How often does your travel itinerary boast of a destination where towering mountains dwarf the world; your lodging is a bobbing rudimentary boathouse curtained by trees; and the nearest restaurant is the adjoining boat that supplies customized menu options to its guests for a nominal fee? Welcome to Kashmir! This enchanting tourist destination is nestled in the lap of the stunning Himalayan valley with international neighbours like China and Pakistan.
The simplicity of this breathtakingly beautiful land is so endearing that you wonder if you should pluck cashew nuts, apples or walnuts hanging casually from trees during a bus ride en route to a popular destination, or stop at a local shop selling them in bulk for prices depending solely on your bargaining skills.
The boat ride on colorful Shikaras in the scenic Dal Lake offers its own delightful choices: lie back and soak up the surreal surroundings of striking boats passing by leisurely, or engage in animated negotiations with boat-bound retailers of jewelry, intricately embroidered fabric, or mobile photographers when they row toward your boat with hopes of getting your business. If you decide to hire the photographer, he will ask you to step into his boat, loan you the traditional Kashmiri attire at no extra cost, and supply props like a basket of flowers, a metal water pot and slip-on artificial jewelry for women to get the perfect shots. The photos are developed and delivered to your boat at a pre-determined fee before your boat ride ends.
If you’re feeling tempted for a snack without the guilt of carbs after the craving is satiated, smile or wave at a watermelon vendor who will take cue and row his boat close to yours to sell juicy red slices of freshly cut melons or chopped assortment of seasonal fruits like guavas, bananas, apples, grapes and oranges, sprinkled with chaat masala made of dried mango powder, roasted ground cumin, dried mint, cayenne pepper and sea salt, and served in unassuming paper plates with disposable plastic cutlery.
Had enough of boat rides? Hop on to a tourist bus headed to the hill station of Gulmarg, literally meaning the meadow of flowers. Depending on the season you are traveling in, take a gondola to hit the steep snow-laden slopes for a never-before skiing experience, or savor the virgin terrain by hiring a pony to get up close to glaciers.
Pahalgam is another paradise for trekkers, golfers, photographers and film-makers. Once a humble shepherd’s village, this destination offers secretly tucked landscapes of cool white waters rumbling past boulders and meandering into lush groves. Splash your feet to rejuvenate yourself with this fresh water rush, or hire a pony to explore hidden gems of lush green open fields, treacherous views, and vantage points for photography which will be envied and awed over by most avid travelers. A heart wrenching story might not be far in the form of a young underprivileged child, local of the mountains, whose parents eke out a living in the shadow of the unforgiving Himalayan winter, asking you to pose with an adorable lamb, in exchange for a few rupees of your charity.
And this is only the tip of the iceberg. You have yet to marvel in the splendor of terraced Mughal gardens of Shalimar Bagh and Nishat Bagh, located on the bank of Dal Lake. These royal gardens command spectacular views of mountains and lake, flower beds and manicured lawns from cascading terraces lined with avenues of local Chinar trees. Don’t forget to climb the stairs of the fantastical Pari Mahal, translated as The Fairies’ Abode, to marvel at the view of Srinagar from this high rustic monument built during Mughal emperor Shah Jahan’s reign.
You depart this abundance of nature with a feeling of leaving behind a world undisturbed by modern technology and bustle, even though the impending foreboding never leaves your side when you spot armed military personnel in large numbers guarding this angelic beauty — a constant reminder of the many thorns that adorn a rose. Although largely safe for visiting tourists, locals will bring you up-to-date with the latest skirmishes between neighboring Pakistan for political reasons. Always trust your judgement and consult your government’s advisory before booking your trip.