Following a recent amazing journey through Ladakh, we visited the beautiful valley of Kashmir. Unfortunately none of the airlines are operating direct flights from Leh to Srinagar and therefore I had to travel via Jammu which is just a 40 minute flight. We literally took off and in about 20 minutes started our decent over the Zabarvan Mountains to land at Srinagar. You do have to go through lots of security checks at the airports at Leh, Jammu and Srinagar so do factor in sufficient time if you have to catch a flight.
This was our first visit and so didn’t know what to expect. I was really pleased and shocked to see the airport so busy and there I saw a sea of people escaping to the Himalayas from the monsoon heat of the plains. They travelled with their families, the little girls in polyester dresses and food stuffed into plastic tiffin carriers with the hum of excitement like a swarm of noisy bees.
It was just such a great feeling to see people visiting this region that had gone through so much turmoil in the past. As far as I was concerned I had only seen amazing photographs of the houseboats and shikaras on the Dal Lake, the spectacular views of the snow capped mountains from Gulmarg, Sonmarg and Pehelgam and not to forget the apple trees and the cheerful locals who paddle through the various lakes selling beautiful flowers.
We were greeted by Mansoor our guide who was with us throughout our stay at Kashmir. Off we went on the busy roads for half hour before arriving at the famous Dal Lake where we were going to spend couple of nights at a very nice houseboat. I must say that it was also strangely relaxing to spend time floating around on a shikara, the local flat-bottomed boat not unlike a gondola, with love-heart paddles and colourful canopies.
Dal Lake is breathtakingly romantic. Stretching eight by four kilometres, it is flanked by the snow-tipped Pir Panjal range of mountains which rise to 5,425 metres. The banks are punctuated by sparkling white minarets, willows and Mughal-planted plane trees, and in summer its surface is ablaze with lilies and pink lotuses, the reflections of the peaks so perfectly defined that sometimes you don't know which way up to hold a photograph of the scene.
Dal Lake is enjoying an extraordinary, if fragile, renaissance. Houseboats are being repaired, their nostalgic English style - shingled roofs, Tudor timbering, steep gables - reconstructed. The boats are decorated with painted balustrades and potted geraniums and are positioned cheek by jowl, each with a more unlikely name than the next: the Queen Elizabeth, Helen of Troy, Honolulu and Acropolis.
Many of them are getting new bathrooms and hot-water showers. We stayed on Sukoon, a lovely five bedroom houseboat in a great location away from the crowds offering you the opportunity to sit on the upper deck Fizaa and enjoy the views without being disturbed by large crowds. A cheerful team welcomed us on board the Sukoon and we were escorted to our room. The room was very spacious tastefully decorated with Kashmiri vases, chain-stitch-embroidered curtains, 1950's cedar wood beds and tables. The en-suite had a bath tub as well.
You could really lie down on your bed and enjoy the views of the lake from your huge window. Meals were delicious and were either in the dining room or on the upper deck as per your wish. Babu who was sort of the senior staff there was just amazing! Born in Tamil Nadu, he left for Kerala after school and then was trained at the lovely Neeleshwar Hermitage which is the beaches at North Kerala.
It was very funny as I was communicating with him in English though we both were Indians and that was very amusing for the other guests who came from Europe and America as they couldn’t understand why he was able to communicate in Hindi which is the national language. As we always say – India is a very interesting country!
A bit later in the afternoon, Babu was kind enough to offer us a chicken sandwich and a fresh juice. I couldn’t resist sitting outside on the patio to enjoy the views of the Dal while enjoying the sandwich. It was our very first day at Srinagar so we decided to take a ride on a shikara to be a part of the hustle and bustle.
This was really to get a feel of the Dal Lake. It was extremely relaxing and felt like real therapy. After an hour gliding through becalmed waters sprinkled with lotus andwaterlily, we returned to the comforts of Sukoon houseboat. The ever so cheerful Babu suggested we should enjoy the views of the lake and the Zabarvan Mountains from the upper deck while he offered us a drink and some delicious appetizers.
