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Kashmir’s rugged beauty and inviting simplicity

Published in the Spring 2013 Issue of Canadian World Traveller
By Michael Morcos

When Kashmir is mentioned to Indians, many think fondly on the summers spent in this wild and green region. Recently it has been drawing international visitors as well, for the crystal clear lakes, wildlife, delicious food and unique cultural offerings. There is a swirl of predispositions surrounding the Muslim-centered destination, but over the last few years, it’s been revived and welcoming new tourists to enjoy its rustic and unforgettable landscapes of mountains and endless skies.

A glide through Srinagar

Although Kashmir is far from any ocean, there are still plenty of nautical activities to partake in. This allows travelers to soak up some sunshine while enjoying the scenic waterways throughout the area. I loved the boat ride through Srinagar, which is one of the most beautiful cities in the region of Kashmir Valley. Winding along the lake through local house boats and other vessels, we were rewarded with breathtaking views at every turn. Most of these boats are traditional and very cozy, perfect for a lazy day out of the water. Many people opt to stay in these houseboats temporarily too on their holidays, which makes for an adventurous accommodation experience. However, most have the same services and amenities that hotels do, just floating on the water is the only difference.

The wildlife of Kashmir

To highlight the incredible diversity of Kashmir, there are several wildlife sanctuaries to visit. The one I went to had some large beasts, like bears and leopards, roaming protected throughout the complex. There are several to choose from when in the area, many of which are located near the major cities and be explored in a day or two. The most popular are where big animals can be easily seen, such as the Jasrota Wildlife Sanctuary, which is home to many species of deer with massive antlers, like the axis. At the Gulmarg Biosphere Reserve, black and brown bears can be viewed while cooling off in the waterways or feeding. If lucky, travelers who trek through the Dachigam National Park, a short distance outside of Srinagar, can see some leopards in the wild. Due to ever changing weather conditions, it’s advisable to pack rain jackets and warm boots, depending on the time of year.

Swirling culture and crafts

Like in many cultures, the Kashmiri people love to celebrate through the art of dance. I was honored to witness a traditional presentation offered by some resident women, dressed in colorful garb of blues, pinks and browns. There are different moves for every occasion, whether people are attending a wedding, worshipping their faith or getting ready for harvesting season.

Besides dancing, many locals partake in intricate crafting sessions to show off their skills. The highly detailed and eye-catching carpets villagers weave is a sight to behold, and I watched these amazing items come to life as each row was painstakingly woven. Most carpets are made from wool, but some also include silken fibers for added luxury.

Modern activities and amenities in Kashmir 

While I love seeing how people live their daily lives in new destinations, I also don’t mind enjoying a little time for some leisure activities I take part in at home. So I was thrilled when we were able to journey to a beautiful golf course in Kashmir, offering some of the best links in the entire country. The course was actually designed by American golfer Robert Trent Jones Jr. and has been increasing in popularity ever since its inception in 2001. Like many spots throughout Kashmir, players have the chance to admire beautiful views from every hole. It boasts all the latest amenities as well, including motorized carts and a well-kept green.

Evening tea at the Nagin Club 

With all the hustle and bustle going on during the day, it was a welcomed break to relax at Kashmir’s many tea rooms. Some, like the one located at the Gurkha houseboats, can be enjoyed right on the lake. Most blends are original to Kashmir and include wonderful, exotic spices. Cup can be sipped standing alone or sweetened to taste. Many say the tradition of tea time stems from old British occupation, but Indians have made the tradition their own by using local blends and custom, homemade biscuits and treats to go with it.

Admiring the Mughal Gardens 

One of the most treasured spots in Kashmir is their UNESCO World Heritage Site called the Mughal Gardens. These can be found nationwide, but Kashmir has a few that rival any others, like the gardens found at the Taj Mahal. The landscaped landmarks are modeled after Islamic influence, which nod toward Persian design. They have been around for centuries and have many features such as natural waterways, fountains and indigenous greenery. I could have spent all afternoon strolling the lush ground, enjoyed by locals and visitors alike.

