SINGAPORE: It’s hard to miss the military presence in the Indian-administered state of Jammu and Kashmir (J&K). Upon landing in the summer capital city Srinagar, one is greeted by the sight of armed guards from India’s Central Reserve Police Force, who serve as the state’s peacekeepers.
But to truly appreciate Kashmir, one would have to look beyond the security checkpoints that line the roads every kilometre or so, and leave behind any preconceived notions. You’ll then immediately be able to feel the state’s rugged natural charm, best exemplified by the mountain ranges in the distance that beautifully adorn the horizon.
Peace reigns for now, after a tumultuous past which saw bloodshed due to various territorial conflicts.
As it is a region that is just coming out of winter in early March, my wife and I immediately unpacked our snow jackets on landing at Srinagar airport, a two-hour flight from Delhi. The cold got to our hands and neck pretty quickly, as soon as a light breeze stung our tropical weather seasoned skin.
Out came our thermal gloves and neck scarves, but for locals like our guide Bilal Shah, a simple jacket and jeans sufficed.
“Welcome to Kashmir,” said Bilal, who waited over 40 minutes in the cold for our delayed flight to the city.
The one thing that struck both my wife and I was the Islamic way of life in Srinagar, which was a change of pace from the Hindu-majority Delhi where we travelled from. Various mosques dotted the route to our accommodation, their prayer calls echoing in the air as we drove past.
One of the many rural mosques in Srinagar. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
In our conversations with the locals we came across in our trip, it came as no surprise that many Muslim-majority Kashmiris in Indian-administered J&K seem to identify with Pakistan, a country that already claims the northern territories.
Our guide Bilal however painted another view - one that is weary of the territorial conflict in the region. “In Kashmir, we don’t really want to side with Pakistan or India. We only want the best for Kashmir and want peace like it is now.”
A Kashmiri family rowing across the icy Dal Lake in winter. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
“Only when there is peace will the tourists come back and businesses here can thrive. Everybody wins.”
STAYING ON BOARD A FLOATING HOUSEBOAT
The majestic Dal Lake was our first port-of-call, and it was also where we would stay during our visit to Kashmir.
Reaching our houseboat in the middle of the lake was a mini-adventure in itself, involving a 15-minute row on our shikara – a gondola-like vessel that is rowed by a boat man sitting at the back. It was as if we were transported to an Eastern-version of Venice, where life bustles on the waterways.
Houseboats on Dal Lake. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
Along the way, we were approached by several salesmen in their own floating shops, who hawked wares such as pashmina shawls, leather jackets and jewellery. These floating hawkers rely on tourism for a living, especially during the lull of winter when there is hardly anyone else for them to sell to. Fending off these hawkers required some effort, as they could be quite persistent.
Colourful shikaras lining the banks of Dal Lake awaiting passengers. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
A shikara ferrying a passenger across Dal Lake. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
The rest of the journey to our floating home was a peaceful one, as we went past hundreds of other houseboats permanently moored on the surface of Dal Lake. According to Bilal, this floating accommodation - made of walnut timber and cedarwood - is usually fully booked in the summer. In winter, occupancy rates are not as high but they will still be filled with domestic tourists from India.
Each houseboat is taken care of by its own individual butlers, as was our boat which was named Pigeon. Our butler, 26-year-old Mohamed Yousuf , was a helpful and friendly host, always attentive to our needs and never stingy on refueling our on-board heaters with kerosene to warm up our temporary abode.
Stepping into the houseboat felt like a trip back in time, with its Victorian-inspired wooden décor, intricate woodwork carvings on the coffee-tables, down to the bulky CRT colour television and embroidered bedsheets.
The living room interior of the houseboat. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
Sleeping at night was a comfortable and cozy affair despite the light snow outside, as every bedroom is equipped with its own individual kerosene radiator and electrically heated blankets. Showering required a little patience, as one needed to wait for at least five minutes before the heat kicked in –“hot water coming”, as Yousuf would shout.
Mealtimes were also flexible – you simply have to tell your butler when you’d like your meal of choice. For us, breakfast was tasty chapatti and masala omelette while dinner was heavenly chicken biryani, whose rich, saffron-infused flavour was exquisite.
Jamia Mosque - situated in the “Old City” portion of Nowhatta, Srinagar - is where thousands of Muslims gather to perform their Friday prayers. The biggest mosque in the area was only recently re-opened for prayers late last year after access was restricted due to security reasons.
