I got my first glimpse of the valley's snow-covered ring from the southern slopes of Nanga Parbat in northern Pakistan, hiking at over 17,000 feet equipped with little more than a sleeping bag, a scrappy tent and a jar of peanut butter. At the time my head spun from altitude and dehydration. Receding into the horizon rose an endless series of jagged peaks, ridges and glacial valleys stretching to the southwest, towards a green island in a sea of white-capped mountains. A valley claimed by both India and Pakistan, with a name evoking both turmoil and paradise: Kashmir.

Six months later I stood to the east in India's Ladakh, the rooftop of the world. Although Ladakh falls under Jammu & Kashmir's rule, it's too high, too barren and too remote to get much attention from its western neighbors, for the most part leaving Ladakhis out of the Muslim-Hindu-Sikh dramas of the valley. Walled off from the eastern half of the state by the giant Ladakh and Zanskar ranges, the largely Tibetan Buddhist population can focus on their own set of issues, from Buddhist/Muslim disputes to occasional locust infestations and Chinese border incursions from Tibet, the latter scaring off local shepherds to paint rocks red along in a wide swath of land that's been double-claimed since a 1962 territorial war with India. Soldiers were everywhere, slung with automatic weapons and wrapped with as many warm layers as the army had ever issued at their brutal mountain posts. J&K is stacked with anywhere from 250,000 to 500,000 troops, and as I rode out of Ladakh, the great bulk of Indian forces still lay ahead to the west.

I covered the bone-shattering road from Leh to Kargil by night, passing above ancient Lamayuru, one of Ladakh's most dramatic monasteries, by moonlight, its whitewashed walls gleaming above a massive black mountainside. Skirting the Line of Control, the road from Kargil has received its fair share of Pakistani shelling.

I was woken just before dawn with a jolt that sent my head into the roof. Only the 40 thousandth pothole. When the car stopped a few minutes later I scrambled on top of the jeep to remove my laptop, sure it had been battered to death by the 12 hours of rugged road behind us. The others took the chance to pee and check out the pair of Himalayan brown bears gorging on a carcass a few hundred yards down the barren slope. I stayed awake for the bumpy descent, hugging my poor mac like an abused child.

In the thousands of vertical meters our speeding jeep covered, the desert turned green. Farms spread along the valley floors and pine forests sprung up along the rugged slopes. Mosques sprouted from each village, built of wood in the unique A-frame Kashmiri style. Women in colorful headdresses and bearded men in woolen shalwars, skull caps and artfully wrapped pashminas strolled the roadside or bent in yellow fields collecting wheat. Sand-bagged army posts and lookout towers dotted the expanding valley, spaced at short intervals along the roadside and ringed with thickets of barbed wire.

Srinagar's narrow streets were in chaos when we arrived. The daily rush of school buses, rickshaws, motorbikes and jeeps fought for road space with a crush of pedestrians, hemmed in on each side by crammed shops and centuries-old, mutli-story wooden homes. After a quick but noisy exchange at the bus station with about twenty rickshaw drivers, I loaded in with an Indian traveler and we sped off in search of a hotel. Puneet was a soft-spoken Delhi programmer looking for some quiet time away from his work and his wife. As we rode the edge of bustling Dal Lake, Srinagar's most famed tourist attraction, I doubted he'd find what he was looking for. The murky water's surface was clogged with many hundreds of decadent house boats matched by at least as many shikaras, small ferry boats connecting the wooden islands to shore.

I'd hoped having an Indian along would bring down the prices. In negotiating with several boat owners I quickly learned otherwise. "Thieves, they are cheaters and thieves" whispered one, glaring at Puneet's back as he plodded the length of a grimy boat. While I usually step back in the presence of darker tones for lower prices, this time it was my Indian friend that hid.

As soon as we'd settled on a boat, I escaped on a shikara and began to wander Srinagar. For a few rupees I packed into a local bus for an hour around the east end of Dal Lake. I hopped off as soon as I spotted the dome of Hazratbal Shrine, a shining white mosque right on the lakeside. Famous for housing Moi-e-Muqqadas (the "holy hair"), claimed to have grown from none other than the Prophet Muhammad, Hazratbal is hands-down Kashmir's holiest Muslim shrine. Sitting on soft carpeted floor with a few dozen devotees, I took in the peaceful vibe of the near empty place, from its beautifully designed dome to the streaming Arabic letters to the giant digital clock lighting prayer times like stats on a scoreboard. I imagined the fiery Friday sermons delivered from that very hall that may have ignited religio-political fires in times past.

