Saturday, September 25, 2010

MR MIR - A JOURNEY THRU KASHMIR



                             Gulmarg – me and Mr Mir - there is a golf club under the snow...

It’s hard to know where to begin; the world is full of wonderful and memorable characters. Mr Mir was one such person.

Jenny and I were travelling on that first Indian trek and found ourselves in Kashmir.  We weren’t exactly back packing, but we were staying in modest accommodation; we had no set itinerary but roamed around the country as the will took us. Already we had spent some time on a houseboat on Lake Dal, swanning around the lake on softly gliding shikaras, buying odds and ends from vendors who sold flowers and goods from their gondola like boats to the accompaniment of a song from ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’...I’m sure you  recall the words...

Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!
Even though the sound of it is something quite atrocious!
If you say it loud enough, you'll always sound precocious,
Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious!

Dick Van Dyke on a Kashmiri lake? it just goes to show how intrusive Hollywood’s influence can be. 

Jen on the Houseboat in Kashmir



Shrinagar

Children playing on a floating island on the Lakes in Kashmir


We had however decided to tear ourselves away from the beauty of the lakes taking a local bus up past the snowline of the Himalayan Pir Panjal’s to an even more stunning location which actually boasts the highest golf course in the world, Gulmarg.

Gulmarg is roughly a two hour bus trip from Srinagar but much of the trip is a steady climb to 2890 metres.  We were two westerners in a busload of Indians, many of them flimsily dressed tourists from the warmer climate of Delhi and Bombay and while the welcome we received when the bus drew to a stop may have been normal for them, to us it was frightening.
We were met by a crowd of shouting grabbing men and boys, all wanting the job of carrying our bags, hiring out snow gear, taking us to their choice of accommodation, restaurant or mode of transport.  Our Indian bus companions fended them off easily with sharp retorts in Hindi, but Jen and I were at the mob’s mercy. Then suddenly the shouting and grabbing stopped, the crowd parted to allow a man through.  A small man with an air of authority, of neat dress and stature, dressed not in the loose fitting shawls and garb of the mountain men but in a tweed jacket and corduroy trousers.
He entered the bus, smiled, handed me a business card and said, ‘Wait here where it is warm until I return; I will be only a short while.’  We were only too happy to oblige.
‘G.A. Mir’, the card read ‘J&K Regd. Tourist Guide No. 6.  Trekking, Hiseing, Fishing & Camping.’
Apparently, no one had bothered to correct the spelling.  When he returned he carried two warm coats and two pair of waterproof boots, and they fitted us perfectly.  In that short time on the bus, he had correctly estimated our size.

Coat courtesy of Mr Mir - stylish don't you agree?
We welcomed the cold weather gear and once suitably dressed he led us off the bus slinging our two bags across his shoulders. ‘I will take you to a guest house,’ he said. ‘It is not hugely expensive, nor is it very cheap.  You will be safe there’


Main Chalet where we dined.





                                 The cook who spoiled us...first visit 1977.
As we soon realised we were now under the protection of a man to whom everyone on the mountain deferred.  We followed him along the snow-covered road to our new home, a cluster of wooden chalets perched on a rise among snow laden fir trees.
From that moment, Mr Mir regulated our lives. He took us around the small township, a small but widely spaced collection of buildings all but hidden under the snow; the golf club, now a wintry white icy expanse.  He pointed to the mountains towering above; ‘Pakistan is over there, not far away’, he told us.
The cook at the chalets had once served the British Raj and was eager to recreate the favourite puddings and sweets of memsahib’s from his past.  Bread and butter puddings, fruit cakes, thick porridge, roast meals.  We were spoiled beyond redemption.
We had the services of our own house boy, a devastatingly handsome young man who stoked our fire before we went to bed each night and entered silently at dawn next morning to ensure they were still alight.  As we later discovered he also climbed a ladder each morning to pour water into the chip heater as we stood inside the bathroom showering.  No peepholes I hope.
On our second morning Mr Mir had arranged a surprise.  He arrived with two young men leading three sturdy little mountain ponies, and proceeded to lead us down the mountain through the snowdrifts to the village of Tangmarg below. We were to dine in his home and meet his wife and his son.
I don’t know if he harboured any matchmaking thoughts between his son and my daughter, but we all did enjoy each other’s company, so much so that Mr Mir asked us to stay that night to meet his neighbours.
We declined saying the cook had promised a special meal that night and we could not disappoint him.  I don’t think Mr Mir was surprised that we didn’t stay.
But his company made special our visit to Gulmarg.


