Srinagar 'The Dal Lake and Valley of Eagles'

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March 30th 2009
Published: April 11th 2012
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Budget travellers can avoid the cost of flying in to Srinagar from Delhi by taking the winding road up from Jammu to observe the spectacular terraced agriculture and gushing river valleys of Kashmir state. It is a crammed highway, however, and the views can be eclipsed by outrageous and unnerving driving manoeuvres. Regarding the insurgency, the safest and quickest options are the somu mini-vans. Having completed mandatory registration with Indian officials, crossing into the Kashmir valley past the bright mustard fields and piles of Kashmir Willow cricket bats, approaching what has been in recent years the highest battlefield on earth, is a remarkable experience. Numerous proud signposts greeting you to “Kashmir Valley - Paradise on Earth” are often ironically framed by armed soldiers. If military presence deters you then Srinagar should be avoided. Throughout the valley the Indian army is in abundance.

In Srinagar the stark change from Hindu to Islamic architecture, often accompanied by the tobacco fumes of a state where alcohol is taboo, is complemented by enormous numbers of eagles swooping regally over every site. Streets are dominated by welcoming, approachable Kashmiri men, but here hospitality is entwined with religion so the innate friendliness of locals can lead to one shelling out extortionate amounts of rupees. Surrounded by a mountainous backdrop of unrivalled epic beauty, the famous Houseboat accommodation on the Dal Lake can be enchanting, provided that you research the options without touts intervening. The North East houseboats, behind the obvious and immediate ‘Boulevard’ options, best cater for budget travellers, removed from loud domestic tourists splashing their disposable income.Shikara (skiff) salesmen will cruise by selling sugary foods and more contraband items. Houseboat owners are best at extorting money from wealthier and mid-range travellers so to avoid trouble make it obvious initially that you are a budget traveller.

If houseboats don’t appeal the best budget accommodation and economical restaurants are by the Skybiz internet café just off the boulevard. Waiting for Shikaras can be a time consuming affair and can also mean extra propaganda time for your incredibly hospitable houseboat owner, turned tout, to pressure you into a personal tour by creating some yarn about the area’s dangers. The on-land government tourist reception centre has efficient advice and exposes any houseboat myths.

The Mughal gardens besetting the Eastern lake shore, especially Nishat Bagh, have the most astonishing sunsets in the Valley with a perfect mirror lake panorama, which does not occur at the more popular elevated Pari Mahal ruins. Shrewdly visiting the rock based Hindu temples in Srinagar is also exceptionally gratifying, because as a tiny minority the local Hindus reward support with unmatched friendliness. To treat yourself, restaurants along the boulevard serve Kashmir’s famous mutton in high quality Rogan Josh. Late nights are not possible due to the region’s strict Islamic timetable, so evenings are best spent relaxing in your houseboat, with the local specialty cinnamon tea, meeting locals who tend to have fascinating stories of the city’s turbulent past.

Finally search for signs in Srinagar. There’s many an English faux-pas, some the most comical in India. The Indian Border Roads Organization also place humorous signs every kilometre up the Jammu-Srinagar road:

After Whiskey, Driving Risky!

Heaven, Hell or Mother Earth you choose!

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