Kashmir has long been on the travel destination radar and when the UK Foreign Office lifted their travel advisory in late 2012 indicating that it was now finally safe to visit it went to the top of the list. So it was with a sense of excited anticipation that we flew into Srinagar at midday having stopped en route at Jammu. We flew in up the valley with spectacular views of the snow-capped mountains on either side of us.
The sense of the crisis that is never far away in Kashmir was suggested when the plane was told to circle as there was military aircraft activity at the airport which also serves as a base for the Indian Airforce. As the only non-Indians on board – and we haven’t seen any non-Indians in the 24 hours we’ve been here – we found ourselves alone in the arrivals hall filling in immigration forms after all the other passengers had left, surrounded by armed soldiers, listening to the military jets screaming overhead. But this gives a false impression of the situation. The Kashmiris couldn’t have been more smiley and welcoming. Driving from the airport, however, the was a real sense of a city under occupation. There were soldiers in full body armour every few yards on the road into the city and a strong military presence everywhere.
The air outside was cold and needle-sharp and the sky hazy, a step into a different world after Delhi. The houses here are two or three storeys high, constructed of brick or wood or a combination of the two, with steep tin roofs. There is something of the feel of an Alpine village.
We were warmly greeted at the B H Bazaz guesthouse, just off the Boulevard on Dal Lake and its 1400 houseboats, with saffron tea and macaroons. We unpacked our things and set off for Pari Mahal, one of the many gardens created by the Mughals around the lake shore. Pari Mahal is set high above the lake on a clear day must offer a spectacular view of the town, lake and surrounding snow-clad mountains but a bright haze was limiting. We went on to visit more of the gardens and ended the afternoon with an hour long shikara trip. Shikara are the gondala-like boats that serve the houseboats as well as offering trips out on to the lake. The Kashmiri boatman is dressed in his pheran, a roomy woollen cloak, and uses a heart-shaped paddle to steer us. We sit huddled around the kangri, a clay pot filled with hot ashes. Kashmir in early March is cold.
As the sun went down we returned shivering to the icy room and put on the single bar heater and the electric blanket on the bed, neither of which seemed to offer much warmth, but we found a good, warm place to eat mutton tikka with yoghurt and mint and went to bed feeling that it had been a good day.