There’s been a lot of press recently about how “tensions are flaring up again” in Kashmir, as if it were an itchy, red herpes rash left over from some angry sex-fling India and Pakistan once had together. Some lethal shots were fired from either side, no one knows who started it and all of a sudden everyone’s hyping it up as the new Gaza Strip. But these minor tussles are inevitable in a place with over one million bored, drunk soldiers. A minor civil war even broke out there once because someone misplaced one of Mohammed’s beard hairs (it’s called the Moi-e-Muqaddas, look it up if you don’t believe me).
Despite all the travel restrictions and infographic maps with wavy red lines, most of Kashmir is extremely safe and extremely beautiful. It’s also extremely cheap. For these reasons I’ve decided to share my recent trip to the Indian side of Kashmir with you. But first, it's very important that we get one thing straight.
White people experiencing India
This is not meant to be a "travel blog" in the way that you've probably come to understand it. It's not another story written by someone who says they're “afflicted with wanderlust” but doesn't even try to fuck any of the locals. And while we’re at it, travel bloggers, why are small villages by the water always “sleepy”? Most people in those “sleepy coastal towns” are probably diligent fishermen who wake up six hours before you’ve smothered your hair in dry shampoo and ambled down to the internet café.
Just go home. The “genuine experience” you’ve been searching for since you watched Lost definitely isn’t diarrhoea trickling down your leg on a camel in Rajasthan, slowly caking in the sun.
If you’re white, the “genuine experience” doesn’t exist in India. Everyone can tell you’re a ferengi by looking at you. Those live-a-little “Why not, honey?” moments when families invite you to dance next to their Ganesh Chaturthi caravans don’t amount to “experiencing Indian culture”. They amount to Indians experiencing American tourists. And guess what? They were making fun of you the whole time. Once you accept that a) you’re travelling, not assimilating, and b) you have no idea what the fuck is going on around you, including the poverty, then – and only then – can you have a real experience that is worth writing about.
A common sight: Mumbaikars gather to laugh at tourists trying to play Kabaddi, a local Indian game.
To me, travel writing is about honesty. And, to be honest, a large part of what it means to be a white person in India is shitting. Constantly. You’ll shit colours and noises that you didn’t know existed. You’ll talk about shit, too – it’ll start off with a few laughs and jokes when you first hear your travel buddy’s ass reverberating from the bathroom, but soon it’ll be the first thing you mention at breakfast. You’ll have post-faecal debriefings where you compare consistencies and odours with serious tones and furrowed brows, desperately trying to work out if it’s “Traveller’s Diarrhoea” or something more sinister. Before long you’ll be sharing stool samples.
Ever wonder why you keep getting disconnected from customer service?
Oh, and don’t ever gamble on a fart while in India. The line between farting and shitting instantly blurs when you cross the border. Here, there are only squirts. Look – I’m sorry – it really is a beautiful country, but there’s just no way round it. The word “shit” will come up frequently in the following paragraphs, so let’s just try to accept it and move on.
Me visiting some of the kids I taught. I admit this photo is a little bit clichéd.
So, let’s get to Kashmir. I’d just finished working a summer teaching gig in the slums of Mumbai, which was all kinds of depressing. Slum kids know there’s more money for them on the streets no matter what they learn, but at least for a couple of hours each day they weren’t being abused or playing hide-and-seek in needle-ridden trash heaps. Needless to say, a few teaching buddies and I decided to head for happier shores as soon as we’d finished.
On the Delhi-Jammu overnight train there was a problem with the tickets which ended up in us having to share a single “bed” for 16 hours. Luckily, large doses of Tramadol (an analgesic with a lovely little serotonin booster) are legal in India, so we popped six each, made a human pretzel and passed out.
On the way we “did” a few temples. We didn’t treat it like most backpackers do – an RPG where each blessing gives you some kind of stats perk – but we got our fair share of red dots on the forehead. Spirituality is definitely a lot more interesting over there, where there’s a festival every week, but it’s undoubtedly weirder too. Especially temple paintings (see above).
The ceasefire line runs through the Himalayas
On the Delhi-Jammu overnight train we upped our Tramadol dosage to account for new tolerances, and the result was kind of like in sci-fi movies when they put you in cryostasis for seven-year space flights. After we woke up in a drool-pool in Jammu, though, there was no more Tramadol and no more public transportation. No one builds train tracks near the border because they’re scared the Pakistanis will just blow them up, so we paid a guy to take us in his Jeep to Srinagar, where we heard we could rent British houseboats left over from the empire days for disgustingly low prices.
If you can hold back the altitude-induced vomit, the views on the way blow Switzerland out of the water.
Kashmir: a blood-soaked land of conflict and death
Sick photo, right?
After three days of uninterrupted travelling, we reached our destination, and it was paradise. For less than three dollars a night we stayed on a luxury houseboat on Dal Lake. Our meals were cooked and brought to us by a local family. There were silk curtains, beautiful women and strong cubes of hash. It felt like the Raj never went away (let’s be honest, tourism is just baby-faced neo-imperialism).
I met a girl there. Mashu. She’d kill me if I used her picture, so you’ll just have to trust me that her smile would’ve melted you faster than a candle made of shit in the blazing Kashmiri sun. She worked at an ad agency back in Mumbai, and I’d later make the three-day Tramadol journey back to see her again. Mashu taught me how to smoke weed Indian-style, with a chillum. It’s unnecessarily complicated, but it can get you respect from local potheads if you do it right:
1 – Clean the inside first. Filter the smoke through a small piece of gauze (lightly dampened).