The courtyard of Jamia Mosque in Kashmir. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
We were fortunate to be able to enter the mosque compound in the morning when it was empty, helping us to appreciate its Indo-Saracenic architecture. Built in 1394 A.D by Sultan Sikandar Shah, the mosque’s unique feature is its 390 handcrafted wooden pillars - made out of Deodar cedarwood - that prop up the inner structure of the prayer halls.
Just a 10 minute drive away is the Shah-E-Hamdan, which is one of the oldest shrines in Kashmir. Its architecture includes intricate, ancient wooden carvings and paintings on its walls.
The Khanqah of Shah-e-Hamdan in Srinagar. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
The Shah-e-Hamdan's caretaker showing one of the many papier mache and painting found on the shrine's walls. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
The Shah-E-Hamdan is also situated in the old city part of Srinagar, and is perched close to the banks of the Jhellum River, which flows into Pakistani territory.
Not everyone is allowed to enter its premises, but one can admire the shrine’s intricacy from the outside – there is the delicate detail of the papier mache work and the flower paintings that adorn its exterior walls, and also the design of the wooden roof and its upper structures.
Known among the locals as the “Khanqah”, the shrine is said to contain Muslim relics from the past. The shrine was said to have caught fire numerous times in its history, and was last rebuilt in the 1700s.
SNOWY FUN IN GULMARG
Temperatures plunged as we made our way the next day to Gulmarg, a ski town two hours away from Srinagar. The knee-deep snow on the spirally mountain road meant that we had to swap vehicles midway through the drive, as our guide got us into a more powerful 4x4 jeep with snowchain wheels.
Our sneakers and ankle socks were no longer enough – we exchanged those for thicker socks and snow boots, which we rented together with parkas at a ski station in nearby Tangmarg. The destination? 10,000 feet above sea-level at Kongdoori Mountain, which is only accessible in winter via the Gulmarg Gondola, the World’s second-highest operating cable-car.
The view from inside the cable-car to Kongdoori Mountain's ski base. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
There is also the option of hiking about two kilometres to the Kongdoori base station in the summer. The slopes are difficult to climb on foot in deep winter, but it is a popular area for advanced skiers and snowboarders, who zip down from above on their impressive equipment.
We only manged to ride the first stage of the cable-car, which can carry a maximum of six people at a time. The second-stage of the gondola takes its passengers even higher to 13,000 feet but it was closed when we were there due to bad weather.
A simple 10-minute ascent became a 17-minute affair for the cable-car my wife and I were in. The ever-increasing snowfall resulted in occasional power cuts as we climbed even higher up Kongdoori. Heart stopping barely describes how we felt as our car stopped at least five times, as it swayed in the howling wind and snow.
It was a small price to pay as we were welcomed by the sight of the snow-covered plains a short walk away from the cable-car station as we alighted. Never mind that our socks began to get wet as snow entered our boots – as a couple who had never seen snow back home in tropical Singapore, it was an amazing experience.
Our first instinct was to lay on our backs and flap our arms to make snow angels on the ground. But that had to wait as we tried out skiing with the help of instructors. We were taught a few basics, which I’m sure we could have mastered had we tried it a little longer.
Skiing and sledging are some of the winter activities one can do in Gulmarg. (Photo: Noor Farhan)
After about an hour, we headed to one of the few cafes which were located on the mountainside where we replenished our energy with piping hot Kashmiri Kahwah – a locally brewed tea concoction which had saffron, bits of almond and some cardamom in it, as well as a serving of Kashmiri Palaw – which is best described as a fried rice dish infused with rich local spices.
THE TEARY GOODBYES
Saying goodbyes to the warm people who helped make our stay so memorable was tough, especially after forging some friendships on our trip.
There was our butler Yousuf, whom we bonded with during our after-dinner chats as he shared with us some stories of his personal life. Our Kashmir guide Bilal too, was a friendly character. His insights on the security situation and life in Srinagar were some of the highlights of our trip.
The beautiful views, the warmth of its people, the culture and history were just some of the reasons why we needed a teary moment to ourselves, as we took off into the Indian sunset on the flight back to Singapore via Delhi.
KASHMIR TRAVEL TIPS
There are more than 20 flights daily to Srinagar via Delhi. India’s budget carriers SpiceJet and IndiGo are popular choices.
Travelling around Srinagar is possible with public transport. There is also the option of taxis and auto-rickshaws which are recommended for more efficient travelling on shorter visits.
There are hotels in Srinagar, but most tourists will opt to stay on houseboats. One can book online with houseboat operators such as Royal Group Houseboat.