As my hourlong flight from Delhi landed in Srinagar, the summer capital of the Indian controlled section of Kashmir, I looked out the window and wondered whether I should have listened to my wife, Carrie. While planning a golf vacation to Kashmir, I had told her that India- Pakistan hostilities in the region had substantially subsided and that Kashmir was safe for tourists. Carrie disagreed. "Do you want to see your kids finish preschool?" she said. "You're insane."
My reason for making the trip didn't seem outlandish: I simply wanted to play my favorite game in what is reputedly the most beautiful place on earth. A territory the size of Kansas, Kashmir is famous for its white-water rivers, lush valleys, exotic wildlife and snow-capped peaks in two of the world's highest mountain ranges, the Himalayas and the Karakoram. It was Kashmir, some believe, on which James Hilton based the mythical Shangri-la in his 1933 epic novel, Lost Horizon.
The Srinagar airport was anything but Shangri-la when I arrived in October. Surrounded by several rows of barbed-wire fence, the airport also serves as an air force base with numerous barracks and gun emplacements. Tanks and other military vehicles buzzed about while sentries in bunkers held their rifles at the ready. Every day a few commercial jets from Delhi land in Srinagar, and when each one approaches the small terminal, it is immediately surrounded by a phalanx of soldiers who make a secure path for disembarking passengers.
The airport resembles a war zone because Kashmir has been the flash point of fighting between India and Pakistan since 1947, when Britain ceded control of the Indian subcontinent after dividing it and creating those two nations. During that process, known as Partition, the Muslim-dominated north became part of Pakistan and the mostly Hindu south was joined with India.
Before Partition, Kashmir operated autonomously. After Partition, Kashmir's ruling maharajah aligned the territory with India. That decision so infuriated Pakistan, which claimed ownership because Kashmir is predominantly Muslim, that Pakistan went to war with India. After two years the United Nations brokered a cease-fire by dividing Kashmir ( India controls 53,665 square miles, Pakistan 32,358), but tension between India and Pakistan over the region has persisted and military clashes have been routine. There are presently about 1.5 million soldiers from the two armies stationed along the 480-mile line of control that splits Kashmir.
What's more, since 1989 there has been a civil war within India's half of Kashmir (officially known as the provinces of Jammu and Kashmir). Kashmiri militants, seeking independence and backed by Pakistan, have been fighting India's army. Almost 100,000 have died in that conflict. Over the last few years, however, there has been relative peace in Kashmir, which provided a window for my golf jaunt.
Waiting for my guide after retrieving my luggage, I studied the cheerful welcome signs and posters showing idyllic Kashmiri scenes--lakes, mountains, ski slopes, mosques, gardens, houseboat hotels and golf courses. The British introduced golf to the subcontinent two centuries ago, and today Kashmir has six courses, all open to the public. The Pakistani portion of the country has one course, Shandur Golf Club, a nine-holer at a military base in the mountain outpost of Shandur; at 13,000 feet above sea level it is the highest altitude in the world at which golf is played. The five courses on India's side include designs by Robert Trent Jones Jr. and Peter Thomson. The 150-year-old Kashmir Golf Club, in Srinagar, is the fourth-oldest club outside the British Isles. (The three older courses are also in India, led by 176-year-old Royal Calcutta.)
Then my eyes came upon a copy of the English-language Himalayan Mail with a front-page headline that read WOMAN AMONG 2 KILLED IN J&K [ Jammu and Kashmir] VIOLENCE. My heart began to pound. From my backpack I took out pictures of my two-year-old daughter, Claudia, and one-year-old son, Ricky, playing in the bathtub and wondered: Maybe this is insane.
I hope you find happy stories in Kashmir," said my guide, Sikander Malik. We were driving through downtown Srinagar in a white Toyota MUV with tinted windows, headed for Royal Springs Golf Course, the Jones-designed layout. Sikander, a 49-year-old Kashmiri with almond-shaped black eyes and a soft voice, was in the front passenger seat. I was in the back, my golf clubs next to me. The suffocating traffic on the narrow streets was a typical medley of cars, dogs, rickshaws, cows, bicycles, pedestrians, trucks and motorcycles. Tiny roadside shops offered everything from live chickens to Air Jordans. Soldiers stood in sandbag bunkers along most roads, tanks were parked at the major intersections, and military convoys were ubiquitous on the streets.
"Is Kashmir dangerous?" I asked.