Kashmir is a beautiful region of the Himalayas, a classic dream destination with the moniker ‘Paradise on Earth’. The lovely lakes of its capital, Srinagar, are synonymous with houseboats and floating markets. However, if you didn’t know, in the present day Kashmir is ruled under military law. A fact that I found very noticeable when I happened to be there, during a military lockdown.
- Why is Kashmir under military law?
- How does this affect travel?
- Why you might want to visit Kashmir anyway
- Travel planning affected by military law in Kashmir
- How to travel safely to Kashmir despite the military law
- Carbon offset information to Kashmir
Why is Kashmir under military law?
It’s not realistic to summarise fully in a blog article why Kashmir is under military law, especially one written by a foreigner. However, if you’re coming to the region, it is useful to know the gist of it.
Like the rest of the South Asian region, Kashmir has a very long and complicated history that resists simplistic narratives. Suffice to say that during the 20th century’s movements for nationalism and decolonisation, Kashmir’s prince had chosen to federate with newly-formed India even though he intended for Kashmir to be an independent state, after a regional revolt supported by newly-formed Pakistan. The treaty with India had the understanding that the people of Kashmir would ultimately decide their preference. It was later underscored by UN Resolution 47, which was surprisingly agreed fairly quickly after the matter was brought to the Assembly back in 1948. However, the plebiscite never took place, and today Kashmir is the most militarised zone in the world.
How does this affect travel?
This fact may seem incongruous with Kashmir’s continued reliance on tourism. And indeed, the military rule does introduce travel risks to planning a holiday in Kashmir. As far as I understood it, generally tourism in Kashmir proceeds with a degree of normalcy. The issue is predictability. You can’t know in advance when the military might lock Kashmir down. It could be following the death of a local politician, or as was the case when I went, its constitutional autonomy being revoked. Although a partisan video, this gives an idea of what such a lockdown could mean, and what a traveller to Kashmir needs to consider in the event it happens.
So before I write other articles about Kashmir itself, I thought it is appropriate to address this elephant in the room. Therefore, this article summarises the main aspects of travel that are, or could be suddenly affected by a military lockdown in Kashmir, and how. I draw from my experience being in Kashmir in the weeks when Kashmir just re-opened to visitors after being fully locked down. On this trip, I mostly stayed in Srinagar but also ventured to a couple of nearby destinations.
Why you might want to visit Kashmir anyway
However, before I get to the list, one last thing. Some might wonder: under the circumstances, why go to Kashmir at all? Is it worth the hassle?
Ultimately, it depends on your travel risk appetite, and whether you can accommodate uncertainty in your travel plans. However, despite its situation, visiting Kashmir is not ‘dark tourism’. It’s not the same kind of draw some people have to visit North Korea, for example. Aside from the military rule, Kashmir is a perfectly normal tourism destination, where you can easily stay with local Kashmiri communities, or go on tours by Kashmiri-owned travel companies.
Kashmir is perhaps the most affordable winter sport destination in Asia. The fabled beauty of its snow-capped mountains and pastoral valleys makes it a nature tourism draw. Kashmir is also home to classic luxury goods, such as gemstones, saffron, and cashmere, all of which are popular souvenirs. In winter, there is skiing and snowboarding at Gulmarg. Gardens in Srinagar bloom in springtime and Sonmarg fulfils its name ‘meadow of gold’. And during the monsoon months, there are apples and almonds and walnuts in abundance.
Travel planning affected by military law in Kashmir
This list focuses on the things you need to know to properly plan a trip to Kashmir, which could be affected by the military rule in Kashmir. I won’t touch on travel considerations that would be generally applicable to travel in South Asia or developing regions. Also, bear in mind that the following list focuses on things that only really apply during a military lockdown. It’s not to scare you; just to illustrate the degree of difference a lockdown can make to your trip.
1. Border paperwork
When I applied for a visa in 2019, I noticed that the list of professions on the form have expanded substantially. Specifically, many more types of professions related to journalism and publishing are now in the list. As a frequent traveller, I think no other country is this interested in your job, and certainly not specifically journalism. I don’t know if they might even add ‘hobby blogger’ in the future! But the point is, if you are in these professions in any way, there probably would be a box for you to tick.
