Death returned to Kashmir this month. A fresh wave of violence erupted after a teenage rebel — a local celebrity on social media — was killed in a shootout with police. More than 70 people have died in clashes in August alone. Five thousand more have been injured, according to various news reports. It is an ominous setback for peace in the region.
This is sad news, but not entirely surprising.
Kashmir is that disputed territory in the Zabarwan mountain range of the Himalayas, where India, Pakistan, China and Afghanistan converge. India and Pakistan each claims the entirety of Kashmir, but they govern separate parts. India controls the bulk of it, a predominantly muslim area that has been occupied by the Indian military (mostly sikhs) for decades. It’s a complicated story involving multiple wars between India and Pakistan, all the while most Kashmiris would rather have independence. It’s impossible to summarize this place in just a few sentences, but that’s the situation in a nutshell.
When I went trout fishing in Kashmir four years ago, I visited at the height of a multi-year lull in fighting. I saw an extremely poor country held back from progress by decades of strife, yet everywhere I went I encountered warm, gracious hospitality. People had hope and dreams. But there was also a palpable unease, a sense that everyone was on guard, constantly watching their back. And watching me.
The military was everywhere. I saw soldiers and army vehicles at every turn. The airport in Srinagar shares its runway with Indian fighter jets. Russian-made MiGs screeched overhead. Guards patrolled the tarmac and arrivals hall with assault rifles. Oddly, this didn’t deter two petty thieves from stealing my bag from the carousel and running for the exit. I chased after them. “STOP!” I yelled at full stride, my backpack bouncing loosely around on my shoulders.
Armed guards snatched all three of us. The would-be crooks accused me of trying to snatch their bag. Adrenaline pulsed through my body as I fumbled for my passport, which matched the tag hidden underneath the handle, at which point the guards handed me the suitcase and let all three of us loose like it was no big deal.
Amid the chaos, I never heard the grenade.
“Quickly,” said my driver as I piled into his rusted Suzuki minivan. The driver, who had been waiting for me, saw my scuffle with security, so I assumed that’s why he accelerated from the airport so briskly. We sped past a bustling military base, weaved through a local commercial district, and emerged on a beautiful willow-lined boulevard that hugged the edge of Dal Lake. We slowed to leisurely pace, then turned toward Kralsangri Hill and climbed a dusty road to the top, arriving at a heavily guarded checkpoint. “This is your hotel,” the driver said.
Beyond the gate was a modest two-story resort sprawled along the hilltop overlooking the Kashmir Valley below. Vivanta by Taj, an offshoot of Taj Hotels, had soft-opened a few months prior to my arrival. Although the premier suites had yet to be built, and the pool was still partially under construction, most of the 81 rooms were open. Many were filled with Chinese and Indian tourists. I was the only American registered that week.
A thick smog blanketed the valley, softening the focus of the mountains in the distance. It was otherwise a beautiful day. The grounds were green and glistening with fresh grass. Pear trees and flowers were in bloom. Just beyond the gardens, a fence was fortified with menacing curls of razor wire. My deluxe room was nicely appointed with contemporary furniture, hardwood floors and soft Kashmiri carpets. The wifi faded in and out. I opened the balcony door to let in the fresh air, which smelled subtly of wood chimneys in the valley.
The afternoon was drawing to a close. The sun painted the sky a fast-changing swirl of orange and fuchsia and violet. I dined on lamb biryani, spicy Kashmiri curry with tofu and crispy papadum. I lingered afterward in the lobby, sipping masala chai until I could no longer keep my eyes open. I tucked myself into bed early, knowing there would be plenty of time to explore tomorrow.
I held a cup of strong coffee to my lips as I sat on the veranda in the morning, admiring the mist that hangs over Dal Lake at dawn, when I opened the local newspaper. The headline jumped off the page: “Grenade explodes on Airport Road during rush hour. No injuries reported.”
Yesterday’s frenzied transfer had nothing to do with my airport security scuffle. It had everything to do with a grenade exploding on the side of the road near the entrance, which was about to snarl traffic for hours. We got out of there in the nick of time.
Tourism in Kashmir is still in its infancy. Vivanta is the first new luxury hotel to open in Srinagar, its biggest city, in decades. The property was meant to open 30 years earlier, but then a war flared up and the military commandeered the newly built facility to house an influx of soldiers, an arrangement that dragged on for years as violence ebbed and flowed. Decades later, the military finally ceded the property, which at that point was unusable. Taj stripped it down to its bones and started anew. It took four years to get it ready for the soft opening. It was the talk of Kashmir.
After breakfast, I strolled down the hill with my camera gear to see the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, where for a few weeks every spring more than 1.5 million tulips fill the valley floor with acres and acres of blooms. I couldn’t possibly have looked more conspicuous. Spotting me, a huddle of young men rushed across the street. Four of them reached at once. I froze. They wanted to shake my hand. “Where do you come from,” they asked. They seemed friendly.
“USA,” I said, cautiously.
“Why?” “What brings you to Kashmir?” “What is your name?” “How do you like it?” they asked at once.
“Vacation. Trout fishing. Brad. I just got here,” I said, starting to feel more at ease.
They put their arms around me and smiled. “Thank you,” they said. “Thank you for coming to Kashmir. It means good things when Americans or British visit us. It means peace is working.”
My heart swelled. I realized just how fragile the political truce here was.
But I came to fish, not to fret about politics, the military or rebel uprisings.
First, we needed gear.
