In India, miles of concrete dominate the crowded urban landscape. But in the remote northern region of Kashmir, the summer capital of Srinagar is dominated by Dal Lake, a glistening heart that gives the city its slow and steady pulse. Here, life’s pace is set by the spade-shaped paddles of the colourfully painted shikaras (canoe-like boats) rather than the chaotic movements of frenetic tuk-tuk drivers.
For centuries, Kashmir has been one of the most highly coveted areas of the Asian continent, regarded as paradise on Earth by the Mughal kings who holidayed in the valley, nestled between the Himalayas and the Pir Panjal Mountains. But for much of the second half of the 20th Century, periodic war and political strife have kept visitors from heaven's gate.
In 1947, the bloody partition of India freed the country from British rule and resulted in the formation of Pakistan, which still lays claim to neighbouring Indian-administered Kashmir. Decades of border wars and separatist uprisings crippled the region’s once thriving tourism industry. But today, for the first time since 1989, new levels of peace are helping India’s northernmost state become a prime destination to escape the country’s summer heat.
Understanding the multinational region referred to as Kashmir can be confusing, as it is controlled by three separate countries. India controls roughly half of the former unified kingdom, while Pakistan rules more than a third and China governs the smallest portion. But it is the Indian-controlled state of Jammu and Kashmir that has experienced the most conflict, and of the state’s three sections – Jammu in the south, Ladakh along the Chinese border in the northeast, and the Kashmir Valley along the border of Pakistan to the northwest – the latter is the most coveted.
Srinagar is at the heart of both the valley and the state’s tourism industry (the city of Jammu becomes the capital in the winter, when extreme weather can make entering Srinagar difficult). For the past two years, Indian tourists have returned to Kashmir in record numbers, with more than one million people visiting the state each year, compared to less than 30,000 a decade ago. Things are going so well, in fact, that the government is offering major incentives for Srinagar families, many of whom live on houseboats, to convert their homes into holiday homestays.
But foreign visitors have been slow to drift to Srinagar’s backwaters. The US Department of State and Australian Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for example, warn travellers against visiting the valley due to the contentious political situation; a targeted attack killed eight Indian soldiers as recently as 24 June. Still, the British Foreign Office has not reinstated the travel advisory it lifted in November 2012, which warned against travel to Srinagar, Jammu and the cities that connect the two, and this is paving the way for Brits to rediscover the magic of the Kashmir Valley.
While Srinagar’s streets have a vibrant character synonymous with the rest of India, the only sounds that stir Dal Lake are those of a paddle hitting the water, an echoing call to prayer, or the occasional salesman pitching his freshly-picked apples or kaleidoscopic arrangement of flowers as he floats by in his shikara.
The lake also serves as a front yard for a fleet of intricately-carved houseboats, most of which double as hotels, ranging from rundown shacks to palaces outfitted with Kashmiri rugs and four-poster beds. Home-cooked meals – which are often meat-based, as opposed to the heavily vegetarian cuisine found elsewhere in India – are served nightly after days passed enjoying fresh-baked bread and pots of tea while soaking in the sight of the rugged mountains reflecting off the water.
Like the rest of the country, tea in Kashmir is more of an obsession than a beverage, serving as simple refreshment in the afternoon, fuel for a political debate or a catalyst for business. But instead of the typical milky-brown, sweet and spicy chai found in the rest of the country, Kashmir prefers milky pink namkeen chai (salt tea), which uses local green tea leaves, almonds, pistachios, cardamom, salt and baking soda, giving it a characteristic pink colour. The clear yellow kawa uses the same green tea, nuts and cardamom, but is brewed without milk and with sugar and saffron, for which Kashmir is famous.