In recent weeks, Kashmir has hit the news for all the wrong reasons. Soldiers are firing at each other across the Pak and Indian borders, and a soldier too many has died. Once again Kashmir is deemed to be unsafe in the eyes of travellers.
But if you’d ever been to Kashmir, you would realise that Kashmir is nothing short of beautiful. But in its beauty lie a strange sort of sadness. In winter the gardens are serene even though the water features have stopped running. Against an awe-inspiring backdrop of snowy mountains, there are occasional soldiers in their dark green fatigues touting rifles.
Up the Shankaracharya hill, a famous hill leading up to a Hindu temple in Srinagar, a soldier stops the auto rickshaw that I’m in. He asks me for my nationality and checks my passport. When he hears that I am a Singaporean, he lets me go, and smiles warmly. “Hi, how are you?” he asks.
As the auto rickshaw crawls up the mountain, there are drums embedded deep in the snow that say “No photo taking allowed”/ “No mobile phones” or cameras. When I reach the top, a female guard does the routine check, and I have to surrender my camera and mobile phone. At the airports, check in time is 3 hours in advance for domestic flights, an hour longer than other domestic flights in India.
The airport is worn out. Flies flit from seat to seat, and the gate of the flight is not announced until 15 minutes before the actual flight. Srinagar is a 4 hour flight from Delhi, and a 20 minute taxi ride into the tourist area, encapsulated by the Dal Lake.
Through my travels, I always found that the places that are most difficult to reach always have something that makes it worth the effort.
And Kashmir is rightly such a place.
If you are..
1. Broke and want to see snow
Let’s face it, India, and Kashmir in particular is possibly one of the cheapest destinations to see snow. If you don’t take a domestic airline but the train from Delhi to Jamuna and then take a bus, you will still reach the snow, for less than USD100. The bus ride to the ski resort town, Gulmarg, from Srinagar cost less than USD15 if you take a local bus, so you definitely save a lot than if you buy a ticket to a European winter.
2. Tired of rich European white winters, and want to pass a humble winter
Kashmir is like any other Indian city, can be dirty in some instances. Drips and drapes of mud and dirt occasionally colours up the pristine snow. Willow trees stand upright, guarding the perimeters of the highway like a familiar sight from a Western winter, but at the same time rubbish piles up by the side of the road, scarring the white, fluffy snow that had fell from the heavens.
3. Feeling depressed and want some time alone
I visited Kashmir when I was feeling down and I wanted to discover the “meaning of live”. When I went to Kashmir, I felt even more alone and depressed to be honest. Spending a bitter cold night alone with nothing but the comfort of an electric blanket woke me up. I felt like I never ever wanted to travel alone, ever again, hence the existence of this post “Kashmir, and the importance of friends.”
4. On the lookout for beautiful places
Pictures are worth a thousand words – see the pictures below and you’d know!
5. Or, someone to share an adventure with
Kashmir could be a nice place to spend your honeymoon, or first adventure trip with a special someone. It’s beautiful, though the journey maybe rocky. But it’s the ups and downs of each relationship that makes the bonds between you both stronger.
Ski-ing is big in Gulmarg, the ski resort town of Kashmir, 2 hours by bus from the capital, Srinagar. Lots of Western tourists head there during the winter season, where white snow is bountiful. Some of them are pretty good looking. Others and look pretty normal , but it’s better than going on a day trip with an over-friendly local (that happened to me once.)
7. Like the feeling of danger/ Like to ogle at soldiers
A friend was right when he said that there were soldiers carrying M16s stationed every 5 metres apart from each other. How right he was. Everywhere I went, there were soldiers stationed at monumnents, parks, along the Dal Lake and along the road. I am not sure if the rifles were M16s, but most of them were touting rifles of some sort.
I was somewhat concern, but when I saw the soldiers smiling like any other people, I lessen my guard and start to relax. It’s safe really. As long as you take the appropriate safeguards and trust your gut instincts.
8. Enjoy wandering in Parks.
I am a park person. Parks to me are one of those places where I feel the calmest and most peaceful. And Kashmir has about 6 of them, Mughal Gardens, they call it. On a cool winter’s day, take a stoll along the snow covered walkways and partake in the views bestowed upon us by the Mughal Emperors, which have shown us their very concept of Paradise.
9. Enjoy taking a boat (Shikara) ride
If you are the type that enjoy taking a leisurely cruise over a serene lake, Srinagar is the best place to be. Take a Shikara along the Dal Lake. I was there during the off-peak season and it cost RS150 (after some hard bargaining). The boat will bring you to the many houses on the water, you can see gardens along the lake, and an occasional (if not many) touts will be there to even conduct “business transactions” over the water (sell you souvenirs).
10. Would like to experience staying on a houseboat
There are a couple of places in India that offer the experience of living on a boat, in a simple, most cruise=unlikely fashion. One of them is Kerela, while the other, is Kashmir’s Dal Lake. It is not advisable to stay on a houseboat during the Winter seasons of November to January, but come the warmth of spring and summer, the houseboat scene is bustling, and you get meals and a comfortable stay on board. Do note, like most touristy places in India, there are bound to be dishonest cheats, who make you pay a bomb but do not deliver quality accommodation. So do the necessary research, check out peer reviews and ask questions!
Last but not least, Kashmir is not usual destination you would think of spending a white Christmas, but if you persevere, something very strange and beautiful awaits you.