2 – Always use the right hand.
3 – Hold it vertically between the index and middle fingers. Press your thumb against the mouth to leave a small hole.
4 – Take deep inhales punctuated by light outward puffs (not too much, or the weed will blow out).
5 – And pass to the right, every time, lest Shiva smite you.
The chillum is actually a religious phallic symbol that was used thousands of years ago by the ancient sadhus – naked, wandering priests who toked ganj from the stone dicks as a way to worship Shiva.
By the end of the sesh, my mouth felt drier than a Mitch Hedberg joke, but all I wanted to do was kiss Mashu. My mind, having been disorientated by a sacred phallus, thought it would be a good idea to drink some of her Indian water. I knew it would make me sick. She was just that pretty. It was worth the kiss because we ended up fucking. Mashu, if you’re reading this, I’m coming back for you one day.
The shikara man can charge tourists whatever he wants for toilet paper and cigarettes.
All of this seemed too good to be true. I hiked my days away, swam through sunsets and spent evenings suckling the sacred chillum under yellow Kashmiri moons with Mashu – all for less than three dollars a night! It’s no secret that the conflict had something to do with those prices, but it still seemed impossibly cheap... until we realised the ploy that already had us so deftly hooked.
Remember that little talk we had about shitting? Well, I can’t emphasise it enough: you’re a slave to your bowels. You might try, as many before you have, to thicken the consistency and lessen the frequency of your shit by eating loads of bakarkhani (Kashmiri bread), but this will only inflate your intestines with porridgey slop. Whether it’s departing your own asshole or one belonging to a squatting Indian child hovering above a Mumbai sidewalk, all shit in India is determined to remain diarrhoea – or, at the very least, diarrhoea-esque. That’s where the shikara vendors come into play.
You always have to be prepared because nature can call at any time. And Indian nature doesn’t just call. It sends two senior officers to knock on your door and solemnly remove their hats as they inform you that the worst is indeed imminent. There’s a problem, though – you’re on a houseboat in the middle of a lake, you’ve run out of toilet paper and the family with the canoe are nowhere to be found. As you cry out in agony for someone – anyone – to come to your rescue, that’s when you’ll notice a shikara man out of the corner of your eye, slowly creeping across the water with a shit-eating grin on his face.
These sneaky little fuckers are in cahoots with the boat-families. Their secret is toilet paper – the stuff’s worth more than gold there. We’re talking up to $25 a roll; almost ten times the price of your accommodation. White people’s assholes must be like oil wells to them, and they struck it big with mine. If I ever feel like a shitty person, I console myself with the notion that Kashmiri children ate well for weeks due to the fruits of my bowels. Every Eden has its Lucifer.
When animals are killed in a halal method they suffer slowly from exsanguination.
My mutton-banging pals
After we'd depleted enough of Srinagar’s toilet paper reserves we were invited to a wedding by a boat-family, which is every tourist’s dream. We only went to the Mehndi night, though, and the family didn’t get my joke about “bringing all my sheep from London just for the wedding!” They made me bang mutton into patties all evening and I was too awkward to say no. It wasn’t the mind-opening “real cultural experience”, I’d hoped for. It was kinda gross.
Kashmiri Mehndi nights are weird. At 3AM everyone suddenly whipped out hash spliffs while a man in a dress rolled up to get everyone dancing, which no one could explain to me.
The next morning we set off on another Jeep ride to the mystical Buddhist kingdom of Ladakh. People who think Kashmir is a blood-soaked flashpoint would be surprised to see happy Tibetan-looking people meditating on snow-capped peaks. You really shouldn’t believe everything journalists tell you.
At Kolahoi Glacier I finally understood global warming. I give this glacier a year, tops.
Getting out of the Jeep to take a piss. Should have brought warmer clothes.
Like I said, there’s no public transport in Kashmir, so Jeeps are your only option. If you do end up going, don’t stop on the way to Ladakh. I don’t care how numb your ass gets. I hope it gets numb. It might make you forget the ubiquitous desire to defecate. The only town on the way is Kargil, which is exactly what it sounds like: an evil goblin-infested border town from a bad fantasy novel. There’s nothing to do there except count bullet-holes. “Fuck it,” we told our driver. “Take us the whole way.”
Oh, monk-kids – you know how picturesque you look.
The downside to doing the journey in one go is that you’ll arrive in Leh, the capital of Ladakh, in the middle of the night with nowhere to stay. Fortunately, though, Ladakhis (like their Tibetan counterparts) are disarmingly friendly. We banged on the windows of a guest-house at 3AM and they apologetically let us in and cooked us momos (dumplings). Guest-houses are usually owned by Ladakhi families and rented out to Israeli backpackers, and they’re almost as cheap as houseboats.
This is the traditional way to ride a bike in India.
The next morning we took our bikes up to the top of Khardung La, which is actually the highest motorable pass in the world and not something from Dragon Ball Z. The ride down was spectacular. My chain snapped after the first few minutes but I soon realised I could just sit Indian-style on my bike and roll the whole way down. For three hours.
Journalists are sharks who can smell a single drop of blood in a square mile of blogosphere. Don’t listen to them. Kashmir is a diverse and beautiful place, and you should go before everyone else finds out about it. Just remember: take toilet paper and hand sanitiser wherever you go.
Photos by Matt Shea and Felix Faire.
Follow Matt (@Matt_A_Shea) on Twitter.