Kashmir is the northwestern region of the Indian subcontinent. It is a disputed territory, claimed by both India and Pakistan, with some areas also claimed by China. Security is very tight in Kashmir due to its political unrest. We were quite worried about our safety in Kashmir prior to the trip. Google results on Kashmir all bore similar results (which we were still we not convinced): while it is sometimes quite uncertain and dangerous for locals, places inundated with tourists in Kashmir are usually safe. But known to many as a paradise on earth, we figured it would be worth the risk. The Srinagar airport is closely guarded and run by the army. No photography is allowed at the airport. It was a nice looking airport nonetheless. But it was quite overwhelming, and we did not know what to expect, with all the army officers around.Once we were cleared from customs, it was time to explore Kashmir and see what this diamond in the rough had to offer, which was plenty actually, based on the colourful brochures we took from the airport’s tourist information counter.
Making our way out of the military airport, Kashmir looked promising. With its breathtaking countryside view, it was as though we were instead somewhere in Eastern Europe. Willow trees lined up farms and houses, while leafless maple trees added more drama to the sceneries. The sight of a soldier every 10 meters in certain areas was quite unnerving at first, but after a while, we got used to it. Instead, we chose to think positive. Thanks to the presence of the army, Kashmir is well guarded 24 hours, 7 days a week.We were to stay at Srinagar for three nights – in a houseboat located in the middle of Dal Lake. There are two lakes where houseboats are located in Srinagar – Dal and Nagin Lakes. Dal Lake, where we stayed, is the larger of the two. Dal Lake is also home to 800 houseboats, whereas Nagin Lake has 400.
Our guide in Srinagar, Mr Hilal Ahmad, said the peak season for the houseboats is during summer, but tourists start coming beginning March. We were there in late January, thus the city was not too congested. However, we saw a few Malaysians about town, enjoying their Lunar New Year holidays. Hilal said more Malaysian tourists are coming to Kashmir, thanks to both Malaysia Airlines and Air Asia.Kashmir is known for their fine craftsmanship and our houseboat was generously decorated with Kashmiri crafts – such as finely carved furniture, papier mache decorative items and chain-stitched upholstery.The houseboats in Dal Lake are of the stationary kind, so no risk of motion sickness. What we loved about staying in the boathouse was the need for us to board the shikhara (wooden boat) back and forth from the main road to get to our accommodation. There are locals living on Dal Lake too. Their shikharas are less fancy, like a wooden canoe, without a roof and comfortable plush seats.
There is a butler or two who will play host to you during your stay, almost similar to Malaysia’s homestay program. Having a host family to make you feel welcomed in a foreign land is indeed comforting. Since it was winter, the houseboat seemed like an icebox at night and early morning. We were grateful that there were electric blankets to keep us warm after the gas heater was switched off when we sleep.There is another guest on board our houseboat – an elderly man from New Zealand who has been coming to stay at that particular houseboat for the past eight years, each stays longer than the previous one. That time, he was planning to stay for six months.
SHIKARA RIDE IN THE EVENINGS
With our feather down jackets accompanied with three more layers underneath, we set out for our shikhara ride. Shikaras are Srinagar’s version of water taxis. The rates are 300 rupees (RM22) per hour and one shikhara can fit four adults comfortably, even up to seven or eight maximum. We were given a blanket, and a hot water bottle to keep us warm throughout the journey.
Our ride took two hours exploring Dal Lake and its magnificent surroundings. The snow capped mountains were not that distant; it felt like we could just reach out to them. We pinched ourselves and blinked our eyes a few times, not believing what we were seeing. Too picturesque and too National Geographic, but definitely real.Hilal told us that during summer, the lake will be full of water lilies and lotus. There are also floating vegetable gardens that are mobile – the farmers can simply float them away to anywhere within the lake!
We got to go behind the touristic houseboats to where the locals live. There were shops, school, mosque and several craft workshops. It was a town of its own and the people paddle their shikaras everywhere. There are even floating cafes on Dal Lake and peddlers will come to your shikhara to sell their goods – postcards, drinks, papier mache products, saffron, even memory cards!