Vivanta’s website advertised trout fishing as a popular local activity, so I had arranged to go fishing with the hotel’s chef, Shadab Labroo, and director of sales Basharat Rashid. It was the hotel’s first fishing request, and they didn’t own any equipment.
“When’s the last time you went fishing?” I asked Labroo.
“When I was a teenager,” he said.
Brown trout aren’t native to the Himalayas. The fish were a gift from the British government to the local maharaja in 1899, when a duke brought them from Scotland. Given the transportation methods of those days, it took several attempts over many years before the fish finally survived and hatched in the river here. Now flourishing, they are strictly monitored by the park service.
Fishing season wouldn’t legally begin for another week, but the government’s director of fisheries granted us special permission to go early.
We drove into Srinagar to a little shop called M.S & Son, where Mohammed Shafi Qureshi was waiting for us. He looked me up and down. He didn’t smile much. I sensed he didn’t really care for me, didn’t trust me. But he was extremely proud of his hand-tied flies. He opened a box and studied the options, then selected the ones he thought best for the conditions we would face. He handed me a couple of white ones with orange eyes, his first choice. He smiled briefly. And just in case those didn’t work, a few bright red ones with green spots. He smirked. He hooked us up with a single rod and some heavy blue string. I didn’t understand why he insisted that we needed weights for the fishing line.
I had been trout fishing several times in Colorado and British Columbia, and I never needed weights. Trout fishing had always resembled scenes from the movie A River Runs Through It. I was no Brad Pitt in the river, but I knew enough to cast my fly with grace and lightness, allowing it to dance atop the water, drawing the fish up to the surface, which was as smooth as glass.
But that’s not how it works here. We drove two hours into the mountains, just past Pahalgam, and parked alongside a raging river fed by the melting snow from the sub-Himalayas that towered overhead. The river looked appropriate for white-water rafting, not fishing. We brought no waders, no waterproof boots. We had no rescue plan. The dangerously fast water was cold as ice and rough as hell. Our guide, a local park ranger, showed us how to weight the line and submerge our flies beneath the rapids just downstream from the biggest rocks.
We fished for several hours from the banks of the Lidder River. We lost most of our flies and much of our string to the rapids. We caught two trout. Well, Labroo caught the fish. I caught nothing. By early afternoon, the sun tipped behind the peaks, and the wind grew cold. We packed up and headed back.
We stopped for lunch at a buffet restaurant in a small village on the outskirts of Pahalgam. Security seemed tight for such a rural place, I thought, until I looked outside the restaurant’s window and witnessed tribal leaders sitting down at a picnic table with uniformed commanders of the Indian military. Everyone’s body language conveyed distrust. Each side came with their own guards. After 20 minutes, they got up, shook hands and dispersed in opposite directions — the military back toward Srinagar, the tribal leaders into the mountains.
The two-hour drive home stretched into a four-hour detour because of an unplanned protest that drew hundreds of men into the streets after Friday prayers. Traffic in and out of Srinagar ground to a halt as the main highway shut down. Our driver communicated with someone on his cell phone, who instructed him to circle around the valley through miles and miles of mustard fields, farmland that would convert to saffron in the approaching summer. Even here, in the middle of nowhere, we encountered military patrols.
“Keep your camera down,” Rashid told me as our SUV crawled through a village where most people traveled by horse, not a Ford Expedition. The roadside was lined with wooden grain mills powered by a trickling stream. School had just let out. Children dressed in blue uniforms scurried about, playing, smiling, until they spotted me in the back seat. Girls turned away while boys curiously stared.
We filled the hours talking about Kashmir. The chef grew up in Srinagar but left as soon as he graduated high school. Most families sent their children away, if they could afford it, to avoid them being recruited into the militias, for lack of anything else to do. Labroo enrolled in and graduated from hotel school in Bangalore, then set off on a culinary adventure that would have him cooking in Saudi Arabia, Dubai and Anguilla. But he left his heart in Kashmir. “I always wanted to come back,” he told me, “but for the longest time it wasn’t safe. There was no future here.”
Until there was. When Vivanta opened, he jumped at the chance to come home.
“Coming home was comforting. My parents are still here. It’s safe again,” he said, confident in that belief, however temporary. “The youth is no longer being harassed by the police, or pulled in by the militants.”
And he had missed his local foods: the mutton, the red chilli peppers and Kashmiri spices. The trout. One of the things he was most excited to work on was the traditional wazwan feast, a uniquely Kashmiri banquet of 36 dishes served at family reunions and celebrations, which he had just begun offering at Vivanta, inspired by his own family’s recipes.
Not long after my visit, Taj transfered Labroo to Gwalior, in northern Madhya Pradesh, to head up the kitchens of a charming palace hotel. But Labroo’s heart stayed in Kashmir, and in June of this year he transferred back to Srinagar and Vivanta. The homecoming was bittersweet, rocked by bloody conflict shortly after his return.
At least he’s home. Vivanta has guests, he tells me. The hotel stays busy with local weddings, mostly, and the restaurant does good business. Vivanta is even planning to launch a new restaurant dedicated exclusively to wazwan, which he will oversee.
“It depends on the local situation, of course,” he says.
While the situation isn’t good right now, Labroo remains ever hopeful. He is Kashmiri, after all. He’s been through this before. Peace always returns to Kashmir, eventually.
“We are all safe,” he says. “I drive up and down from my home every day, but not smoothly every time. It’s very difficult to say when conditions will improve. It might get better in a few weeks. Or it might take a few more months. Seriously, nobody can predict that.”