And times present, I decided that night. On the deck of the houseboat, I spent a good two hours in hot discussion with Puneet the Indian and Shabeel, one of our houseboat owners. A young, energetic and devout Muslim, Shabeel seemed to have returned from such a sermon only minutes before. We talked local politics mostly. With Puneet present, the word "independence" was tactfully stowed, but considering Shabeel's obvious discontent over Indian policy in Kashmir ("an occupation," he called it), the bearded youngster wanted nothing less than a major withdrawal of Indian troops. As for Pakistan, he said, they can do the same for their little slice of Kashmir: just get out. Kashmir for Kashmiris. He strained to keep his cool and barely succeeded, saying goodnight soon after a begrudged consensus: more autonomy was in order. To Shabeel, however, I was doubtful such would ever be enough.

Sitting in a local fast food joint the next morning I scanned a copy of the Kashmir Times, learning that an independent Kashmir would not only be good news for Shabeel and a large chunk of Kashmir's Muslim population (over 95% of the total), but for China. India's neighbor to the north was apparently calling out both India and Pakistan for misconduct in the region. The Kashmir Times reported that China, interestingly enough, likes to project J&K as independent from India, drawing it separately on state maps and issuing separate visas for its Indian citizens. Media kits for journalists in Chinese-occupied Tibet--a land with a very distinct historical and cultural identity of its own--claim that that the "Tibet Autonomous Region" shares borders with "India, Nepal, Myanmar and the Kashmir area."

Within the next hour I was back on the streets of Srinagar, looking for nothing in particular. Strolling the stone banks of the Jhelum, what I found made the arduous trip to Kashmir worthwhile. The labyrinth of the old bazaar, studded with Mughal tombs, dark wooden mosques, a scattering of aging gurdwaras and Hindu temples, as well as rows of tiny stalls hanging rugs, shawls, brassware and fresh meat over dusty alleys, was a living time capsule. Before borders became what they are today, Srinagar flourished for centuries as a trading post between the surrounding mountain kingdoms. I wondered how much longer so many timeless faces would be hanging around outside the Jama Masjid or the serene Dargah Dastageer Sahab, one of the city's oldest mosques (now complete with a high-tech digital billboard of azan times). Since the advent of blue jeans and cell phones has already taken much of the youth, it probably won't be long.

Hiking across the city the next morning, I reached Lal Chowk to the sound of synchronized shouting. Hundreds of protesters marched through the main square. Raising signs and clenched fists, the angry crowd filed by, responding in unison to cries from an old, white-bearded ring leader. Unlike a previous slew of protests in Lal Chowk, many of which turned violent, I heard no mass shouts of "Azad!" and the only weapons present belonged to the hundred or so Indian soldiers who only shot bored stares at the spectacle.

I asked a jeep driver named Villiat to fill me in. This was about buses and a supposed withholding of wages by the Indian government. It was the same bus strike that forced me into a shared jeep from Leh and the same one that would force me into another to Jammu. From the looks of things, the march was just routine. I thought to myself that while an independent Kashmir appears as likely as a free Tibet, at least Kashmiris have the basic freedoms of speech and assembly. If the province's Pakistan lovers (of which I met none) got their wish, they might miss the degree of such freedoms.

Still, I imagined Srinigar's majority knew better than to lift a stone against the swell of armor-cad soldiers in fortified gun posts throughout the city. Villiat apparently didn't care. He already had no less than five bullet wounds in his body from fighting the army. "But look at me. Here, feel my arm." I touched his tree trunk arm as instructed. "Like rock," he grinned. I asked if he'd meet later and he agreed, as soon as his shift packing jeeps ended that night. As I walked away he asked where I was headed, and I honestly didn't know. "Another houseboat," I said.

He shook his head. "Careful with those houseboat owners. They're all thieves."

I dropped my bag in a boat along the river and spoke with the friendly owner, Abdul Qadir. When I mentioned I'd be off to Jammu the next morning he tipped me off about the jeep drivers. "Thieves," with a grave shake of the head.

