Though it is considered to be paradise on earth, Kashmir on the onset for a single woman can be quite a hellish experience. Don't get me wrong, learn a few tricks, fabricate a few lies, grow a thick skin and you will love the Valley. That's what I did!
Some of the kindest, most hospitable people I've met in my life are Kashmiris. But lets not forget for a single moment, that it's a fragile, conflict affected area . Everything that you will do, will determine how safe you will remain.
Here are a few simple rules for female travelers, who wish to spend a fair bit of solo time in Kashmir –
1) DON'T BE AFRAID - As soon as you arrive, from the taxi driver to the concierge at your hotel will tell you the scariest stories. They'll ask you not to trust anyone other than them. Don't worry, stay in the loop and just trust your gut instinct. My first trip to Kashmir, was definitely the most harrowing. From remarks about my religious identity, to my single status-I had everything flung at me, in one go. I was so disappointed, I thought I would never return. But then I thought to myself, I can't let a bunch of intolerant people scare me. So I went back. It's been more than five years, since my first trip and each year I spend at least a few months in Kashmir. So keep a lid on the fear and the anger, don't let a few bad apples ruin your trip.
Saadiya Kochar with a Fisher Woman in Srinagar.
2) GET SOME PROTECTION - Though you need not fear anything, you will still need a little bit of protection. I wish I could say, pepper spray and a knife is what you need. Fortunately or unfortunately, they never work in the Valley. A local guide/contact/protector is a necessity. If you're traveling for work, ask someone at the local office to keep in touch with you. If you're traveling for pleasure, get yourself a recommended guide. He might swindle your money but that's the way you remain out of trouble. Don't hesitate to ask for such favours.
Saadiya Kochar-Shooting in Srinagar.
3) BE A CONSERVATIVE DRESSER - The first few years I spent in Kashmir, I mostly wore a phiran (traditional outfit) and covered my head. In the Kashmiri society untied hair is considered quite inappropriate and mine is too untamed, for their liking. Though these are extreme measures, I had to take because of the nature of my work, I would still recommend being conservatively clad, carrying a scarf and covering up tattoos. If you're going to spend a lot of time at the tourists spots, like Gulmarg and Pahalgam, then you can relax and not worry about these things.
4) NO LATE NIGHTS - If you're alone in Srinagar and planning to have a quite dinner after 10 p.m, think again. It's not like you'll get into any trouble for doing so. But you will not see the local women out at that time. For doing so, you'll just stand out like a sore thumb. If you're with a male companion or in a group Kashmir is a great place to vacation. But due to the conflict in the region, the Kashmiri society has become very conservative. For a female traveler it is not the friendliest environment.