Toward the end of a week in Kashmir, as we wound our way downhill from a hike, we paused behind hundreds of sheep crossing a bridge to get home. From the other side, half-a-dozen soldiers began squeezing past as they, too, tried to reach makeshift homes up in the hills. Picture dark, moustachioed men with rifles sidestepping fluffy balls of bleating and defecating mammals. It gives you just a taste of the enchanting, embattled feeling of this place.
The brochures call it “Paradise on Earth”. My social studies books termed it “disputed territory”. In mid-May, itching for a cheap, quick and “cool” holiday—both in temperature and the tales to tell on our return—we booked five days in Kashmir.
The first goal was attained, with degrees in the 20s most days. For the latter, well, you be the judge…
My husband, younger brother from Chicago, daughter and I arrived at Butt’s Clermont Houseboats in Srinagar on a Monday afternoon. We knew little of the legendary proprietor, Gulam Butt, and were wondering just where we were heading when the driver passed the dozens of houseboats anchored to the bottom of the polluted, yet picturesque, Dal Lake—and kept going. We slowed down near a dome we would later discover houses a single hair of the Prophet Mohammed, and turned into a driveway to a waiting Butt. That’s how he introduced himself as he pumped our hands heartily, saying “Helloji, welcome welcome welcome”, in a style that was part game show host, part uncleji, part authentic, hospitable Kashmiri.
After leading us through a room of pictures and gushing letters from actors to ambassadors, Butt led us to our houseboat—creaky wood planks for a floor, elaborate carvings as ceiling. The three-bedroom dwelling boasted Kashmiri rugs, furniture and curtains—and Victorian-style place settings, complete with April Cornell cloth napkins.
Butt sunk into an embroidered couch and took pleasure in our positive reactions. He made a big show of leafing through all the good press he has received, including mentions in National Geographicand Michael Palin’s book on the Himalayas. Then out came two tattered guestbooks that surprisingly held some of our friends’ names and scrawls. Butt called out for Sultan, the young man who would tend to our every whim. In a flash, a tray appeared —and Butt disappeared.
We dipped almond cookies and cake into our first cups of kahwa, signature Kashmiri tea, milkless but full of flavour from cardamom, cinnamon and almonds. Afterward, we headed onto the lake for a shikara ride.
I wish I could tell you I spent my time gazing into my husband’s eyes, but our captain’s were much nicer. A computer science student at Gandhi Memorial College, he dreamed of coming to Delhi. His father—our guide for the coming days—did not give him money, so the son rowed tourists like us to make some.
Our first taste of the cloudy answers surrounding this land came as my brother asked who the rower favoured in cricket. Simplistic, yes, but Kashmiris dependent on tourists have great business sense: “I prefer football.”
As we rowed back, a collective cry came from the other end of the lake. From one shikara to another, the news eventually reached us: Two villagers had just been swept away in a drain—and drowned.
Nearby, a fisherman heard the evening call to prayer from a facing mosque and began going through the motions on his boat, which rocked not at all as he prayed.
The next day, similar sounds of morning prayer woke us. After a breakfast of porridge and pancakes, omelettes and toast, fresh mangoes and more kahwa, we jumped into the car (the cut-off time was 8.15am; any later and we’d be tailing the Army convoy) to make the two-hour journey to Sonamarg, a meadow of gold in the Sindh valley.
We arrived early enough to have our pick of ponies. I likened the steep climb on horseback towards Thajiwas glacier, over rushing streams and paths of jagged stone, to riding a motorcycle through the mountains of Phuket, Thailand. Scary, thrilling, experiential—and, really, the only way to travel.
Sonamarg, I knew as I looked down and around and up, would forever rank among my favourite places on earth.
At the glacier, we sledded and threw snowballs. We took in some of the most breathtaking views of valleys, trees and snow peaks.
“Switzerland,” our guide Lassa said. No need for comparison, I thought silently, it’s beautiful enough on its own.
On Wednesday, we attempted to take in as much of Srinagar as possible. We stopped at Mughal Gardens and drove through the old city. I talked to Lassa about Kashmir, its history and future. He had plenty of information and factoids on the former, no answers on the latter.
