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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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.
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