13th July 2018
Srinagar, the capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir, is a blissful escape from the intense heat of Delhi, and has been for centuries. The British never ruled Kashmir and were unable to own city property, so instead they built luxurious houseboats on the mesmerizingly beautiful Dal Lake. Today, the stationary houseboats remain on the lakes in varying condition, run as guesthouses and shops.
Before I embarked on the High Road to Kashmir tour, I discovered that my parents had oddly both travelled separately to Srinagar in the summer of 1984 before meeting each other later in 1985. Since the late '80s, turbulent political unrest has negatively affected travel to Srinagar, massively decreasing tourists, and so I was fascinated to compare my parents’ accounts of Srinagar to my own experience in June 2018.
After braving the nail-biting experience of the Zojila Pass in the high mountains, we transferred by ‘shikara’ (the local boats) to our ‘Royal’ houseboat, in a secluded area of Dal Lake. The glistening lake, carpeted with white water lilies and surrounded by lush green mountains, is an absolute gem. We were warmly welcomed onto our family owned houseboat, and introduced to the grand dining room, charming sitting room with its carved cedar wooden panels and furniture. Both my parents had stayed on Nagin lake, on family run houseboats that are still doing business today. My father described his fond memories on board the Wangnoo Brothers’ houseboat, who kindly invited him to a daughter’s engagement celebration. My mother recalled dressing for dinner and drinking cocktails on the Plato Houseboat. We all agreed that Dal Lake is still the perfect place to dress up and wear your finest jewellery.
An evening shikara ride, drifting along the narrow waterways of Dal Lake was wonderful, witnessing the unique lifestyle of the Kashmiri’s and I feel extremely lucky to have been surrounded by such beauty. My mother vividly remembers swimming amongst lotus flowers on Nagin Lake with kingfishers perched above and flashing blue as they dived for fish. My father visited Anchar Lake nature reserve and similarly watched kingfishers on posts and vast quantities of water lilies. I was ecstatic when I too saw a kingfisher – unfortunately, it was too fast me to get a photograph!
It quickly dawned on me that the reason for my strange feeling of familiarity with my Kashmir surroundings was that so much of our Suffolk home is furnished with Kashmiri goods – curtains, lamps, bed spreads and even the baubles on the Christmas tree! During my stay, I made it my mission to visit to the family run shop, Suffering Moses, where over 30 years ago my Dad had (clearly!) made a big order. Stunning scenes and wildlife from the lake are intricately depicted on papier mache and I simply couldn’t resist indulging myself in beautiful baubles, jewellery boxes and coasters. Shopping on Dal Lake did not require much effort as the market vendors regularly descended on our houseboat, unpacking huge suitcases filled to the brim with pashminas, jewellery and fabrics – a rather overwhelming experience for some! My mother equally recalled haggling over best prices for precious stones and silks.
To the Eastern shore of the lakes are the Moghul gardens. Unfortunately, it was tipping it down the day we visited them! However, we still enjoyed these incredibly beautiful gardens and many of the group chatted to welcoming and inquisitive locals about our purpose for visiting Srinagar. Similarly, my mother cycled to the Moghul Gardens between torrential downpours and enjoyed huge views across lakes framed by rainbows. My father’s favourite memory of Srinagar was going to the Shalimar Gardens at sunrise.
My own personal highlight was rising early for a dawn trip to the floating vegetable market, sipping Kashmiri tea as we were immersed in the hustle and bustle of trading. Both parents also experienced the trade frenzy - my mother describing how the boats brimmed with kohlrabi and cauliflowers. This was the perfect place to pick up a great variety of seeds for your garden, or spices to replicate the feisty Kashmiri cuisine. The below images from 1984 (left) and 2018 (right) show just how little the market has changed.
The chaotic old town, with its narrow streets and ancient mosques is a fascinating place to see, and whilst we were all aware of the political unrest, Kashmiri people were hugely welcoming and we all agreed that we did not feel threatened in any way. Unlike many travel destinations, the lakes of Srinagar seem relatively untouched by tourists, and if anything, I feel it has gone back in time and seems unchanged from my parents’ visits over 30 years ago. Srinagar is a unique place to visit and whether you are a first timer or re-visiting, you will not be disappointed.