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Kashmir - Health and safety
Kashmir’s mountain ranges such as Zabarwan provide spectacular hiking opportunities, but make sure you’re well prepared © J&K Tourism
With Dr Felicity Nicholson
There’s a reason everyone has heard of (and dreads) Delhi Belly. Unfortunately, it's not limited to the capital. Take your health seriously, prepare before you go and be careful what you eat, drink and do while you’re on the road.
Comprehensive travel insurance should be the first thing on your shopping list when you contemplate visiting Kashmir. Choose a policy that includes medical evacuation (MedEvac) and make sure that you explicitly state your destination when getting quotes: many policies will not cover you for travel to places about which the FCO advises against all, or all but essential, travel. Even if the insurance policy covers India in general, it may not include all of Kashmir. Check before you buy.
All parts of Kashmir, including mountainous areas such as Ladakh, can become exceptionally hot in summer: temperatures well above 40°C are not unknown. Wearing a hat, long loose sleeves and sunscreen helps to avoid sunburn. Prolonged unprotected exposure can result in heatstroke, which is potentially fatal. Try to stay out of the sun between noon and 15.00 when the rays are at their strongest. In the heat you sweat more, so dehydration is likely.
Travel clinics and health information
A full list of current travel clinic websites worldwide is available on www.istm.org. For other journey preparation information, consult www.travelhealthpro.org.uk (UK) or http://wwwnc.cdc.gov/travel/ (US). Information about various medications may be found on www.netdoctor.co.uk/travel. All advice found online should be used in conjunction with expert advice received prior to or during travel.
Despite the highly visible military presence in the state, J&K was generally a safe place for foreigners and domestic tourists to travel. The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (www.gov.uk/foreign-travel-advice/india) has no travel restrictions for the cities of Jammu and Srinagar, travel on the National Highway between them, or for Ladakh and, as there has been a general decline in violence in the state in recent years, it is hoped that other areas of the state will soon have their FCO travel threat removed.
When violence does occur in the state it is not targeted at foreign tourists, though two British nationals were killed during a grenade attack on a minibus in Bijbehara, a village in Anantnag district, in July 2012. The three greatest threats to the safety of tourists in J&K are natural disasters, being caught up in local protests, and road accidents. The area suffered a major earthquake in 2005 which measured 7.6 on the Richter scale and killed more than 76,000 people, 1,400 of them in J&K. Smaller earthquakes occur frequently (at least four in 2013), often causing loss of life due to collapsed buildings and landslides on mountain roads.
Driving in India instils fear in even the most seasoned travellers, and hence hiring a car and driver together is far more common than elsewhere in the world.
Flooding, caused both by glacial meltwater and heavy rains, is equally commonplace. If you plan to travel in mountainous areas in particular you should pay attention to the weather forecast and avoid travelling during bad weather. The same applies whether you are driving or on foot: numerous pilgrims die each year trying to complete the Amarnath pilgrimage because they ignore weather warnings and are caught by the snow and ice.
Local protests and riots occur frequently, especially in Srinagar and the Kashmir Valley. Though they are frequently publicised in the media as clashes between the police and terrorists, local people often disagree, citing police brutality, corruption or communal issues as the real causes. In any case, such incidents can and do turn violent and so you should avoid getting too close to either protestors or uniformed officials. Avoid areas where there is a strike, and if there is a curfew imposed, remain in your hotel.
Last but not least are the roads. Driving in India instils fear in even the most seasoned travellers, and hence hiring a car and driver together is far more common than elsewhere in the world. Roads in J&K are frequently poorly maintained, especially in more remote areas, riddled with pot-holes and at risk of flooding and landslides. Street lights are a rarity and other people on the roads may not have lights on their vehicles (or herds of goats, which they seem to like moving after dark). Plan your journeys so that you can leave and arrive in the light. If you are hiring a taxi, check the vehicle yourself and make sure the driver is both competent and sober. If you are in any doubt, find another taxi, as you need all your wits about you to keep a car on the road even when the weather is fair.
Women usually travel in India trouble-free: people are typically conservative but are used to seeing both local and foreign women travelling independently, working in all occupations and taking prominent roles in both politics and the media. It is often possible for females to get a seat in women-only compartments on trains, join women-only queues and, where the latter are not available, queue-jump straight to the front to avoid waiting among unfamiliar men.
