Travel piece

On May 6th , 2017, I left New Delhi intent on making it to the Leh, a scenic border town in the northernmost Indian province of Ladakh. I had been travelling on my own for the last several months and wanted to finish my trip with a great Himalayan adventure. As I hitchhiked my way north towards the town of Manali, I learned that the Manali-Leh road was impassable due to snowfall. If I wanted to make it to Leh, I would have to take the western route through Kashmir.

Passing through Kashmir made me anxious for two reasons. As an officially designated conflict zone, I knew travel was incredibly dangerous. Skirmishes between rebel militant groups and the Indian military were common in the region, and there would be nobody to notice the white kid who got hit by a stray bullet.

Secondly, as I moved further away from the population centers, it became more difficult to get by on English and the six words of Hindi I managed to learn over the last few months. I hitched a ride with a man that spoke Hindi for the entire duration of the five hours drive. While I got away with polite nodding and a lot of smiling, I was unsure if my strategy would work in a more serious situation.

The route to Leh through Kashmir took me west towards Srinagar, the provincial capital, and then east through the Himalayas to Leh. I spent a week in Manali preparing myself for the potentially dangerous journey ahead before I finally damned the consequences and stuck my thumb out over the road. Just south of the Kashmiri border, I caught a ride with a man named Showkat, who said he could take me all the way to Srinagar. Over the 14-hour drive north, Showkat became convinced that I was wholly unprepared to survive in Srinagar. He graciously let me stay at his house while I planned my way East towards Leh. I spent three days living with Showkat and his family in Anantnag, a village just south of Srinagar. Showkat introduced me to his brother, Zia, a mild-mannered banker and father of two.

Zia spent the next few days showing me around Kashmir and showing what life was like

in a conflict zone. There was no internet connection or cell service anywhere in Kashmir, as the cellular networks were exclusively for military use. To make a call you had to use an illegal VPN on your phone.. The army enforced curfews and there were military checkpoints along all major highways. Buildings had been graffitied with pro-independence slogans like “WE WANT FREEDOM” and “Go India Go Back”, but were quickly covered up in black paint by the military.

While the military exerted strict control over the city, Srinagar was in the center of what

might be the most beautiful place on Earth. Looking out from Anantnag, I felt as if I was looking up from the crater of a volcano. Brilliant purple saffron fields extended for miles in every direction and were only interrupted by the Himalayas who stood watchful above me. Lush green forests lined the mountain valleys and snaked along glacier rivers down from the foothills. Zia’s father once told me that “God made Kashmir paradise, the army made it hell.”

When I was ready to head for Leh, Zia found me a ride east and guaranteed my safety.

On our way out of Srinagar, we were pulled aside at one of the military checkpoints. While the soldiers searched the trunk, a young man stood across from me with an AK-47 trained on my heart. The soldier might only have been 20 years old, and he seemed just out of place in this world as I was. With the gun still pointing at me, we maintained eye contact while the other men finished checking our papers.

On our way East there were ten of us in the 4-seat Jeep. I thought I was clever by calling shotgun for the trip, but I didn’t know I would have to spend the next 30 hours in a car with eight other men leaning over me to spit their chewing tobacco out of the window. I would spend the next few showers trying to rinse out tobacco spittle from my hair.

Leh Ladakh was just as beautiful as I had envisioned, but the very short time I spent

there was overshadowed by the fact that the road south to Manali was still not open. I would

have to head back west the same way towards Srinagar. In the days since I left, the Indian army had been conducting a manhunt for two leaders of the rebel extremists. Civilians had become more agitated towards soldiers and the army had begun responding with force. I was scared to find out what kind of world I was coming back into.

I arrived back in Srinagar a week after I left, and decided to spend some more time with

Zia and his family. Zia even made time to take me out to one of the surrounding valleys for a

barbecue with some of his friends. We bought some two chickens from a street vendor and

headed north to Pahalgam valley.

We drove far into the valley and found a secluded area near a river bed to start a small

fire. We had nearly finished roasting the last chicken when Zia received a phone call from

Anantnag, the army had found and shot the two rebel leaders and mobs had taken to the

streets. We had to get back to Anantnag before the military blockaded the roads.

The men in the car had stopped speaking English. I was unable to keep up with the

rapid-fire Kashmiri, and so I had little idea as to how the situation in Anantnag was unfolding.

For fear of being detained by the military, we took only backroads back to Zia’s home. Many

times, oncoming motorcyclists would stop us and tell us to turn around, the road forward was

unsafe. Groups of pre-pubescent boys with cricket bats cordoned off some streets, chanting

and throwing rocks at any car that approached. We spent three hours weaving along farm

roads, avoiding both the military and protesters.

The backroads dead-ended just outside of Anantnag, and so we were forced to pass

through the city to get home. There were no civilians on the street, just armed soldiers

stationed every 30ft. Every once in awhile I heard a gunshot. I would instinctively cover my head with my hands, but the bullets were never aimed at me. The sudden relief quickly turned into guilt. The roundabout was now a bunker, heavy artillery poking through a makeshift sandbag wall. We moved forward cautiously.

In that car I suddenly felt very stupid and very small. Why did I risk my life in this way? I was foolish, unprepared, and unable to accept the fact that I was far from invincible. These thoughts came in angry bursts, but I interrupted myself to focus on my surroundings. I could focus on my idiocy later.

We arrived back at Zia’s house safe. The entire province was on the brink of military

lockdown, and so Zia found me a ride back to Jammu. Zia’s family left for the mosque to pray on the first night of Ramadan. I packed my bag in silence and waited on carpet for them to get back. I made it to Jammu before the military closed down the roads. I took the train back to

New Delhi and flew back home to my family. It’s been six months since I left Kashmir, but it still hasn’t left me.