An insider’s guide to travelling in Kashmir and exploring the region’s top tourist attractions and out-of-the-way wonders. Words and pictures by Meral Kathwari.
Regardless of Kashmir’s silent conflict between India and Pakistan, tourists haven’t stopped flocking to the state to enjoy its hidden wonders and array of seasonal activities. Kashmir is often compared to Switzerland because of its mountain views and mainly temperate climate. Just a four hour plane ride away from Dubai, it’s the perfect place to escape the humidity of the summer months and enjoy a peaceful getaway.
In Kashmir’s capital city of Srinagar, visitors can enjoy ‘shikara’ or boat rides on its many lakes and rivers. Kashmir’s famous Dal Lake is surrounded by mountains and offers a quiet getaway. Enjoy restaurants in boathouses and floating markets, that drift by. The floating vegetable market is like no other. Srinagar’s Nigeen Lake is smaller but tends to be less busy. It’s the perfect place to kick back and relax on a shikara and glide through the water, surrounded by lily pads. The Jhelum River serves as the main waterway in Kashmir, rising from the beautiful Verinag spring and lined by traditional houseboats and markets. Stay in a houseboat, spend a day taking a tour through the old city in Srinagar, and experience the culture, learn the history of the town (kashmir-tours.net). Visit Kashmir’s SPS Museum on the Jhelum River and feast your eyes on forgotten treasures of ancient art and architecture.
Explore Kashmir’s many Islamic shrines and Hindu temples. The Jamia Masjid is Kashmir’s biggest mosque, built around a courtyard and made from 370 pillars of wood. The mosque has been destroyed by fire three times and rebuilt every time throughout the years. The Hazartbal shrine is one Kashmir’s most pristine mosques. It is a domed mosque known for preserving a hair of the Prophet Mohammed (peace be upon him). In the southeast of Kashmir sits the Shankaracharya Temple, providing a picturesque view on top of Kashmir’s Takht-e-Sulaiman hill. The temple is an example of early Kashmiri architecture and style, and it is said that the Hindu saint Shankaracharya used to live there (www.travel.kashmir.net).
Kashmiri food is a rarity around the world, but it has mouth-watering recipes. A visit to this region is not complete without sampling the many Kashmiri delicacies that can be enjoyed at restaurants and hotels. Popular dishes to look out for on menus include minced meat balls cooked in curd, tabaak maaz (lamb rib braised in Kashmiri spices), yakhni (a dish cooked in mutton stock, for which recipes can vary), and Kashmiri rogan josh (lamb stew). At Ahdoos (www.ahdooshotel.com) a famous restaurant in Srinagar, tourists can find authentic Kashmiri cuisine. Shamyana Restaurant (www.shamyana.net) overlooking the Dal Lake, offers excellent food with reasonable prices at a beautiful location. At night, the location is busy with vendors and tourists. Here you’ll taste exotic flavours of the wazwan, a traditional style of tasting menu, typically containing 36 dishes.
Kashmir is the place to find authentic, hand-made embroidered rugs and shawls. There’s a variety of pashmina, wool, silk, and shahtoosh (a thick wool fabric, typical to Kashmir). Kashmir is known for its distinctive embroidery that’s unique to the region’s markets. You can get most of your shopping accomplished in stores on Residency Road and Polo View Road in Srinagar. On Polo View, GM Shah is a great place to find Kashmiri shawls, pherans, and clothes (+91 194 2472394). They’ll fit you in the right-size fabrics and match them with great prices.
Skiing, golfing, rafting, and paragliding are all popular in Kashmir. Due to its proximity to the mountains, Kashmir’s ski resort in Gulmarg gets the heaviest snowfall. Visitors can use Gulmarg’s gondola, cable car lift to go up to a height of almost 4,000 meters. Skiers then have a 5km downhill run to enjoy (www.ski-gulmarg.co.uk).
Kashmir offers a one-of-a-kind opportunity to play golf. Its low temperatures provide a pleasant experience during the summer months. At an altitude of 2,650 meters, Gulmarg’s golf course is the highest in the world, surrounded by slopes and has a par of 72. Near the Cheshma shahi Mughal Garden, the Royal Springs Golf Course sits on the hills of the Zabarwan Mountains and overlooks the beautiful Dal Lake. (www.bharatonline.com)
Elsewhere, try white water rafting at the Lidder Valley in Pahalgam (www.mountainmagictours.com). The region is also popular for trout fishing and hiking. Between May and July, the snow in the Sindh, Lidder, Doodh Ganga, and Ahlan rivers starts to melt, making it easier to fish. The Kokernag, Verinag, and Sukhnag streams are best to visit in the spring. For the more experienced hikers, the towns of Pahalgam and Sonamarg in the Himalaya Mountains are popular (www.jktourism.org).
Holidaying in Kashmir is easy and affordable. The state has a range of hotels and house boats for visitors to utilise and enjoy. The Lalit Grand Palace (Gupkar Road, +91 194 2501001) is a five-star hotel with incredible facilities and a jaw-dropping garden view. The Centuar Hotel (Chasmeshahi, +91 0194 2501236) has reasonably priced packages and has a direct view of Dal Lake. The Taj Vivanta Hotel (Kralsangri, Brien +91 194 246 1111) is located on a hill. The hotel is engulfed with mountain views, making it a peaceful retreat in paradise. For the full cultural experience, tourists can stay on a houseboat and commute back-and-forth via Shikara.
Need to know
Jet Airways flies to Srinagar via Delhi from Dhs1,250 return.