The lake is fairly busy between 6 -8 pm after which most of the tourists return to their houseboats or hotels. After the busy period is over, there is an earie silence and as you relax on the loungers, you suddenly see the endless canopy of brilliant stars. It was an evening that I will remember for the rest of my life. After dinning under the stars, enjoying the Kashmiri cuisine we called it a night.
Mornings are again something to be experienced on the Dal Lake. You are woken up to birds chirping, children paddling their shikaras to go to school, the flower sellers gliding by each houseboat with brightly coloured flowers laid out for purchase. A full blown breakfast meant I wasn’t going anywhere. Kashmir bread, cereals, choice of eggs, fresh juice and fruits, tea and coffee …….and the list was endless. Encouraged by my wife and children, I did have to make an effort to leave the houseboat to explore the fascinating gardens and old city of Srinagar.
Srinagar is justly famed for its Mughal Gardens, vast acres of hillsides, terraced with waterbodies and rimmed with flowering shrubs and trees, laid in formal quadrangles by the Mughal emperors whose love for the valley is legendary.
We spent a good few hours admiring the royal garden of Shalimar that was laid out four hundred years ago by the Mughal Emperor Jehangir for his wife. Nishat Gardens are well known for their stately chinar trees, imported to Kashmir from distant Persia by the Mughals and the Parimahal Gardens, initially a garden built by Dara Shiko for his Sufi teacher, Mulla Shah and offering breathtaking views of the Dal Lake and Srinagar.
After lunch, we strolled for several hours, stopping to chat to local shopkeepers, worshippers at the mosque, copper workers, dried fruit sellers, all of whom seemed pleased we were visiting. The walk began at Zaina Kadal (bridge). Across the bridge is a living breathing museum of Islamic architecture, where as far as the eye can see are located homes, more than a century old.
Perambulating through the narrow lanes we came out at the grand mosque of Jami Masjid and later at the Shah Hamadan mosque. One of the most important mosques Jami Masjid is an impressive wooden structure, notable for the more than 300 soaring pillars supporting the roof; each made of a single deodar tree trunk. The wooden mosque stands right beside the Jhelum and is noted for the papier-mâché work on its walls and ceilings.
No nails or screws were used in the construction of this all-wooden mosque. The last stop on our itinerary was the Zaina Kadal Market where we soaked up the atmosphere so typical of a local market anywhere in the world. Take in the sights and aromas of spices and dry fruits on display; watch the coppersmiths at their craft beating sheets of copper into a souvenir that you may want to take home.
For proper walks you have to head out to Gulmarg, Sonmarg or Pahalgam. A three hour drive will bring you to Pahalgam where you can take a break for lunch and then after another one hour run, reach Aru – a small piece of heaven on earth at 2400 metres deep in the mountains.
Our camp was set at Aru in a lush meadow next to ravine of the Lidder River. It was an extremely comfortable safari style carpeted tent, furnished with beds, a dressing table, a luggage rack, a chair and a Kashmiri carpet. Blankets were provided for the night.
Tents with wooden bases were provided for bathing / freshening up. These wash tents are supplied with hot and cold water buckets and have enough space to place towels / clothes / toiletries etc. Each boarding tent has its own personal toilet, pitched separately but close by, with commode and water for cleaning.
A large circular tent serves as the dining area, though one has the choice of dining al fresco if one wishes. It becomes quite windy in the evening and cold too. It’s therefore advisable to dine inside the tent. I was woken up by the chirping of birds and the swish of a gentle breeze. Breakfast was served on tables laid out under a sapphire colored sky, in a meadow resplendent with emerald green grass, still wet with the morning dew.
The walks are stunning as they take you through forests of cedar, spruce and pines where you will meet local shepherds and be able to take a peek inside their homes. There are short walks, day treks or even multi day treks that can be arranged which require a sufficient level of fitness as each day you will walk for 4-6 hours.
There is also a very interesting water safari where you paddle through the Dal crossing some of lesser known lakes staying in small camps returning to Sukoon. Unfortunately three days here wasn’t nearly enough. It was merely a tantalising taste of a place whose politics are so raw, whose landscapes are so diverse and whose cultural influences so rich that you leave with your senses reeling.