Additionally, if you have travelled to India already, you might remember the detailed sections that ask whether you or your family on either side might have links to Pakistan. Remember that Kashmir is primarily disputed between India and Pakistan. Such heritage may be more sensitive if you are going to Kashmir vs any other region in India.
After arriving in Kashmir, there is some extra paperwork. All tourists must register with the local police. There is a counter in the airport that you would pass after the arrivals area. If you’re travelling with a local while a lockdown is in force, make sure they stay with you as you complete this task. Once outside the arrivals area, the soldiers outside would not allow them to wait for you.
2. Military checkpoints in Srinagar & generally in Kashmir
There are a lot of military, and military checkpoints in Kashmir. Maybe I saw more than the usual because of when I was there. But all the main roads inside Srinagar and out in the countryside, had military checkpoints. That there are checkpoints is not the part I found the most odd. After all, whichever way your sentiment lies regarding the Kashmir issue, the net effect is that the region has a potentially armed separatist movement. The odd thing was the way the soldiers carried themselves.
I mean, I’m sure people in many countries have had some experience of seeing their army in parts of their country. Sometimes, it was to mitigate a natural disaster. Or sometimes, it’s just that the army base is nearby. Whichever it is, the interaction between military and civilian comes across as the one having come from the other. I had the impression that the soldiers are entirely deployed into Kashmir from elsewhere in India. They carried themselves differently, as though they’re in a foreign country, even though technically they’re supposedly there to defend ‘their people’ from insurgents. I thought that was really odd.
I was always with a local host whenever I passed through these checkpoints, except the last one in the airport on my departure (quite unfriendly, particularly considering I was leaving). This is handy, especially if you speak neither Urdu nor Hindi (English is not necessarily spoken). Even if you’re obviously a tourist, the checkpoint soldiers expected you to somehow comprehend them.
In terms of appearance, I’m Southeast Asian. So I didn’t really stick out as much as say, a Caucasian would. With this baseline in mind, I didn’t have any issues. On the other hand, I might have been mistaken for a regional ethnicity, and expected to speak a local language (?).
3. Telecommunications shutdown
Even in normal-ish times, Kashmir has 3G at best. However, if you should happen to travel there during a lockdown period, it is very likely that the internet and mobile data would be completely shut down. Mobile phones do not work (well, I guess the calculator app or whatever would work!) and perhaps neither do the landlines.
This means that you can’t contact your host and need to find your way to your accommodations the old-school way. Remember that your host would likely also not be able to wait for you outside the airport with a sign, either. It also means that if you’re out and somehow lose your host or guide, you can’t get back to them. Pre-planning of where to meet and what to do in such situations is useful.
Additionally, this also means that your host may dissuade you from sightseeing on your own, particularly during sensitive periods. This is because they wouldn’t be able to contact you to check that you’re ok in case of unrest.
4. Public transport options
Public transport options are sparse during a military lockdown. You can still take taxis from Srinagar airport to your accommodation, which is what I did (remember, your host cannot wait outside for your arrival). There is a standard airport rate.
However, there are no taxis operating in the city during lockdown. Neither are there public buses. You can still take some small tours, but the tour guides will drive you themselves.
Based on the enquiries of a fellow traveller who had been in the region since before the Article 370 event, I learned that there is a bus service in normal-ish times. She had taken a bus down to Srinagar from Leh. The main bus depot is next to the Tourist Reception Centre on TRC Road, but at the time it was not operating. (The TRC is actually a very nice building, and is the only place to get flight tickets when there’s no internet.)
Apparently, even during the lockdown there are some buses that go out of Srinagar. However, they could be stopped at any time by the army en route and reportedly, if you look obviously foreign (i.e. blonde) you’ll be more likely to be singled out. It’s hard to say what this means in such a situation – whether this is a plus or a minus. She decided not to find out and opted to fly out.
Unless you’re very into the serendipitous travel lifestyle, it is a good idea to book return tickets in advance. Otherwise, you’ll need to get them in person at the TRC. Especially if you look foreign, without any data service to check prices online, you might get shafted at the TRC. So, if you are in this situation, take a local friend to help.
