After an unforgettable first trip to Kashmir, India, in 1990, Nick Edwards returned to research the area for recent editions of the Rough Guide to India and found some things unchanged, while others quite different.
Ever since being mesmerised by the symphonic juggernaut of Led Zeppelin’s epic track in the mid-seventies, the name Kashmir held a particular allure for me. So when I finally trundled round the last bend beyond the Jawahar Tunnel, on the ascent by creaking bus from Jammu in August 1990, and the rich green hues of the legendary valley suddenly flashed out below, it truly felt as if I was approaching a long anticipated Shangri-La.
On arrival in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, however, it did not take long to realise the situation was less than idyllic. We were greeted by frequent checkposts protected by walls of sandbags and grim looking Indian conscripts toting machine guns. A disputed area between Pakistan and India, there has been both military and insurgent conflict in Kashmir since independence in 1947. On my visit, there was a strict curfew as soon as darkness fell and the armed resistance to Indian rule, then a year into its new phase of violence, had given the place the distinct air of a war zone.
Yet the scene out at Dal Lake, in the houseboat my Greek girlfriend and I had arranged to stay on, was comfortingly peaceful. Dazzling kingfishers flitted and dived for food between the expanses of waterlilies, while we sipped tea and admired the stunning mountain scenery on all sides. It was only when we took a shikara ride to the other side of the lake that we were brought back to reality by the crackling of gunfire behind the majestic Hazratbal mosque.