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Trekking in Kashmir: Where nuclear powers once clashed

Kashmir – torn by nuclear rivals India and Pakistan – hopes new trekking business will divert timber smugglers and help reivive the economy.

By Staff writer / October 1, 2011

This is the in-depth "focus" article that appears in the Oct. 3 issue of the the weekly Christian Science Monitor magazine. Reporter Ben Arnoldy travels the near vertical slopes of Kashmir with former timber smugglers who now look for a new economic livelihood guiding trekking tours where nuclear rivals India and Pakistan once clashed.

Ben Arnoldy

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Novroz Baba, Indian-controlled Kashmir

On that first day, we climbed up and up into Kashmir's forests and mountains, home to nomadic shepherds, timber thieves, and Indian soldiers defending the Line of Control from Pakistani militants.

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I was the first Westerner some had ever seen on the Himalayan footpaths crisscrossing the world's most militarized zone. Rimmed by peaks flowing into Pakistan and China, the Kashmir Valley looks pristine. But for decades it was a paradise lost to fighting between nuclear rivals India and Pakistan and a Kashmiri Muslim struggle for independence from New Delhi.

The armed conflicts have mostly ended in Kashmir. But absent a political resolution, spring never followed winter: no thaw in relations between Kashmiris and Indians and few shoots of economic revival.

The expedition I took represents one group's efforts to bring back foreign trekkers and economic life to rural Kashmir. My companions were 10 Kashmiri men, among them former tree smugglers training to become guides on the very footpaths they once trod secretly by moonlight.

Our four-day vertical foray allowed me to trace some of the social problems like timber smuggling that are festering here. Villagers cut the trees because of widespread rural unemployment and deep corruption, both results of Kashmir's unresolved status. Without trees, the snow would melt early, the greenery would recede, and shepherds and tour guides alike would be finished.

The organization, Trekking for Trees, is trying to move Kashmiris off the path of destroying their own natural heritage before it's too late. Doing something seemingly so simple, however, has made many powerful people nervous, including the Indian security forces who control even the remotest corners of the countryside.

In the background of any initiative here looms "The Kashmir Problem." The Kashmir Valley can feel like a prison: restless, brooding, waiting on unlikely appeals. At times, the trek felt like parole from all that. The guides practiced for a day when foreign tourists would visit. But the guards were never far away, watchful. And the men carried memories heavier than their packs.

That Night, our first obstacle was finding a flat place on the mountainside to pitch our tent.

Noor Mohammad Bhat, a weathered cattle herder, offered the mud-and-timber roof of his hut.

I was tired from our walk in the woods and had been quietly ruing my lack of physical endurance. But Mr. Bhat quickly reframed my thoughts for the trek around a different sort of endurance – the emotional, spiritual, cultural strength of a people who have struggled for six decades for some sort of resolution for their homeland.

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