Written 700 years ago, poet Amir Khusrau’s writings on Kashmir still resonate fittingly.
“Gar firdaus, bar ruhe zamin ast,
hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin ast”
If there is paradise on this earth, it is here, it is here, it is here…
Activities Across Seasons:
It is often said that Kashmir is too beautiful to be real. However, its magic has withstood the passage of time, unrest, and uncertainty. The mystical land offers an exceptional array of options through the seasons, inviting travellers back over and over again.
Offbeat Tracks gets into the thick of it to provide you with a detailed travel guide to Kashmir.
The valley’s awe-inspiring allure serves as a strong foundation to funnel one’s inner creativity into great works of carefully-clicked snapshots. It provides an ideal destination for sightseers to capture landscapes blessed with culture, diverse topography, and history.
Chatpal: Neatly tucked away 90 kilometres from Srinagar, lies an unexplored, quaint town with unspoiled gorgeousness. Green carpets speckled with yellow wildflowers, azure skies, unsoiled streams, imposing mountains, and the strong scent of pine trees, greet the visitor. With natural beauty at its purest, it sets a faultless backdrop to capture memories on film, for a lifetime. There are rows of apple and walnut orchards in this isolated paradise. One can cross the stream by walking over the bridge to reach the village of Thimran. Friendly locals in mud houses treat travellers to steaming hot tea.
Accommodation in Chatpal is very limited. There is a small cottage, overseen by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department, with no electricity. A caretaker cooks food, which is enjoyed by candlelight.
Quiet, still, and serene, Chatpal is an ideal spot to breathe in the fresh air and reenergize before heading back to the chaotic city life.
Dachigam National Park: 22 kilometres away from Srinagar, lies a sanctuary that is chockfull of flora and fauna. Travellers see a park located amongst the Himalayan mountains, alpine trees, gleaming waterfalls, blue poppy flowers, and grassy meadows. Spread over 141 square kilometres, the park was a former game reserve of the erstwhile Maharaja and has been a protected area since 1910. ‘Dachigam’ means ten villages. These settlements had to be relocated for the preserve that is home to the endangered Hangul or Kashmir stag, today. The thickly wooded mountainside is interspersed with bright flowers and shrubbery, and deep ravines, known as nars, run down the mountains.
The topography of the park is divided into upper and lower regions, due to the extreme range of altitudes ranging from 5,500 ft to 14,000 ft. Gentle grasslands give way to rocky cliffs and the splendour of the forest changes with each season. The lower area is more accessible to visitors and the autumnal season is characterized by the mating calls of the deer. Vehicles are not allowed inside the park and one has to hire golf carts to visit the reserve. There are several species of herbs, trees, shrubs, and wildlife, to click. The park is a golden spot for bird watchers with numerous types of birds such as golden oriole, pygmy owlet, and Kashmir flycatcher, to name a few.
Accommodation is limited. The forest department maintains two rest houses here.
Trekking and Camping
The elegance of Kashmir’s countryside is best explored on foot. It gives the visitor an occasion to savour and explore the many facets of the diverse scenery.
Kashmir Great Lakes: The trek across a collection of five mountainous lakes at an elevation of nearly 14,000 feet, flowing lazily across different valleys, hovers between easy to moderate. The hike is a visual feast with changing geography from snow-capped mountains, sparkling glaciers, and vibrant streams to lush meadows packed with wildflowers and untamed wildlife. It offers the trekker truly spectacular panoramic views, fit for a painting.
The rocky terrain of the trek is 69 kilometres long and the route usually takes about eight days to conclude. The best time for the hike is between June to September. The trek commences a few kilometres out of Sonamarg with the picturesque Nichnai Pass being the first high-altitude mountain pass and ends at Naranag. The route traverses snow-fed, turquoise lakes, the first being Vishansar – holding special significance for Kashmiri Hindus, followed by its twin, Krishansar Lake. Gadsar Lake comes next, also known as the ‘lake of fishes’, and the highest mountain pass of the trek, Gadsar Pass, is located here, offering views of towering mountain peaks and verdant meadows. The walk further leads to Satsar Lake, a group of 7 lakes, and finally, terminates in Gangabal Lake – the largest and most revered of the lakes. It is on the itinerary of the Harmukh Ganga Pilgrimage. The entire trail passes through bio-diverse regions, and trekkers can often see a variety of wildlife, including musk deer, and snow leopards.
Tarsar Marsar Trek: A relatively secluded trek, the Tarsar Marsar trail is a relatively easier terrain to navigate, compared to the ‘great lakes trek’. Lying deep in the Pahalgam Valley, it is a shorter trail requiring fewer days. Starting from the tranquil peace of Aru village, the hike opens to the flower-laden clearings of Lidderwat, the undulating mountains of Shekwas, and finally to the emerald blue waters of Tarsar and Marsar lakes.
