The mere act of setting foot on Indian soil is enough to launch the willing traveller onto an unforeseeable personal journey. India has a way of mesmerizing its visitors with both physical and mystical features, as well as varied, and often extreme, climes…
When this story begins, my husband, Jay, and I had just arrived in Delhi during a bitterly cold winter. After days of shivering in the murky mists of the city, warmer weather was a must.
We ventured out to the touristic Paharganj district of Delhi, merging with the throng of humanity bustling along the streets. To escape the biting wind, we ducked into the first travel office we saw along the row of ramshackle shops and kiosks. A handsome young fellow introduced himself as Ajaz and ushered us inside.
He offered to make our train reservation, then opened a large photo album and scooted it toward me. “While I print your tickets,” he said, “Let me get you some chai, and here, have a look at my home in Srinagar.”
We had never even dreamed of visiting Kashmir, and it was clearly not in our budget for this trip.
When the charismatic Ajaz stepped out to flag down one of the boys delivering chai on the streets, Jay (knowing me so well), jokingly whispered in an undertone, “Don’t even look at those photos; he’s going to try charming us into a trip to Kashmir, and we need to get warm!”
I agreed that this was most likely, and Kashmir in winter was a daunting image. But… it was not even remotely possible to keep from turning the pages and becoming enthralled with the gorgeous mountain landscapes of the famed region.
Ajaz continued his colourful exposition about Kashmir, and we learned that his family owned houseboats (houseboats!) on the illustrious Dal Lake.
While I sipped my chai and flipped through the album, Jay and Ajaz talked about Eco-tourism (our business specialty), which led to a lengthy cultural and spiritual discussion of life’s deeper conundrums.
As we took our leave, Ajaz told him, ”Uncle, you have helped me so much! I’m so happy to know you… please, visit me on my houseboat, as my personal guests? Can we keep in touch?”
It was hard to resist his smiling offer, but we’ve received countless invitations in India, some genuine and some not. And, besides, it was winter!
But he seemed sincere, so we thanked him for his generosity, exchanged emails, and took off for Rajasthan.
We were still in India, this time attempting to endure the scorching Rajasthani summer temperatures topping at 49°C (120″F) – oh, the Indian extremes!
I’d been suffering from varying phases of heatstroke with no relief in sight. After trying everything possible to help, Jay suggested we should finally accept Ajaz’s offer, which, over the two years, he had repeated several times. Surely, the cooler weather in the mountains would help me recover…
We slowly mustered our lethargic selves to pack and headed for Dal Lake, via bus to Delhi and a short flight to Srinagar.
With my first glimpse of the stunning lake and surrounding mountains, I felt like I’d been lifted out of a fiery underworld and transported to a celestial abode. It’s no wonder that Kashmir is also known as Jannat, or Heaven On Earth!
We arrived at Ajaz’s houseboat via shikara (water gondola) and stepped into an opulent scene from India’s past.
The houseboat was exquisite, with intricately hand-carved cedar archways and wood-panelled walls, a large salon with fine dining room furniture and thick Kashmiri carpets, crystal chandeliers, bedrooms with private bathrooms… a phenomenal floating hotel.
Ajaz’s right-hand man, Mohammed, took one look at me (I was alarmingly thin by this point) and immediately started fussing over us. Throughout our stay, we were treated royally – nourishing breakfasts, copious servings of tea, luscious fresh plums, peaches, and cherries (in India!), plus richly flavoured Kashmiri delicacies at mealtimes.
It was all quite unexpected and so uniquely wonderful. Kashmiri hospitality is legendary, and we observed that everyone who stayed on Ajaz’s two houseboats enjoyed splendid treatment.
The history of Kashmiri houseboats is fascinating, and typically, there’s more than one version of the story. Locals recount that as early as the 13th century, during the Mughal era, the wealthy built floating vacation homes on the lakes and entertained guests.
Another tale credits the British, who, forbidden by the monarch to purchase land and build homes, skirted the law by building floating homes on the lake.
A third telling involves a local merchant whose warehouse burned down, requiring him to store his stock in a boat on the lake. He built the boat up over time to become his house, then sold it to one of the British, starting a new business trend in the area.
Regardless of how they came to be, houseboats are an intrinsic part of Kashmiri heritage. In their heyday, there were 3000 Kashmiri houseboats on the 15+ kilometres of Dal Lake shoreline.
Over time, however, the art of houseboat building and repair is becoming lost, so houseboat numbers are now around 880.
Additionally, the inevitable pollution of the freshwater lake has required clean-up programs and efforts to keep the houseboats more sustainably on the lake for all to enjoy.
We spent our summer mornings lazing on the wide wooden deck of the houseboat in the fresh mountain air, admiring the stunning views of the lake and surrounding mountains, all while taking in the activity on the water.
Throughout the day, shikaras pass along the lake, selling various items. Without leaving our private terrace, we were offered everything from snacks (’cause even in heavenly Kashmir, you might get a hankering for a chocolate bar…) to flowers, vegetables, fruits, jewellery, and Kashmiri embroidered woollen shawls.
Ajaz arranged a shikara shopping tour for us, and we were enchanted by the entire excursion. Our comfy shikara, with padded seats and an awning for shade, traversed silent canals covered with fairy-like tree canopies.
We slipped through vast lotus farms, eventually reaching the busy floating markets that comprise the uncommon lake civilization.
Watching these hearty and smiling people go about their daily lives on the lake was fascinating! On the water, we visited hovering handicraft workshops, viewed fancy clothing stores and perused exotic spice markets.
You can even post a letter, drink kawah (Kashmiri spiced green tea) and have ice cream or fried goodies.
For a reasonable fee, it’s also possible to take an early morning or sunset shikara tour, a most delightful experience, if you prefer the hush of dawn or the serenity of sunset.
If you are adventuresome and want to visit some glorious areas for hiking and sightseeing, mini-trips from Srinagar take you even higher into the nearby mountains.
Popular spots include:
Gulmarg: a hill station outside of Srinagar, known for vast flower meadows, skiing and high-wire cable rides
Sonamarg: known as ‘the meadow of gold’ for its fantastic views and scenery, where you can visit a glacier, admire stunning views from an 3,352.80 meter (11,000 ft) high mountain pass, and have lunch in a forest village.
Pahalgam: a trekking area near the holy Amarnath pilgrimage site, where you can visit scenic parks, hike through beautiful Abu Valley, or hire a pony to ride through a dense forest and visit the impressive Liddur River.
Although you can easily reach and visit these areas on your own, they’re best visited with a guide, (Ajaz has his own amazing staff guide for these tours) both for safety and to enhance your excursion.
Our time in Kashmir was magical, and for us, a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The combination of mountain air, time, and loving care was perfect for healing my ills.
As we dragged our feet, hesitant to unravel the proven formula and go back down south to our work in the desert, a group arrived at the neighbouring houseboat with wondrous tales of Leh, Ladakh – even further and higher into the majestic Himalayas.
They extolled Ladakh’s glories, and we realized we might never have another chance to visit this apparently idyllic Tibetan Buddhist enclave in India. So, eventually, we made plans to go east, leaving heavenly Kashmir for Ladakh, the “Shangri-la of India”,… but that is an entirely different story.
Last Updated 23 June 2023