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Kashmir – Queen Among Destinations

Incredibly beautiful, yet almost unbothered by its splendor; Kashmir stands at the top of India, overlooking the other states of the country like a Queen surveying her subjects. Yet, beauty is just one side of the coin; the other side embodies danger and a constant struggle to stay afloat amidst a horde of problems. Apart from political problems, the state has also had to witness natural calamities like the recent floods that rendered thousands homeless; yet Kashmir has a strong endurance level and will keep moving on in spite of hurdles.

Jammu and Kashmir, as the grouped region is called, occupies the northern-most part of India; the state is classified under three distinct areas – Jammu, Kashmir Valley and Ladakh. With the glorious Hindu temples of Jammu, the snow-capped landscape of the Kashmir Valley with pristine lakes where you can float your romance on houseboats and the culture-rich monasteries of Ladakh, the state can easily be one of the best destinations for tourists in India, especially in summer. The only blemish on the scene is the political fickleness of Kashmir which makes it risky at times. Still, only a few regions are affected in the dispute and places like Ladakh are normally calm and undisturbed by violence.

Let’s explore the different regions of the state and discover their appeal –

Jammu
The winter capital of Kashmir, Jammu is also called the “city of temples” because of the number of Hindu temples present here. The Vaishno Devi Temple is the most popular among shrines here and draws millions of pilgrims every year, making Jammu the most visited place in Kashmir.

Jammu is well connected by road, rail and air to other major cities in India. To explore the attractions in and around Jammu, you can hire a car or SUV with driver who normally doubles up as a guide and visit the places you wish to see. While this is a convenient option, the bus system of J&K is also quite efficient and can be used for transport.

Jammu has enough options for accommodation ranging from pilgrim dormitories to mid-range hotels and high-end resorts. You could also opt to stay with a local family in a homestay which is sure to be far more interesting than routine hotels.

Places to see
The shrine of Vaishno Devi is very sacred to Hindus and the journey to visit this temple is tough but exciting for ardent devotees. Pilgrims believe that the Goddess sends them a message to visit her and most people staunchly believe that without this divine call, no one can get near the shrine. The pilgrimage starts from Katra, located about 45 kms from Jammu. A trek of 13 kms from the foot of the hills will take you to the top; though helicopters, palanquins and ponies are available, most people prefer the picturesque walk chanting the name of the Goddess. Amenities are available to assist pilgrims throughout the journey.

At the top, visitors are required to deposit their footwear in lockers and walk barefoot through the icy caves to the shrines of the Goddess. The frenzied devotion and chanting reaches a high pitch by this time and makes people forget their troubles in their excitement to see the shrine after so much difficulty.

Another important shrine in the temple of cities is the Raghunathji Mandir, a temple devoted to Lord Rama built in 1860. With its gold plated interiors and historic library, the temple attracts thousands of people as both a religious destination as well as a place of tourist interest.

The Bahu Fort with its extensive gardens, called the Bagh-e-Bahu, is picturesque especially when you see it reflecting in the gleaming waters of the river Tawi; this 300 year old fort also offers a lovely panoramic view of the city.

The Amar Mahal Palace with its interesting Museum is another impressive monument to visit; on display here is the 120 kg gold throne of Jammu. The fascinating Mubarak Mandi Palace served Jammu royalty till 1925 and this is yet another palace to visit here.

Patnitop, located 112 kms from Jammu, is a stunningly beautiful hill station that’s a favorite with tourists visiting Jammu.

Srinagar
While Jammu is interesting and historic, it’s the mesmerizing Srinagar that’s iconic Kashmir; with its idyllic Dal Lake, heavenly houseboats and enchanting landscapes, this is typical postcard Kashmir. Called the “Switzerland of India”, the city has much to boast about like its historic Mughal Gardens, the amazingly picturesque Dal Lake, which flaunts the grand Himalayas as its backdrop and some lovely mosques with typical Kashmiri wooden architecture style.

Srinagar is the summer capital of Kashmir; summer’s also the best time to see this city because the lakes may get frozen in winter. Srinagar can be reached from major cities in India by air or by road; you could also opt to book a train to Jammu and hire a cab from there to Srinagar. Please note, reaching Srinagar could be a little difficult in winter when all vehicles move towards Jammu and not back because Jammu is the winter capital.

When it comes to accommodation, most visitors to Srinagar drift towards houseboats that offer comfortable housing and a unique experience; there are plenty of houseboats in the Dal Lake and Nigeen Lake. A point to note here is, the houseboats are tethered to the banks and don’t drift across the lake; most houseboats can be accessed from land, while for some, you may have to use a shikara (small boat) to reach them. If you plan to do a lot of traveling around, it’s better to opt for a houseboat that can be reached through land access. Dal Lake is the most happening spot and can get quite crowded while Nigeen Lake is serene and picturesque, but a little away from tourist activities.

Accommodation on houseboats normally comes with meals and most houseboat owners also arrange sightseeing tours. Though online packages may seem attractive, it’s important to check houseboats before you actually book them. Apart from houseboats, there are several hotels and guesthouses in Srinagar that offer wonderful hospitality in picture-perfect locations.

