As our plane touched down, the bunkers of the Indian Air Force fighters were hard to miss. On the way into town roadblocks, thick with heavy-calibre machine guns, dominate all the major intersections. For years the Srinagar Valley in Kashmir has been a militarised zone, both the India troops and the Pakistan sponsored Kashmiri secessionists gaining little in the on-going guerrilla war.
Once a romantic bohemian paradise, Srinagar is now a shadow of heyday. The marvellous house boats on the shores of Dal Lake lye vacant and dark. Further out on the lake’s glass, a solitary boatman paddled an empty shikara where once countless numbers of the graceful long boats had plied souvenirs, exotic foods and tourists. Walking the uncrowded streets is eerie as expressionless soldiers keep vigil against attack and follow your every move from the corner of an eye. The local economy has collapsed and a large proportion of the remaining population is barley able to survive. The markets once overflowing with antiques and produce, now offer only food staples, pots and pans and cheaply made clothing – the merchants long gone to the more profitable marketplace of Delhi.
It had been the deep snows of the Himalaya that had draw my fellow skiers and I to Kashmir. Now the impressions of this soulless town and its war-weary people had removed the excitement that the adventure had originally promised. As we drove through the foothills it was clear that heavy snows had fallen. In the village of Tangmarg, at the base of the climb to Gulmarg, we were astounded to learn that ten metres had already fallen in the season. A hill station in the 1920’s, the Gulmarg had been developed during the British Raj as an escape from the stifling Indian summers. At its height it had a population of over 20,000 and even boasted a Harrods outlet. Today it is a snowbound time capsule closed because of lack of tourism.