On yet another shikara that evening, far in the northeast corner of Dal Lake, I glimpsed why Kashmir has been called paradise for so many centuries. In the glow of an October sunset the lake was nearly empty, the water like glass. The mountains to the east rose in fading shades of blue while the old hilltop fort to the west stood silhouetted above the horizon. I asked my boatman to work his magical one-sided paddle skills to get us closer to the reflected image of Hazratbal. Along the slow path we drifted beneath a crumbling ancient bridge, the road on either side long since sunk beneath the water's surface. That this open stretch of lake wasn't littered with floating trash like the houseboat-clogged waterways to the south, made it all the more attractive. While some owners take the time to collect the litter around their own houseboats, most wait patiently on the government to step in with some massive cleanup project.

I found Villiat back at Lal Chowk. After he'd loaded his last jeep to Jammu we headed for some food at a Kashmiri restaurant. He brought along his equally brawny brother and ordered us some Wazhawan: heaps of lamb, goat and chicken over a spicy platter of rice. Between chewing giant chunks of flesh, Villiat talked proudly of his lifelong struggle against the army, various encounters as a militant, seven years in prison, his release a decade ago and his reportedly missing patella.

Next came a sermon on the virtues of Islam, mostly from Villiat's younger brother, who then bragged to his brother about how much he could bench press. As far as bullet wounds, however, he had to defer to his older brother. At the mention of bullets, Villiat's face lit up like a boy's: "want to see them?" When he pulled up his sleeves and pant leg and lifted up his shirt there was no need to point out the ghastly scar tissue. The memories sparked something in him, and he spoke passionately, assuring me that Kashmiris won't give in until they've won. "If I fall, the young people will fight. They'll take my place." His brother nodded.

While Villiat remains a fighter at heart, he hasn't been involved in actual fighting since the 1990s. And his nodding younger brother didn't even have a bullet wound to show for himself. While many Kashmiris remain clearly discontent, like my friend Shabeel, casualties from the struggle have significantly declined since 2004. With under 50,000 deaths from violence in the history of the conflict, only 89 were recorded in 2008, the lowest number in over 20 years. With the thawing of India-Pakistan relations as the focus has turned to fighting terrorism, J&K has become a relatively quiet place. I wondered whether that would still be the case if the Indian army presence were significantly reduced.

As far as I was concerned, reduced troop levels would have gotten me to Jammu a lot faster. The narrow switchback roads leading out of the valley were backed up with never ending convoys of army trucks. By evening our jeep finally made its descent into Jammu, just beneath where the Pir Panjal range meets the vast Indian plain. Once again, the Kashmir Valley had slipped behind a ring of white-capped mountains.


Nubra Valley

Joining up with three young Ukrainian travelers and a local driver named Tenzin, we set out the next morning to cross the Khardung La, the "highest motorable pass in the world" at 18,380 ft. Just a few hours after leaving Leh we looked down from the top of the pass at snow-capped peaks and the arching Indus Valley to the south. An Indian army post cluttered the roadside with tents and trash, and some passing dignitary brought out all the officers and their coolpix cameras to steal photos of His Eminence, a smily guy in the sweat pants and a baggy t-shirt. I chatted with a couple soldiers from Mumbai and Chennai about life at the Khardung La. Both had been stationed over a year in this windswept, bitingly cold piece of army hell, and were absolutely loving it. The winters are difficult, one admitted.

I walked to the other side of the pass and got my first glimpse of the Nubra Valley extending to the northwest and southeast at a fork far ahead: at least as barren and rugged as the Indus, which dipped behind us as we made out descent. Bouncing down the mountain in our jeep we passed scattered villages living off patches of snowmelt high on mountainsides, tiny grids of green and yellow farmland against an enormity of brown heaping wasteland. A couple hours on, a tiny strip of turquoise appeared at the sandy base of the valley below, the Shyok River, ribboning its way southeast. A giant bowl of deep blue sky cupped the stark expanse of mountainscape while we stood on a cliff edge right in the center of it all, tossing rocks into the river and taking photos. I was overwhelmed by the sheer size of everything. The photos really are nothing.

Towards the end of our road and just outside the isolated town of Hundar, Tenzin pointed out a small herd of Bactrian camels on dunes below. We made right for them and parked just short of the sand. Since chances to test-drive two-humped camels don't come along very often, I rode for a few minutes in the dunes and found my beast slightly more comfortable than Lucky's spitting friend from the Thar. But only slightly; a camel is still a camel.

