The Mughal Emperor Jehangeer is said to have once written about Kashmir: Agar firdaus bar rue zamin ast hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast! ("If there be paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here!"). He was writing about Kashmir, a land divided between the northern half of the northern-most state of India, Jammu and Kashmir and the district of Kashmir in Pakistan. Torn by war, terrorism and violence since 1948, this beautiful valley has long been considered a dangerous place to go to, but tourism is slowly coming back to the valley as militancy, which began in the early 90s (as a means of protest against what some describe as forceful Indian occupation) has come down. The most famous places to visit in Kashmir are Srinagar, Pahalgam and Gulmarg. Other places include Sonamarg and Verinag. There are various trekking routes available across whole of Kashmir. Adventure sports in the form of water rafting and paragliding, among others, are available at various tourist locations. The Royal Springs' Golf course in the heart of Srinagar on the shores of the world famous Dal Lake is one of the most beautiful golf courses around. There is a small 18-hole golf course in Gulmarg.
The official state language is Urdu, though the most commonly spoken language in the Vale of Kashmir is Kashmiri (or Kashur). The younger generation speaks English quite well. Most of the sign-boards and directions are written in English. English is one of the official languages of the government apart from Kashmiri, Urdu, Gojri and Dogri. Hindi is also widely spoken across Kashmir.
The nearest railway station is at Jammu. The rest of India is connected by rail with Jammu; however the construction of a rail link from Jammu to Srinagar is completed and tested but for public it will be started later .
From Jammu, various places in Kashmir are 6-8 hours by road. You can also hire a taxi or take a bus from New Delhi. The travel time by road is about 20 hours from New Delhi. The landscape tends to get very interesting from Jammu and it is mainly because of this reason travellers prefer the road trip (especially from Jammu). Please bear in mind though that the Jammu-Srinagar highway is extremely treacherous in the winters and, for most part of the winter is blocked by landslides. On the way from Jammu to valley do not forget to relish the famous rajmah chawal in Peerah and Pattisa (sweet made in ghee) in Kudd.
The best way to travel across the known destinations in Kashmir is to hire a taxi for about $US60 a day. If you want to visit high altitude lakes and mountaineering destinations you can hire a horse to carry your stuff up the mountains. The tourism department also provides guides, maps and equipment to mountaineers and trekkers.
Spring is the time when Kashmir bursts into a riot of colors and millions of flowers carpet the landscape.
"Badamvaer"- Kashmiri for "The garden of almond blossoms" lies on the foot end of the Hari Parbat Fort. This fort, also called "Koh-i-Maran" or "Faseel-e-Akbari" was founded by Mughal emperor Akbar in 1597. It was in 1876 the Dogra monarch Ranbir Singh got the entire garden planted with almond trees. A favourite place among locals on the occasions of fairs and festivities till the mid 70s', the popularity of this garden began to decline considerably as other means of entertainment came into existence. Caught in the vagaries of time, "badamvaer" had lost itself and its' cultural charm to public greed and political unrest. It has now been restored in 2007 and although today it is just a part of what used to be "Bagh-e-Wariskhan" but nevertheless it is a sight that is unmistakably paradise! File:Srinagar, Kashmir-India.jpeg
The "Tulip Garden"-arguably the largest of its' kind in Asia is located just opposite the main Boulevard Road on the shores of the Dal Lake. Although work on the garden started in 2009, nevertheless, with each season it is expanding rapidly and is fast becoming a major tourist attraction in Spring. Angling in the many fresh water streams is an attraction in spring as well or if you missed out on Skiing in winter, you could go skiing in Gulmarg which offers excellent opportunities till late March.
Summer brings a lot of tourists to the valley, especially those from the Indian plains which experience unbearably hot temperatures during the summers.
Gulmarg being a perennial favourite can be visited. Gulmarg means 'the meadow of flowers' and is located 56 kilometres south-west of the city centre, Srinagar. The slopes of the Apharwat hills (of the Himalayas) at Gulmarg are one of the highest ski slopes in Asia.
Due to its' unique geographical location, Gulmarg gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the Himalayan region. This hill resort is served by a cable car that goes all the way to the Apharwat peak – boasted as the highest gondola in the world (13,400 feet). However, it is important to know that even though Gulmarg receives excellent quality snow, the infrastructure on ground is not comparable to famous European ski resorts like those in France or Austria. So, do take things with a pinch of salt if you hear a lot of superlatives from the locals.
