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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.

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As we sat on a fallen trunk, Muneer told about a two-month forest department internship he did that was supposed to involve catching timber thieves. But he heard tales from officers that the focus was more on shakedowns. In one story, forest officers hung tin cups on trees and returned later to pick up their bribes.

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Still, Muneer was disappointed that he wasn't offered a position. Government jobs mean stability and a ticket to marriage, powerful draws regardless of a person's political views.

India quelled armed separatism a decade ago, but never won over the people. The majority in the valley want independence. Concerned that Pakistani militants and cross-border training of Kashmiris could return if security softens, Indian forces stay on – and investors and foreign tourists stay away. To help contain periodic unrest, India has poured in money for government projects and jobs.

A Kashmiri businessman, Iqbal Trumboo, told me later in Srinagar: "This is what the government can offer common Kashmiris to keep quiet – government jobs."

The state has only 11 million people but half a million government employees. Meanwhile, the private sector is paralyzed by the lack of any settlement to Kashmiri aspirations for self-determination, says Mr. Trumboo.

A houseboat owner on Dal Lake in Srinagar says he still dreams of Western tourists returning.

"It's because we overpay, right?" I asked.

A. Rashid Dangola shook his head, recalling guiding Westerners for money, but enjoying himself: "We can understand each other better than we can a person from Delhi or Bombay."

The German founder of Trekking for Trees, Carin Jodha Fischer, tells me later that she is targeting foreign tourists because they spend more and are interested in outdoor activities. She says European governments should stop warning against travel to Kashmir as it has been safe for many years.

And she wants the Indian government to encourage foreign tourists. That requires loosening up Army restrictions on travel into mountain areas near the Line of Control, still closely watched for armed infiltrators from Pakistan. For my trip, she sought special permission ahead of time.

"It is only now through relationship-building with the Army that all the sudden they are becoming supportive. Before, it was just a straight 'no,' " says Ms. Fischer, who notes that tourism dollars will mean jobs, development, and less unrest.

But to what degree does India want foreigners to grow familiar with the current situation?

"They don't want that out-siders should see what's happening in Kashmir," says a state official not authorized to speak. "After the insurgency, every place has been occupied by security forces and people need to seek permission."

That second evening, as we sat around the campfire, Bashir Malik, one of the guides, appeared holding aloft a skinned sheep by its rear foot. The mountain slopes now had one less sheep and the Kashmiris whooped for joy. Muslims in India and Kashmir revere meat even more than American men at a backyard barbecue. Meat-eating differentiates them from Hindus, who lean toward vegetarianism. It's also luxurious because meat is expensive. But the group refused to let me chip in for the shepherd's fee. "You're a guest," said Dr. Rasool


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