Kashmir – Beauty at the feet of the Himalayas

An unexpected itinerary diversion took me to Kashmir,  a spectacular and breathtaking mountain destination cradled by the Himalaya mountain range. Kashmir is located in the extreme far North of India and shares a border with Pakistan. Unique in every way, arriving at Srinagar immediately made me feel acutely alive. The military presence is a reminder of the turmoil that troubles this region and the history of conflict between India and Pakistan, but the scenery, people and places could not be a greater contradiction to this.

Arriving in Srinagar

I flew from Delhi into the small regional Srinagar airport. I was greeted by friendly locals who were attentive to all foreigners arriving ensuring they were supported through their arrival at the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir. There is also the option to travel to Srinagar and Kashmir by bus, but due to the location deep in the Himalayan mountains this is understandably not a speedy option, I will cover this off at the end of my article where I share my onward journey.

On arrival at the airport, the message to pick me up had not made it to the houseboat where I was staying but I was assisted by a mix of airport personnel, another houseboat operator and the taxi driver and ultimately delivered to my preplanned destination. Whilst in Srinagar I stayed on a houseboat moored on Nagin Lake, a peaceful outlying area of Srinagar. Nagin Lake tips its hat to Mother Nature with its quiet and still waters reflecting the snow-capped Himalayan mountain peaks. Its tributaries wind and weave their way around a local village and provide thoroughfares for locals commuting to work or school in their small non-motorized boats. There is a noticeable absence of outboard motors which is a blessing but I think more by accident than design and reflects the financial position of the general population living on the lakes in this area.

Srinagar House Boats

I arranged my stay in Kashmir through an agency in Delhi and possibly could have achieved a lower rate booking my houseboat on arrival in Srinagar. I was told that a houseboat can be rented for as little as 500 rupees per night for a single. The houseboat I stayed in was a typical design for the region. A little tired and run down but very spacious and breathtaking in the detail and workmanship of the boat and the decor. Included in the tariff are meals catering to veg or non-veg diet. There are many houseboats and houseboat operators to choose from, and the competition is fierce so the prices are super reasonable. The houseboats were once functioning modes of transport moving goods around the waters. The boat owners were not permitted to live in a permanent physical address in the area so these boats were modified and turned into elaborate floating homes that showcased the local handicrafts and wares, I imagine as a source of pride. The boats are very spacious with completely separate bedrooms, living and dining areas, and small balconies for taking in some afternoon sun or enjoying the peace and quiet as the sun sets over the lake.

Highly detailed and ornate finishes in House Boat
Highly detailed and ornate finishes in House Boat

Taking a Shikara Ride on Nagin and Dal Lakes

From Nagin Lake, the main township of Srinagar can be reached using the public bus and takes about twenty minutes and costs about 20 rupees. Srinagar sits on the banks of Dal Lake. On either Nagin or Dal Lake, you can enjoy a Shikara ride. A Shikara is a traditional boat fitted out with a daybed with plenty room for four people and a local boatman can be employed to take you “boating” for purely recreational reasons or as a more practical form of transport for example on Dal Lake to get to and from your houseboats.

Reflection of the Himalayan mountains on Nagin Lake
Reflection of the Himalayan mountains on Nagin Lake
Floating Village on Nagin Lake
Floating Village on Nagin Lake

On Nagin Lake, once I had settled into my houseboat I was picked up from the balcony at the rear of the boat for my ride. Starting late in the afternoon, for no less than two hours this was completely restorative and relaxing and nothing short of breathtaking, gliding through the clear waters with the reflections of the mountains opening up to fields of lily pads which bear flowers in season and are a significant local industry. I paid about $15 for this.

Lillies on Lake Nagin at dusk
Lillies on Lake Nagin at dusk

On the busier Dal Lake in the town of Srinagar a Shikara ride can be taken from any number of vantage points where the lake edge meets one of the footpaths through the main Boulevard thoroughfare. As you recline in your Shakira some of the vendors that cross your path will include jewelry, flowers, snacks, and drinks. The boatman will take you through floating villages where permanent floating shops can serve as stops along the way and an opportunity to check out some of the local arts and crafts and of course a good Kashmir pashmina or traditional vest or hat. Dal Lake is also the home of the floating vegetable markets. To see the markets in full swing require an early start with trading commencing before sun up, from the convenience of your boat fresh vegetables and herbs can be bought by the bunch and there are spices to choose from in large, seemingly industrial proportions.

Day trip to Gulmarg

Srinagar is a base for day trips or multi-day excursions for activities deep in the Himalayas. Your houseboat manager can arrange these for you, or the tourist center in the town of Srinagar can provide you with options. For day trips this ultimately means hiring a driver and heading out to any one of a number of mountain resort locations that specialize in trekking in the summer months and are often esteemed alpine destinations in the winter months. I took a Gulmarg which is a ski area that can boast to be the home of the highest gondola ski lift in the world. I was interested in doing a short day hike and getting close to nature. When the driver approached the park area after about an hour, at the entry the offer of a guide is made. In reality is a strong suggestion that you must take. This guide then joined me in the vehicle and we continued to the alpine area of the Gulmarg resort village.

I had designs for a hike on foot for a couple of hours, but soon came to realise that my vision was quite different than what is actually offered. The guide “suggested” that I should take a horse (for a fee) and he would guide me to some of the best areas in the mountain that he knows. Reluctantly I agreed, with really no other option and we set out, me atop of a horse, and the guide on foot. Not far into the trip I had to swallow my pride and acknowledge that the terrain we were covering would have been very difficult on foot and as a solo hiker impossible for me to navigate. I was guided, over the course of two hours through some spectacular scenery in otherwise inaccesable areas that are completely untouched by any development. Upon return to the base camp area I enjoyed a delicious Shahi Paneer in the mountain sun before driving back to the village via Old Srinigar town and the still active fort overlooking and protecting new Srinigar.

Transport and Onward Journey

While I was at the tourist information office earlier I also arranged my transport by bus to my next destination. The bus being very inexpensive and besides flying it is the only way out, up and over the Himalayas. My destination was Jammu, for a stop over. On the confirmed day and time I met my bus, which leaves just next door to the tourist centre. Get to the bus station early to get your pick of what is left of the seats and if the bus offers a sleeper I reccomend taking one of these. It was suggested the bus journey would take six hours, the reality was more than twelve. Take plenty of water and snacks. It was noisy, hot and dusty, but on single lanes coming in and out of the Kashmir state over the Himalayan mountain range, this journey was incredibly unique and once in a lifetime. Every minute of the awe inspring and potential to be a terrifying journey was remarkble. From the sheer cliffs droping off to deep abysses below, to the tenacious and talented drivers plying the roads with the brightly coloured trucks and sheep and goat hearders seeingly appearing from no where, and then all of a sudden being everywhere and closing the road until the animals have passed. This journey is a reminder that man has definately not conquered the world and at best we might say we are working within it.

Travelling within the state of Kashmir was a constant reminder that things are not always as they appear. The heavy military presence felt reassuring and normal after a few days as a guest amongst the friendly and warm Kashmiris. The sunny summer afternoons made the freezing alpine winters hard to imagine, and on the lakes, the tired and worn house boats of a proud and resilient culture welcome visitors and grow a new industry while keeping alive the heritage and glory of the past.

Check out this gallery for more of my best photos from my stay in Kashmir

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