Travel

In search of lasting tranquility in Kashmir

A DENSE mist lifted, revealing mountains and water suffused with the magic of early morning light.

Framed by the carved porch of my houseboat, the world of Dal Lake looked utterly serene.

Suddenly the stillness was broken by an iridescent flash descending into the water, leaving just a hint of a ripple.

A small kingfisher surfaced. It flew to the side of the houseboat where it perched, a taut and tiny assembly of turquoise and orange, scrutinising the water.

Then, abruptly, it darted into the lake again. The extraordinary beauty and that burst of aggressive energy were, I felt, entirely symptomatic of the haunting nature of the Kashmir Valley.

For a good 20 years, this fabled land in north-west India has been as notable for its tragic problems as its dreamily picturesque qualities.

However, in November, the Foreign Office eased its warning against travel to parts of the region.

Over the previous 12 months, outbreaks of unrest in the state of Jammu and Kashmir had diminished significantly.

So, the advice against visiting the cities of Srinagar and Jammu was lifted, along with the caution against road trips between these two places.

Road blocks have since been removed and the presence of the Indian military has been greatly reduced.

With the summer tourist season under way, the hope is that other areas in the state will also be considered safe by foreign governments.

Yet even given the remaining restrictions, Kashmir is excelling as one of the most exquisitely exotic destinations for 2013, with visitor numbers soaring in hotspots such as Srinagar, where the 25,000 rooms available are only meeting a quarter of demand.

As I arrived, the mood was palpably optimistic.

The region known as the Kashmir Valley is an area about the size of Yorkshire. It's a "valley", in that it is centred on the Jhelum River as it carves a dramatic course through the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas.

More or less in the middle, the city of Srinagar and its surroundings have been a staggeringly beautiful holiday resort since at least the times of the great Mughal emperors in the 16th and 17th centuries.

With elephant-borne harems and great trails of attendants, they would arrive here from the heat of Agra and Delhi, enjoying the lush landscape and creating sublime gardens, several of which are still thriving today.

Then came the British, also trying to escape scorching temperatures elsewhere in India.

The local maharaja would not allow them to buy land and build houses, so they adapted traditional doonga boats instead.

Complete with interiors of intricately carved deodar wood (a type of cedar), Kashmiri houseboats became an intrinsic part of a uniquely glamorous playground.

And that was the Kashmir I first knew - a very long time ago. In the 1960s my family lived in Chanakyapuri, the diplomatic enclave of New Delhi.

One day, we packed up our Austin 1800 - my parents in the front, three small children in the back - and set off for Kashmir, 875km (540 miles) north-west.

We had a terrible journey lasting days and involving punctures, mechanical failure, floods and other near disasters. Just before reaching the Kashmir Valley, our final challenge was a dauntingly long tunnel in which there was a danger our car would break down again.

We emerged from the Banihal Tunnel (Bunny Hole to us kids) to find ourselves suddenly in what seemed a land of milk and honey, with dazzlingly green pastures grazed by bucolic-looking cows and sheep.

For two weeks, home was a glorious houseboat on Nagin Lake just beyond central Srinagar.

The charming owners were our hosts, taking us (when little legs would allow) walking, pony trekking, fishing; cooking us meals gently infused with Kashmiri saffron and other spices; brewing us deliciously aromatic kahwa, Kashmiri-style green tea flavoured with cardamom and cinnamon. It was one of the most halcyon holidays of my childhood.

And I was wonderfully surprised to find many vestiges of that Kashmir on my recent return.

I spent the first couple of days almost entirely on water. Srinagar's two lakes, Dal and Nagin, are both peppered with houseboats, at the moment mainly catering for the domestic market, which has seen a surge in the past few years.

However, Butt's Clermont Houseboats is a slight world apart on the western side of Dal Lake. Set in its own exclusive haven just off Nasim Bagh (literally "Garden of Bliss" - and one of the earliest such Mughal creations), this collection of five elegant boats has attracted celebrity guests from the late George Harrison to US Senator John McCain (in 2011).