The campsites are right next to the pristine lakes, with lofty mountains in the background, showcasing the timeless beauty of Kashmir. The colours of the water change depending on the weather, and season. The locals call this landscape the heart of Kashmir.
Fishing and Angling
Kashmir’s enormous network of rivers, high-altitude lakes, and streams, flourish with aquatic life. The valley is often referred to as an Anglers Paradise.
Trout Fishing: Brown and rainbow trout thrive in the transparent, cold waters of Kashmir. Anglers across the globe throng the valley in the angling season from April to September. The appeal of fishing is strengthened by the loveliness of the vivid green and blue surroundings.
Trout is abundantly present in all the streams of the valley and there are ‘trout beats’ to catch prized fish. The popular trout streams are Lidder, Bringi, and Aharbal. The Lidder river particularly, with its crystal blue waters, is especially popular for aspiring and expert anglers.
However, there are rules for angling and it is not allowed without a licence or permit. The licence is valid for 24 hours and can be booked online. There is a per-day angling fee as well. The Directorate of Fisheries is also particular about the number of fish per bag and no sharing of fish is allowed. Anglers can book lodges through the Directorate which are allotted subject to availability.
Skiing and Snowboarding
Kashmir’s white winter itinerary invariably includes ski runs and steaming cups of kahwah. The festive air of the holiday season lends a joyful note to one’s travelogue.
Skiing in Gulmarg: Located at an impressive altitude and only slightly over an hour’s drive from Srinagar, lies the renowned town of Gulmarg, with its even more famous ski resort. With the gigantic framework of the Pir Panjal mountain range and pine-laden trees serving as background scenery, the unique, powdery snow runs become particularly exceptional.
The ski season runs from December through April, and different sections of the slopes can be navigated by beginners and seasoned skiers alike. There are options for off-piste, heli-skiing, and cross-country skiing.
The base of the majestic Apharwat mountain holds the fulcrum of the skiing experience. It is split into two phases and served by a two-stage gondola lift. Phase 1 connects the Gulmarg resort to Kungdori station, which is accessible by the gondola lift. In Phase 2 the gondola lift connects Kungdori to Apharwat peak, located at nearly 14,000 feet, with stunning views.
Snow Sports in Gulmarg: For a boost of adrenaline, snowmobile operators offer high-speed rides for 45 minutes, close to the LOC. Ice skating, sledging, and quad bikes are also popular, fun alternatives.
It is imperative, however, to either carry or rent adequate gear. Rental shops for ski equipment can be easily recognised and it is advisable to lease ski kits from here. As the ski terrain can be tricky, ski guides and instructors are highly recommended.
Kashmir was a pivotal centre of religion in pre-historic times and several, beautiful temples were dedicated to different Hindu deities. Most of these ancient temples were dedicated to Lord Shiva and Shaivism was widely practised in the region. Although most of these temples lie in ruins, few are functional even today.
Loduv Temple: Located on a hillock in the village of Loduv, 16 kilometres from Srinagar, sits an ancient shrine of Shiva, dating back to the 8th century. It is one of the earliest stone temples in Kashmir and the design is typical of temples from the period, with a trefoil entrance. The interior is circular with idols placed inside, whilst the external portion is square in shape. The stone shrine is in the middle of a low water tank, which gets water from a natural spring. A wooden walkway connects the entrance to the shrine. The roof, which is missing, was presumably pyramidical.
Locals from all faiths offer the first milk of a cow that has just given birth, to the Nag, as they believe these ancient temples protect the Kashmiri people.
Sugandesha and Shankaragaurishvara temples: The twin temples, dedicated to Lord Shiva, were commissioned by King Sankarvarman from the Utpala dynasty, in the 9th century. They were built in his capital city, Shankarapattana, present-day Patan in the Baramulla district, 27 kilometres away from Srinagar. The temples have been documented by Kalhana, a famous Kashmiri poet, in his work – ‘Rajatarangini’.
The Sankaragaurishvara shrine was named after the king and the temple’s entrance porch and columns are intricately carved with sculptures. The plinth of the shrine has a colonnaded design forming a cellular path. Only remnants can be seen today.
The smaller temple was built by the king in honour of his wife and was named after her. The Sugandesha shrine covers an area of 12 feet 7 inches square. It is made of clay-limestone blocks. It stands on a double pedestal with a front porch. It is open on one side with typical external trefoil niches on the other 3 sides. Fluted columns, brackets, and figures remain in the courtyard. The interior and exterior walls of the temple are covered with intricate carvings.
Chinar-lined gardens surround the temples and today there are no idols present in either shrine.
Pandrethan: Locally known as ‘Paani Mandir,’ this 9th-century ancient temple built by Meru Vardhana – minister to King Partha – is located about 5 kilometres away from Srinagar. Pandrethan was at one time, the old capital of Kashmir. Dedicated to Lord Vishnu, the temple is well maintained and regular prayers are conducted here.
