July 19, 2002 Features & Images » Feature Story

Feature - In search of peace in Kashmir 

As tensions between India and Pakistan increase a Whistler writer seeks solace in a land where Buddhism and Islam came together

On June 7 of this year the Canadian High Commission in New Delhi sent a letter to Canadians living in India.

"The Government of Canada has upgraded its travel report for India. It now strongly urges Canadians to leave the country. I would recommend that you leave as soon as possible." The letter was signed by Peter Sutherland, High Commissioner.

It’s one of the linguistic nuances of the diplomatic corps that they could issue an "upgraded travel report" that urged Canadians to run like hell.

In fact, there are four phases of alert to The Consular Emergency Contingency Plan:

1) Apprehensive — Canadians are advised to follow developments closely and prepare documents and belongings should they be advised to leave the country.

2) Warning — Canadians are advised to leave the country while commercial transportation is still available.

3) Protective — Evacuation of all Canadians, except essential staff, is necessary.

4) Withdrawal — Evacuation of all remaining Canadian staff, including Consular staff, is necessary.

Canadians were placed on a phase 2 alert.

I received my evacuation order in MacLeod Ganj, 350 km north of New Delhi. I wasn’t convinced. I felt that I needed a local’s understanding of the situation. I called an Indian friend asking for his advice.

"Proceed with caution," was his reply. Sadly, like Ireland, these people are used to battles on their soil.

Westerners were leaving India at an alarming rate as tensions between India and Pakistan rose over the disputed Kashmir region, but I was determined to get to Ladakh in South Eastern Kashmir. I had made my plans long before the threat of war and I wasn’t about to let a bunch of politicians change them. Besides, the travellers’ grapevine said Leh, the capital of Ladakh, was safe. Bombs were heard in the hills around Kargil and in Srinagar Muslim militants were firing artillery shots, but neither city was on my immediate agenda.

Just making it to Leh was an achievement. I spent two days bouncing around in the back of a Jeep travelling over the Taglang La Pass (5,328 metres), the second highest motorable pass in the world. Most of the inhabitants were Khampa nomads, soldiers and tar-covered highway workers.

I survived Taglang and some of the other mountain passes and arrived in Leh with dust between my teeth and a sore backside.

Ladakh, 97,000 square kilometres in the Kashmir region, was opened to foreigners in 1974. It is known as the land of passes and of mystic lamas. Ladakh means "land of mountain passes," in Tibetan.

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