It was a war.
The mountain town of 10,000 from which the 1999 Kargil war drew its name had emptied out in May that year as shells came slamming in, killing dozens of civilians and smashing homes, a school and a mosque. By the time they returned, Kargil had become an internationally known dateline.
It is now snowed under a flood of Indian tourists in a new wave of “war tourism” — lifesavers at a time when some Western insurance companies blacklisted Kargil alongside Iraq and Afghanistan and Western backpackers reduced to a trickle.
“Now, its like a new life,” says hotelier Mohammed Sadiq, as he takes a long drag on his cigarette and negotiates the purchase of 40 new intercom phones for rooms at his hotel.
The roads leading to the market is as wide as your nearest expressway. The rows of shacks that made up the market has changed into double-storey buildings. Everything an urban tourist wants is available. Airline ticketing. Flat screen TVs. ATMs. MP3s. Pen drives. Chinese food. There is even ‘New Aditya Armoury Arms and Ammunition Dealer’.
“Here, do you recognise the room where you stayed? The war did wonders!” chuckles Abdul Rashid Khan, the manager at Hotel Siachen where most journalists stayed during the war.
I am looking for Mohammed Ishaq, a young, nervous, jumpy Ladakhi with his battered green jeep, who took me and my war-time fellow traveller, Sankarshan Thakur of the Telegraph, every day down the highway.
I realise he often saved his life and ours with his streetsmart instinct. Like jumping into a rock cavity like a gazelle and driving his jeep — often mistaken for an Indian Army vehicle by the Pakistani gunners and fiercely attacked — through raining shells.
I stayed for some two months at the Siachen, which became the journalists’ hub, the ‘Hotel Rwanda’ kind of hotel on which movies are based and book are written. We worked hard all day and sang songs in the evening. Part of my audience was my friend and HT photographer Pradeep Bhatia, who later lost his life covering a bombing in Srinagar.
When I return, that hotel is nowhere to be seen.
No soiled sheets. No bucket bath. No dim 40-watt bulbs. Room 208 has been transformed to plush three-star status, with a huge bed, rugs, beautiful curtains and a flat screen TV.
But Ishaq the driver has left Kargil, I am told. I wanted to request our photographer Virendra Singh to take a picture when I found him at the taxi stand and hugged him.
Is he driving a truck on some treacherous highway? Did his childlike enthusiasm survive the decade?
“Uff — I can still hear the boom in my ears,” hotel manager Khan says. “But then, before the war no one knew of Kargil. Now so many people are coming — from Mumbai and Gujarat to Hyderabad and West Bengal — I have no time to eat, I am so busy.”
The city has run short of rooms.
Just off the main road is the brand new Hotel PC Palace, where the owner Khadim Hussain’s journey over the past decades is that of the town itself.
Hussain was in Class X when a shelling attack on the market killed at least 20 people. Soon after, shells came slamming over his Suru Valley Public School. Hundreds of students screamed and ran into ground floor classrooms to hide. A boy in Class I was killed instantly. Another in Class II lost his nose and had to undergo plastic surgery. A teacher was wounded.
“Studies were affected. Teachers fled. I went to several cities to try and finish my schooling,” Hussain said.
This year, his family started the hotel. Twelve rooms are ready, and will be upgraded to 45 soon.
“We are confident of great business,” he says. “After all, every one knows Kargil now.”
Sankarshan tells me that Ishaq has moved up in life – he has become a contractor supplying labourers to the army in Batalik.
I am hoping some day he will return too, like I did.