Sikander turned to face me and smiled. "Oh, it is very safe," he said. "Soldiers simply try to stay awake. We have no fear anymore. The violence is so small--only isolated incidents."
Before the 1989 civil war tourism was Kashmir's only bona fide industry, with almost a million non-Indians visiting every year. I was told by the ministry of tourism that there were only 20,000 such visitors in 2004.
"Are there other tourists in town?" I asked Sikander.
"Maybe a few," he said, his glum tone making me wonder if the ministry's figures were wildly exaggerated.
"How do Kashmiris survive?" I asked.
"Many live in poverty," said Sikander. "Our economy is destroyed. It is too sad."
There were sentries standing inside the front gate as we rolled into Royal Springs, but the aura of war and Srinagar's impoverished street life vanished, replaced by the serenity of one of the most beautiful sites I had ever seen. At an elevation of 5,200 feet, the course is situated on a hillside that was once a densely forested nature preserve, the home to snow leopards, cheetahs and 70 species of birds. On one side of the course, a wall of Himalayan rock rises another 5,000 feet. On the other side, off in the distance, sits Dal Lake, the shimmering focal point of Srinagar where the city's famous houseboat hotels are anchored. The sprawling wooden clubhouse is surrounded by beds of roses and pansies that thrive in Srinagar's climate--rainy during the summer, lots of snow in winter. The weather was partly cloudy and 65� that day.
Despite the dazzling beauty, I was most struck by an eerie silence--and the fact that I didn't see a single golfer. "It's usually pretty quiet here," said Ghalib Shah, the club's secretary. Shah, 42, had played the Indian PGA tour before going to work at Royal Springs. "We hope that once tourists learn that Kashmir is again safe, it will become a global golf destination."
"Like Florida?" I said, joking.
Shah smiled. "You never know," he said.