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Promoting Kashmir

Less than a mile away, a bomb had exploded in a bazaar, killing 17 civilians. Machine guns poked out of almost every vehicle on the road. The houseboats on Dal Lake were empty, their jaunty signboards now sadly ironic. Army men had turned the hotels on the boulevards into bunkers. Srinagar was full of spectacularly ruined houses and new graveyards. Kashmiris appeared sullen and tense, and it was only in closed, unheated rooms that they poured out their rage and grief.

I left the hotel on the day I learned about the building next to it. Known as Papa 1, it had been one of the more dreaded interrogation centers, where, among other things, burning and dripping tires were hung over the backs of suspected militants. The screams of the prisoners, another journalist told me, often reached the hotel.

You couldn't think much about tourism then. But it is the first thing many people think about when the political situation seems to improve. When I returned to Kashmir late last year, two months after the elections that brought Sayeed and his daughter to power, the hotel and houseboat owners I spoke to in Srinagar seemed unusually hopeful for the new tourist season. Kashmiri Muslims spoke frankly of their weariness with the violent, decade-long insurgency, which had failed to bring them independence. On the morning I traveled to Gulmarg, the "security environment" certainly appeared to have improved. There were soldiers out in the bare fields, and, once, in the courtyard of a house, I saw them pointing their guns at a man squatting on the ground. But there were hardly any of the sandbagged checkpoints manned by trigger-happy soldiers that used to render journeys out of Srinagar extremely risky.

At Gulmarg, gloriously white in the sun, skiers, about 30 of them, were scattered on the slopes. In the Highlands Park Hotel, Gulmarg's finest, waiters in freshly ironed red uniforms bustled around with heavy trays. The chief minister and his daughter sat in the largest room, attended by bureaucrats in Nehru jackets, savoring, along with cheese omelettes and coffee, their new power.

The recently appointed tourism minister, Ghulam Hassan Mir, explained energetically that he planned to build quickly upon the already existing infrastructure. In Gulmarg, the French-made gondola cable car was being extended—from an elevation of 10,200 feet to 14,000—to make it the highest in the world. The world-class golf course in Srinagar was ready to hold competitions. The golf course in Gulmarg (at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, supposedly the highest ever) was to be renovated. Bombay film producers, who had been forced to go to Switzerland to shoot scenes of men and women dancing around trees and lakes, would be lured back to Kashmir, a much cheaper option. As for winter sports, he told me, the skiers were already out on the slopes, as I could see for myself.

And then a series of clattering helicopters took away the chief minister and his entourage. The hotel emptied fast. In the silent restaurant, with its faded wallpaper and pictures, and a bizarre Christmas tree, I looked at the last brochure the hotel had printed, in 1987. An old white-haired waiter stood beside me and shyly pointed to a photo in the brochure. "That's me," he said. The picture showed a smartly uniformed young man pouring wine for a family sitting by a trout stream. I spoke to him for a while, trying not to stare; his face had aged quickly over the past 16 years, when, even though the hotel was empty and gunfire erupted occasionally in the nearby hills, he still had to show up each morning in his red jacket and polished shoes.

On the way back to Srinagar, I stopped by the road to watch the skiers. One of them separated himself from his group and trudged up to where I was standing. As he came closer, I noticed the AK-47 strapped onto his back. He introduced himself as Captain Gupta, asked me who I was, and warned me that I would be violating the Official Secrets Act if I wrote about the skiers and alerted the "enemy" to their presence. I hope Captain Gupta is not reading this as I reveal that the skiers I had taken for vacationers were cadets at the Indian Army-run High Altitude Warfare School, which occupies, as I discovered, a large and conspicuous building in Gulmarg and is well defended, in case the enemy is reading this, by machine-gun emplacements high in the hills around the resort town.

But that was in late December. Relations between India and Pakistan appear to have improved slightly since then. When I telephoned Mir from London in early June, he seemed very upbeat. "God has been gracious," he said. There had been a low moment immediately after a massacre of Hindus in March. But the statistics spoke for themselves. According to Wani, between January and May 2002, 4,889 Indian and 248 foreign tourists had visited Kashmir, whereas during the same period in 2003 there was a clear jump in the number of arrivals: 18,747 Indians and 481 foreigners.

The houseboats and hotels were full, Mir said. The film companies hadn't arrived, but ambassadors from nine countries participated in a golf tournament in Srinagar last month. However, Mir was concerned because the European and American governments had not altered their travel advisories for Kashmir. "You should come and see," he said, "there is no cause for worry"; and on that wet and dreary London morning I suddenly felt a pang of nostalgia for Kashmir.

"Militancy and violence are now a worldwide phenomenon," Mir was saying. "Why should Kashmir be singled out?" Why, indeed? I almost replied, suddenly full of a keen, hopeless wish that the "extremely positive trends" he spoke of would continue—perhaps even beyond the next massacre.

PANKAJ MISHRA is a contributing editor for Travel + Leisure and is currently at work on a book about the Buddha.


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