Travel Sustainably is a Teja on the Horizon article series reviewing my efforts to travel more responsibly. This edition reviews new things I tried in my attempt to be sustainable while travelling in KASHMIR, INDIA – whether by pre-planning, or from the opportunities I found while there. It covers what I did well, what I would keep doing/using, what I would do differently next time, and what I failed to do.

Planning sustainable travel to Indian Kashmir

I had to significantly change my travel planning for my trip to Kashmir. When my Indonesian friend Baiti invited me to join her trip to visit our mutual friend in Kashmir, we had quite a different trip in mind.

Baiti wanted to go trekking to the famous natural beauty spots of Kashmir, such as Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Whereas I jumped at the opportunity to visit one of the cashmere weaving villages who are part of our friends’ network. I wanted to take videos for our online store, Ethical Cashmere. It would be the same as how cashmere weaving is done in Nepal, for the latter were taught by Kashmiris.

We also looked forward to visiting a saffron farm, where the most valuable spice in the world is grown. Incidentally, that would also mean the opportunity to get saffron at great prices, not to mention be confident that it’s real.

But it was not to be. Political events led to a lockdown. And even when the lockdown eased soon enough to make our trip possible, it turned into a considerably different trip, for considerably different reasons.

For that reason, when I think back on this Kashmir trip from a sustainable travel lens, the sustainability aspects that come to mind aren’t the typical environmental ones related to waste and carbon footprint. Rather, I think more about the non-environmental ones, like supporting the local economy, and considerations around travel in places with ongoing security issues, along with what that means for infrastructure and amenities.

View down the mountain valley summer countryside in Dachigam National Park, Kashmir. The sky is clear and blue, and the hillsides are partially dotted by trees.
Himalayan villages and terraced fields

Supporting local businesses in Kashmir

As with the rest of India, supporting local businesses in Kashmir is not a difficult task. Most businesses are not foreign, souvenirs are still mostly made locally. Kashmir, and its capital Srinagar, was once where the powerful and wealthy Mughal nobility had gone to have fun. So, it has a long history of craftsmanship for the beautiful things of the time. Today, Kashmir has preserved its craftsmanship traditions in spite of increasing global competition, and you can shop for these handmade items as souvenirs.

Instead, the decision we made as sustainable travellers in Kashmir was more about being generous in our shopping. The political situation at the time meant that all tourists and pilgrims were evacuated. In subsequent weeks, when Kashmir’s borders were open again, there were virtually no tourists. Prices were down to the floor. Under the circumstances we did not haggle at all. (In hindsight, I might have prepared to tip more.)

Be aware that some sellers will try to scam you, though. I mean, in the sense of passing off low quality products as fine quality, or selling fake products. This would happen for the most famous of Kashmiri luxury goods, which travellers probably don’t have the knowledge to tell the difference, like cashmere and saffron. They would still be local, they just won’t be real. Go to my souvenir guide for more detail.

I have been told that resorts are less likely to be a local Kashmiri business. If you intend to support local Kashmiri tourism businesses specifically, you might want to research this more.

The Himalayas looming over Dal Lake, Srinagar

Is the water supply safe in Kashmir?

Generally, travellers to India worry about using tap water. Firstly, though there is a legitimate reason for this, not all of India has this problem. Kashmir is one of those regions that do not have this problem. Its water supply comes right from the Himalayas, and though the local people worry about many things, I’ve never heard them complain about water quality.

I was confident enough about knowing this beforehand, that I left my travel water filter behind. We stayed in the city as well as a village in the mountains, and we were perfectly fine with the water at both locations.

Being a tourist in an occupied territory

When you’re planning a trip to Kashmir as a sustainable traveller, it is impossible to gloss over the fact that it is an occupied state. It’s surprisingly still quite doable to visit Kashmir despite the military law, and it’s generally safe for tourists. But being aware of the background issues is important, especially if you’re not on a tourist package. Otherwise you won’t be sensitive to the things you may hear. Or you might have an incomplete context when you pass on the stories that you might come across.

