Generally Kashmir is taken as an enchanting and captivating luxury tourist destination where one can enjoy a leisurely holiday in the most wonderful climate surrounded by some of the world’s best scenery. Not many know that Kashmir is also probably the world’s most challenging destination for what is known as the Adventure Tourism . One can safely say that Kashmir is the Ultimate Adventure ! For quite some time there has been an appreciable change in the pattern and type of holidays which people generally take and in particular the younger generation. It is the Active or Adventure Tourism which involves holidays with physical exercise. Some of the activities which are quite popular are mountaineering, rock climbing, trekking, hill walking, mountain biking, white water rafting and kayaking, Para-sailing, and hang gliding, hot air ballooning, and a number of other sports. In winter apart from piste skiing, people in large numbers go for cross-country skiing, ski-mountaineering, tobogganing, and winter climbing.
Our state has some of the most challenging locations for undertaking all these activities. In fact, for a number of these adventure sports it can be the last frontier or the ultimate challenge. Let us analyse the various possibilities in this field of tourism. Firstly, the sport of mountaineering has extensive choice both in summer as well as winter. We have the Alpine Style Mountains surrounding the valley. We can term these the Alps of the good old days. Mostly unspoilt and unexploited to a great extent. The peaks range in altitude from 4000 metres to 5,000 metres with varying difficulty. Some known peaks are Tata Kutti, Sunset Peak, Harmukh, Tuliyan Peak, Shesh Nag Peaks, and Kolahoi popularly called the Matterhorn of Kashmir. Apart from these there are dozens of unnamed peaks all around the valley. Most of these peaks can be climbed in Alpine style in three days or in case of Kolahoi and Harmukh in a week or so. In some of the mountains there are harder north faces and rock walls which present a challenge to rock climbers. These mountain ranges are dotted with high altitude lakes. Some of the well known lakes are Gangabal, Nandakol, Kishensar, Vishensar, Gadsar, Yemsar, Sheshnag, and Kounsarnag. Across these mountains there are very enchanting treks varying in duration from two to three days to a week or ten days. Most frequented is the trek from Sonamarg to Naranag via high altitude lakes of Kishensar, Vishensar, and Gangabal. This is probably the most beautiful trek in the whole world. The lakes are full of trout fish and the mountain slopes are carpeted with a vast variety of wild flowers. The other treks are from Lidder valley to Sindh valley through Aru, Lidderwatt, and Tarsar. Kounsarnag via Aharabal and Kungwattan. A very interesting trek is from Lehinwan to Pahalgam across Margan and Golul passes via Wadhwan valley. Quite a few mountain trails are suitable for mountain biking. In early eighties a number of British tourists had been biking over these trails in summer. In winter the degree of difficulty of all these climbs gets very much elevated and some of these can compare in toughness to very high and difficult Himalayan peaks. All mountain trails become excellent ski mountaineering and cross country tracks.
Next come the middle level challenges of Kishtwar and Zanskar mountains. These range in altitude between 6,000 metres and 7,000 metres and include Nun Kun, Pinnacle, White Needle, Brammah, Barnaj, Sickle Moon, and a number of other peaks some of which are still unnamed and unclimbed. Expeditions to these peaks involve few days of trekking and setting up of intermediate camps. Duration is usually two to three weeks. Kishtwar peaks are very popular with British climbers and even Chris Bonnington, the famous climber has been here with some expeditions. Lord John Hunt had attempted Kolahoi before proceeding to Everest. Sir Edmund Hillary has trekked in Lidderwatt area two decades back. Finally, we have the most challenging Karakoram peaks around Siachen glacier. These are the real tough ones and include Saser Kangri, Sia Kangri, Mamostang Kangri, and a vast number of unnamed peaks. There have been some joint expeditions with foreign parties in past few years. The expeditions here are of a longer duration. In fact, the Siachin problem was caused by Pakistanis allowing expeditions from their side to this hitherto unexplored and uncharted area in early eighties. The Indians took control of the area in the most difficult winter conditions giving Pakistanis a surprise in the following summer. There has been recently some talk about demilitarising the area and declaring it a Peace Park for adventure lovers.