After a lunch of barbecue chicken skewers, we headed for Gulmarg. Its beauty was different from the greener landscape of Sonamarg. Emperor Jehangir’s favourite haunt felt woodsier, rockier, sportier—more populated. For that reason, I grew annoyed.
We stayed at Hotel Hilltop, which can best be described as in transition. As we ate a mediocre lunch and overheard Hinglish from tables nearby, we decided to skip traditional Gulmarg.
Escape, again, came on a horse. Since dusk was falling, most tourists were emerging from the mountains, not heading into them. And so we found serenity over running brooks, across grassy patches of pasture, and once again sledding down snow banks. We crossed from one hill to another via a snow bridge, my New Balance sneakers not living up to their name as I slid all the way.
The next day, we toured the Maharaja’s Palace and Baba Reshi, a mosque and shrine to a Muslim saint. Our fear of tourists took us about 15km away to Drung, a quiet, just-opened section of the valley, and we hiked up to ancient temple ruins. This was where the sheep and the Army had their showdown.
On our last night, after purchasing shawls and saris, I stopped at the public call office to phone home, when I saw a hotel worker slumped and sobbing. He heaved and paced.
“His baby has just died,” another man said. “She was just two.”
The grieving father hailed from an area with a 7pm curfew. He could only join his wife after sunrise. “That makes it worse,” said the man translating the scene. Nodding my head, I wiped my eyes.
To me, Kashmir didn’t offer escape as much as perspective, not rest as much as reflection. Amid a land and people so driven by conflict, I was grateful for the sweeping generosity of its beauty to momentarily take us away. The hills, the snow, the streams, the valley, the humanity and humility did feel like paradise—if only for a little while.
How to go:
Flights:All major airlines, both full-service and budget, fly to Srinagar from Delhi. Ex-Delhi roundtrip fares range from Rs6,000 to Rs10,000. Ex-Mumbai roundtrip fares, with a connecting flight from Delhi, will be around Rs15,000 to Rs19,000. Carry appropriate travel documents and plenty of patience. Foreigners will be asked to register.
Where to stay:
In Srinagar, we stayed at Butt’s Clermont Houseboats in Hazratbal on the northeast end of Dal Lake. The three- bedroom houseboat, booked through our travel agent, was about Rs7,000 per night after taxes. (Srinagar: 094190 56761; Delhi: 011 2625 5383). We also heard good things about Hotel Dar es Salam (0194 242 7803), where deluxe double rooms are about Rs4,500 per night. At the five-star Grand Palace (0194 247 0101), rooms start from Rs6,800. In Sonamarg, J&KTDC’s Huts and Tourist Bungalows’ tariff is Rs1,400 for two-bedroom huts. In Gulmarg, we stayed at the Hotel Hilltop for about Rs7,000 per night for a triple deluxe room, but heard better things about Hotel Highland Park (01954 254 430; Mumbai office: 022 2404 2211).
Where to eat:
While at Butt’s, be sure to ask for the ‘kahwa’, doughnuts, chicken curry, rista and barbecue chicken, cooked on your deck. At the Hilltop in Gulmarg and the Hotel Sonamarg, we had amazing ‘seekh kebabs’.
What to do:
In Srinagar, take the shikara ride at sunset across Dal Lake. If you’re an early bird, take it to the floating flower and vegetable market before dawn. Try to plan your trip to include a Friday, so you can see the activity and bustling markets throughout the old city; our favourite was the area around Jama Masjid. Women, remember to pack a dupatta to cover your heads. The city also has three main Mughal Gardens you can tour (closed on Fridays), each with distinctive designs and charms. To avoid the crowds in Gulmarg, hire a taxi and take the 35-minute winding drive toward Drung; with a few other sites thrown in, the ride costs Rs800. In Sonamarg, you will need to hire a pony or horse for Rs500 to get to the glaciers.
Army officers are posted every few hundred yards and at the entry to all major markets and tourist sites. We were stopped about a dozen times and asked where we were from and where we were going. Indians should have no problems. Once, our car was seized by local police for not carrying proper tags, but we were released after half an hour.