I enjoyed his wife's company too, a gentle lady who had suffered a broken arm with severe complications.  Her husband had taken her all the way to Srinagar to have it treated. In a land where women have little importance that made Mr Mir very special indeed.  

We kept in touch for some time.
Some ten years later I returned to Kashmir, taking the bus up the mountain from Srinagar but staying this time in one of Gulmarg’s posh hotels.  Everywhere I asked after Mr Mir; everyone knew him but not where he was at that moment.  I despaired of making contact until the last morning at breakfast the waiter ran up to me his eyes alight a huge smile on his face, ‘He is here, outside now.’
I ran back to my room grabbing a gift I had brought with me from Australia.  He did remember me, his first words were ‘but where is your daughter, where is Jenny?’

Picture taken on second visit 1987
Then recently, a good thirty years after our first and second encounters, I idly Googled Mr Mir’s name into my computer. 
Kashmir was enduring a torrid time; its politics had always been muddied.  Even during that second visit I made in the 80’s Srinagar was subjected to curfews; hotel guests weren’t permitted to enter the town centre at all.  My hotel room had been searched  for what reason I have  no idea, and to reach the bus station for Gulmarg I had first to take a shikara in the direction of the open lake and then secretly double back to the town.  Even then I was forced to evade street clashes between Indian soldiers and Kashmiri nationals to the point where I quickly sought safety in a tailors shop, the owner and I crouching beneath his counter.
The confrontations had turned even uglier over intervening years with the kidnapping of foreigners high on the list. I was worried for Mr Mir and his family.  Worried that their source of income had been decimated by the fighting with Pakistan.  I have every reason still to fear for them.
The following news report about the ski resort in the middle of a war zone was one result of my 2009 Google search.
War and piste on the frontline of the battle for Kashmir
The Himalayan scenery and virgin snow are not the only spectacular things about Gulmarg - it's also on the front line of the battle for Kashmir. Justin Huggler reports on the ultimate in extreme skiing.
Monday, 14 February 2005
From the ridge above Gulmarg there stretches beneath you one of the most remarkable ski runs in the world, almost 7,000ft of uninterrupted skiing, on virgin powder snow. On a clear day, you can see the Himalayas towering all around, with Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain in the world, high above them in the distance. More untouched ski runs lead off in various directions. They are not for beginners, but this is a piste habitué's paradise; not another skier in sight. You can have it all to yourself. If you have the nerve.
Because the mountains are not the only thing you can see from the ridge above Gulmarg. You are standing just three miles from one of the most heavily militarised front lines in the world: the Line of Control that divides Kashmir. On either side, hundreds of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face each other on the front line that just three years ago brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This is the most dangerous ski resort in the world.
Gulmarg looks a peaceful place, just a few wooden hotels clustered in a snowy meadow beneath the ridge. In summer, when the meadow blazes with flowers, they film there the romantic musical numbers for Bollywood movies. But Gulmarg is within range of the Pakistani artillery. In the mid-1990s, two shells fell on the ski resort. One landed close to the cable car that carries skiers to the ridge
But this is not stopping India from trying to woo back visitors to the place one skiing magazine called "perhaps the greatest untapped big-mountain resort in the world". In just two to three weeks, the second phase of the cable car is to open, carrying skiers almost to the top of the ridge, at 13,284ft, making it one of the highest and longest cable cars in the world.
Gulmarg should have it all. It enjoys snowfall many European resorts would envy. The average snowfall at this time of year is 30in, but this year a record 11ft has fallen, burying the ground floors of the hotels and covering the souvenir stands.
In Gulmarg, the residents ski in traditional long, grey, woollen tops, clutching pots of burning embers beneath the poncho to keep warm.
But it is going to be difficult to woo the tourists back. The journey to Gulmarg tells its own story. As the road up from Srinagar passes through wintry fields, bare trees black and skeletal against the leaden sky, you could believe you are in a First World War battlefield.
Passing Kashmiri’s are dressed in those grey ponchos but every few miles along the road, Indian soldiers in helmets loom out of the mist. Often they are solitary figures, standing in the middle of an empty field of frozen mud, streaked with dirty snow.  They are there because India has so many soldiers in Kashmir - more than 200,000 in all - that they almost line the road.
Higher up, the soldiers appear suddenly out of the falling snow, often on skis. They look like tourists till you see the assault rifles on their backs. Other soldiers man checkpoints on the road, weapons at the ready. Running checkpoints is not all you have to worry about. In 1995 a Norwegian tourist called Hans Christian Ostro was kidnapped and beheaded by militants in Kashmir. He was in a party of six, including two Britons, who were trekking in the mountains south of here when they were abducted at gunpoint by the militants. One, an American, managed to escape. No one knows what happened to the rest.
