice they gave us as newlyweds.

After saying (final) goodbye, we took auto-rickshaw to Metro station, and quickly went to Karol Bagh again to do a few last shopping! :P (Metro AIIMS change at Rajiv Chowk, then to Karol Bagh). On way back, we directly took auto-rickshaw for New Delhi Metro and from there you can get  Metro directly to the airport.

Here we are, fully dressed in Indian Kurta (bought at Karol Bagh!) and in fact, they were much cheaper than what I shopped earlier in Kashmir.

 

While waiting for our flight, we had to finish all rupees left by ordering this Domino’s Vegetarian pizza (tasteless in my opinion) .

 

Arrived in KL around 6am local time.

Shopping at Karol Bagh

How to get there: Take Metro to Karol Bagh station. Walk along the road next to the station it will lead you to Karol Bagh shopping area.

Ok, this photo is NOT in Karol Bagh – it’s at the airport. We were running in Karol Bagh we didnt have time for photos! But I put this photo coz Az is wearing a Kurta bought in Karol Bagh, so there’s a connection at least.

When we arrived in Karol Bagh, we immediately asked ourselves, how on earth we didnt know about this place earlier? This is THE right place for shopping if you’re in New Delhi. Not in the Connaught Place – there are only modern, western-label shops there. And not also in South Extension II area – only sarees priced from Rs.4000 and above are sold there. Thanks to Sudhir for telling us about Karol Bagh.

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Uneventful train ride back to Delhi

Train Agra to New Delhi
Mahakaushal Exp Train# 12189
Depart AGC 08:23 Agra Cantt
Arrive 11:35 NZM H Nizamuddin
Duration: 3h 12m
Class: AC 3 Tier
Cost: Rs. 706 (2 pax)

This is our last train in India, and apparently the first (and only) train that was NOT on time. It was delayed and arrived around 11am, almost 2 hours than expected. But we were not mad about it as we were mad about missing train because of being cheated by tout!

We stayed at the train patiently while watching people around. This time we were more brave to take photo (but trying not to look obvious) so Az could snap some faces from our zoomed lens. We felt great when we could silently take a closeup photo of some random  people without them realizing, and our super zoom camera is quite helping in this ;) So it was our mode of entertainment while waiting the train… *bored* =.=  We noticed a Caucasian couple waiting train for Delhi as well, and since they’re waiting for long as we do, we guess that they’re the same train as us. Which turns out to be correct.

There was this designated stall selling drinks and snacks at the platform, and when Az wanted to buy a snack, the seller apparently give a price higher than what was printed on the label! Being surprised, Az asked him why but instead of explaining, he took back the snack rudely with a look of “take it or leave it”. What a jerk!

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CouchSurf with Jai in Agra

We arrived at Mr Jai’s house around 4pm in the evening, right after we were done with trips with Jabbar and sent back to our hotel to pick up our luggage. It was difficult to take auto-rickshaw that is willing to take us to the address given with reasonable price. They were trying to overcharge us with an excuse today having some festivals around there and not many auto-rickshaws are running. Giving up with the bargain attempt, we agreed with the given price and they brought us to Jai’s apartment directly.

We have not seen many high-rise aparment/ flats in Agra so Jai’s place seems to stand out as a rather high-end residence compared to the community we have seen in the crowded place nearby Taj Mahal. The apartment was gated with security people, and after registering at the security, we called Jai and his daughter Riti came down to take us up.

We were given a neat separate bedroom complete with bathroom. I understand that the room actually belongs to Jai’s son but functioning as guest room sometimes.

To spend the evening, Riti and her friends asked us to play badminton with them at the yard. All of them speak fluent English at young age and we were very impressed. It was great to play bandminton after so long having left it, and the kids playing quite good too! We also talked and asked about Hindi movies and superstars, their school, places they like in India and other stuff. It was fun ;)

Dinner time! We were so delighted to have dinner with the family. Jai and his family are really friendly and treated us like their family members. We expected to eat whatever they eat: vegetarian food. But we were surprised that they tried so hard to accommodate us non-vegetarians with boiled eggs – as if we would die if we dont eat non-vegetarian food! =.= I mean, they shouldn’t have, and it’s unnecessary! We were traveling in other place with other culture and all we love to do is to eat what the local people eat. I mean, when in Rome, do as Romans do. So when in India, eat what Indians eat :P Anyhow, we can’t help but felt touched by their effort, although a bit guilty.

So we can learn by their food, vegetarian people can replace meat-stuff by potato, and also paneer (cheese); like these human-shaped nuggets for example :) We would have thought it’s made of chicken by its taste.. I mean, I had never eaten potato that taste that good! The food we had at Jai’s are all new to us but really yummy!

We had a good chat with Jai and his wife, they shared almost everything we need to know about Agra, and we also shared our incident of being cheated by tout before coming to here. As a newly married couple, we also had among the very best advice from Jai and his wife.. things to keep the relationship at its best. If not because we’re leaving for Delhi tomorrow, Jai would like to bring us at some shops he’s familiar with that sell sarees and kurta that we’re searching for.

The next morning, we woke up to say goodbye to Jai’s family before we left to Agra train station. Riti and Aryan were ready for school in neat uniforms. After quick breakfast, Jai helped us to take auto-rickshaw which will get us to the station directly.

Thank you Jai for the great hospitality and warm welcome! Hope to see you again one day :)