We’d planned to visit Srinagar and Kashmir as part of our October trip way back in June, before tensions flared and the state was thrown into a state of unrest. On 8th July 2016, the situation in Kashmir became unstable again when a prominent militant leader was killed. Tensions increased further when an Indian army base was struck by Pakistani forces, killing a dozen or so soldiers.
Since then businesses and schools have been closed, tourism has dropped to 0% and acts of violence have intermittently broken out. There have been strikes and curfews across the state and attacks at the Line of Control (LoC).
In Bangkok Ollie and I kept up with the latest news in Kashmir; by the time 1st October came and we flew out to Delhi, the situation was still unchanged and everyone we spoke to in Delhi and then Ladakh advised us not to go. We made plans to travel from Leh to Manali in the state of Himachal Pradesh. But then things changed.
The owner of the travel agency, through which we’d booked our Ladakh excursions, was from Srinagar and would shortly be leaving Leh to go home for the winter. As the temperature in Leh suddenly dropped, he moved his departure date forward and asked us to join him and his family. He convinced us that we would be safe and ensured us that we would be taken care of.
As we all bundled into a hired car on the morning of my birthday, 10th October, Ollie and I weren’t really sure if we were doing the right thing, but it was too late to turn back.
Driving from Leh to Srinagar
We completed the long journey from Leh to Srinagar in one long gruelling day, leaving Leh at 11am and arriving in Srinagar shortly after midnight. This journey is usually done over two days with an overnight stopover in Mulbekh or Kargil, but our man wanted to get home and do it all in one journey.
Along the way we stopped to see Lamayuru Gompa and the surrounding moonscape scenery, followed by the Mulbekh Chamba Statue. We also stopped for tea in Kargil and a very late bite to eat in Sonmarg.
Outside, at each stop, it was freezing cold; we were very grateful for the heater in the car, which our man frequently told the driver to put on. We were travelling with Nazir, his wife and two children; the family were very nice and we felt safe and comfortable with them.
When we finally arrived in Srinagar, after multiple police stops and check points, we were dropped at Nazir’s home where Ollie and I spent the night with the family. It was a very basic setup with just three rooms and a very simple bathroom. All the brickwork was visible and bare wires draped everywhere. There was a squat toilet in the bathroom and a few taps and buckets in which to wash by.
Ollie and I were given a room to ourselves and numerous blankets were laid down on the floor for us to sleep on. The family all slept in the other living room, whilst the kitchen was right outside our door. By the time we got to sleep it was after 1am; it wasn’t the warmest or most comfortable night’s rest but we were very grateful to the family for putting us up and looking after us.
In the morning we quickly dressed and were provided with a simple but delicious breakfast of Kashmiri bread with butter, jam, egg and tea. Nazir then phoned his cousin, a houseboat owner, who would look after us for our remaining time in Kashmir.
Staying on a Houseboat
Rahim picked us up from Nazir’s home and took us down to peaceful Nigeen Lake, where he owned three beautiful houseboats. We would be staying on board Fantasia. Now, houseboats in Srinagar are not cheap; if you pay cheap you will end up on board a rather dodgy boat with dubious service. Rahim told us that Fantasia is listed number three on Trip Advisor; he showed us around then offered us some traditional Kashmiri kahwa (golden coloured tea flavoured with saffron, cinnamon and crushed almonds.)
As we sat on the porch at the front of the boat, overlooking the still waters of the lake, we couldn’t quite believe where we would be staying for the next few days. Rahim offered us a huge discount (more than half of what is normally charged), which included breakfast and dinner, as well as tea whenever we liked. For what we were getting, it was a very reasonable and generous price.
The houseboat was absolutely stunning with a huge lounge area, a dining room and four bedrooms, all of which had a private bathroom with a bath and shower. The water in the shower was piping hot and our bed had an electric blanket for those chilly nights; we really couldn’t have asked for more.
As we were the only guests we even had our own private chef to cook for us! In fact, we weren’t just the only guests on board the boat. We were, we are 99.9% sure, the only guests in Srinagar. In what would normally be high season, tourism had dropped to nothing. Businesses had been hit hard; throughout the whole season they had had no business.
Exploring around Srinagar
Shikara Lake Tour
On the day of our arrival at Nigeen Lake, we enjoyed an afternoon shikara tour on the lakes, which are interconnected by many small canals and waterways. Dal Lake is the main lake in Srinagar and what the city is most famous for. It was a wonderful afternoon, the shikara the perfect way to see life on and around the water.
The stillness and tranquility of the lakes gave the impression of normality; from that perspective it was difficult to comprehend all the political unrest that is currently locking down the state. On the water, and indeed at our houseboat, we felt very safe. The number of photos I took on our shikara tour is testimony to how much we enjoyed that first afternoon and show some of the natural beauty that Kashmir is blessed with.
That evening, we enjoyed our first dinner aboard the boat. The food was incredible, definitely the best we’d had since returning to India. I was also very lucky to be surprised with a homemade birthday cake, complete with candles! The 11th was definitely a much better day than my actual birthday had been!
The following day Rahim took us to some of the Mughal gardens and to Shankaracharya Hill.
The Mughal Gardens
The Mughal gardens were, again, surreal recluses in which all of Kashmir’s troubles seemed a very long way away. The gardens are very beautiful with terraced lawns, fountain pools and carefully manicured flowerbeds, interspersed with chinar trees and pavilions.
We first visited Shalimar Bagh, the most famous garden, and then went to Nishat Bagh, which has steeper terracing and a lake-facing panorama. Pari Mahal was the last garden that we visited; it lies in the most scenic location, set amid palace ruins high above the lake. From up here, we were provided with stunning views over the whole city.
