I muttered harshly to myself as a few friends and I walked half asleep out of the hotel into Srinagar’s cool air at 5am. The shikara was waiting at the pier when we reached, ready to take us to the floating market on Dal Lake. As we glided on the lake, the silence was broken only by the rhythmic sound of the wooden oars beating water, the soft pinks and purples of dawn slowly giving way to brighter yellows and oranges.

The floating market on Dal Lake is not just about commerce but also a social occasion for locals.
The floating market on Dal Lake is not just about commerce but also a social occasion for locals.

After nearly an hour of rowing through narrow channels lined by souvenir shops, we finally arrived at the market. A couple dozen boats were already doing brisk business, selling fresh produce grown right on those wetlands. Cucumbers and turnips, spinach and local greens. Everyone seemed to know everyone else and all the haggling seemed to take place with a sense of familiarity and fondness.

On the pier later, our friendly boatmen treated us to noon chai (salted tea), and we stood by the edge of the lake, savouring the unusual taste of the tea and looking out for cerulean kingfishers swooping in and out of the water. Back at our homestay, Almond Villa, opposite the lake, we hurried over breakfast, eager to get out and explore some more.

Our day was dedicated to Srinagar’s famous Mughal gardens: Pari Mahal overlooking the city, Nishat Bagh with its layered terraces and views of the Dal lake and the Pir Panjal mountain range, and, finally, the most exquisite of them all, Shalimar Bagh. The Mughal gardens were a riot of yellows, oranges and pinks, with local families picnicking under tall Ashoka trees, the gurgling water fountains and chirping bird call louder than the noise of children playing.

Shalimar Bagh is considered the most beautiful of Srinagar’s Mughal Gardens.
Shalimar Bagh is considered the most beautiful of Srinagar’s Mughal Gardens.

Later that evening, we moved across town to what would be our home for the next couple of days: a houseboat. It was a thing of beauty, anchored in a peaceful corner of Nigeen lake, a complete contrast to the crowds and chaos of the more famous Dal. It came with multiple living and sleeping spaces, extravagant wooden carvings and a square patch of garden on a small island alongside.

We spent that evening watching dusk fall around us, the excursions of the day a distant memory in front of the utter stillness here. When we stepped on to the front deck the next morning, we were greeted by the sight of boats filled with colourful flowers and kitschy trinkets, vendors climbing up our houseboat in the hope of enticing us to buy these as souvenirs.

It was tough to refuse them all but we finally managed to get into small shikaras to be taken ashore. It was time to head to the narrow lanes of old Srinagar. First stop, the sombre Jamia Masjid with the ruins of Akbar’s Fort high up on a hill in backdrop.

A view of Jamia Masjid, with the ruins of Akbar Fort in the background.
A view of Jamia Masjid, with the ruins of Akbar Fort in the background.

And then a visit to the imposing Shah-e-Hamdan mosque, also known as Khanqah Masjid, where a hundred pigeons fluttered at the sound of our voices. Dedicated to a 14th century Sufi saint, this wooden mosque with its colourful exteriors is easily one of Srinagar’s most beautiful and impressive spaces.

Most travellers use Srinagar as a short stopover before heading off to more enticing places like Pahalgam and Gulmarg. I’m glad we decided to spend an entire long weekend here—the city is more than just a pit stop.

Weekend Vacations offers suggestions on getaways that allow for short breaks from metros. The author tweets at @charukesi. Write to us at businessoflife@livemint.com

*****

Weekend vacation: Srinagar

Distance (Delhi to Srinagar): 825km

Time: 1 hour by flight

Top tip: Sample authentic Kashmiri meals or kashur khyon at Ahdoos or Mughal Durbar on Shervani road.

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