Srinagar: the contested jewel in Kashmir’s crown

Kashmir, the disputed area wedged between the northern part of India and Pakistan and long claimed by India, had always intrigued me. A state straddling the Himalaya, Karakoram and Zanskar Ranges, it suffers harsh winters and is at its pleasant best in summer. So, as my visa expired in Nepal, I went searching for more mountain views and adventures in this part of far North India.

Officially known collectively as Jammu and Kashmir, the state is actually quite divided. Jammu, the hot and dusty metropolis in the south of the state feels very much like any other Indian city with a very dominant Hindu population. As you leave Jammu behind, however, and head further north to Srinagar you enter a very different world.

Srinagar is the summer capital of the state and boasts a predominantly Muslim population thanks to both Mughal and Afghan rule of the city from the 14th to 18th centuries. It became a significant battle ground during the post-independence conflict between India and Pakistan and according to the locals, much is still unresolved.

I left the Dalai Lama’s home of Dharamsala and took a bus to Jammu. Without wanting to spend too much time in the chaotic city with the intense summer heat, I reluctantly joined a group of other travellers and drove through the night to Srinagar.

Jammu bus station

The Jammu-Srinagar highway is perhaps the most contentious area you’ll find travelling through the state. It’s a heavily militarised road that is often shut by the Indian army for a variety of reasons and sometimes for no apparent reason at all. When we arrived in Jammu and inquired about transport to Srinagar, we were repeatedly told that for at least the next two days there would be no buses running because the celebration for the end of Ramadan was considered a potentially provocative time for Kashmir-India relations.

Of course, nothing is impossible in this part of the world, as long as you have cash to spend, and we soon had a couple of drivers appear who were willing to drive us to Srinagar overnight. After much discussion and deliberation, we were on our way by 6.30pm. Within , half an hour of being on the road, just on the outskirts of Jammu, we were pulled over by our first police checkpoint. Here we go.

The driver turned and said, “Let me talk and if they ask where we’re going say, Patnitop.” Great.

Luckily, we didn’t have to lie and the driver got out and headed over to the checkpoint area. I watched through the back window as he slipped some crisp rupee notes into the officer’s pocket and hands were shaken and we were on our way. Classic.

We continued to drive as the sun set and we stopped for something to eat at a roadside dhaba. We were soon stopped again by a second checkpoint and in a frustrated manner the driver proceeded to hand over more cash with a hand shake and we were allowed to proceed. The rupees we had paid him must have been starting to run thin.

It was impossible to find sleep as we travelled steadily over the windy and rough road. We passed the turnoff to Patnitop, and I thought if we were stopped now our options would be limited to our creativity. We were stopped four more times by police/army, I’m not sure it really mattered, but all they seemed to do was shine their torches through the window and asked few questions. As we drove into Srinagar at 4am, I was so keen for a bed and cared about little else.

Of course, we had no plans and the streets were deserted so, while one of our companions began searching on Booking.com for cheap accommodation, I envisioned myself sleeping on a doorstep or bus station floor. However, he managed to find one that was only 200m from where we were and we gave them a ring. We woke the owner up but he gladly let us in and we got two rooms for the six of us to share for 500 rupees (AUD$10) per room. Bargain.

Houseboat on dal lake

We slept for five hours and then I followed an Israeli couple who had a contact of a guy who had a houseboat on Dal Lake. It’s the quintessential travel experience for any tourist to Srinagar and when we were shown the houseboat where we had our own room each and living room with a view of the lake, we realised we’d hit the jackpot. Although it was old compared to the other flash ones we could see, the owner, Altaf, was a super nice and relaxed guy and it was cheap. He and his family lived just at the back on another sort of floating home. It felt more like a homestay.

From the first night, Altaf gave us plenty of laughs and insights into life in Kashmir, “We are fighting for our freedom, you know.” When we asked him about the recent Indian elections he said, “I have never voted in my life because that would be legitimising the Indian governments rule of Kashmir.” He, like many Kashmiris we met in Srinagar, had very strong feelings about the situation and in fact, claimed that the issue of Kashmir was on par with that of the Palestinian struggle against Israel. A foreign force occupying their land.

And the city did have a very strange vibe about it. On the one hand, many people were extremely happy to see us and would ask, “What are you doing here? How do you like Kashmir?”. Whereas, on the other, there were military on almost every corner and parts of the city were “militarised zones” with signs declaring ‘you are being watched‘.

Altaf did admit that life in the 1990s was much harder than it is today. From 1990 to 2000 it is estimated that 100,000 people were killed by the Indian military and there were curfews in the city and sporadic fighting between the army and the Kashmiri militias. The so-called militias are still active today, however, Altaf said that most are now confined to the mountains around Srinagar and southern Kashmir than anywhere else.

Lucky for us, Altaf also doubled as a rickshaw driver and he took us for tours of the city. The state’s largest city actually has a lot to see and do, if you take the time. It has countless Mughal gardens which cost as little as 25 rupees or 50c to get into and are often packed on the weekends when kids go to play cricket and young couples canoodle behind trees. Of course, the three of us foreigners garnered plenty of attention and we had selfies taken from all angles, with most people shyly approaching Tom, rather than us two girls, a hallmark of the still conservative society.