Privately, however, attitudes towards women are more old-fashioned: many families expect their daughters-in-law to give up working after marriage and to look after elderly relatives. Dowry payments are still often required when a girl gets married, despite the practice being illegal, and violence against women, particularly in the home, is high. Friendships between men and women are not encouraged and thanks to years of damaging stereotypes in the Indian media, foreign women who are open and friendly towards Indian men, even in a solely platonic way, are seen to be ‘easy’.
Some foreign women do report verbal and occasionally physical harassment, particularly when wearing clothing that shows their shoulders or legs, or when visiting bars and clubs. This kind of abuse is more common in larger cities such as Delhi: I (Sophie) have never experienced it in J&K, though you do get quickly used to being stared at and photographed on camera phones wherever you travel in India.
In recent years there have been a number of more high-profile attacks on women in India, including a serious sexual attack on a Swiss tourist in Madhya Pradesh in March 2013. British women have been victims of sexual assault in Bangalore, Delhi, Goa and Rajasthan. If you are attacked, the police number to call is 100 (112 from mobile phones). You should also contact your embassy for consular assistance and support.
India decriminalised homosexuality in 2009 and Delhi’s first Pride Parade (now an annual event) took place the same year. However, in December 2013 the Supreme Court overturned the legislation, re-criminalising gay sex, leading to protests around the world and a backlash in the Indian media. It is unclear which case will stand.
There is a burgeoning gay scene in many of India’s larger cities (Mumbai is the undisputed gay capital) and there are now a number of LGBT travel agents in India that are part of the International Gay & Lesbian Travel Association (www.iglta.org).
That said, regardless of the law, most of India’s LGBT community continue to keep their sexuality very private. Most people remain deeply conservative on the issue and coming out is generally considered to bring shame on a family. While two men holding hands or sharing a room will not raise eyebrows, open displays of affection most certainly will. Verbal harassment is common (though more likely to be suffered by locals) and police harassment is also a possibility.
Travellers with disabilities
While it is possible to travel in India if you are disabled, it certainly isn’t easy. Poor infrastructure and health-care facilities pose difficulties for all visitors, and the challenges are undoubtedly magnified if you have a physical disability. Hotels, tourist sites and public places are rarely wheelchair accessible and little if any assistance is provided for those with hearing or sight problems. There is widespread discrimination against the disabled, with many people believing that a disability is the result of wrongdoing in a previous life. India has no welfare support for those with disabilities and consequently many disabled people resort to begging on the streets.
If you do travel to Kashmir, you will need to plan ahead and make sure all transport and accommodation providers are briefed about your needs well in advance. Airlines and upper-end hotels are generally helpful provided you give them time to prepare and are explicit about what you need. For tips about travelling with a wheelchair, and for details of wheelchair-accessible hotels, contact Accessible Journeys (35 West Sellers Av, Ridley Pk, PA 19078, USA; tel: +1 800 846 4537; email: email@example.com; www.accessiblejourneys.com).
Travelling with children
With thanks to Hilary Stock
High altitude desert in summertime is a good climate for travelling with children as long as you’re equipped properly.
Because of the dangers of altitude mountain sickness (AMS), this destination is not recommended for babies or children too young to communicate symptoms. For older children and teenagers, it is a dream place to travel.
There are abundant homestays, allowing families to gain unprecedented access to the local culture. Accommodation is cheap, the food is child-friendly and activities abound: cycling, river rafting, camping, trekking, sightseeing, shopping in markets.
There has been little research into the effects on children of the popular drug Diamox, which counters the effects of AMS. Better to do a gradual, drug-free ascent if possible, or if you fly in, be sure to block off at least three days on arrival to do nothing and acclimatise.
Teenagers are said to suffer more from AMS than younger children or adults. Try to be clear of any international jet lag before travelling to the region as it can muddle symptoms. AMS can sound frightening and should be taken seriously, but it’s the only health hurdle you have to deal with in order to access one of the most beautiful and welcoming areas in the world. (And some children don’t suffer at all.)
(Photo: A child playing in one of the mountain villages in Zanskar Valley © Maximum Exposure Productions 2013)
High altitude desert in summertime is a good climate for travelling with children as long as you’re equipped properly. Travel light and efficiently, but be warned: appropriate clothing might not be a teenager’s idea of fashion. The sun is extreme, so pack good sunglasses and wide-brimmed hats, and the very highest factor suncreams and lipsalve. Take any children’s medicines with you. Dehydration is a challenge. Children are particularly vulnerable and need to be reminded constantly to drink water.