Read about UNSC Resolution 47 to understand the original reason why Kashmir came to be part of India, but is considered disputed. Generally, Kashmiris frame their issue around this promised plebiscite, even though it has been 70+ years. The lack of progress is why there is a separatist movement in the first place, which turned into an armed movement sometime in the 1980s.

Kashmir’s painful history

This isn’t enough context, however. Linked to the emergence of armed separatism were the massacres that began in the region. These were carried out both by the Indian security forces, as well as by the armed separatists. Crucially, the latter had assassinated large numbers of Hindu Kashmiris in the late 80s, resulting in the mass exodus of the Pandit community to India.

The murders and exodus of the Kashmiri Hindus (i.e. the Pandit community) is important, because it is the next milestone of Kashmir’s tragedy, after the mess related to British withdrawal from the region and the creation of India and Pakistan. The Hindu nationalist perspective of Kashmir in India is dominated by this event, not the original event related to giving Kashmiris a plebiscite. For example, in 2022 a fictional film was released centring around this event from the Pandit perspective.

This event was also important to the majority Muslim Kashmiris who stayed behind. The Indian Army responded to the terror attacks with heavy military presence, during which massacres and other crimes were carried out on the civilian population. They are still remembered by the locals today.

Diplomatic role of a sustainable traveller

As a traveller to Kashmir, you would probably interact with the everyday Muslim Kashmiris. Not part of the separatists, they are the potential targets for both sides in conflict and have a range of different opinions about their situation. The military law they live under, and which you temporarily will as well, should be understood in this context.

You might be entrusted with stories of what they have gone through. These would be from the mainstream Muslim perspective, since most Kashmiri Pandits are displaced. I can’t tell you what a traveller ought to do about this, from a sustainability standpoint. Personality, and the cultural worldviews we come from, will certainly influence such a decision. Personally, I see the role of people from third countries (i.e. not parties of the conflict) is to facilitate peace, rather than taking sides, which tends to escalate conflict.

Facilitating peace does usually involve listening and affirming true sufferings and grievances, so you might want to be emotionally prepared for that. But to move beyond that to assist healing, you can’t let your reason be overwhelmed by empathy. All along north India, I have seen that this region already has a tendency to cling to grievances, even for hundreds of years. Taking sides will lead to a thousand years more.

Man rowing a shikara within Dal Lake floating market
Dal Lake’s floating craft markets, closed.

Zero waste travel in the mountains

Kashmir is a region in a developing country, whose development is further held back due to security and border concerns. As a result, garbage collection and recycling systems are not present throughout the country. Srinagar does have garbage collection, but it could be interrupted if a military lockdown, or strikes, are in place. Remote highland villages have even more limited waste collection.

Consequently, the less waste a traveller generates, the less burden it is on the garbage systems. This is especially the case if you’re travelling to the Kashmiri great outdoors, away from populated areas. At minimum, apply leave no trace principles. Ideally, cultivate zero waste travel habits. Fortunately, by this time I had fully transitioned my travel habits to generate almost no plastic waste.

Travel fail: Do not be careless with hand hygiene

As always, I will share the ways that I messed up in my sustainable travel attempts. Although arguably not a sustainable travel fail (tell me know what you think), I decided to include this travel fail anyway. I figured, if I were to plan ahead for this, there’s a zero waste travel consideration. So it counts.

One consequence of the depressed economy in Kashmir, is poverty. This means that some basic amenities may not be common. One of them is soap.

This wouldn’t be a problem if shops are open. However, if you happen to be there during a partial lockdown, it can be a problem. I had anticipated this, and did bring soap in a tin. However, if you want to be a spontaneous traveller, just make sure you never leave that soap behind. In Nigeen Lake, I was invited to go to an island B&B; I spontaneously grabbed a toothbrush and left. Worse, earlier we were also invited to a gardener’s home, who gave me flower bulbs to take home from his garden, which was fertilised with the lake bed sediment. The same lake which receives sewage from the city…

Needless to say, handling such soil and then not having soap to wash my hands with, was a risky dinner prelude. Fortunately, I was back in Malaysia before the gastroenteritis really kicked in.

