Tourism comeback: Guide to Srinagar
Srinagar, the summer capital of the India-administered state Jammu and Kashmir, is known for its natural beauty, charming people and occasional violent political unrest.
It's a heady combination that has intrepid travelers salivating.
Kashmir has faced separatist violence for 20 years. More than 40,000 people have been killed, according to the official count, but several human rights groups and other non-governmental organizations believe the number of dead is at least twice that amount.
India, Pakistan and China all control parts of the 222,770-square-kilometer region in the northern part of the Indian subcontinent.
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Tourists are returning to what was once a must-visit destination during the 1970s and 1980s. Kashmir attracted more than 1.3 million tourists last year and officials estimate the number will double in 2012.
Although it's crucial to double check the security situation in Kashmir before traveling there, locals will you tell you that foreign tourists should not be afraid. Srinagar is particularly welcoming with its elegant houseboats on Dal Lake, medieval-looking backstreets and surrounding Himalayan villages.
Thousands of first-time domestic tourists are lured by the region that is still known as "Paradise on Earth" and where many Bollywood films have been set.
But foreign tourists are comparatively rare. Your author only spotted about 40 foreigners on his recent two-week tour of Srinagar and Sonamarg. But those places were packed with Indian tourists.
The good news for tourists is they immediately attract offers of hospitality, bargains and friendship -- but some of that may be hard-selling by Kashmir's notoriously extroverted entrepreneurs.
The best time to visit is now because it snows in winter and gets uncomfortably cold. Though tourists do come for winter sports.
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What to do in Srinagar
If you stay on a houseboat or even if you choose not to, take a ride on a gondola-style shikara (pronounced "shih-CAR-ruh").
The ones used for public transport often include soft cushions and a small roof to shade passengers. A boatman with a heart-shaped wooden oar paddles the vessel.
For several hundred rupees, depending on your bargaining skills, a boatman will row you for hours across Dal Lake and nearby Nagin Lake, plus the meandering waterways among brick-and-wood homes built on tiny islands where food is grown among trees and tall grass.
A handful of passengers can fit on a public shikara and the boatman will stop if you want to eat or shop.
The center of Dal Lake also offers water-skiing in warm weather.
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Mosques and Shrines
Most mosques and shrines are open to non-Muslims and allow photography, though females are blocked from the best interior chambers.
The most visual of Srinagar's mosques can be experienced during an all-day tour by taxi. Mosques are also known as "masjid" and the spelling of their names varies on maps and in books.
Dastgir Sahib Shrine is a small treasure near Dal Lake, with a surprisingly colorful interior adorned with papier-mâché covering its columns and wall panels. This 250-year-old shrine shelters the relics of Pir Dastgir, a mystic Sufi saint.
Sufis are considered to be the most liberal among Muslims because they embrace music, poetry and other pleasures.
Unfortunately, the shrine was gutted in a fire that broke out on June 25, 2012. The relics of the saint are safe though as they were kept in a fire-proof vault.
Nearby, some people insist Jesus is buried at Rozabal Shrine after he survived crucifixion, wandered east and arrived in Kashmir, perhaps searching for some of the so-called "Lost Tribes" of Jews.
Many Muslim and other scholars have written books enthusiastically claiming this could very well be true. The shrine is permanently locked up, but you can peer through a window at its sarcophagus.
This is the only shrine where a big sign warns that photography is forbidden. A man perched in a next-door building will angrily shout if pull out a camera.
Also nearby is the Makhdoom Sahib Shrine, set on a hill with a good view of Srinagar. Some Muslims prostrate themselves in prayer while climbing the steps leading to the large building. Stalls lining the path sell inexpensive toys, clothes, Islamic books and other items.
The shrine's interior is alive with religious devotion, with people praying aloud while others sit cozily in niches and contemplate.
Shah Hamid Shrine, also known as Shah Hamadan Mosque, was Srinagar's first mosque, built in 1395 by a saint from Persia, Mir Sayed Ali Hamadni. It displays exquisite, intricate architecture.
Non-Muslims are allowed to enter just inside the front door from where the entire interior can be viewed. The inner walls and ceiling are adorned with painted papier-mâché.