"Pahalgam" or the village of Shepherds is a very popular resort ninety kilometers south of Srinagar. It has some magnificient plains (like Baisaran) where horse-riding can be indulged in. Again, some fantastic angler opportunities as well and a lot of trekking routes (including the one that goes to Amarnath, a hindu pilgrimage shrine deep in the himalayas)
Kokernag is a spring garden located in district Anantnag. It lies 80 kilometers south of Srinagar- (When you reach Khanabal Chowk from Srinagar on the National Highway the road straight ahead goes to Kokernag whereas if you just follow your lane, you're off to Pahalgam.) The main garden lies on foothills surrounded by lush pine trees and a beautiful garden. There is a stream almost as big as a river that flows at the far end of the garden. The spring from which the stream originates can be easily visited and water can actually be seen gushing out from at least three major sources. Legend has it that in olden days an old sage was sleeping at the precise spot and when local women, having failed in their search for drinking water reached the place where the sage was taking a nap they checked his bucket (hoping to find water)- instead a snake came out and transformed into a cockerel and began digging the earth and each time the cockerel burrowed his way, water gushed out from earth (much to the relief of the village damsels!) Interestingly, all of this happened while the sage was sleeping and by the time he woke up a lot of water was coming out of the once barren land. The folklore is had the sage not woken up from his siesta, the whole area would have been flooded! "Kokernag", in kashmiri means Cockerel and Snake.
Located 84 kilometers from the state capital Srinagar and situated at an altitude of 9567 feet, Sonamarg lies in the valley carved by River Sindh, surrounded by towering snow-capped mountains. Sonamarg literally means "Meadow Of Gold". The skiing season in Gulmarg, the world famous ski resort in Kashmir, lasts for about four months, but with the Thajiwas Glacier and the upper reaches of the Sonamarg valley covered with snow practically all through the year, skiers can thrill themselves for a longer period. Sonamarg has a certain "raw" unspoiled beauty about it. The mountains look tall and haughty and the vista whichever way looked at consists of meadows, imposing mountains and streams. Sonamarg is the gateway to Ladakh so if you're planning to go to Ladakh by road you'll be enthralled by its' charms.
The list of things to do is long, however this is the brief.
b) Nishat Garden: A beautiful garden with a lot of fountains, majestic Chinar trees and good views of the Dal Lake. c) Shalimar garden: The most famous of all the Mughal gardens. This garden has a lot of Chinar trees some of which are around 400 years old. This garden was developed by the famous Mughal emperor Jehangeer and was arguably his favourite. d) Harwan Garden: The last of the Mughal gardens further up from Shalimar. The good thing about visiting these gardens is that all of these gardens fall on the same route so you can practically visit all of them at your lesuire on the same trip.
"Betaab Valley", also in Pahalgam gets it's name from a hit Bollywood romantic movie that was almost entirely shot here.
Kashmiri handicrafts, shawls and carpets are world famous. Shahtoos or Ringshawl as it was known was exclusively made by hand in Kashmir and was worn by celebrities and high profile dignitaries. This shawl is so soft that it can pass through a ring! However, it has been banned by the Government after animal rights campaigners objected because it involves killing a baby antelope in the high regions of Ladakh and making the shawl from its hide.
Although the Shahtoos shawl has been rightly banned it shouldn't stop you from buying the famed Kashmiri Pashmina.
Pashmina is exclusively Kashmiri and a good quality Pashmina shawl (including one that is hand embroidered by Kashmiri artisans) can cost over $US450.
The intricacies of hand made Kashmiri carpets are well known. Most take months, some even a couple of years to make. The history of the Kashmiri carpet dates back to the period of Hazrat Mir Syed Ali Hamdani (1341-1385 A.D) - the famous sufi saint of Persia who came to enlighten Kashmir with his spiritual guidance and brought along with him highly skilled artisans through the silk trade route.
Kashmir witnessed a phenomenal rise and growth in all things artistic in the golden reign of Budshah in the 15th century. Emperor Akbar in the 16th Century is said to have encouraged the art of carpet weaving by bringing in more skilled artisans to the Kashmir valley.
An original Kashmir carpet can be very expensive but the right one can be as prized or treasured as any work of art.
Rich and redolent with the flavour of cinnamon, cardamom, cloves and saffron, Kashmiri food is suitable for all palates. Predominantly non-vegetarian, "Wazwaan" as it is called is the royal cuisine of Kashmir. Described by the author Salman Rushdie in his book, Shalimar the Clown, Wazwaan is a "banquet of thirty-six courses minimum and sixty courses maximum." It's a preparation of a number of spicy meat dishes served with traditional rice by professional chefs called "Wazas". Kashmiri wazwaan has its origin in Persia and is almost always served in Kashmiri marriage parties. It also has some interesting vegetarian options like dum-aloo and 'chaman' (cooked cheese). Among the popular non-vegetarian delicacies are curd (yogurt) based Gushtaba, chilli-flavoured Rishta and Roganjosh.
