The return of Kashmir

Newfound peace comes to a divided paradise, where life’s pace is set by echoing calls to prayer and the gentle paddling of colourful canoes in glistening Dal Lake.

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.

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.