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.

Finally in Kashgar!!

The bus driver dropped us in front of the Id Kah mosque as we requested earlier. Because the mosque is literally the center of Kashgar city, and in Lonely Planet guide map or any Kashgar map would use the iconic Id Kah mosque as the landmark. It’s almost 7pm when we reach the city but it seems as if around 5pm (NOTE: Xinjiang officially use +8 GMT as Beijing also, but locals would use Xinjiang time which is 2 hours prior) since we actually arrived in Xinjiang only today in Urumqi (it seems a long journey already, huh?) we just start getting used to it when we arrive in Kashgar. We dont need to change our watch time (KL time) as it’s practically the same as Beijing, only when you’re Xinjiang, you need to be careful when asking/being told about time and be specific if it’s refered to Beijing time or Xinjiang time.

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Xinjiang: Places we visited (and not)

Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, being China’s largest region and located in the Far West, it borders Russia, Mongolia, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India, and obviously the home to many ethnic groups descendants from neighboring countries and ancient Turkic kingdoms. Probably this what has made us pull all effort to visit this colorful land, apart from wanting to get mesmerized by snow capped mountains and taste the world’s softest, juiciest grilled lamb ever. Here’s a summary of places:

1) Urumqi

The capital of Xinjiang and main connector between Xinjiang and other region (and some Central Asian countries) by air, and the city is far bigger than we had expected. Not being fan of big city, we dont find Urumqi very exciting. The Tianchi Lake is pretty, but seems enough to spend a few hours there. It’s been very touristy anyway. I dont find anything amazing about the Grand Bazar either, despite looking like an icon of building from China Silk Road time. We have spent around 3.5 days in Urumqi including transit, which actually could be shorten it to 2 days or not visiting at all.

2) Kashgar

Although Kashgar also turned out to be a rather bigger city than we had imagined (no quite such views people riding donkeys..) but more than half of Kashgar is still purely blended with Uyghur culture, Old Town, exotic food, cattles and easygoing people. We spent around 5 days in Kashgar (includes Karakul Lake) and still couldnt get enough of it :) Az even wanted to change our train ticket last minute and skip Kuqa and Turpan so that we could stay longer in Kashgar, only they didnt allow us as the tickets were booked online by Derek and any changing isn’t possible done in train counter.

3) Karakul

It’s the most distant point we stretched beyond Kashgar (given that we didnt have time to proceed to Tashkurgan finally). Being here is like in a quiet, hidden paradise, watching views you had never imagined to see, all for yourselves without a sight of people. We spent one day and one night in here after 5 hours journey from Kashgar, and we would have wanted to stay for another night if our camera hadnt run out of battery (and if the night wasn’t THAT cold!)

4) Kuqa

We wanted to visit Kuqa as to divide 24-hour journey between Kashgar to Urumqi/Turpan by half, as I believe in traveling during night and spending the day time for sightseeing, whatever place it is. Thefore Kuqa was our chosen transit place to do a day sightseeing before continuing night train to Turpan. But tragedy came unexpectedly, the sleepy town was in heavy dust thanks to sudden sand storm from nearby desert. Because of bad weather, we missed the chance to go sightseeing (only stayed in train station and made a short city bus trip between station and town) and even worse, our train to Turpan was cancelled and we were stranded for another day in this town.

Places not visited

5) Tashkurgan

It’s a town 2 hours beyond Karakul Lake via Karakoram Highway. I read there’s nothing much of intrest about this town except that you can see Tajik ethnic people. The bus between Kashgar and Tashkurgan run only once daily which is the only means for you to have a ride and get down to Karakul Lake in the middle of the road. Were worried if the inbound journey to Kashgar bus can be full, so we thought of hitch hike(?) the bus going to Tashkurgan instead (when possibly some travelers get down at Karakul, and we get to have their seat).  It turned out that 1) We went to Karakul Lake 1 day later than itinerary 2) We could finally get the inbound bus with seat, thankfully. It’s just a matter of going with the flow.

6) Khunjerab Pass

Wanted to go here but not included in initerary because too far. It’s 4 hours beyond Tashkurgan and is actually the Pass entering Pakistan. I read that the mountain views are really majestic when reaching this place. If only we had more days…

7) Turpan

I still can’t belive we had to skip Turpan last-minute because of wasting a day in Kuqa after the train cancellation (afraid not having days left in Urumqi). I dont know what to expect, but Turpan is said to be a must-visit, then again its attractions are mostly ruins of old city, which we dont have much interest in afterall.

8) Kanas

I so wish we could include it in our itinerary, but when you’re planning to go southern-most to Kashgar, Tashkurgan whatsoever, it’s almost impossible to make another trip to the Nothern-most point of Xinjiang. Kanas has very beautiful pine tree lakes and villages bordering Kazakhstan and Russia, yet we have to be realistic that it could be too cold to visit there in April, and the pretty pictures you see on internet are taken in Autumn! Let’s hope there will be a next time to Xinjiang.

9) Ili

Didnt really think of visiting despite having pretty grassland, mountains and lakes. You can never visit ALL places in Xinjiang in a time (unless you’re in one month trip or longer). This place is located far northwest of Xinjiang, with high possible of being an untouched beuty.