After an unforgettable first trip to Kashmir, India, in 1990, Nick Edwards returned to research the area for recent editions of the Rough Guide to India and found some things unchanged, while others quite different.
Ever since being mesmerised by the symphonic juggernaut of Led Zeppelin’s epic track in the mid-seventies, the name Kashmir held a particular allure for me. So when I finally trundled round the last bend beyond the Jawahar Tunnel, on the ascent by creaking bus from Jammu in August 1990, and the rich green hues of the legendary valley suddenly flashed out below, it truly felt as if I was approaching a long anticipated Shangri-La.
On arrival in Srinagar, Kashmir’s capital, however, it did not take long to realise the situation was less than idyllic. We were greeted by frequent checkposts protected by walls of sandbags and grim looking Indian conscripts toting machine guns. A disputed area between Pakistan and India, there has been both military and insurgent conflict in Kashmir since independence in 1947. On my visit, there was a strict curfew as soon as darkness fell and the armed resistance to Indian rule, then a year into its new phase of violence, had given the place the distinct air of a war zone.
Yet the scene out at Dal Lake, in the houseboat my Greek girlfriend and I had arranged to stay on, was comfortingly peaceful. Dazzling kingfishers flitted and dived for food between the expanses of waterlilies, while we sipped tea and admired the stunning mountain scenery on all sides. It was only when we took a shikara ride to the other side of the lake that we were brought back to reality by the crackling of gunfire behind the majestic Hazratbal mosque.
Dal Lake © MOLPIX/Shutterstock
Nearly twenty years later, when I returned to cover Kashmir for the Rough Guide to India – having decided the situation was stable and safe enough to warrant its inclusion – there was undoubtedly a totally different feel about the place. This time I entered the area from Ladakh in the east, across the gruelling and barren Zoji-la pass.
Once again the vivid green patchwork of the Vale of Kashmir was a feast for tired eyes. On this occasion I found Srinagar to be a hive of activity. The bazaars were fully operational, the usual subcontinental riot of spicy odours, bright colours and cacophonous cries. All in all, there was a much happier atmosphere among the hugely increased number of Indian tourists, as well as a resurgent trickle of foreign travellers.
The most important cultural sights were now open to visitors, so I was able to reach Hazratbal mosque by road and join the worshippers in its vast courtyard and simple but awe-inspiring interior, crowned by an elegant white marble dome. I also paid my respects at Jamia Masjid, in the heart of the old city, with its pagoda-shaped wooden minarets, exclusive to Kashmir, and the vibrant Sufi shrine of Makhdoom Sahib just to the north. Sufi places of worship, where a palpable sense of the mystical pervades the air, along with frequent outbursts of song, are always a joy. The only place where I encountered any hostility was outside the permanently locked Rozabal mosque, the purported location of the tomb of Jesus, according to the myth that he lived to a ripe old age and died in Kashmir. Here an angry, young self-appointed watchman swiftly persuaded me to move on.
Mughal bridge, Dal Lake © Darkydoors/Shutterstock
This time I was also able to make a couple of forays beyond Srinagar. My Kashmiri friend Manzoor, a shop owner in the southern state of Tamil Nadu whom I had known for many years, took me on a trip up to Gulmarg, a ski centre during winter and playground for pony-riding and even zorbing in the summer months. Far more impressive is Pahalgam, around 100km east of Srinagar, whose wonderful location on the banks of the rushing Lidder River makes it an ideal base for treks of varying lengths, best done in the company of an experienced guide.
Back in Srinagar, Dal Lake remains a scene of sublime tranquility, of course. I took up residence Manzoor’s family hotel, Chachoo Palace, a small rickety wooden structure with a delightful lawn bordering the lake. Once more, before a tasty meal of the rich local wazwan cuisine, I found myself sipping tea and watching a kingfisher darting for food beneath the placid green surface of the lake. It was as if those twenty years had melted away.
NEED TO KNOW
Transport Srinagar has a domestic airport with direct flights from Delhi, Mumbai, Jammu and Leh. It is also accessible by bus or shared jeep from Jammu (8–12hr) and Leh (14hr–2 days). Travel within Kashmir can be done by bus, minibus, jeep, taxi or trekking.
Accommodation Staying at Chachoo Palace, on the shores of Dal Lake, is the fraction of the cost of a houseboat, and makes a good initial base for scouting out the best-priced boat. Houseboats vary enormously in price and services offered: be sure to consider the quality of accommodation, number of meals and refreshments included and whether there are free transfers to and from the shore before parting with your cash.
Explore more of India with the Rough Guide to India.
Top image: Dal Lake © wong yu liang/Shutterstock