How to get there:
Dastgir Sahib Shrine is in Srinagar's northern Khanyar neighborhood, on Ganderbal Road northwest of its junction with Hazratbal Road.
Rozabal Shrine is nearby, to the north on Hazratbal Road, north of its junction with Ganderbal Road, and south of Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Hospital.
Makhdoom Sahib Shrine is northwest of those two shrines. Follow Ganderbal Road northwest toward the Islamic College in the Nowhatta neighborhood and the shrine appears to the right.
Shah Hamid Shrine is south of the Nowhatta neighborhood, on the Jhelum River across the water from the Pather Mosque where the river curves west. Near Khoja Bazaar and south of the New Zaina Kadal Bridge.
It's flower power against a backdrop of Mogul architecture at Srinagar's various gardens built during the 17th century by Mogul emperors.
The Nishat and nearby Shalimar gardens on the banks of Dal Lake may be the best for a picnic on their spacious lawns and can easily be reached by local bus.
Repairs are currently underway to the fountains and man-made cascading streams which grace the terraces. Shalimar Garden -- "Abode of Love" -- is the most picturesque, built during the 1600s by Emperor Jahangir for his Queen Nur Jahan.
The interior of the big ornate chamber where they smooched is now covered with graffiti and needs fixing.
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Nishat Garden is on Nishat Harwan Road where it joins Fore Shore Road on the edge of Dal Lake. A very inexpensive, local bus frequently goes to and from town and stops at both gardens.
Shalimar Garden is farther away, northeast of Dal Lake on Nishat Harwan Road.
Entrance fee for each garden is Rs 10.
Lal Chowk is Srinagar's city square with shops and restaurants all around. Bazaars are on all sides of Lal Chowk, including the streets which border the square.
The name of each bazaar changes according to the narrow lanes which cut through their markets. There are smaller bazaars elsewhere in Srinagar, but Lal Chowk's are the best.
Around Residency Road in Lal Chowk is a bazaar where you can buy the bizarre, such as live tiny chickens dyed with day-glow colors.
From there, follow the Amira Kadal Bridge across the Jhelum River.
Off to your left, explore Goni Khan market and the Maharaja Bazaar where shops sell traditional clothes, jewelry, cheap toys, household items, and display cool graphic labels for food, rat poison and other products.
Lal Chowk is considered the heart of Srinagar and is the capital's town square and surrounding bazaar, set near a curve in the Jhelum River where Residency Road leads toward the Amira Kadal Bridge.
Only a few hours away by car, this 2,740-meter-high village is ideal for riding a hired pony slowly through the forest to the nearby Thajiwas glacier. Summer is a good time to go when the weather is cold but not freezing.
Horsemen will find you when you arrive, and they will also rent you rubbery boots to protect against the mushy glacier and an extra coat just in case clouds chill the sunlight.
At the behemoth glacier, vendors have set up tents and food. They will offer you rides on makeshift sleds hand-made of wood and a piece of carpet.
Men offering you a sled will scrunch you onto the tiny vehicle and use a rope to pull you up the glacier, while another man simultaneously pushes your back if need be.
It looks very absurd and strangely degrading because the glacier's angle is not steep. But most people lazily succumb and enjoy being dragged uphill.
A burly sled man will usually ride down the glacier with the passenger -- both crammed together during the 30 seconds or so of sledding. Skis are also available.
Sonamarg makes a fine day-trip but also offers several hotels, restaurants and an intriguing tiny village surrounded by forests.
The easiest way to get to and from Sonamarg is to hire a car and driver. The cars are easy to find, and if you ask your houseboat owner or hotel manager, they will arrange it for you. The journey takes about two or three hours and prices vary depending on your bargaining skills but should be around Rs 2,000 per person, one-way. Local buses are usually avoided because they take several hours.
What to buy in Srinagar
Kashmir's exalted Pashmina shawls are becoming rare, prompting local scientists to clone the Himalayan goats which produce the soft, delicate wool.
Dealers insist that only a real pashmina shawl can be twisted and pulled through a thumb-wide ring and they will perform this feat in their shops by yanking a shawl through a ring's hole.
Prices zoom from hundreds of dollars into the thousands when the shawls include hand-stitched embroidery.
