Crikey intern Nick Johns-Wickberg writes: It’s a typically freezing day in Kashmir’s capital city Srinagar and my travelling companion Mike and I, wrapped up in our knock-off Indian jackets and two dollar beanies (mine has the ear flaps, his says “Free Tibet”) are having a nice afternoon stroll. We’re probably on the main street of the city but, like everywhere else in India, the grid looks like something designed by a drunk five year-old, so it’s hard to be sure.
As we walk we discuss all the issues of importance in our life at the moment: how much we’d have to pay for a shisha pipe ($3, as it turns out – absolute bargain!), where we have to turn off to get to the Jama Masjid (main mosque), whether we should go to the ski slopes or the national park tomorrow. Occasionally, one of us mentions the assistant boy working on our houseboat and we dissolve into giggles. His name is Ashit.
The street is peaceful and, save for the occasional “where you from my friend?” coming from shopkeepers on the side of the road, everyone seems content going about their own business and leaving the two white boys to meander undisturbed.
After a few false turns and a few cheekily misleading directions from bored locals, the tip of what must surely be the mosque pokes itself above the canopy of roofs to our left. Excited, I whip my camera out, eager to put it to use on something big and historical. The road curves to the left, and, hoping for some kind of inspirational shot to jump out at me, I turn the corner with camera held up in dumb tourist position: at head height and about a foot away from me face.
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200 soldiers in full riot gear fill the screen.
Almost instantly a group of the soldiers starts moving towards me and shouting. My first instinct is to run, but thankfully some part of my brain has been travelling enough to know that that is a very, very bad idea, so I stay planted.
Everyone is staring at us now: soldiers from the other side of the square have moved over to get a closer look, and the locals are watching from afar, keen to see what happens to the white boys.
After a few seconds of general confusion, a senior officer steps forward. There is incredible tension as the large, moustachioed man moves slowly towards us with a terrifying stare that could have been plucked straight from a World War 2 movie. He stops right up against us, uncomfortably close, in a position that could lead to our telling off, arrest, execution or all of the above.
Then he grabs me… by the hand, and shakes it with warmth and excitement.
His face cracks into a huge grin.
“Hello my friend! Where you from?”
They say that appearances can be deceptive, and I think this is especially the case with Kashmir. It has a reputation for being a dangerous and inhospitable place, but, like my confrontation with the soldier, there is something completely different and fascinating below the surface.
Actually, Kashmir felt like one of the most peaceful places I’ve ever been. Despite the huge presence of armed soldiers (at times it seemed like one for each civilian), there was no sign of violence while we were there. But it was more than that. Srinagar, a city with nearly 1 million people, had a sense of community unlike anything I’d experienced in Australia, or any other developed country.
Mike and I were, as far as we could tell, just about the only white tourists in the city, and it really felt like the Kashmiri people took it upon themselves as a community to take special care of us and make us feel like guests. It was the simple things they did that I remember, like giving up a seat to me on a crowded bus (I was about a foot too tall to stand upright) or showing us some respect as we were walking down the street and not harassing us to buy things (if you’ve been to India, you’d appreciate how nice this was).
One particular boy stands out: he was a 15 year-old Tibetan named Eissa who lived with his parents in a refugee enclave in Srinagar. We met him on a bus to the ski slopes, where he worked, and after talking to him for a while in a mixture of English and Chinese, he decided to take the day off and act as our tour guide. We expected him to ask us for money, but every time we tried to pay him he refused. Everything he did was out of friendliness and a desire to improve his English (one of the nine languages he spoke).
A few nights later he invited us to his tiny home for dinner, where his parents cooked more momos than we could eat, once again free of charge. He had no motivation other than his natural hospitality and a desire to make friends, and that is a special trait in a country where even the friendliest looking people seem to have a financial motive behind their actions.
It was meeting people like Eissa that made Kashmir a special place for me. I love the energy and vitality of India, but the serenity of Kashmir was a completely different experience, and that wasn’t a bad thing. Regardless of whether or not it is politically wise, or even possible, I think Kashmir deserves to be recognised as an independent country: It has its own language, its own culture, and I think if it were given the chance it would be able to govern itself without intervention from either the Indian or the Pakistani governments. More importantly, it would hopefully put an end to the ridiculous violence and political tension that has engulfed Kashmir for decades, and seems to be getting worse every day.
I met a man on a Kashmiri bus, and I will never forget what he said: “all we want is to be our own country. This not India and this is not Pakistan. This is Kashmir.”