Today, we are all probably accustomed to carrying around hand sanitiser. So, I would be less likely to be in such a situation again. Furthermore, I don’t buy ‘pocket size’ sanitiser bottles. I refill a small dispensing bottle with sanitiser from a larger bottle. This way, I can maintain hand hygiene even when there aren’t WASH facilities, while remaining (almost) zero waste.

Two Kashmiri men on shikaras digging up sediment from Nigeen Lake for fertiliser
Digging for fertiliser

Sustainable travel discoveries in Kashmir

While there are things you can prepare from the outset to travel sustainably, don’t forget to keep your eyes open when you have arrived. For example, I discovered that Malaysians are extremely well regarded in Kashmir. It led me to wonder how many of my fellow countrymen have come before me, and why we left such a good impression.

It’s unlikely to be because they were high spenders. The wealthier Malaysians prefer to holiday to more status-signalling destinations in Europe, not “poor” countries. However, the mainstream Malaysians might. And perhaps they have been kind and generous, even if they were on a budget too.

And secondly, I also remember an interesting trivia that reveals something about the way the local culture thinks about risk. I’ll leave that to last, so as to end this article on a lighter note.

What kind of gifts might you bring to a village homestay?

If you’re a slow traveller who enjoys staying in local communities, you might want to bring gifts. These days, the main thing that children want from you – whether in the village or in the city – is to play games on your smartphone! I had to disappoint them, since I didn’t have any games on my phone.

Children also always enjoy candy, though I wonder if that’s a good gift to bring. Maybe I think too much, but considering the distance between villages and dental services, not to mention the lack of rubbish collection for the inevitable plastic wrappers, it doesn’t seem a sustainable choice.

However, I did discover what might be welcome gifts. Near the end of our stay in Naranag, our host’s wife enquired if we might leave behind some of our clothes.

I didn’t have any winter wear with me, the season being late summer. But I did pack a little less light than usual, so I left behind my purple t-shirt with a T-rex riding a penny farthing. It seemed to amuse her, and she seemed pleased to have something to wear other than salwar khameez. I figured that underwear (e.g. bras) and socks might also be welcome. In the village, we also saw people wearing caps that had clearly been brought by an Indonesian. Check first though, and don’t assume.

Another thing that would be welcome are medicines. I left behind my travel medicines to my houseboat host before I left. Local people can get medicine at the hospital (or at least it’s easier in Srinagar). However, some people can’t afford basic OTC medication, which helps for when the matter is not serious enough to go to the hospital. And of course, for a mountain village, a doctor is far away.

Passive-aggressive road safety signs

When our friend took us on a day trip to Sonmarg, we passed by the most amusing road safety signs I’ve ever seen. It’s a shame that there was a latent awareness and worry about the military checkpoints. I didn’t dare to try to take photos of them. And anyway, the car was moving too fast. But they were amusing, so I wrote down as many as I could remember.

Drive carefully was the tamest of the lot. So was Don’t trust your reflexes at high speed.

Then, a more heartfelt Drive as though every child on the road were your own.

But the road sign guy clearly began to have fun as well.

Driving fast may be your ticket to leave for another world.

Drive like hell and you’ll get there.

Donate blood but not on roads.

Clearly, speeding is a problem on Kashmiri roads. But at the same time, sarcasm is clearly quite acceptable in official road safety signage. I thought it was hilarious, and so Asian in its passive-aggressive nagging!

Carbon offset information to Kashmir

A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this. 

3 Responses

  1. Uma says:

    Delve into a candid and insightful review of sustainable travel practices in Kashmir, as the author shares their honest experiences and observations. From eco-friendly accommodations to responsible tourism initiatives, this review sheds light on the importance of preserving the natural beauty and cultural heritage of the region.

  2. Lisa says:

    This blog post was definitely an interesting read. Thanks for sharing your experience.

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