5. Security risks in Srinagar
As the summer capital of Kashmir, Srinagar is a flashpoint when instigating events happen. The downtown area and the Jami’ mosque have been sites of popular protests in the past. These protests can turn into a riot, and could involve stone pelting. The military may respond to such protests with violence. Tour hosts generally advise staying away from such areas since the risk of collateral harm to the tourist is from both sides.
I’m told that today, it is less likely for large protests to happen, because of the severe restrictions over everyday life. The military surveillance is more oppressive on Fridays and on other days they consider to be high risk; for example, whenever the UN meets to discuss the unresolved issue of Jammu & Kashmir.
That said, I did stay with my Kashmiri friends as well, in downtown Srinagar. The lakeside villages are lovely, and the soldiers don’t come all the way into there. Although the main streets outside felt intimidating, I thought it felt quite safe inside the community.
6. Closure of tourist attractions
If you were thinking of going to Kashmir in the first place, chances are you are planning to go to its tourism heavyweights such as Gulmarg, Sonmarg, or Pahalgam, whether for some winter sports, or to trek in the mountains. Unfortunately, these alpine destinations would be occupied by the military in a lockdown, and would be closed. You may find that even smaller attractions such as gardens would be closed.
Sometimes, some of these sites might be open for a visit, but trekking would definitely not be allowed. In fact, just before the Article 370 vote, tourists and pilgrims were all forced to evacuate. Some trekkers in the middle of long trekking routes even had to return via shortcuts in order to comply.
7. Potential strikes and shop closures
On top of closures due to the military garrisoning the sites, Kashmiri unions may also strike in protest. There may be school closures due to teachers striking, which means parents may have to be at home. There are all sorts of such knock-down effects. Examples of shops that might close include crafts and souvenirs, dried fruits and nuts (arguably Kashmiri souvenirs in themselves), and saffron farms.
The most relevant example to a traveller would be the closure of restaurants. During my trip, almost no restaurants were open, at least at the beginning. Convenience shops, if they were open at all, were only open for limited hours – the door wasn’t even open all the way! Hence, it’s likely that you would be reliant on your host for food in this situation, so the more adaptable your palate is, the better off you’ll be. That said, Kashmiri food is generally delicious.
How to travel safely to Kashmir despite the military law
To be honest, most of the time it would probably not be a big deal to a tourist. And if a lockdown happens, it’s not really something that you can plan for with a set of tips. However, if I were to give some rules of thumb that would be a good idea across a range of military lockdowns, I can think of four:
1. Cultivate analog travel habits
This one might be easier for Gen X and Boomers (and the xennials who still remember when this was the default way of life). Specifically, it is a good idea to leave contact details of your host with your family back home. And by ‘contact details’ I mean pre-digital era contact details, such as the name of your host, a backup landline number, and physical address (including any necessary directions). It’s also a good idea to download maps for offline use, and have physical copies of important emergency contacts and addresses, e.g. your embassy, travel agencies, your insurance, etc.
2. Have a local person with you
Although this is useful advice anyway, it is pretty important for Kashmir. In a ‘normally normal’ but volatile country, a local person can better determine when there is a risky situation. They also have access to local news, and obviously, a great help with local interactions, e.g. the checkpoints.
3. Make sure you pack all the medicine you need
This includes medicine you’ll need in the event of unexpected delays. Even local Kashmiris are short on over-the-counter meds, and if you are out of Srinagar, you may not have access to a pharmacy. (Also, when you are about to leave, consider leaving remaining OTC medication with your host.)
4. Cultivate a flexible attitude
OK, so this one is a bit vague. However, it helps not to be too attached to your travel plans. This makes it possible to maintain a relaxed attitude when your travel plans are ruined, which is somewhat more likely in volatile places. For starters, it keeps your anxiety levels down, which helps you to make new plans. And if you’re really good at this, you could even find different experiences to enjoy instead – and that’s when the best travel stories happen.
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.
Are you thinking of travelling to Kashmir? Let me know what you would add! Save this article!