Tibetan/Chinese: Lhasa restaurant on the boulevard (around Dal-lake area) serves some delectable tibetan cuisine but beware- the food is a bit on the spicier side which goes to show how food actually changes taste as it gets culturally evolved in a different place. This is a very old and reputable family-owned restaurant popular with locals and tourists alike.
Yin-Yang restaurant: A very small restaurant located 250 meters from Hotel Jehangeer, just after crossing Budshah Bridge (if you are coming from Hotel Jehangeer towards Lal Chowk.) serves an excellent Tibetan dish called "Thokpa" which essentially is Noodle soup served very hot with a generous topping of mutton or chicken. Go for the mutton topping. A must have in winter. However, be careful: crowds are a bit rowdy and you may feel uncomfortable especially if in female company.
Shamiyana restaurant: Located on the boulevard opposite Dal lake, serves Indian/Continental food. Food tastes average but the main problem is hygiene. Complaints of belly trouble high with this one.
Don't even think about: "Mughal Darbar" (near Polo View), Hat-trick ( a local chain of fast food joints): If you want to view the scenery more than your hotel toilet seat- avoid them.
Krishna Dhaba is an excellent choice for pure vegetarian food. It is located near Sonwar (near Burn Hall School) and has a cult following of tourists especially those who come from the Indian plains.
Kashmiris celebrate the first snowfall of the season by socialising over a barbecue. They relax in the cold crisp evenings with a cup of warm kahwa... a black tea brewed with cinnamon, cardamom and honey. Also a perennial favourite is the pink coloured Nun Chai made with a special salt and served in a Samovar. Around late mornings, during spring and summer, it is interesting to see Kashmiri women bring Samovars' filled with Nun Chai along with special Kashmiri breads called Lawasa and Chochworu to their men-folk working in the fields.
Only luxury hotels in Srinagar serve beer, wine and spirits. These include hotel Broadway, The Grand-Lalit and Taj-Vivanta.
The past decade of turmoil has left traces in the Valley. Its important that you register with the Foreigners’ Registration unit of the Tourism Department. The registration counters are at Tourist Reception centres at Srinagar Airport, Srinagar City, Gulmarg, Sonmarg, Phalgam and other places.
In case of an emergency you can contact the nearest tourist police office or police station. The emergency number of the Police Control Room is 100.
Please be aware that the amount of military presence in the valley can be quite overwhelming for some. You will encounter soldiers with semi-automatic weapons guarding the airport, which may look like a heavily fortified place in a conflict zone before you finally step into the Terminal building. Soldiers will be seen all around the city and outskirts. Also, journies by taxi or bus to any famous tourist spots such as Pahalgam or Kokernag may get uncomfortably delayed due to the passage of long military convoys.
Kashmiris are considered very hospitable people. The Amarnath Yatra in which Hindus annually visit a cave situated deep in high altitude mountains in Pahalgam (supposedly the abode of Lord Shiva) has been going on peacefully for more than a hundred years and Kashmiris have been known to provide all help to the yatris, sometimes even braving harsh mountain weather (which is not that rare considering it's a high altitude pilgrimage.) In 2006 a campaign of grenade attacks in Srinagar claimed the lives of six tourists and wounded forty on July 11. The targets included a tourist bus and the Tourist Reception Centre. A similar attack on May 31 against a tourist bus wounded 21. An explosion in a tourist bus in Shalimar Gardens on 29 July 2007 claimed six lives and wounded twenty one.
In the summer of 2008 a controversy arose in which Kashmiris resisted the transfer of land to the Amarnath Shrine Board created by the Government of India, fearing dilution of the Muslim majority demography of the state. Although no tourist was harmed by any of the protestors however, during this time, a grenade attack in Gulmarg killed one tourist and injured five.
During the peak of militancy in 1995 (which has largely abated now) a Norwegian tourist, Hans Christian Ostrø, and five other western tourists were kidnapped by an unknown terrorist group, Alfaran. John Childs, an American managed to escape. However Ostrø was tragically beheaded. The other tourists have never been found since and are presumed dead. However, mainstream separatists denounced this act and terrorist organisations based in Pakistan denied any hand in the executions. A recent book by award winning investigative journalists Adrian Levy and Cathy Scott-Clark- "The Meadow" points to a Pakistani hand in the abductions and killing of Ostro and the later killing of the rest of the hostages by Indian security agencies.
Kashmir valley has a great scope for adventure tourism. There are many high altitude alpine lakes with no access by any transport. These lakes include Vishansar Lake, Nundkol Lake, Tarsar Lake, Gadsar Lake, Satsar Lake and so on. Many trekking units organise and operate trekking packages to these mountain lakes at affordable rates.