Who has not heard of the vale of Cashmere, with its roses the brightest that earth ever gave its temples, and grottos, and fountains as clear as the love-lighted eyes that hang over their wave.
- Thomas Moore, Lalla-Rookh
Expecting machine gun bunkers, I was pleasantly surprised to just stroll out from the airport in Srinagar into any other Indian town except with air-the fresh, soft alpine! I am surely not in India with trucks and taxis barreling down on you. Instead, I arrived in a land of gardens and lakes that's been put on hold of Indian urban sprawl for the last 20 years, not out of choice, but be that as it may I would say dash there and enjoy it while it lasts.
Muzaffar, the owner of Kashmir Caravans who led tours around the world before he came back home to set up shop in Srinagar, met me at the airport. Muzaffar did a brilliant job organizing my trip around the region and immediately we were battling back and forth like crickets trading stories of distant lands we had both traveled-oh yes Fergana Valley weavers are intense. And the souks of Damascus don't get lost in them… etc.
On my first day we headed out to see the famed Mughul gardens. The garden is well-tended and lined with clean rows of dahlias, cocks combs, roses, chrysanthemums, marigolds, pansies, dog flowers and straw-flowers all standing at attention as water gurgled up from the fountains and couples posed for snaps.
After the gardens I took a small launch from the ghat (which just means landing but I like the word) to the houseboat I stayed on, The Sukoon. It is one of the few upmarket boats, subtly redone with a well-trained staff and it’s anchored at the end of the lake without any other boats to obstruct your view of the mountains. I was just in time to sit up on the deck and have a cup of chai as the sun set- I can see why the Brits stayed here for months on end during the summers!
The next day we went to a local crafts fair called Farmers Market Art & Crafts Bazar that is usually held every two Sundays at the Almond Villa owned by the daughter (Joyti Singh) of Maharaja Karan Singh. The fair trade featured local artisans selling crafts ranging from almond honey to felted rugs. You must try the home cooked Biryani and Kashmir apple pie they sell.
Muzaffar then led me on a jaunt through the old city, first to the Nakashband Sahib, a famous Sufi shrine with a very intriguing pagoda style of architecture. Continuing we next went to the Jamai Mosque with features a massive central courtyard and miles of prayer rugs. Lastly we stopped at the Shah-I-Hamdan mosque which was in full swing with many supplicants due to Eid, and the mosque was decked in piney green prayer clothes fluttering like the flocks of pigeons.
I was fortunate to be invited back to Muzaffar’s stately home for a real Kashmir home cooked lunch, which is always a treat. Seated on the floor, the dishes kept coming and if you are non veg don't miss the mutton in Kashmir it’s their specialty.
After lunch I did some shopping and first on the list was Muzaffar shop called Andraab, which also has locations in Delhi Jaipur and Udaipur. The shop features creatively designed Kashmir scarves and throws and with the strong dollar it’s a steal right now!
Down the street is the first studio Mahatma & C photography since 1915. They still sell lovely black and white postcards and old equipment while a charming proprietor.
The perfect end of the day is a ride along the back canals by boat. The boat is paddled by two fellows chatting in Kasmiri while I lounge back and we pass through the narrow back lanes of the lake where farmers grow vegetables, shop keepers smile as you pass them by, girls paddle in other boats on errands and cover their heads when you see them, kingfishers flit from tree to tree, and pops of moving color and life seems to be stopped in another century.
Sukoon House Boat 91-9910025022
Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, and Kashmir Caravans with Muzaffar Andrabi
Mahatta & Co. and Suffering Moses