Never judge a book from its cover. This applies for any traveller who heard news about Kashmir. Since life is an adventure it self journey up north India hinterland to Kashmir will encounter you with surprise that only meet in heaven.
The shikara – a Kashmir-style gondola – turns on the shining surface of Srinagar’s Dal Lake, and I recline on the cushions beneath the brightly coloured awning, trailing my fingertips in the cool water. The traffic noise of the city fades. Steep slopes rise from the eastern shore towards sharp ridges, while away to the west the long white line of the Pir Panjal, the outer bastion of the Himalayas, levitates over the valley in the bright sunlight.
Closer at hand the houseboats are ranked in long tiers, balconies with cane chairs and pot plants built over the bows. Small birds dip and dart over the lake. I lean back and draw a deep, refreshing breath of clean mountain air. This is what has been drawing travellers to Kashmir for centuries; I am following in the footsteps of countless Mughal princes and British colonialists.
The shikara-wallah – Kashmir’s answer to a gondolier – dips his sun-bleached wooden paddle deep into the water and we nudge along narrow channels on the fringes of the lake. Here there are floating villages – little shops built on rafts, and houses standing in raised gardens completely surrounded by water.
Kashmir was India’s original tourist destination. This land of lakes walled in by ridges of sky-scraping mountains is Asia’s answer to Switzerland, and for many centuries it was the summer playground of the Muslim princes of Mughal India. Escaping the searing heat of the plains, they built pleasure palaces around the shores of the lakes, and laid out carefully manicured gardens. The women of Kashmir were said to be the most beautiful in India, and the fruits from the orchards – apples, pomegranates, watermelons – were the sweetest.
Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, is the starting point for my journey. The crooked backbone of this sprawling city of wooden houses and narrow alleys is the meandering Jhelum River, but its heart is Dal Lake. Nudging up against the rising walls of the mountains, this shining mirror of smooth water has been the first port of call for travellers to Kashmir since the Mughal days.
On my second day in Srinagar I explore the quiet lanes of downtown, the old quarter, pausing from time to time to refresh myself with a hunk of fresh watermelon from a roadside stall. The houses here are built of interlocking timber, with crooked balconies and steep, shingled roofs. Wandering Sufi mystics brought Islam to Kashmir in the 15th century, and downtown is dotted with the shrines and mosques they built, like that of Pir Dastgir – a wonderfully ramshackle green and white building like an oversized cuckoo clock.
After more lazy days on the shores of Dal Lake, and excursions to stroll beside the fountains of the formal Mughal-era gardens on the outskirts of town, I head for the hills. Kashmir is as much about mountains as about lakes. To the north lie the hard hills of Ladakh, giving way eventually to the wastes of the Tibetan Plateau; to the northwest are the rugged uplands of Baltistan and the Karakoram, and to the east lies the full bulk of the Himalayas. Nepal might be the first choice for mountain tourism today, but Kashmir was the original hotspot for travellers with their heads in the clouds.
Looking for a taste of high peaks and bubbling streams I journey up the Pahalgam Valley. Here great blankets of pine forest sweep up the slopes, giving way to sheer faces of permanent snow. The sky is a deep blue, and in the meadows amongst the boulders by the riverbank there are camps of Bakkerwal and Gujjar people, nomadic herders who journey up to Kashmir from the plains every spring. Locals tell me that there are bears and snow leopards in the more remote reaches of the valley.
Pahalgam was the scene of fighting during the worst days of the insurgency in the 1990s, but it is hard to imagine trouble here today as I spend days hiking on the mountainsides, and evenings sipping warming Kashmiri tea in a cosy guesthouse on the riverbank. The tea is flavoured with saffron, the world’s most expensive spice, made from the stamens of purple crocuses – a key crop in Kashmir.
I have one last stop to make before I leave the valley. Some 30 kilometres north of Srinagar stands Manasbal Lake, renowned by 19th century British travellers as “the most beautiful lake in Kashmir.” In a land of beautiful waterways that must make it something very special indeed.
On a bright morning with the sun slanting over the mountains I travel through the lush Kashmiri countryside in a rented jeep. The driver steers us through ranks of huge, overarching trees, and the sunlight comes dappled through the broad green leaves. Fields of golden wheat roll away to the west towards the line of the Pir Panjal, and old men with long grey beards ride bicycles along smooth tracks. The first view of Manasbal Lake – from the top of a low rise – does not disappoint. It is a smooth expanse of blue water, fringed by ranks of slender poplar trees.
There are no houseboats or sightseers here, just a few weathered shikaras moored on the foreshore. One of the boatmen, a young man called Ashraf from a nearby village, agrees to take me for a ride. We slip out over the clear water of the shallows, schools of tiny fish flickering amongst the weeds below. Tiny wavelets slap under the prow and the faded white curtains of the shikara’s awning snake in an easy breeze, carrying with it a hint of far-off snow. Delicate white birds with black heads and narrow beaks skim over the water, and the mountains rise ethereally in the far distance. For a moment I am convinced – perhaps Kashmir really is the most beautiful place on earth.
Text & photos by Tim Hannigan