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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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The sheep would be the next day's dinner. This night it was a curry of wild mushroom picked trailside. The men fed the fire with ever bigger logs until a large bonfire rose up. In the wide glow, Mr. Malik took out his cellphone and blasted a wedding song about "henna night" sung in Urdu. The dancing began.

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The henna night is the wedding eve in South Asia when relatives tattoo the bride's skin. The song reminded me that for all the differences Kashmiris feel with Indians, many customs overlap. And it also underscored the premium put on marriage here, something the city boys complained was growing unaffordable. To win over a female's family, ever more money is needed and often a government job – which requires joining a system of corruption and collusion.

Malik dragged me into the circle of dancing Kashmiris. I'm not much of a dancer and the rhythms and moves were culturally unfamiliar. But what was the point of inhibition when there was nothing to look down on us but the flying sparks and a million stars?

As I whirled around, I heard Mr. Hussain, the sports reporter, call out to me from behind his upheld phone: "I'm going to put this on YouTube!"

In quieter moments, Hussain shares childhood memories of the main city of Srinagar without electricity and other basics. The 20-something journalist now wears baseball caps backward, speaks English fluently, and loves digital photography. But he's still a son of the soil, he says: "It's only in the last 20 years that urbanization has come. I like the old ways better. More time with family."

His yearning for a simpler era is part of his generation's response to life during the uprising that began in 1989. Like nearly every family, Hussain's did not escape unscathed. One of his brothers, an insurgent fighting the Indian government, was killed in custody in 2000, just days before India initiated a unilateral cease-fire to talk with Kashmiri militants.

The next night, the bonfire grew bigger, but the mood was more somber. Malik played from his phone a song for those who disappeared during the conflict.

In August, the Jammu and Kashmir State Human Rights Commission revealed it had found 2,730 bodies in 38 unmarked grave sites in Kashmir. It marked the first official acknowledgment of unmarked graves containing civilians killed during the conflict. A 2009 human rights report by a civil society group says 8,000 people remain missing since 1989; government figures say the number is less than 4,000 and that at least 47,000 people have died in the conflict.

In Kashmiri, Malik sang along:

Pray for him.

Call him back from afar.

Show him we have tears in our eyes,

And maybe he will come back.

Rasool downloaded the song to his own phone using Bluetooth. In the summer of 2010, when the Kashmir Valley erupted in anti-India protests and Indian security forces killed 117 civilians, Kashmiri youth used cellphones and social networking websites to spread word and song about demonstrations and deaths. The song that passed from phone to phone last summer was "I Protest," by Kashmiri rapper MC Kash:


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