Vintage Guidebooks: Kashmir, Ladakh & Zanskar

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You’ll always know where to find me in a bookshop: in the guidebook section. The whole world laid out on a shelf is irresistible. Old guidebooks, in second-hand stores, are especially fascinating, though not always a wise purchase (although I guess it would be a fun travel game to see how far you can follow one, if you’re drawn to the unknown). No, when tossing up between Indonesia and Iran for a two week holiday, I bought a couple of ten year-old, battered guides to each country, just to try to suss out what was and wasn’t possible. I’d become so used to the standard contemporary format of Lonely Planets or Rough Guides, where each region is laid out logically, with the highlights featured clearly so that you know exactly what you should. not. miss. So used to this format that I couldn’t get my head around these old guides’ lack of recommendations. They sat on the fence far too comfortably. You might want to avoid Shiraz in the winter. But also, you might not. Some people say Java is too crowded and chaotic. (It’s not, it’s fine. We went with Indonesia for that trip). 

The 1981 Lonely Planet guide to Kashmir, Ladakh and Zanskar, that I recently found on a friend’s shelf, is something else. I’ve been saying for years that next time I’m in India, I’ll visit Kashmir, but the timing has never worked out. After my time in Nepal, I’m also itching to visit Ladakh, the culturally Tibetan Himalayan region that comprises the eastern half of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. Next time, it’s a date. 

Vintage guide: Kashmir, Ladakh & Zanskar

I won’t be taking the 1981 guide, though. My friend, who is an older academic who spent much of the 1970s and ’80s researching in Tibet, Nepal and India, has scrawled on the inside cover:

Vintage guide: Kashmir, Ladakh & Zanskar

She has neatly inscribed some key Tibetan phrases at the back–‘left’, ‘right’, ‘room’– in the Tibetan ume script much neater than my early attempts at Devanagari.

She has also written in the back, referring to Ladakh’s capital:

“Leh is rather corrupted by tourists”

Indeed, she has told me that Lhasa, Ladakh, Dharamsala, Kathmandu are unrecognisable now, to her. She was in Kathmandu when they were building the ring-road, and couldn’t believe they were constructing such a thing in the middle of nowhere, so far from the edge of town. The ring-road now is considered the outer boundary for the core city, but it doesn’t bound it. The ring-road is congested and pot-holed and crumbling apart, like all the other roads. 

Kashmir used to be a very popular tourist region, for both foreigners and Indians. It has been a disputed territory since Indian and Pakistani Independence in 1947, with both India and Kashmir claiming parts of Kashmir. The root of the problem lies in the fact that the majority of the population are Muslims, but was ruled by a Hindu Maharaja. At the end of British rule in India, the princely states were given the choice of whether they wanted to join India or Pakistan. Maharaja Hari Singh of Kashmir delayed making a decision for as long as possible, in the hope that Kashmir could remain independent. Not so. Pakistan expected that it would become part of its territory, and India the same. So nowadays, what you have on many maps (unless they’re Indian or Pakistani produced maps!) is a fuzzy line around much of Kashmir, as the borders are still heavily contested. There’s the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir (which includes Ladakh) and the Pakistani-controlled area, known as Azad (free) Kashmir in Pakistan, and Pakistan Occupied Kashmir in India. 

Vintage guide: Kashmir, Ladakh & Zanskar

But until 1988, it was fairly safe to visit. As guidebook authors Margret and Rolf Schettler wrote in 1981:

“Although the whole Kashmir region is a subject of considerable dispute, particularly between India and Pakistan,* the continuing argument is highly unlikely to have any effect on foreign visitors.”

Oh, the wisdom of hindsight. (* China have also been involved from time to time, too). 

The insurgency proper began in that year after a disputed election in 1987, and although violence has ebbed and waned since, Kashmir remains a heavily militarised and volatile area. The violence of the insurgents and the Indian army’s oppression of the Kashmiri people–who they treat very harshly if they suspect that they have anything to do with the insurgency–are well-documented in scholarship and literature. This is essential reading for anyone keen to better understand the contemporary relationship between India and Pakistan, or even the Indian state with its Muslim inhabitants. Basharat Peer’s Curfewed Night, a memoir of growing up in war-torn Kashmir, would be a good place to start, as would Mirza Waheed’s novel The Collaborator.

Ladakh and Zanskar have long been considered trouble-free travel destinations. Although part of Jammu and Kashmir state, these culturally, linguistically, religiously and ethnically Tibetan regions are very different from the Kashmir Valley itself. Travellers head there for a taste of Tibet without the hassles of travelling to Tibet through China.

I know many non-Kashmiri Indians and foreigners who’ve travelled to Kashmir, as well as Ladakh. An Australian ex-colleague was treated to an unannounced midnight visit from the police on his houseboat on Dal Lake. He was supposed to try to prove that he wasn’t a journalist, which he didn’t want to do on principle because there aren’t laws against being a journalist and on holiday. (But as we well know, writers never truly put down their pens, even on holiday). Everything worked out fine.

Vintage guide: Kashmir, Ladakh & Zanskar
House boats on Dal Lake. Image source: Creative Commons, Flickr, Saga Olsen

The mountains and lakes in both regions are bewitchingly beautiful, and the mosques in Srinagar a fascinating Himalayan wooden style that bear strong resemblances to traditional architecture throughout other parts of the Indian Himalaya and Nepal, where Hinduism dominates. I promise that I will definitely, definitely make it there next time I’m in India. Now it’s in writing, so it’s official. Somebody please hold me to that.

(Top image: modified from image source: Creative Commons, Flickr, flowcomm).

(This post contains affiliate links. This means that if you clink on a link and then end up purchasing something, I will receive a small commission. The price you pay for that item doesn’t change, however, so everybody wins and nobody loses.)

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