Guest travel writer Sophie Ibbotson and Max Lovell-Hoare are currently researching the Bradt Guide to Kashmir, which involves everything from trekking to remote Himalayan caves, to playing football with mini-monks in Ladakh’s Tibetan monasteries. Here’s their final instalment covering the wealth of activities available for those travelling to the area…
Talat Parvez is a man on a mission: to convince the world that Kashmir, for 20 years torn apart by Indo-Pak wars and militancy, is now the Himalayas’ hottest adventure tourism destination. Sensationalist media and lethargy amongst the diplomatic community, ever slow to update their travel advice, are substantial hurdles, but bit by bit the message is getting through. Kashmir is once again open for business.
The Vale of Kashmir and its floating capital of Srinagar has attracted visitors since the time of the Mughal Emperors. It was a playground for the British Raj, and then a key point on the Hippy Trail: George Harrison took his sitar lessons on a houseboat in Srinagar, and Led Zeppelin released ‘Kashmir’ in 1975.
Traditionally it’s been a place to come, relax and, if you’re lucky, find yourself, but with a hitherto under utilised Himalayan backdrop. With ski slopes, lakes, rivers and rock faces on your doorstep, adrenalin junkies too can drink their fill. Best of all, it’s accessible, affordable and, unlike in Nepal, you won’t be tripping over other foreigners everywhere you go.
Kashmir’s cultural and transport hub is the lakeside city of Srinagar. Buses wind their way along the mountain roads from the Punjab or Ladakh, and regular flights from Delhi start from around £35. Accommodation options range from the basic to the sublime, and even if you can’t afford to sleep afloat aboard a houseboat, hiring a shikara, the local equivalent of a gondola, enables you to explore the backwaters and lotus gardens for just £4 an hour.
How you get your thrills is dependent on three things: your interests; your budget; and the time of year. India’s premier ski resort is at Gulmarg, and though a new gondola has opened up far more of the mountainside, the ski season only really lasts until late March.
The snow may come and go but the mountains themselves are a permanent fixture. Nearby Ladakh and Zanskar have become high-profile trekking destinations with a loyal following of foreign tourists, but the same ranges continue west, with a substantial number of unclimbed peaks and virgin routes. As security has improved, areas formerly under army control are slowly re-opening, and even treks in the Karakoram are again becoming possible, a huge boon given the recent problems on the Pakistani side of the range.
Treks here offer all manner of attractions in addition to a natural beauty that cannot be understated. High-altitude lakes, that one day may be reached by flying boat from Srinagar, are for now accessible only on foot. Several of the lakes contain brown trout, introduced by the British in the 19th century, and it’s possible to get angling permits from Srinagar. Your only human contact up here in the hills will be with an occasional nomad and his flock; more common are encounters of an animal kind as even snow leopards and Himalayan black bear make Kashmir their home.
Glacier-fed rivers make for heart-in-the-mouth rafting and kayaking, and a few local companies have already sprung up to supply equipment and river guides. If you prefer your water less white, a new boat club is under construction between Nagin and Dal Lakes, and from 2014 it’ll be offering instruction in sailing and windsurfing as well as boat hire.
Last but not least, Kashmir is becoming a place where you can leave the earth entirely. You can paraglide in several places; helicopter hire, especially for heli-skiing, is a fraction of the cost elsewhere; and hot air balloons and sea planes will soon be punctuating the skies. From the air you can appreciate the scale of what Kashmir has to offer, though to experience it all first-hand you’ll still have to don your walking boots and be prepared to explore on foot.
Please note: tourists should check the Foreign & Commonwealth Office website for the latest travel advice prior to confirming their itinerary and also whether the area they are travelling to is covered by the Protected Area Permit regime.