It was entrancing to slip back into the sort of lake life I'd enjoyed as a child. You explore the waterworld in shikaras, little gondola-like boats whose heart-shaped paddles are modelled on the bulbs of the lotus flowers that grow abundantly here.

You get up remarkably early to the echoing call of the muezzin and visit the floating vegetable market held at dawn, watching long-tailed boats filled with onions, aubergines, tomatoes and more, in a sort of gentle dodgems of trading.

And, of course, you spend hours simply sitting on the porch of your houseboat gazing at the views and the antics of kingfishers and cormorants.

For all the romance of houseboat living, however, there are greater comforts on land. I moved on from Butt's Clermont to the new Vivanta by Taj hotel, which offers a staggering panorama over Dal Lake from its hilltop vantage point on the eastern fringes of Srinagar.

This state-of-the-art property opened in 2011 with 82 spacious bedrooms, an excellent restaurant with ample terrace and a beautifully sited pool.

There is a host of trips to make from here. I spent a day taking in Mughal sights: the tranquil gardens of Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh - with gorgeous fountains and terraces; the ruins of Pari Mahal, a 17th-century palace and observatory built in the Zabarwan Hills just outside the city. I also headed up to the spectacular, pine-clad hill station of Gulmarg which offers summer hiking and pony trekking - and skiing in winter.

Back in Srinagar I enjoyed an absorbing morning tour around the venerably tumble-down city. My guide was a designer, Renuka Savasere, who has been documenting the heritage of pashmina weaving.

As we visited mosques and browsed markets, she explained how craftmanship is inherent in Kashmiri culture. Kashmir was on the Silk Road and trading also appears to be in its very DNA.

Everyone, it seems, has a shop: in town, by the water, on the water in a boat.

The myriad shopping opportunities and gorgeous goods - soft, embroidered leatherware, never-ending varieties of fine woollen fabrics, beautiful bowls and boxes - were familiar from my childhood.

The quirky names, too. Suffering Moses was our favourite shop in the 1960s. Set on The Bund in central Srinagar, it is still producing exquisite hand-painted papier mâché goods today.

The lakes are still plied by Mr Wonderful, a flower merchant whose boat is emblazoned with the name. And then there's a Mr Delicious selling waterborne chocolates too.

I encountered them on Nagin Lake, on a quest to see if I could find the houseboat I had stayed on as a child.

That proved a wonderfully easy mission. I simply asked a shikara boatman if he knew a houseboat Monarch, and he took me straight there, across the lake.

The current Monarch is a gracious reincarnation of the vessel I had known; the owners are the same family and they gave me a touching welcome.

Would I return for lunch some time, they asked. So on my last day I did. We sat on the porch and, as I gazed at the beautiful outlook, I heard their story.

During the height of the militancy their business all but closed, during which time they were harrassed, as many locals were, both by activists and by the army, often brutally so.

So, like many Kashmiris, they packed up their pashminas and other fabrics and left, trading around India and as far afield as Thailand. They had been able to resume their houseboat business about six years ago.

Like everyone they knew, they just wanted peace. Enduring peace.

>>More Travel stories

Kashmir timeline

  • 1947 Partition of India. Majority-Muslim Kashmir is governed by a Hindu maharaja. No clear agreement as to whether the Kashmiri people want to join Pakistan or India. Armed tribesmen from Pakistan invade and Indian forces arrive to repel them.
  • 1949 After a UN-brokered ceasefire, part of the territory is ceded to Pakistan.
  • 1965 Second Indo-Pakistan war over Kashmir breaks out in April and ends in September that year.
  • 1972 Shimla Agreement - India and Pakistan agree to respect the "Line of Control" dividing Kashmir, and to work towards a peaceful solution to their dispute.
  • 1989 Backed by Pakistan, armed uprising against Indian rule breaks out in the Kashmir Valley.
  • 1990S Insurgency continues.
  • 2000s More unrest by militants. General improvement in relations between India and Pakistan. Increasingly civilians in the Kashmir Valley simply want peace and to resume normal lives.

Topics:  asia india opinion travel



Brisbane's arts and culture events centre stage

A CITY drenched in culture, Brisbane is again flaunting an arts and culture events calendar fit for a queen.