At the top of Shankaracharya Hill, after a very long and winding drive up, lies a small but very sacred Shiva temple. From where Rahim parked the car, Ollie and I had to go through a rather thorough police check and then ascend a steep flight of steps to reach the top. No phones or cameras are allowed, so we had to savour the views and the temple with our eyes only.
Srinagar Old City and Hari Parbat Hill
On our final day in Kashmir we did a half-day walking tour with a local guide, who took us around the old city and Hari Parbat Hill. This was when we really saw Srinagar and felt the effects of the current situation. We were very grateful to have our guide, not only for his local knowledge of the various monuments but also to navigate the confusing web of streets and alleyways that would have baffled Ollie and I within five minutes of leaving the boat.
We also felt relatively safe with him. I say relatively safe because it felt, in some ways, like we were walking through a war zone. Although the old city is currently violence-free, every shop and business is closed, locked up with iron shutters pulled down, and Indian army personnel are everywhere, holding very large guns and kitted out in full body armour. They were, however, very friendly; many stopped us to have a brief chat or to ask where we are from.
At the end of the day, they are just doing their job at a time of unrest. In some ways, despite the danger that could occur at any moment, it was comforting to have so many members of the army in the proximity, should anything happen.
A few groups of men gathered in the streets and the odd car or motorbike sped past; a few women, many dressed head-to-foot in the Muslim burka, were out walking, perhaps doing some small errand. Other than that, the usually busy streets were very quiet and the otherwise bustling bazaar was nonexistent.
As you can probably imagine, the sight of two western tourists at such a time caused more than a few stares. Many people, including army personnel, did double takes when they saw us; many more stopped to shake our hands and say hello. Apparently, we were the only tourists to come to the old city in the last three months; it was difficult for some to believe we had actually come!
Whilst we didn’t feel 100% safe walking around, it was good to experience the real nitty-gritty side of Srinagar and not just the pleasant tourist areas. Our guide showed us the amazing architecture of the city, including the many mosques and Islamic tombs. Access to the fort crowning Hari Parbat Hill is barred but the lower parts of the hill still afford expansive views over the city.
We saw the ruins of the Akhund Mulla Shah Mosque and went inside the Makhdoom Sahib Shrine. The Chetipacha Gurdwara was also amazing to see. There were lots of people around the Khanqah Shah-i-Hamadan Mosque, which, I believe, is one of the city’s main places of worship for Srinagar’s Muslim community.
Final Thoughts on Kashmir
As Ollie and I sat tonight and enjoyed our final dinner on the houseboat, we reflected on our time in Kashmir and how much we have learnt. The staff on the boat have been amazing, valuable sources of local insight and knowledge.
Kashmir is divided between India and Pakistan but both countries claim the region in its entirety. This dispute is what caused three wars between the arch enemies. Many Kashmiri people that we spoke to do not consider themselves Indian; indeed many want Indian Kashmir to become part of Pakistan. Others, meanwhile, would like to see the whole of Kashmir reunited and made into an autonomous region, separate from both India and Pakistan.
As we moved around Srinagar, we saw a lot of graffiti over shop shutters and walls with such slogans as, ‘go India, go back’, ‘I love you Pakistan army’ and ‘we want freedom.’ What will become of Kashmir, nobody knows. I think it highly unlikely that either country will give up its part of the region or that Kashmir will become autonomous. The dispute will go on, probably for many decades yet, but at some point life in Srinagar and Kashmir must return to normal.
Schools and businesses will have to reopen, people must start earning a livelihood again, but when this will happen nobody knows right now. The Indian government is turning a blind eye and refusing to listen to what Kashmiri people want. The media is reporting on the situation, sometimes accurately, sometimes not. It can be difficult to know what to believe but coming to Kashmir and actually speaking to the people that live here is a very eye-opening experience, one that we are very glad to have had.
For two of the three days we have been here, the city has been under curfew, which means that movement has been very much restricted. Yet, we have still been able to see much of what Srinagar has to offer, even if the streets and bazaars were far from bustling and the Indian army presence could very much be felt. Of course we have been nowhere near the LoC, where much of the violence, shootings and unrest has been taking place.
If anyone were to ask me, ‘should I go to Kashmir at this time?’ I would say no, not on your own. We have been extremely lucky to have been looked after from leaving Leh to taking a shared taxi down to Jammu tomorrow; we have been nowhere by ourselves. If you can be guaranteed this sort of treatment then yes, come to Kashmir, see it for yourself, see it now when no other tourists are here.
Hopefully, things will change in the near future and it will be safe to visit Kashmir again. We will certainly be returning to the region at some point because we have not been able to go to Aru Valley or trek in Kashmir’s mountains, both of which we would love to have done. I will end this post by saying some really positive things that we have experienced in Kashmir, aside from the beautiful scenery and stunning architecture.
The people have been unbelievable; the hospitality and warmth that we have received is probably the best we have experienced anywhere in India. The staff and owner of the houseboat have been wonderful and have given us so much more than we ever could have expected.
The family who we travelled with from Leh and who allowed us to stay in their home for the night treated us like their own; they ensured our safe arrival in Kashmir and then sorted us out for the rest of our stay. Even the people we met walking around Srinagar were genuinely friendly and pleased to see us; they were curious about the two westerners who had come to Kashmir at such a difficult time.
I should also just mention that, because of the current situation, the government has switched off all access to WiFi networks. This means that from the morning of my birthday until our arrival in Dharamsala we will have had no access to any internet. Tomorrow we travel by shared taxi to Jammu and then on to Dharamsala by bus, where I shall hopefully post this blog.