The stone shrine sits in a square-shaped water tank and its domed roof is carved and chiselled out of a single block of stone. The temple houses several deities, but most of the idols are those of Lord Shiva. The temple’s rounded roof and arches reflect a classic example of Kashmiri architecture. The temple is a small part of a bigger temple complex and retrieved architectural sculptures have been displayed in a park behind the temple.
The river Jhelum flows a few yards away and massive Chinar trees offer ample shade to the surroundings.
Shikara Ride and Houseboat Stay
The two most recognised heritage emblems of Kashmir are its floating houses and shikara rides. Many a Hindi film song has romanticised these cultural symbols, cementing them in the public’s memory forever.
Shikara: Similar to Venetian gondolas, shikaras are light, long wooden boats that are a familiar sight on Kashmir’s lakes. They are used for a variety of reasons, the chief amongst them being tourism. However, even today, shikaras are used for fishing, seaweed harvesting, and transportation.
Shikara rides on Dal lake and Nigeen lake have been immortalised in films and navigating these boats on placid waters, against the setting of majestic mountains, and passing through celebrated spots like the Shalimar Gardens and the Hazratbal Mosque, make a memorable experience. Away from the hustle and bustle of crowds, one can also indulge in bird watching whilst out on a shikara ride. Pre-dawn rides include witnessing the famous floating vegetable and flower markets. Even handicrafts and shawls are sold on these boats and after tiresome price negotiations, one can indulge in breakfast in these boats as well.
The cost of the ride ranges from INR 100 for very short distances to INR 4000, to navigate around the entire lake.
Houseboats: The legendary floating houses anchored and docked on the banks of Dal and Nigeen lakes, are emblematic of Kashmir. The art of making houseboats is passed down through generations exhibiting the fine workmanship of Kashmiri artisans. They are ornamented with an exquisite display of wood carvings featuring icons representative of Kashmiri life.
The houseboats usually have a few rooms with windows overlooking the chilly waters of the lake. The prime allure is the sit-out ‘verandah’ with a splendid view of the valley. Kashmiri hospitality and delectable food seal the experience. Prices of houseboats vary according to categories. A standard houseboat charge per night ranges between INR 4000- 5000, whilst luxury houseboats offering meals and butler service cost between INR 15,000- 20,000 per night.
The British are often credited with introducing houseboats in Kashmir. When they arrived, they weren’t allowed to buy land in Kashmir, and so as an alternative, they built boats on the water, which in time became a part of local sightseeing. However, early Kashmiri literature dating back to the 13th century, mentions the existence of houseboats, and they were a haven even during floods, as the houses merely had to float in the water.
Cuisine and Souvenirs
One’s visit to Kashmir is incomplete without sampling its famed cuisine and shopping for artefacts. Armloads of handicrafts are usually carried back by travellers!
Food: The typical Kashmiri’s generosity and warmth are inextricably linked to offering guests gastronomic delights. Kashmir has an excellent range of breads and numerous family-run bakeries bake bread in the traditional way in clay ovens. Girda (medium-sized round bread), Lavasa (an unleavened thin flatbread), and Roth (cake-like sweet bread covered with dry fruits) are all staples on the Kashmiri dining table.
Srinagar is also known for its street food. Nadir Monji (lotus stem coated in rice flour) and Monji Gaade (a snack made of fish), are particularly handy as snacks. Elaborate culinary dishes such as Yakhni (lamb cooked in curd-based sauce), Rogan Josh (lamb cooked in red sauce), and Goshtaba (extra-minced meatballs cooked in a creamy sauce) are all standout dishes to try, to be washed down with the quintessential kahwah.
Shopping: A trip to Kashmir is incomplete without retail therapy. Many hand-painted objects and embroideries depict and are motivated by regional vegetation. Hand-knotted carpets, walnut wood carvings, papier mâché products, Pashmina shawls, and saffron are some of the memorable reminders to carry back home.
Budgeting a trip to Kashmir will depend on several factors revolving chiefly around the mode of transportation, accommodation, duration of stay, and the season for travel. Srinagar is well-connected to most major cities across the country and is typically the base for a traveller’s tour.
Whatever the itinerary, Kashmir’s bewitching beauty will always charm and beguile the vacationer to visit yet again. Tell us what you want to experience in this magical land and Offbeat Tracks will map out the perfect travel guide for your trip to Kashmir.
Naiyya Singh has been an avid traveller for as long as she can remember. Her hunger for travel started young. Her father being in the armed forces had postings in several stations across the country. She followed her appetite for exploring new cultures and cuisines, when she joined Air India as cabin crew, for 11 years. Post her stint in the airline, she worked at The Print, a digital news organisation, and handled marketing and events. Her love for discovering new lands remains intact.