We stopped by at a papier mache showroom for a quick introduction to how the knick knacks were made. We wished that they produce fridge magnets since we received a lot of requests from friends. We told the proprietor that they should make fridge magnets put the words “Srinagar, Kashmir” on them. He responded with a smile. We would like to think that after this, if they were to start selling papier mache fridge magnets, then it had to do with the Gaya Travellers!After the showroom, we made our way back to the houseboat, with a beautiful view of the sunset.
OLD CITY OF SRINAGAR
Hilal took us on a walkabout of the Old City, and what a walk it was! Fans of Harry Potter would think they are in Diagon Alley! There are houses and buildings here, built of exposed brick and timber, with windows made of delicate wooden latticework.
The roads in the Old City tend to be narrow, winding and chaotic. There are arterial roads and major market squares, where it is not difficult to get lost! Shops are overflowing with an amazing profusion of copperware inundating all over the Old City as Kashmiris use copper for tableware. Exotic as they are, they make attractive ornaments for decoration or they can also be used for serving dishes.
Our first stop was the Jamia Masjid, the largest and one of the oldest in Kashmir. Its main attraction is the magnificent courtyard with 370 wooden pillars supporting the building. Each pillar is made out of one piece of wood. The mosque can accommodate at least 30,000 people at a time. There was no charge to enter the mosque, but donations for the upkeep of the mosque were welcomed.
Next was the Badshah Tomb, a building with a unique architecture. We asked Hilal about it while walking around the Old City. It was built for Badshah, the mother of Zain-ul-Abidin and wife of Sultan Sikander.
We continued our walk and finally stopped at Shah-e-Hamdan Shrine, which looked more like a mosque. It was named after Shah-e-Hamdan, a renowned Muslim missionary. The mosque is decorated with intricate vibrant coloured hand paintings on its doors and walls. Women are not allowed inside the building, but there is an area cordoned off by the main door should the ladies want to perform their prayers here. We are allowed to peek through the windows to get a glimpse of its interior.
HERITAGE MUGHAL GARDENS: NISHAT AND SHALIMAR
Come springtime, Srinagar will be filled with roses, including other beautifully colourful flowers. It was just too bad that we came during winter – there were no flowers able to survive the harsh coldness. The Gaya Travellers had the opportunity to visit two Heritage Mughal Gardens, run by Kashmir’s Department of Horticulture.
Looking at the barren plots, we can only use our imagination. Carefully manicured lawns, beautiful pavilions, fountains, water ponds, maple trees… sounds like the right combination for a garden that is fit for a king. We shall come back to Srinagar, during summer, to enjoy the blooming flowers!
We had saved the best for last: Gulmarg is the reason why people all over the world flock to Kashmir. “Gul” means flowers, while “Marg” means meadows. The drive from Srinagar to Gulmarg is about two hours. Gulmarg’s legendary beauty, prime location and proximity to Srinagar naturally makes it one of the premier hill resorts in the country. While Gulmarg is an all-weather resort with refreshing summer meadows and pastoral scenes that keep shutterbugs busy, the main reason to come here (at least during winter) is the off-piste, deep-powder, long-run skiing and snowboarding. The Himalayan resort of Gulmarg is one of the newest and increasingly popular ski destinations. Head there for the world’s highest gondola ski lift and eye-popping views.Do not worry about not dressing properly for the ski resort. Warm jackets and boots are available for rent at 50 rupees (RM4) and 100 rupees (RM7) respectively.
From the car park, you need to walk to the gondola station for about 1.5 kilometres. If walking is not really your thing, there is sledge-ride available for 150 rupees (RM11) one way. The price is not fixed, of course. We paid 350 rupees (RM25) each for the gondola ride with a local guide.Skiing lessons are available and very reasonably priced too: for 350 rupees (RM25) you will get approximately one hour lesson. It does not matter if you are five or 50 years old – there is no age limit when it comes to learning how to ski. Learning a new skill is always enriching.There is also a golf course, ice hockey rink, helicopter rides… just to name a few. Gulmarg welcomes visitors all year round.