A journey to Aharbal 

Not lacking in natural wonders, Kashmir also has some interesting waterfalls. The best can be explored in the western part of the region, called the Aharbal Falls. Cascading between large granite boulders, the water gushed down every day and leaves a noisy environment in its wake. But the view is lovely from the fenced-in terraces near the top of the falls. There are some striking opportunities for hiking in this are along the stream as well for robust outdoors people who like a challenge and heading off the beaten path.

The friendly residents 

The Kashmiri people are very warm and welcoming. Children would often come to say hello while I sipped tea in the afternoons, waving hello and laughing together in packs. They often roam while wearing their standard white school uniforms. Women were eager to show off their crafts and the men their livestock or modes of transportation. Plenty of religious individuals also call Kashmir home – especially monks. I spotted a few of these devotes men praying or meditating in unbelievable natural environments. I can see why some feel so spiritually connected in such dazzling surroundings.

Martand and Pahalgam 

Ancient civilizations called Kashmir home dating back hundreds of years. The remains of their livelihood and achievements can be visited in Martand, where the Sun Temple is located. Constructed around 500 AD, columns and rooms still stand today and pay homage to the Hindu gods they were once created for. I went up close to examine the ruins, then hiked up a small incline to take in the entire complex at once, which is an impressive sight.

Back in the day, people traveled to the town of Pahalgam to beat the heat in the valleys over the summer, because its higher elevation offered cooler temperatures. Nowadays it’s enjoyed year-round and serves as a mecca for outdoor adventure-seekers, looking to trek through mountainous peaks or try some heart-pumping white water rafting. Horseback riding is another great activity to try, with plenty of photo opportunities along the way.

Spending time in Gulmarg 

Each mountain town truly had their own spirit, especially Gulmarg. They are more of a ski-town, offering spectacular slopes with tons of white, powdery snow. Most is completely natural, allowing for perfect conditions throughout the season. Both skier and snowboard riders are welcome to free-style down the mountains by taking gondolas up to the summit. What’s unique is that Gulmarg boast the world’s longest ski lift, so prepare for a blast of cold when reaching the top. The area is also charming to see in the summer, as mountain snow slopes turn into meadows. Many of the lifts continue to run year-round so guests can always admire the views. No matter what time of year traveler’s visit, they should keep their eyes open along the road to Gulmarg, which has just as nice scenery as the town itself. I marveled at all the flowers massive valleys we passed leading to the town.

A peek at the Pakistan border 

I could not get enough of the dramatic views around every corner in Kashmir. The beauty came to a climax as I took a gondola ride up one of the ski hills that had bloomed in the spring. This is an easy way to get a new perspective on the region without too much strenuous climbing. Besides the sprawling vistas of valleys and peaks, I could clearly see the nearby Pakistani border, complete with border control to discourage illegal crossings. Despite the stigma, this area is very safe and closely monitored, especially in the larger cities and villages. Tourists who stay in groups or with guides are well taken care of during their stay.

Getting round Kashmir 

While I may have cheated and took mostly four-wheeled vehicles, many local people throughout Kashmir will travel on the roads by horseback. It is still one of the most common modes of transportation in the area, especially because of the mountainous landscapes that can prove difficult for modern transportation. Men, women and children would hop on their horses and navigate the sometimes treacherous roadways with ease. I loved watching the pride people took in their animals and make sure their families were protected from the cars that wooshed by infrequently.
Soaking up exotic Indian landscapes

By far the best part of the entire trip was simply admiring the unforgettable landscapes around every turn. Whether I was traveling by car, boat, gondola or by foot, I was rarely disappointed by the natural beauty this part of India offers. The snowcapped mountains framed by lush, green valleys set an impressive scene against bright blue skies. Nature is not taken for granted in this part of the world and I am grateful I had the chance to see it all first hand.