The most beautiful garden is by far the Pari Mahal, or The Palace of Fairies, situated up on the side of a hill around 10km away from the city centre. We went around sunset to find a stunning view of the lake below and perfect lighting with the golden hues of the setting sun.

Seen from almost anywhere in the city is the Hari Parbat fort, on top of a hill 5 km away from Dal Gate. From a distance, it looks very much like something you would see on the cityscapes of Rajasthan, however, it is far less grand up close.

The view of the entire city is stunning from the fort, however, the Indian military have kindly set up base inside the empty fort walls and let the place go. There is nothing to see inside, other than the soldiers dirty laundry hanging out to dry and a small Hindu temple that seems slightly random and more of a political statement than much to do with the significance of the site.

Altaf also took us to some of the most beautiful mosques in the city, including the Hazratbal Shrine known as the white mosque and Shah-e-Hamdan, one of the oldest mosques in the city and built in a unique style out of wood and paper mâché. Although the dress code was very strict (one man even came over to adjust my headscarf to cover my hair), the people were very welcoming, even offering explanations of the mosque and Islam in general.

We also spent a day on foot exploring the old part of the city around the Jama Masjid (main mosque and the oldest in the city), where we stumbled across plenty of deep-fried street snacks, market stalls and smaller, beautiful mosques. We definitely felt as if we were wandering the bazaars of the Middle East or Central Asia rather than anywhere close to India. The people too had a different look about them, with fairer skin and green eyes, transporting us to a place far away from where we actually were.

Dal Lake is by far the city’s biggest attraction, taking up 18 sq km, and playing a significant part to play in shaping its culture. The Maharaja of Kashmir prevented the British from owning land or building houses in the entire valley and so to get around the restrictions they began to build lavish houseboats, which have been maintained and expanded since independence. It also plays an important part in the city’s economy with many local relying on fishing, harvesting floating gardens and taking tourists on shikara (boat) rides.

We rose around 5am one morning so that Altaf and his son could take us on a shikara (local boat) to the famous floating market that operates only in the wee hours of the morning in summer. The men come to a particular spot on the lake to trade their goods, most of which are grown in the lake’s floating gardens. It’s also very much a place to socialise rather than just for making money, and boats were floating in clusters while men smoked shisha and chatted through the picturesque sunrise, before dispersing back out onto the lake for another day.

By the time we’d spent nearly a week on the houseboat, we decided to get out of the city and explore another part of Kashmir, further into the mountains. The city had been exactly what I had imagined it to be and more; it was completely different to anything else I had seen on the subcontinent of India, the people were full of colourful and passionate conversation and the lake was truly beautiful with the background of the Himalayas faded under haze. Yet, I’d felt much safer than I perhaps thought I would, the media always driving a particular fear of certain places, and in fact, after I left I found myself telling people, “Go to Srinagar and spend time there,” because only then can you truly understand it.

Where I stayed

When we arrived in the early morning and rang a random hotel, it was actually called Hotel Fabulous Kashmir. We only stayed for a quick sleep before leaving again, however, the family who run it are extremely nice and if it wasn’t for the houseboat, we probably would have stayed. Before we left, we had to, of course, get our photos taken with each family member in the reception area and apparently we’re now featured on their facebook. It’s right near Dal Gate.

The old houseboat we moved to is behind the busy waterfront where the flasher looking boats sit. It was more like a homestay and I would highly recommend it as I heard many people complain after spending a lot more money and not having a good experience. The owner’s name is Altaf and his boat is called New Shanhshah Houseboat. If you give him a call he will pick you up from wherever you are in Srinagar in his rickshaw, as the boat is difficult to find at first. We paid 600 rupees (AUD$12) per room including breakfast and dinner and his wife cooks delicious meals.

His number is: +91 97970 55438

Where I ate

There are a number of cheap dhabas (restaurants serving standard Indian affair), around Altaf’s houseboat and also on the main waterfront. The top restaurant in town is considered the Mughal Darbar, which is quite expensive but delicious food for a treat. For good local food, go for Krishna Vaishno Dhaba where you’ll have to wait for a table and be rushed through your food so the next people can sit. However, it’s cheap and delicious, every local will know where it is, look for the crowd.

How I got in

There is one daily bus from Dharamsala to Jammu at 9.40am from the main bus station and the journey took around 6 hours.

As I said above, the buses were not running on the Jammu-Srinagar Highway, which is a common occurrence. I opted to take a shared taxi with five other people and the driver charged us 1100 rupees each (AUD$22) for the 9 hour journey overnight (it usually takes longer but at night and with the ban, there was zero traffic).

How I got out

I headed to Aru Valley next, a few hours from Srinagar, and which requires three changes of transport.

First, take a shared taxi from Srinagar (they cluster near the petrol pump, not far from Dal Gate) to Islamabad. Two hour trip costs 100 rupees (AUD$2).

Then take another shared taxi from Islamabad to Pahalgam. One and a half hour trip costs 80 rupees.

Finally, we took another shared taxi from Pahalgam to Aru village, they leave when full from the central taxi stand. 30 minute trip costs 30 rupees.

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