Nothing could have prepared me for the stunning beauty that Kashmir is – I stepped off the plane in Srinagar and felt like I had been transported to another world. The crisp air, bright sunshine and slight nip in the air against the backdrop of the majestic Himalayan mountains made for the perfect setting. Along the way the capitol city revealed itself – with picture perfect boulevards, long winding roads, bustling local markets, beautiful homes with sloping roofs, tall evergreens reaching for the sky and then the jewel of the crown – Dal Lake. A mystical water body that seems endless, melting into the mountains and beyond, reflecting the turquoise sky and dotted with several grand Shikaras.
Heavenly Abode – Taj Vivanta
The ride continued through a winding mountain road at the top of which is situated a hotel . It is no small feat cutting through a large mountain and building a property made on a grand scale, with great attention to every detail resulting in a modern day construction marvel. The meaning of the word panorama was redefined with the views atop this mountain – endless peaks, valleys flooded with tulips, forts, ancient terraced gardens, a lush 18 hole golf course and an irresistible infinity pool giving the property a modern flair.
Famous Places in Kashmir
The holiday began with an ode to the passion of the Mughal Kings – Baghs (gardens). Shalimar, Nishat, Pari Mahal, Chashma Shahi (fresh water spring) are not to be missed.
Next was a trip to Lal Chowk the center of the city – a place where the local people throng to celebrate and mark special days and attend rallies. Unfortunately, due to the political strife in Kashmir in the last two decades this place has been the scene of disturbance. Nevertheless it is a great place to buy gifts from local merchants and sample authentic Kashmiri cuisine. We even tried some street food- kebabs made in coal fired tandoors, local freshly brewed tea called Kahwa (green tea with cinnamon, saffron and water chestnuts harvested from the lake).
Later that evening in search of Wazwan (the best in Kashmiri cuisine) we dined at Mughal Darbar a favorite eatery in down town Srinagar. Wazwan is an exotic melange of meat dishes – ground meat balls cooked in three distinct kinds of sauces (curries), ribs, seekh kebabs, chicken tandoori, minced meat curry, lotus roots in yogurt sauce all served on a bed of rice. This grand meal ended with a delicate rice pudding (phirni) and washed down with many cups of Kava. Apart from keeping you warm this drink is a wonderful “digestiv”.
The Shikara Ride
Kashmir is heaven and if you want to float in heaven get on a Shikara/Gandola from the many ghats around the lake and take a leisurely ride. The sound of the paddle gently pushing thru the water, the cool breeze, lights twinkling on the shore and from the lit-up forts (Pari Mahal, Hari Parbat) nestled in the mountains, passing Gondolas, and fountains gushing up all around the lake is magical. One ride and I was hooked. Next morning I was back at the ghat at 6am to take another ride on the lake and see the floating market where fruit, flower, spices and vegetable sellers throng to the back waters of the lake on their Shikaras loaded with produce. I bought many spices like saffron, shilajit , walnuts and figs. After an hour on the lake I stepped off the Shikara and went up the ghat and saw hundreds of people running a marathon – signs of vibrant life in Kashmir.
Shopping in Kashmir
Silk rugs, pashmina shawls, walnut wood carvings, kashmiri dresses (phiran) and paper mache are not to be missed. The rich textures of the silk rugs are woven with astounding intricacy – they can go up 1600 knots per square inch! The Lalit Grand Palace Hotel has a great collection of antique silk rugs, Jamawar shawls and walnut wood carved furniture. After scouting many shops in the city I bought a small silk rug and some walnut wood carvings that can be hung on a wall as an accessory. The house boats on the lake are adorned with such carvings. One can actually live in these house boat hotels – quite an ethereal experience that would be…
I Bid Adieu
As I watched the sun go down from atop the mountain and breathing in the clean mountain air the realization that I was leaving the next morning filled me with sadness. My short visit to this beautiful valley was a rich experience. The smiling faces of the Kashmiris, their warmth and hospitality, the burst of rich flavors of Kashmiri cuisine, the never ending peaks and valleys, the richness of the culture and arts will remain in my memory for a lifetime. I leave with a promise to return.
By Richa Kaura