For Pashmina shawls, visit Trueman, a quiet showroom in an upmarket lane downtown, around the corner from Ahdoo's Hotel & Restaurant (see below), 24 Polo View Road, between Residency Road and M. A. Road, +91 194 247 5006; firstname.lastname@example.org.
Much more affordable are Kashmir's endless papier-mâché boxes, vases, statues, tables and other shapes, available in a slew of sizes. They are painted with flowers, abstract designs, faces, animals and hunting scenes, and are durable if you don't crush them.
Papier mache is everywhere, so probably any piece you like will be relatively comparable to elsewhere. M. Sidiq & Sons has some nice examples, if you are in the neighborhood. 18 Polo View Road, between Residency Road and M. A. Road, +91 194 245 5116.
Silk carpets are among Kashmir's most fabulous creations and cost hundreds or thousands of dollars.
Kashmir's wool carpets are less expensive and more practical. You may want to avoid rugs which include cotton threads as these are not long-lasting. Look for a telltale white fringe on either end of the carpet to know that it has been made with cotton.
Where to stay in Srinagar
Luxury: LaLiT Grand Palace Srinagar
Previously the maharajas' palatial residence, this opulent hotel overlooks Dal Lake with five-star quality rooms, restaurants and other amenities.
Includes a spa, heated indoor swimming pool, lawn tennis and is adjoined by an 18-hole golf course.
Built in 1910, it hosted Britain's colonial Viceroy Lord Mountbatten in 1947 before being converted to a hotel in 1956. Provides a "baby sitting facility" and Internet-linked, 24-hour business center. Rooms offer TV, Wi-Fi, minibar, telephone and other features.
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Gupkar Road, Srinagar; +91 11 4444 7474, +91 11 4444 7089; email@example.com; from Rs 11,500 single, Rs 12,000 double per night; www.thelalit.com
Mid-range: Ahdoo's Hotel & Restaurant
Located in the heart of Srinagar along the Jhelum river, Ahdoo's is on Residency Road which is the main thoroughfare for government offices, banks, restaurants and shops.
Ahdoo's is clean, friendly and professionally run with decades of experience hosting international tourists who enjoy no-nonsense service and quiet efficiency. The staid mood can be a welcome break from the garrulous activity out on the streets. Rooms include telephone and TV.
Residency Road, Srinagar; +91 194 247 2593; firstname.lastname@example.org; from Rs 2,500 per night; www.ahdooshotel.com
Budget: Peak View Hotel & Restaurant
Their simple but clean rooms include a TV and telephone and will enable you to feel like an insider, because not many foreigners stay here.
Modest frills and no air conditioning, but your stay should provide plenty of opportunities for conversations amid the friendly hospitality.
The location is perfect because its windows overlook Lal Chowk which is the main bazaar area and Srinagar's older neighborhood.
Lal Chowk, off Residency Road, Srinagar; +91 194 247 7038; from Rs 800 for a double; hotels@HotelsinSrinagar.co.in
Where to eat in Srinagar
Ahdoo's Hotel & Restaurant
Even if you don't stay here, this central hotel's restaurant is a traditional meeting place for fine, robust meals. Its wood-and-tile interior, old-world charm and well-dressed wait staff produce a hushed, intimate mood.
The mutton rogan josh is a classic and mixes elaborately seasoned lamb chunks with red chilies and other spices. Tender and surprisingly filling, especially with a side plate of freshly baked naan bread.
Other Kashmiri lamb dishes, such as gushtaba, include onions, cloves, cardamom, fennel, ginger, garlic and mint, plus yogurt to make a smooth, savory, nectar gravy.
Decadence can be found in their delicious phirini dessert made of milk, sugar, almonds and cardamom.
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Residency Road, Srinagar; +91 194 247 2593; email@example.com; www.ahdooshotel.com; mid-range
Peak View Hotel & Restaurant
Climb upstairs and enjoy tables with a great window view of Lal Chowk amid a basic ambiance without glitz.
The interior's look and feel is of an old building, airy and well-lit, with a TV turned on atop a shelf and perhaps some echoing chatter from nearby tables.
The menu is simple but keeps it real with paneer paired with potatoes, or spinach or other offerings.
