The Mughal Emperor, Jehangir was said to have written about Kashmir,
“If there is paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this!”
Kashmir ranks as one of the most beautiful places in the world, renowned for its mountains, valleys and gardens but this paradise on earth has been beleaguered by violence and border disputes between India and Pakistan for many years. This highly-contested prized possession has been declared off-limits to tourists on a number of occasions so much so that the troubles have seriously affected the valley’s thriving tourist industry.
Despite high political tensions that remain till today and about half a million Indian troops stationed in Jammu & Kashmir (J&K) state, Kashmir, particularly Kashmir Valley, as a travel destination is making a comeback – slowly and confidently.
Domestic tourists from the rest of India are returning in spring and summer for cool air, lush greenery and alpine scenery. Intrepid foreign travellers are coming to Kashmir in the winter for powder paradise of snow falls for skiing and snowboarding. I, on the other hand, came to Kashmir during last autumn when the leaves of soaring chinar (maple) trees in hues of golden yellow and crimson red.
Although Kashmir is scarred, this forbidden valley is too delicious a destination to not visit especially with its astounding views for every season, diversity in sights and outdoor activities. Moreover, tourists are generally unharmed. With that, here are the popular tourist destinations in Kashmir:
Srinagar is the largest city of J&K and summer capital of Kashmir. The city has lots to offer in terms of heritage and mesmerizing beauty, therefore there is no need to rush out to the outskirts and mountains as soon as you arrive.
Srinagar has extensive, well-manicured gardens of which the popular ones are Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh. The layout and architectural features of these gardens were inspired by Persian gardens of symmetrical structures and water canals. Set over three terraces, Shalimar Bagh is the largest Mughal garden in the city and was built by Jehangir for his wife Noor Jehan in 1619. In the vicinity of Shalimar is Nishat Bagh which was constructed in 1634 when Jehangir’s successor, Shah Jahan became the Emperor. Both gardens have views of Dal Lake and are favourites among the locals for picnics and excursions especially during spring and summer when flowers are in full bloom. These Mughal gardens are also just as beautiful during autumn when the famed chinar trees change colours.
*Also Read: A Mughal Weekend in Agra
Contrast to the dreamy Mughal gardens, Srinagar has the Old City (downtown) where there are traditionally-dressed locals, wizened old men, bustling bazaars, mosques and shrines – all of this lend an unmistakable Central Asian atmosphere. Flowing right through the Old City is Jhelum River and on its riverbank are Kashmiri earthy-toned brick houses and wooden mosques with pagoda-like roofs. Close by the river is the shrine of Shah-e-Hamdan, one of the oldest Muslim shrines in Kashmir. The shrine was constructed by Sultan Sikander in 1400 in memory of Mir Syed Ali Hamdani, a Muslim scholar and Sufi poet who is credited for the spread of Islam in Kashmir. The entrance and interiors of the shrine are exquisitely adorned with detailed papier mâché work.
But the real attraction in Srinagar is Dal Lake and the legendary houseboats. About eight hundred houseboats are moored by the edges of Dal Lake and its smaller and quieter Nigeen Lake. Many tourists are attracted to these houseboats because of the unique experience of living on the water with facilities and conveniences of a hotel. Narrow, flat-bottomed canoes (shikaras) paddle tourists to these houseboats with whimsical names (Queen of Sheba, Rose Mary, Hollywood Hotel) that have become a defining feature of the lake.
*Also Read: Experience Legendary Kashmir Houseboats
Explore Dal or Nigeen Lake on a shikara especially early in the morning for it offers a timeless glance into another world. Shikara wallahs transport goods to market, parents send their children to school – a tranquil reverie to enjoy – but expect intermittent interruptions by shikara wallahs paddling up to your boat, dangling Kashmiri crafts and trinkets in front of you.
Where to Stay in Srinagar:
Houseboats: A stay in Srinagar would not be complete without experiencing a night or two on a houseboat. Many tourists opt for houseboats located on the shores of Dal Lake but if you prefer a quieter atmosphere, Nigeen Lake is an alternative.
Check out Mascot Houseboats on Nigeen Lake which has amenities equivalent to a deluxe hotel.
For reviews on Mascot Houseboat, click here.
Hotels: There are numerous hotels ranging from budget to luxury hotels. New ones are springing up in the city, one of which is Four Points by Sheraton Srinagar, a premier upscale hotel that is suitable for business and leisure travellers.
For reviews on Four Points by Sheraton Srinagar, click here.