Some of the most famous rivers flow through our mountains. The three major rivers are Indus, Jehlum, and Chenab. There are other mountain rivers like Suru, Drass, Zanskar, Nubra, and Shyok in Ladakh. In addition there are smaller ones like Sindh, Lidder, Veshav, Rembyara, and Kishenganga in the valley. Most of the rivers are suitable for white water sports of different levels and grades. For the beginners Lidder and Sindh are ideal. Some stretches of Jehlum ahead of Baramulla are also good. Indus and Chenab are the most challenging and demanding. Some stretches are impossible to navigate both in rafts as well as kayaks. Zanskar River is the most dramatic and exciting with its long and deep gorge which even seems a challenge for the rafters who have already done Colorado River in the Grand Canyon. Indus near Leh, Lidder in Pahalgam, and Sindh in Sonamarg are being already used both for training as well as exciting pleasure rides for casual tourists. Zanskar from Padam to Nimu is a week long expedition very popular among foreign rafters.
It is possible to not only arrange package tours on all these rivers but also to hold international competitions of the highest challenge and grade. In view of a very small number of people who have been frequenting these rivers, we can claim these to be more or less virgin especially some difficult and remote stretches. Even if we have dozens of groups and expeditions sometime in future, these will still constitute a small percentage compared to our vast potential in this field. The other adventure activities like Para sailing/gliding, Hang gliding, and hot air ballooning have unlimited possibility. There are numerous mountain ridges with meadows at the bottom which can be used for aero sports. Himachal has turned Billing into an international arena for these activities. In Kashmir we have dozens of sites better than Billing with very challenging thermals like the meadows of Kongdori and Khilanmarg below Apharwat which has Gondola lift to the top. Sanasar, Mantalai, and Natha top in Jammu have been tried earlier by foreign aero sports instructors. In fact almost all resorts have possibility of these sports. In addition, to have a tougher challenge one can go to different valleys in Ladakh.
In seventies and eighties the Adventure Tourism had really taken off in Kashmir and it was developing into a world class destination for this specialised sector of Tourism. Unfortunately the upheaval of 1990 and the kidnapping of five trekkers in Pahalgam area gave it a tremendous set back. In fact this activity completely vanished from the valley. Now that the situation is gradually easing out and tourism is on way to revival, it would be advisable to concentrate on this specialised sector of tourism. These activities do not require elaborate infrastructure and are more service oriented. Because of being hazardous in nature, one has to have an efficient organisation of search and rescue supported by a fool proof communication system. Most of the foreign tourists are insured for search and rescue in case of any problems but because of the absence of any reliable private organisation in Himalaya they are reluctant to come here. However, in early nineties we had established an excellent communications net of high frequency radios through tourism department with imported equipment. The link was established between Leh, Kargil, Padam, Srinagr, Kishtwar, Jammu, and Delhi. All expeditions were monitored, and a number of rescue missions were undertaken in collaboration with Air Force and Army.
This helped in saving lives of many adventure sports enthusiasts all over the state. I had the opportunity of personally participating in a few rescue missions in Ladakh area. The system can be revived once it is decided to promote adventure tourism on a large scale. In fact, the Indian Mountaineering Foundation has adopted the J & K model and presently rescue and communication equipment is being imported to set up a similar system all over the Himalaya. Most of the Adventure Tourism activities are part of Eco-Tourism in the larger context but one has to regulate these very strictly to avoid damage to fragile mountain environment. One has to aim for sustainable tourism. We must determine the carrying capacity of our areas for these activities and then ensure that we do not exceed the optimum level as is being done in a number of countries. A typical example is Bhutan. The ideal way is to enforce a strict regulatory control over the entry of various expeditions and groups. These can be charged some environment levy to pay for keeping the mountains clean. Such a levy is already being charged by the Indian Mountaineering Foundation (IMF) from foreign mountaineering expeditions, which gives a share of all these royalties to Himalayan states for undertaking cleaning expeditions. However, trekking groups and some other adventure activity participants are not obliged to go through IMF.
These have to be controlled by the local authorities. All these regulatory activities concerning environment and management of different areas can generate appreciable employment. In addition one would need guides, high altitude porters, and trained instructors. These can be recruited from among the local youth in these remote mountain areas and trained in some of the mountaineering institutes already existing in the state such as the Jawahar Institute of Mountaineering in Pahalgam. Developing Adventure Tourism on a larger scale can also give boost to import and sale of some of the specialised equipments required for these activities. In view of these possibilities it would be useful for the State Tourism Authorities to make Adventure Tourism as an important thrust area for future development of tourism in the State. Kashmir, hopefully, would one day become the Ultimate Destination for all adventure lovers of the world!