We all headed for Hundar and settled on Habib Guest House for the night, sharing the carpeted floor of the living room at a good discount. Playing a good mix of Ladakhi and Ukrainian card games late into the night, I learned some useful phrases for my upcoming trip to Eastern Europe, the best being "akhter sujka" in case any of my three readers happen to speak Ukrainian. Apparently it's the right thing to say when you lose a card game.

I stood on the mud roof as the sun rose the next morning staring across the sleeping valley, a bit over-eager to reach Diskit. I could barely make out the white walls of the complex, about 5km from Habib, against the shadowed rock face to which it clung. We broke some fresh buttered chapati and piled back into the jeep, winding another narrow track to the base of the old monastery. As I seem to do in most Tibetan Buddhist monasteries, I shuffled up endless steps and around smoky meeting halls, checking out framed photos of deceased lamas that died just after the advent of film, and creepy statues of protector dieties, some on display and others locked in cupboards for being "too powerful." Out of respect, I kept clockwise as often as the monks were looking. One monk showed off a thangka painting of Tibet's Tashil Hunpo, and I thought back to age 15, standing beneath a giant thangka at the foot of the great monastery itself. That day the Chinese-appointed Panchen Lama had been paraded through the streets of Shigatze, to the frustration and fury of the Tibetan monks, who could do nothing but bow in fear and silently wonder where the real Panchen, the world's youngest political prisoner at the time, was being held. These yellow hats in Nubra had no such worries, but a centrally placed photo of the Dalai Lama, smiling as usual, echoed solidarity for their brothers just a few hundred miles to the north across a roadless border.

We retraced our winding track along the Shyok and over the Khardung La, past dozens of clever BRO signs. Much like the ones from Himachal and Sikkim, the list included "better late than late Mr.," "easy on my curves," "horse power not rum power" and my favorite, "don't be a gama in the land of the lama." We arrived back to Leh just before evening. The next night I'd take the road west from Leh to Kargil by night, passing ancient Lamayuru by moonlight and beginning a dawn descent into India/Pakistan's supposed valley of paradise, Kashmir.


Leh & Ladakh

My head was just starting to spin as I climbed the last steps to the crumbling castle, just up the ridge from Leh's Tsemo Monastery. I'd just hopped off the plane less than two hours earlier, and dropped into the medieval town's maze of mud-brick alleys, its waking streets littered with prayer flags and sleeping shepherd dogs. An enormous blue morning sky promised a long sweep of cloudless day ahead, and had me restless from the moment I dropped my bag off in town. I rushed through the narrow pathways of town and then up the barren mountainside until I had a commanding view of the valley. Finally I stopped to fill my lungs with a few breaths of thin air, suddenly afraid of passing out on the steep ridge and smashing my head open on the rocks below. I was standing at about 12,000 feet. When I pushed on I no longer bounded like a madman but slowly paced the hill like the old monks that trailed me, probably confused at the white kid racing up the mountain. When I heard the music though, I immediately bolted off again.

I sprinted from complex to white-washed adobe complex to find the source of the sound. Finally, this time much closer to collapse, I spotted a pair of red-robed, yellow-hatted monks on a monastery roof with cheeks puffed taut and mouths wrapped around long blaring thighbone trumpets, welcoming me into a scene right out of Kundun. Seconds later, lungs spent and big cheeks deflated, they dragged their telescope instruments away and disappeared. I followed them, entering by the door rather than the roof, and found myself invited by a trio of Ladakhi girls to chai and then asked to join an annual revealing ceremony of some kind, something to do with a powerful protector diety. Inside a smoky room a handful of monks sat crowded in the far corner banging goatskin drums and ringing bronze bells and cymbals, shaking their heads and chanting in a droning invocation.

Leh, Ladakh's medieval capital, was for centuries a trading crossroads between Kashgar, Kashmir and Tibet. A fossil of a town, it nestles itself between desolate craggy peaks that might as well be in the wastelands of Utah and Nevada, but for a few facts: they're about 10,000 feet taller than the highest of those ranges, they're often capped with ancient fortresses and monasteries, and there is no interstate highway connecting these parts to the outside world. What they've got is a grueling narrow track winding along steep mountainsides all the way to Srinagar in the west and Manali in the south, two days each by bus.

I wandered a couple days to the south on local buses and on foot, keeping in the vicinity of Leh. Hiking to the monasteries of Thikse and Shay I exchanged juley's (all-purpose Ladakhi word) with a few dozen Ladakhi monks, dirt-smeared kids and old people spinning prayer wheels. Then I decided to head north.