Pahalgam is a picturesque valley surrounded by giant conifers, stunning vistas of meadows, undulating hills and snow-clad mountains. Located only three hours’ drive from Srinagar at an altitude of 2,133 metres, Pahalgam is a frequent destination for tourists particularly those who like trekking, golfing, trout fishing, canoeing and water rafting.
Water rafting is a popular adventure activity in Pahalgam as the freshwater Lidder River flows through the forests and down the rapids. The best time to see the river gushing through the valley in full force is during spring and summer when ice caps melt from the nearby Himalayan mountains. However, the riverbed is completely dry in autumn and freezes in winter.
Apart from adventure activities, Pahalgam is generally magical for its untouched alpine landscape. Visitors typically head to Aru Valley and Betaab Valley – the former is a small village nestled among mountains and lush meadows, and a starting point for treks and horseback riding whereas the latter was named Betaab because of a 1983 Bollywood movie ‘Betaab’ was filmed there. To drive around Aru and Betaab, one needs to hire a vehicle provided by the local transport association as the private or tourist vehicles are only allowed up to a certain point to reach the valley.
Check out The Trout Beat Café in Pahalgam to try their fish dishes – Trout in Orange Sauce and Tandoori Trout are pretty good.
After your meal, hop over to Pahalgam Hotel located behind the café for beautiful scenery of the flowing Lidder River. If you would like to stay at Pahalgam Hotel, that’s even better!
Pampore is easily accessible en route from Srinagar to Pahalgam and is known as the saffron town of Kashmir. Pampore is one of the few places in the world where saffron is grown; the best time to visit is from October until early November when the saffron flowers bloom into pretty purple flowers.
The flower stamens are red in colour – the saffron threads – these are carefully handpicked and dried. Because of the labour-intensive process and the delicacy of the flowers, saffron is considered to be the world’s most expensive spice.
The saffron threads are used in Kashmiri food and tea, giving a distinctive aroma and flavor. A popular Kashmiri tea – kahwa – is made by boiling green tea leaves with saffron strands, cinnamon bark, cardamom, and is often served hot with honey and almond shavings. Kahwa is traditionally prepared in a brass kettle called samovar in which there is a central cavity where hot coal is placed while the surrounding space is for the boiling water and ingredients for the tea. A single cup of kahwa especially during the colder months makes for an uplifting drink!
*Related Post: Palaces and Museums of Tehran – Part 1
Gulmarg is a premier resort that would certainly keep your camera busy with its meadows and valleys covered in flowers in spring and summer but is mostly heaving with tourists during winter for skiing. Gulmarg receives some of the heaviest snowfall in Kashmir turning the resort into India’s version of Klosters in Switzerland and is becoming one of the world’s popular ski destinations mainly for its deep powder of snow and off-piste trails in the backcountry. Skiers hit the slopes from January till March but Gulmarg also attracts casual visitors as well owing to its proximity to Srinagar just an hour’s drive away.
Unfortunately, my visit to Gulmarg was in autumn when snow hasn’t fallen yet. But I took the opportunity to go on the gondola (cable car) ride. The gondola ride begins at almost 2,900 metres high, ascends to 3,350 metres where one changes station and hops on the next phase of the ride which continues to the top at 4,000 metres above sea level. The total aerial distance covered by Gulmarg gondola is about five kilometres, making the Gulmarg cable car project as the highest gondola in the world! Imagine vast snow slopes and panoramic views of the mountains in the middle of winter!
Where to stay in Gulmarg:
Since Gulmarg is a popular ski destination, there are many hotel accommodations to choose from.
You may check out Rosewood Hotel, a plush 4-star hotel where the rooms provide you expanse views of pristine white snow. You may also enjoy a cup of hot tea from your hotel room balcony while watching people skiing.
For reviews on Rosewood Hotel, click here.
While Kashmir continues to face ongoing political woes, and one probably cannot ignore the barbed wires on the walls and the heavily armed soldiers on the road especially in Srinagar, travellers are encouraged to travel to Kashmir regardless.
The Mughal Emperor, Jehangir had travelled to Kashmir many times, and when Jehangir was asked for his last wish on his deathbed, he sighed wistfully, “Oh Kashmir”. With an open mind to discover this paradise, travellers will realise that the beauty of Kashmir is indeed unparalleled.
*My trip to Kashmir was hosted by Kashmir Trails and J&K Tourism. Opinions expressed in this post are of my own.
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