Long before KASHMIR was immortalized in the eponymous Led Zeppelin song it had already achieved legendary status with Western travellers, from officers of the British Raj to the first hippie overlanders in the 1960s. No stint in the Subcontinent was complete without an idyllic sojourn on the famous houseboats of the capital Srinagar, which is at the heart of the idyllic Kashmir Valley.
By the end of the 1980s, the tourist business was booming alongside agriculture, and had in fact overtaken it as the region’s main source of income. This all came to an almost overnight halt with the onset of the conflict in 1989. Only in recent years has the situation stabilized enough to see the number of visitors swell to more than a trickle, though it’s still well below the 1980s zenith and domestic tourists continue to greatly outnumber foreigners. Most people content themselves with a visit to Srinagar, although the towns of Gulmarg and Pahalgam, both in prime trekking territory, are regarded as being safe these days, as is the lovely town of Sonamarg on the Kargil road. Nevertheless, before setting off for Kashmir, it is wise to check on the current security situation.
There could hardly be a greater contrast than that between the hot and dusty plains around Jammu and the cool green belt of the Kashmir Valley. Apart from the geographical divide, separated as they are by a rise in altitude of more than 1000m, there are huge cultural and religious differences. While the whole area around Jammu is predominantly Hindu, the Kashmir Valley and its capital, Srinagar, are distinctly Muslim, hence the notorious sectarian problems. The initial impression of the Vale of Kashmir, whether you approach it via the Jawahar Tunnel, which cuts through the mountains from Jammu in the south, or via the Zoji La pass from Kargil to the east, remains one of a lush rural paradise guarded by the grandeur of the surrounding peaks, the mighty Pir Pinjal range snow-capped except in the very height of summer. Vivid green fields of corn and wheat form a patchwork quilt with fruit orchards and groves of nut trees, principally walnut and almond. These are most often lined with towering poplars and willows, hence the preponderance, on the approach to the capital, of shops selling high-quality cricket bats. Heavy industry has yet to appear in the valley.