Homewares stores to fulfil your Instagram dreams

No Caption

You too can become an Insta-star with these fab stores.

Date nights under $50

Nothing is more romantic than a picnic with a cracking view.

NOT every date has to cost you a bomb.

Top 10 Brisbane experiences to cross off your bucket list

Do yourself a favour and get amongst the food truck scene. Eat Street is a great place to start.

A GOOD bucket list doesn’t have to span continents or cost millions.

Six mega sporting events you need to be at this year

Don't miss all the action trackside this season.

IF THERE is one thing Brisbane does damn well, it’s play host.

Six reasons to get to Brisbane this Autumn

The Brisbane Powerhouse has free comedy on Friday nights.

AUTUMN has to be up there with one of the best seasons of the year.

The best things to do in Brisbane are FREE. Yes, FREE

Mt Coot-tha is a seriously gorgeous way to start your day.

HEADING to the big smoke doesn’t have to come with a big price tag.

Bulge in Gladstone man's pants tips off police

Police attending incident at the Young Australian Hotel. 
Photo Luka Kauzlaric / The Observer

He was caught multiple times with a suspicious bulge in his pants.

O'Dowd defends government's $6.2 billion bank levy

CLASH OF KENS: Ken O'Dowd says Ken Henry's comments were motivated by self-interest.

Clash of the Kens as Flynn MP supports bank levy.

Baffle Creek group encouraging innovation

It's hoped the new group will help the Baffle Creek community.

Baffle Creek Community Inc a new plan for town

Local Partners

Better phone service for Gladstone's regional towns

Telstra: "This technology is delivering big benefits to these rural and regional communities”


Win a $1000

GROCERY GIFT CARD!
Learn More

What to expect at Birds of Tokyo's Ipswich gig

The band will perform at the Racehorse Hotel on Friday.

BAND member Glen Sarangapany talks music, pub grub and doing shoeys

What public holidays are left in 2017

Ipswich residents will get the day off tomorrow for the show.

IPSWICH residents will get tomorrow off for the show

Caitlyn comes home to launch debut album

Gympie's Caitlyn Shadbolt will launch here debut album Songs On My Sleeve at an exclusive all-ages concert in Gympie on Friday, May 26.

Win tickets to Caitlyn's album launch

Bay to star in Hollywood shark thriller ‘Cage Dive’

A great white thriller that had scenes filmed on the Fraser Coast has been picked up by a major US movie studio.

Celebrity sex tapes: Where does all that money go?

Basically, did Paris and Kim earn fortunes from their videos?

Cher, 71, and Celine Dion wow world at Billboard Awards

“I’m 71 yesterday and I can do a five-minute plank, OK.”

Judah's return to The Voice stage is a knockout

Judah Kelly performs during his knockout round on The Voice.

QUEENSLAND singer nails Adele hit.

Wentworth star Daniielle Alexis: "I was born a boy"

Wentworth star Daniielle Alexis has revealed she was born a boy

Dwayne Johnson, Tom Hanks announce White House bid on SNL

Dwayne Johnson is “officially” running for president in 2020

What to expect at Birds of Tokyo's Ipswich gig

The band will perform at the Racehorse Hotel on Friday.

BAND member Glen Sarangapany talks music, pub grub and doing shoeys

One of Maryborough's most historic homes is still for sale

FULL OF HISTORY: Trisha Moulds is owner of the historic Tinana state known as Rosehill. The beautiful home is currently for sale.

It has been the scene of both joy and tragedies over the years.

New tool reveals which areas are most 'vulnerable' for renters

An aerial shot of Agnes Water main beach. According to new information, people renting in the region are more vulnerable than those in Gladstone suburbs.

Big differences between living in Gladstone and outer areas

The face of the Sunshine Coast's overpriced rental crisis

Alyx Wilson had to rent a $385 unit in Currimundi because the market was too competitive for cheaper rental housing. She is now renting a room from friends who own a house in Currimundi, and says its much more affordable.

Young people feel the strain in competitive, expensive rental market

Ready to SELL your property?

Post Your Ad Here!