J&K combines three incredibly different worlds into one state. Hindu Jammu, the state’s major railhead, is a busy hub for domestic pilgrims. Muslim Kashmir is India’s Switzerland, attracting hoards of local tourists seeking cool summer air, alpine scenery and Srinagar’s romantic houseboat accommodation. For most foreigners, J&K’s greatest attraction is the Himalayan land of Ladakh, whose disarmingly friendly, ethno-linguistically Tibetan people are predominantly Buddhist. Their timeless monasteries are set between arid canyons and soaring peaks with emerald-green villages nestled photogenically in highland deserts.
While relatively calm of late, beware that Kashmir is politically volatile and arguments over its status caused three 20th-century wars. Ladakh is altogether different, a meditatively calm world, where the main concern is giving yourself ample time for high-altitude acclimatisation. Note that Ladakh is inaccessible by road outside the summer season.
HIGHLIGHTS OF KASHMIR
1. Dal Lake:
Over 15km around, Dal Lake is Srinagar’s jewel, a vast, mirror-flat sheet of water reflecting the carved wooden balconies of the houseboats and the misty peaks of the Pir Panjal mountains. Flotillas of gaily painted shikaras (gondola-like taxi boats) skiff around the lake, transporting goods to market, children to school and travellers from houseboat to shore.
Most visitors to Srinagar stay out on Dal Lake in one of the delightful houseboats left behind from the Raj, but landlubbers can hire shikaras for tours around the lake, visiting floating gardens and the floating flower and vegetable market. It’s a colourful spectacle, but expect plenty of attention from souvenir vendors.
Shikaras can be hired from boat stations all along the lakeshore and official rates are displayed on noticeboards. You can commission a shuttle from the Boulevard to your houseboat, and an hour paddling around the backwaters will cost a fee as well, either on shore or at your houseboat.
Note that detours to commission-paying souvenir shops are routine – be firm if you don’t want to spend half your day being bombarded with trinkets.
2. Khanqah Shah-i-Hamadan:
This distinctively spired 1730s Muslim meeting hall is one of Srinagar’s most beautiful. It was constructed without using any nails and both frontage and interiors are covered in papier-mâché reliefs and elaborately coloured khatamband (faceted wood panelling). Non-Muslim visitors can peek through the door but may not enter.
The building stands on the site of one of Kashmir’s first mosques, founded by Persian saint Mir Sayed Ali Hamadani who arrived in 1372, one of 700 refugees fleeing Timur’s conquest of Iran. He is said to have converted 37,000 people to Sufi-based Islam, and it’s likely that his retinue introduced Kashmiris to the Persian art of fine carpet-making.
3. Mughal Gardens:
Srinagar’s famous gardens date back to the Mughal era. Most have a fundamentally similar design with terraced lawns, fountain pools and carefully manicured flowerbeds interspersed with mighty chinar trees, pavilions and mock fortress facades. The most famous garden is Shalimar Bagh , 10km beyond Nehru Park, built for Nur Jahan by her husband Jehangir. However, Nishat Bagh is more immediately impressive, with steeper terracing and a lake-facing panorama (7.5km from Nehru Park).
Pari Mahal is set amid palace ruins high above the lakeshore (about 9km from Nehru Park). The ensemble looks most intriguing viewed from afar when floodlit at night. By day, the long, steep autorickshaw ride is worthwhile more for the lake views than for the gardens themselves. Bring ID for police checks. En route you’ll pass the petite Cheshmashahi Garden and the extensive, less formal Botanical Garden , behind which, from March to April, a 12-hectare Tulip Garden blooms colourfully.
4. Tulip Gardens:
Set in the shadow of a snow-capped mountain range and close to the shores of Kashmir’s Dal Lake, Asia’s largest tulip garden opened to the public this week under bright sunshine after days of rain in the northern Indian city of Srinagar.
On the first day, over 2,800 people came through the garden’s gates, according to Sunil Misri, who heads Jammu and Kashmir’s horticulture department. He did not have figures for the opening day in 2014.
Covering an area of 30 hectares, the garden will have about a million tulips bulbs budding over the next month — including one variety named Laptop. Eight years after the garden first opened, the tulips now have about 41 gardeners tending to their needs.
And there’s strategy involved in picking the bulbs to maintain the month-long show, said Mr. Misri. Around 20% of the 53 varieties of tulips planted in the garden this year are “early variants, or they bloom early,” he added.
Another 60% are expected to blossom mid-month and the rest, Mr. Misri said, are “late varieties, meaning they will flower towards the end of the month.”