The return of Kashmir
With China to the east, Pakistan to the west and India to the south, Kashmir is home to sacred sites for both Hinduism and early Buddhism, and today remains mostly Muslim. As these cultures collided, conflict created turmoil, but it also transformed the valley into a cauldron of creativity, resulting in the region – particularly Srinagar – becoming famous for its artisans who make cashmere and pashmina shawls, silver jewellery, hand-painted papier mache figurines, vases and boxes, and beautifully handcrafted carpets that can take days, months, years to make.
The Mughals used the same painstaking care and attention to detail when they built the gardens throughout Srinagar. The lush green spaces are often symmetrical, terraced, flowing with water and invariably beautiful. With colourful flowers as vibrant and varied as the saris of Kashmiri women, the gardens also offer amazing views of the lake and the city below. Hire a tuk-tuk to tour the Pari-Mahal – a garden with a fort-like structure atop a mountain overlooking the city – and the Shalimar Bagh, accessible by shikara on Dal Lake and regarded as the finest Mughal garden ever built. Or get up before sunrise to visit the floating vegetable market, where dozens of shikaras congregate to buy and sell produce – a spectacle well worth sacrificing a few hours sleep.
For those willing to ignore the travel warnings, Srinagar is a good jumping off point for the 50km trip to the mountain town of Gulmarg, which has amazing trekking and mountain biking opportunities in the spring and summer, plus some of Asia’s most adventurous skiing in the winter. In December 2012, the town’s first five-star hotel opened – the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa – adding cachet to a resort that already has both massive snowfall and the world’s highest chairlift.
The town of Pahalgam in the state’s northwest, 95km from Srinagar, is a hub for rafting and trekking, as well as a launching point for the Hindu pilgrimage of Amarnath Yatra in July and August. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus make this challenging five-day, 16km trek to Amarnath Temple – a shrine in a cave nearly 4,000m high, and one of the holiest in the religion – to see an ice stalagmite inside.
Of course, those less inclined to adventure will be just as happy basking in the serenity of Dal Lake.
There are more than 1,200 houseboats in Srinagar and finding the right one can be daunting. The Gurhka and Chicago groups of houseboats are well reputed and the city’s houseboat owners association offers fixed rates based on five different classes of houseboat. Booking a package with an unknown houseboat can be risky, as quality varies hugely, especially in the lower classes. Alternatively, hire a shikara when you arrive so you can thoroughly inspect houseboats until you find one that is suitable.