Dal and other typical Indian dishes are well made here. Ask the staff to prepare your meal with "no oil" to avoid the grease used by many Kashmiris as a way of being generous in their frequently cold climate.
Lal Chowk, off Residency Road, Srinagar; +91 194247 7038; mid-range
Mummy Please Restaurant
Its modern, fast-food interior doesn't distract from the Kashmiri dishes on the menu. The place appears to attract a young-at-heart crowd who like the colorful decor. It also hopes to interest parents with children yearning for a fun place that isn't stodgy, chaotic or old-fashioned.
Basmati rice-based favorites include pulao and biryani, which includes lamb or chicken -- or vegetarian. Wazwan biryani is their specialty, and it is also Kashmir's most meaty meal. Traditionally, it is eaten with fingers, not silverware, and serves four people with multiple courses, including various spiced lamb dishes, vegetables and dessert.
The restaurant's "Chinese" choices loosely describe non-Indian recipes using chicken, garlic, chili and other sharp flavors, so don't expect familiar Chinese food but rather an amusing version where ingredients are casually substituted but an attempt is made to keep the theme.
Lal Chowk and a branch on Residency Road, Srinagar; +91 194 247 0879; mid-range
Naan in Kashmir is a thicker and more rectangular slab of baked bread compared with elsewhere in India and can be grabbed as a snack from a street stall. Great for chewing while walking, it staves off any distracting hunger while exploring the bazaars.
Eventually locate the burning, circular, vertical clay ovens where naan is cooked in hole-in-the-floor hovel bakeries. Not only will your naan be hot and fresh, but you will also see men and women kneading the dough and attaching it to the inside of a fiery tandoori-style oven using long metal thongs to fetch each piece when crisp.
Kashmiri tea, also known as kawa, is a soothing, hot green tea delicately tinged with cardamom and cinnamon.
Salesmen and others will frequently offer you a free cup while you check out their wares. Don't be shy to imbibe even if you ultimately don't buy anything in their shop.
Nightlife in Srinagar
Sleep well. Kashmir does not boast a nightclub or bar-hopping scene.
Conversation in a quiet, indoor setting such as your houseboat, hotel or restaurant is usually the best way to spend most evenings because Islamic tradition against public naughtiness -- especially intoxication or intimacy amongst strangers -- means Srinagar shuts down as darkness descends.
Liquor is sold in squalid shops stacked with Indian brands which attract men who crowd each other to grasp whatever is available before hurriedly departing.
If you hear music blaring at night, accompanied by colored lights strung on a building, that probably indicates a wedding party. You could try to politely crash it, because joyous hosts may be pleased that a rare foreign tourist is bringing cheer to the union.
Elsewhere at night, if you hear men loudly chanting, that is probably Muslims praying or Islamic teachers offering lessons. You would also be welcome to observe, but with much more formality and somberness, even if you don't participate.
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Security in Srinagar
Srinagar occasionally suffers a street protest in downtown Lal Chowk but violence on Dal Lake is virtually non-existent.
Many houseboat owners speak excellent English, so ask if anything untoward is happening.
While strolling the bazaars, eyeball the local newspaper headlines for reports about possible violence and upcoming protests.
Tourists who go on day-trips -- or longer visits -- higher in the Himalayas, usually pick the main towns of Pahalgam, Gulmarg, Sonamarg and other zones not targeted by the separatists.
You will be advised by tour guides, signs and roadblocks before you get too close to the off-limit villages near Pakistan and China.
Wherever you go in Kashmir, you will see plenty of soldiers and police armed with assault rifles. The good news is they are usually relaxed, not on high alert, because hostilities have cooled.
In Srinagar, "more than 40 security bunkers have been removed from the city so far," since 2010, thanks to the improved situation, the Press Trust of India news agency reported in April.
The stupidest thing a tourist could do in Kashmir would be to photograph, paparazzi-style, the security forces or strategic locations. Or offend Kashmir's Muslim residents who can be exuberantly friendly but strictly Islamic about "forbidden" behavior.
Sensitivity to what people around you are doing should guide you. Heed anyone yelling at you --except for touts trying to sell you stuff.