That was 10 years ago, and the line from the authorities, and from everyone involved in the tourism industry in Kashmir, is that things have changed.
Peace talks are continuing between India and Pakistan and there is a ceasefire along the Line of Control. Only last week, the Indian side enthused that things were going extraordinarily well. The Indian authorities believe now is the time to get the tourists back to Kashmir. In Gulmarg, they certainly hope so. The only five-star hotel in Gulmarg stands half-finished, an empty timber shell with snow piling up around it. When the Kashmir conflict reignited 15 years ago, the owners abandoned the project.
Ghulam Rasool Mir, a greying man in his forties with a neatly clipped moustache and a weather-beaten face, has been a tourist guide here since he was 17. "We used to get so many tourists in the old days," he says. "They came from all over the world. Now we are praying, really it is our prayer, that there will be peace and the tourists will return."
When the only road to Gulmarg is cut off by the unusually heavy snowfalls, Mr Mir still treks up to keep his appointment with us, digging the four-wheel-drive through the snowdrifts, and eventually walking two miles uphill on foot up through a blizzard when the car cannot make it.
Gulmarg is desperate for tourists. Only a few weeks ago, a party of Indian tourists was killed when a taxi-driver from Srinagar attempted to negotiate the icy road without snow chains. He skidded off and the taxi plunged 1,500ft.
Last week, with Kashmir facing record snowfalls that caused avalanches and blocked a major highway, stranding 3,000 motorists for five days, the tiny access road to Gulmarg should have been closed. But with a smattering of tourists arriving, the residents tried to keep it open. As we were travelling down the road, one taxi carrying tourists got caught and buried in an avalanche. People rushed to the rescue and managed to dig it out in time.
"It is the media who have done this to us," Mr Mir says. "They have not been fair to us. They only print negative things about Kashmir."
It is a refrain you hear from everyone in Gulmarg. And to listen to the recent official pronouncements from the Indian and Pakistani governments, you would think peace is breaking out all over Kashmir.
But the official casualty figures make sobering reading. Since 1 January this year, with the ceasefire in place on the Line of Control and the peace talks going well, 118 people have been killed in continuing violence in Indian-administered Kashmir. And that is just the official figure. Journalists in Srinagar say the real figures are probably far higher. Based on conversations with police, they believe that, on average, 12 people die a day from the violence in the Kashmir Valley.
The streets of Srinagar are deserted after 8pm. There is no official curfew, but with people afraid to venture out on to the streets for fear of the military checkpoints, there is a de facto curfew. Walking back to your hotel alone through the streets is a nervous experience.
Suicide bombings are not as frequent in Srinagar as they used to be, but they still happen. Last month, 50 people were trapped in a government building in Srinagar when militants attacked and set fire to it. Four died. And it is not just militants that Kashmiri’s have to worry about. Local human rights groups say the Indian military and police have arrested thousands of innocent civilians, and many have been tortured. Innocent bystanders are often rounded up after attacks.
So why is India building a hugely expensive cable car project in the midst of all this, when tempting all but the most adventurous of skiers back to Gulmarg is going to be difficult. The answer may lie in the fact that, though India likes to keep quiet about it, the cable car is not really only about tourism. In fact, it has a dual purpose. It's also for carrying soldiers up to the Line of Control, high on the ridge over Gulmarg.
Gulmarg used to be one of the favourite crossing points for militants slipping across from the Pakistani side. Now the Indians have beefed up their military presence, effectively closing off the route.
Gulmarg is not only the country's best skiing resort, it is also home to the Indian army's private ski school, an advanced training centre for combat skiing. On both sides of the Line of Control, the extreme weather conditions have made soldiers on skis part of the conflict. Gulmarg is caught in the middle, a ski resort in a war zone.
That offers little comfort to Mr Mir and the people, trying to eke a living from the handful of tourists who pass through what should be a world-famous ski resort. In many ways, that is the story of Kashmir. It has the potential to be among the world's most popular tourist resorts, but the famous houseboats of Srinagar's Dal Lake are all empty.
oOo
MR MIR'S SON
The guide, Mr Ghulam R. Mir of the 2005 news story is the son of the guide, Mr Ghulam A. Mir from my story; the same young man I met in my Mr Mir’s home.  The only way I can adequately describe their plight is to borrow from the title of Xavier Herbert’s novel: I feel sure he would approve.  I use the quote with tears in my eyes and despair in my heart.
 
Poor fellow my Kashmir

©Robyn Mortimer 2010