Srinagar is home to some of the most enchanting gardens in the country; from the Mughal era when they were first established, till today, these gardens are a picture of grace and beauty with their manicured lawns, verdant blooms and delightful fountains. The Shalimar Bagh, built in 1619 by Emperor Jehangir for his wife, the Nishat Mughal Gardens that adorn the banks of the Dal Lake and the Indira Gandhi Tulip Gardens are some of the most visited attractions. In April, the tulip festival celebrated in the Indira Gandhi gardens offers visitors a dazzling view of the gardens with multihued tulips in full bloom.

The Dal Lake has always been a symbol of Srinagar; the image of a sparkling blue lake reflecting the colors of floating shikaras, stable houseboats as well as the mountains surrounding the lake has been the theme of several picture postcards depicting Srinagar. Float around the lake on a shikara and visit the cheerful floating markets selling flowers, fruits and vegetables. The Dal Lake is also a hub of tourist activities; if you’re interested in canoeing or water skiing, this is where you should be.

For a panoramic view of the city and its surrounding, head to the Pari Mahal in the evening to view the sunset. Srinagar is also a well-known golfer hangout; the Kashmir Golf Course and the Royal Springs Golf Course offer vast and scenic terrains for golfers.

The Old City of Srinagar with its historic wooden mosques is a must-see when you’re in Srinagar; lined by the River Jhelum, the charm of the old city with its cultural attractions is unaffected by tourism. Visit the grand Jama Masjid and Shah Hamdan Mosque and explore the history of the state in a lively river cruise on the Jhelum. The Shankaracharya Hill with its revered temple is another important tourist attraction here. The temple can be reached by car, but you may have to climb about 250 steps to reach the final shrine; make sure to leave cell phones, cameras and all electronics as well as cigarettes and/or liquor behind when you visit this temple.

Srinagar is a base for trekkers to Himalayan alpine lakes; another important thrilling activity here is paragliding. The thrill of the ride along with the breathtaking view could easily make this activity the highlight of your visit here.

Lovely though it is, to most tourists, Srinagar is just a base to visit the lovely Kashmiri countryside. Places like Gulmarg, Pahalgam and Sonamarg are close to Srinagar and so breathtakingly beautiful that it’s hard to tear away from these places and make your way back home.

Take a taxi to Gulmarg, located 50 kms away from Srinagar and dive into some thrilling activities the place has to offer like mountain biking, skiing (in season), gondola rides, heli-skiing , golfing and horse riding. Book your gondola tickets online before visiting Gulmarg; this way, you can avoid at least one queue.

Sonamarg with its strong Thajiwas glacier is a favorite with trekkers and anglers. The weather can be quite cold even during summer; but the view from here can make you forget the cold. Located at a distance of 80 kms from Srinagar, the meadow of gold, Sonamarg is a wonderful place to visit with its green lakes, frozen waters and snow-clad landscapes.

Pahalgam is another fertile valley with thriving greenery and can be reached in a short 2 hour drive from Srinagar. Tourists frequent three key areas – Aru Valley, Betaab Valley and Chandanwari. Pahalgam is a perfect place for trekking, horse riding, angling, white water rafting and just relaxing.

Leh Ladakh
A part of J&K, yet with a completely distinct identity, Ladakh is definitely an enjoyable place to visit; apart from its terrific landscape and views, it also has a fascinating cultural climate that’s very interesting to behold. While the rest of Kashmir is more Indian in nature, Ladakh has a noticeable Tibetan influence. The monasteries, festivals, cuisine and traditions here are predominantly Buddhist with a slight Indian touch. Buildings and décor are colorful as are festivals; these look all the more vibrant in austere Buddhist surroundings.

Important places to visit here include the Pangong Lake, Nubra Valley, the Hemis Monastery, Thiksey Monastery and the Stok Gonpa. Drive along the Indus Valley and stop at the place where the Indus River meets the Zanskar; the confluence of these two rivers is marked by their unique colors. This spot also serves as a wonderful place for a picnic or boat ride.

The Hemis Festival which takes place in early June is an enticing ritual and definitely worth a visit. The music starts early in the morning with heavy drums and cymbals waking up the festive spirit; the monastery is adorned in colorful hues and masked dances take place in the Hemis monastery that are fascinating to watch.

What to eat
Rich gravies, spice-rich food and a variety of meat-based dishes mark Kashmir’s cuisine. Food here is quite different from the rest of India, mainly because of the generous use of locally grown spices like cinnamon and cloves; saffron in particular is used in a lot of dishes and gives a distinct flavor to Kashmiri food. As in other mountain regions, mutton is the most popular meat; there are quite a few signature Kashmiri dishes like Rogan Josh and Tabak Maaz that have a generous dash of spices as well as ghee. Kahwah is the local beverage; this is a green tea flavored with cardamoms and saffron and is served in most weddings. Don’t miss this drink when you visit Kashmir. Kashmiri cuisine also includes a variety of dry fruit halwas and rice based dishes.

What to know
The political unrest of Kashmir has settled down in recent years; however, armed presence is still a part of Kashmir. Carry your identity documents at all times and stay within the tourist domain. Dress modestly, especially when you visit religious places in the state. Carry warm clothing even if you visit in summer.

Kashmiri handicrafts, pashmina shawls and carpets are shopping specials; if you plan to buy these at local markets, sharpen your bargaining skills before you enter the market. Be careful of guides or taxi drivers who seem to offer services at very reasonable rates; they will eventually lead you to shops that give them a commission on whatever you buy.

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