I must have planned over a hundred journeys for travellers to Kashmir, but it had been over three years since I personally experienced what is popularly known as Paradise on Earth. Inspired by my travellers stories and all their beautiful photographs, I decided to embark on a 10 day journey through Kashmir with a single objective in mind, the one that follows me on all my travels: To discover and share India's best kept secrets in terms of stays and local experiences.
I arrived in Srinagar on a sunny winter afternoon. As the locals would tell me later, I brought sunshine with me as it had been raining and snowing in Srinagar for the past week. Soon after arriving there, my memories from my last trip to Kashmir came back to mind. The sight of familiar roads, men clad in phirans and all the Chinar trees, made for a comforting welcome.
Srinagar is one of the most touristy places in India, no doubt. So the idea of finding secrets in this tourist hub got me all excited from the moment I landed. While I kept the journey plan completely open and spontaneous, I was sure of some of the things I definitely wanted to explore in Srinagar - Staying on a houseboat, Exploring the Old parts of town, Finding new cafes and restaurants run by locals and Discovering some charming stays.
ROYALTY ON A HOUSEBOAT
As we arrived at the lake shore, Yusuf, our shikara man greeted us and off we went on his charming boat towards our home for the next three days - a royal houseboat anchored on the banks of Nigeen lake. My view was a serene lake with a backdrop of snow covered peaks, exactly what I had imagined before I came to Kashmir.
The houseboat was beautifully designed with stunning Kashmiri kaalins (carpets) and wooden ceilings, locally referred to as Khatambandh - a simple, yet intricate combination of geometric wood pieces. Everything about the boat was royal - from the decor to the view to the service.
We soon learned that the boat has been home to many a celebrities including Mick Jagger and Michael Jackson and the boat owner proudly showed us a photograph of his grandfather and Jagger on the same boat from the 80's, all adding to making us feel like true royalty.
Our boat was centrally heated, which was essential considering it was 5 degrees outside and our boat captain named Javed made sure he kept it running at all times. He could tell by our shivers that we were going to need it.
He did everything on the boat from keeping it clean to making sure our meals were served on time and our beds were warmed up with hot water bottles at night. He seemed like a very happy man, completely disconnected from the politics of the valley and happy to be amidst beautiful views and friendly travellers.
His smile was infectious and it did not disappear even for a single moment in the three days we spent on the boat.
We spent our days in Srinagar exploring the local markets and new cafes and restaurants in town. I was surprised to see how many cool cafes have opened up here. Most of them are owned by young Kashmiris who have returned to Srinagar after studying and living abroad. It's lovely to see that they have come back here and setup such nice hang out spots in the city.
Another beautiful experience was wandering through the narrow lanes of Old Srinagar. A few locals had warned us about this part of town as it's most prone to protests, usually on Fridays, but it wasn't a Friday and we were up for the adventure! My trusted driver Shoukat, who I've been working with for the last few years, took us around the Old City, dropping us off to explore the narrow lanes, old houses and crowded markets on our own by foot. He would be waiting to pick us at the end of our walks at pre-decided meeting points, which made us feel really safe.
This is the part of my work I enjoy the most - finding unique, off the beaten track places to stay. Kashmir, without much surprise, is home to many a stunning properties. Here's a snippet of a few of the charming stays I discovered during my time in Srinagar. To find more details on these properties and others in Kashmir, hop onto the KASHMIR PAGE.
After our urban explorations we decided to make our way to the snowy slopes of Gulmarg to spend a few days amidst stunning landscapes and freezing, below zero temperatures. The drive from Srinagar to Gulmarg is beautiful. Once you're out of the city, the path is studded with walnut, apple and cherry orchards which were not in bloom at this time of the year, but I can only imagine what it would look like in May and June when everything in Kashmir is blooming. The town right before Gulmarg is called Tanmarg and once we crossed that, there was four to five feet of snow on both sides of the road, making our journey up to slopes stunning!
The biggest concern for most travellers going to Kashmir is safety, however my time in Kashmir reinforced my belief that tourists are absolutely safe there. There are a few things to keep in mind -
1. If you're exploring Srinagar on a Friday, avoid wandering through Old Srinagar, as that is the area most susceptible to violence. It occurs in the form of protests and stone pelting, but please remember that this is only restricted to a few streets of Old Srinagar, the rest of the city remains unaffected. So roam freely, but in the new parts of town like Raj Bagh, Dal Lake, Nigeen Lake, etc.
2. One of the areas that sees a lot of tension is Anantnag, which lies on the highway connecting Srinagar and Pahalgam. Ensure that you have a good, local driver with you on this journey to ensure that if protests are going on in Anantnag, he can safely re-route you through areas that are safe. I work closely with a group of drivers that are excellent navigators through Kashmir, so get in touch with me to plan a smooth, hassle free journey :)
2. GETTING AROUND
I highly recommend hiring a reliable driver for the entire journey who in addition to taking you around, will be your local guardian to ensure all is safe and smooth during your journey. If you're planning to head out of Srinagar to Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg, keep the car and driver with you in case of any emergencies.
The high numbers of touts and the strength of the local transport unions can be a nuisance while travelling through Kashmir. For example, if you hire a car from Srinagar to Gulmarg, that car is restricted to the hotel where you're staying and cannot take you for local sight-seeing or activities within Gulmarg. For that, you need to do it by foot, or hire a local vehicle from there. The same rule applies to Pahalgam. While this can be quite annoying, there's no way around it. You have to be patient and remember that every place has its ways :)
3. WHERE TO STAY
While Srinagar has a plethora of unique homestays, guest houses and luxury hotels to choose from, the other parts of Kashmir don't offer a wide variety of good, boutique stays. It's either old luxury hotels that are way too overpriced in season time, or very local guest houses. But not to worry, because that's what I do - find unique, hidden stay options wherever I can :) I have found and curated a list of boutique stays in Srinagar, Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg that are in the range of Rs. 3,000 - Rs. 10,000 per night and offer an excellent stay and overall experience.
Kashmir definitely blew my mind and I would highly recommend you experience it too! To plan a beautiful journey to Paradise on Earth, get in touch with me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Visit the KASHMIR PAGE for more ideas.