A restored historic road, revision of the British FCO's travel restrictions, record visitor numbers – could troubled Kashmir be back on the tourist map, asks Amar Grover
Tell me, sir, you’re enjoying your stay, everything comfortable?” I’d been in town barely an hour when my visitor arrived. He was a policeman, friendly and polite; we chatted as he examined my passport. I was in the small Kashmiri town of Rajouri, roughly midway between Jammu, below on the dusty plains, and Srinagar, celebrated Kashmiri capital of lakes and houseboats.
All was well. For now, at least, one of Asia’s most contentious regions is enjoying some tranquillity. It’s happened before, of course. Peace has erupted in the recent past only for some infraction – major or minor, real or imagined – to reignite the streets, the soldiers and the politicians. Yet in 2011 Kashmir enjoyed a record 1.2 million tourists (mainly Indian), while Taj Hotels opened the first luxury property the state has seen since way back in 1957.
“But why was I in Rajouri?” the policeman asked, handing me back my passport. A fair question, as it’s never featured on Kashmir’s modern tourist circuit. That now seems set to change: I’d taken this route to drive the recently opened old ‘Mughal Road’.
The first travellers to visit Kashmir’s fabled vale were not Raj-era grandees and fusty colonials but the great Mughals who ruled much of north India from the early 16th century to 1857. Despite their architectural prowess and skill with gardens, they also relished escaping the plains’ blistering summer heat. Journeying through the Punjab from Lahore and Delhi, they developed an already existing trail across the Himalaya, augmenting the route with caravanserais so the emperor and his retinue could camp in comfort.
In recent years, with militancy ebbing, Kashmir’s state government has made the Mughal Road motorable. Its aim is to provide an alternative to the long-standing yet inherently vulnerable road up to Srinagar, which is prone to rock falls and snow drifts, and increasingly sees epic traffic jams. Although sections of the Mughal Road are still fairly rough and frankly unready, what used to be an arduous 15-hour drive to Srinagar for some Kashmiris is now little more than five.
That morning I’d flown to Jammu. An hour later I was high on the ramparts of Akhnoor Fort, gazing at the silvery-blue River Chenab as it emerged from the Himalayan foothills onto the hot, hazy Punjab. Skiffs were being punted across the river while bells pealed from a nearby temple – a charming, bucolic scene.
We plunged deeper into lush hills where troupes of macaques foraged. Joining the original Mughal Road near Naushahra, we turned north up a slender valley and paused at Chingus caravanserai. Its peculiar name – derived from the Persian for intestines – originates with Emperor Jahangir, who died here in 1627 while returning from Srinagar. Fearful of unrest, the wily Empress Nur Jahan (the most famous of his 20 wives) disguised Jahangir’s passing by removing his intestines, embalming his corpse and perching it upright on an elephant just long enough to reach Lahore. Resembling a high-walled fortress, Chingus remains largely intact, and occasional passing traffic fails to dampen its extraordinary, almost sinister, atmosphere.
Leaving Rajouri early next morning, we headed further into the valley. Slender suspension bridges linked hamlets lapped by terraced fields of wheat and corn. Pillboxes dotted the hillsides, but despite the occasional army camp, the security presence felt surprisingly low-key.
Having gained the forested Rattan Pass and plunged to the Suran River, the new road valiantly negotiates boulder-choked ravines and gullies. Amid tortuous hairpin bends, it claws its way to the 3,491m Pir Panjal Pass; most travellers pause to say prayers at a modest shrine to a Muslim saint and enjoy the views. A few kilometres beyond the road is Aliabad, home to one of the route’s best-preserved and loneliest serais, before descending to the warmth and greenery of the Vale of Kashmir.
More than ever, Srinagar has a clear tourist circuit, with expansive Dal Lake at its heart. The Mughals built several beautiful gardens that drop gently towards the lake; for them, this was paradise on earth. The gardens are currently on UNESCO’s list of ‘Tentative’ World Heritage sites.
The famed houseboats on the lake still boast fanciful names, many drawing on their Raj pedigree. Paddling in a shikara (think canopied water taxi) from Nehru Park jetty to my own Royal Palace houseboat, I passed the Savoy, Ark Royal and an ambitiously named Buckingham Palace. The best of these floating hotels have such extravagances as chandeliers, pine panelling and tea and biscuits on demand.
Although houseboats remain popular, few are being built now because of their cost. “Price of cedar wood – essential for these boats – is maybe 30 times what was in the late 90s,” explained Gulam Karnai, my houseboat’s worldly proprietor. “That’s around three crore rupees for one boat.” In UK money that’s an eye-watering £350,000.
Strolling through the old city, I entered a less picture-postcard but still authentically Kashmiri world. Ajaz, my guide, took me first to the Jama Masjid, the town’s oldest mosque. Behind its austere brick walls, 378 huge cedar pillars support four lofty halls with space for 33,333 worshippers. Now it was still and silent, the solemn atmosphere enhanced by the mosque’s simple yet elegant symmetry.
Ajaz explained how surrounding streets had often been a focal point for unrest and demonstrations. Many downtown areas still bear subtle scars of conflict, such as bullet-chipped masonry, but I saw, too, how once-sandbagged sentry boxes with gun emplacements were now unused. Virtually every local agreed that tension has eased
and that the military has stepped back, if not down.
We moved on to Dastageer Sahib, a shrine to a medieval Sufi saint whose ceilings were
a beautiful confection of papier-mâché scrollwork, floral designs and traditional wood panelling assembled without nails; here I saw pious men singing hearty hymns over offerings of dates and sweets. Since my visit, a tragic fire in June 2012 ravaged the place, though its relics have been saved.
I’d wanted to see Rozabal, the nondescript tomb of a Muslim preacher. A tiny credulous fringe of Westerners believes it’s the burial place of Jesus, a notion sparked by a 19th-century Russian aristocrat. “You can’t go there now,” Ajaz told me apologetically, explaining that so many visitors had turned up with jumbled ideas – some even called
it a church – that piqued locals promptly had it closed.
If this was a far-fetched example of local sensitivities, my visit to Hari Parbat Fort was rather more telling. Dominating a hilltop near Srinagar, the romantic-looking fortress was largely built by an Afghan governor and is a perpetual reminder of their brief yet brutal rule over Kashmir. It’s also a sacred place, with several Muslim, Hindu and Sikh shrines dotted below.
For years the fort has been under police control and closed to casual visitors; I’d arranged permission to enter. I climbed steps to a check post with my new guide Ishtiaq, and showed my permit to an officer. Reluctantly, he waved us through.
Inside the muscular walls and decaying courtyards, it wasn’t as imposing as I’d thought, though there were fine views.
“A few years ago it re-opened to the public,” said Ishtiaq as we strolled into a breezy bastion, “but after some months it closed.” As locals came, word spread that in contrast to its Hindu shrine, a small mosque within the complex had been ill-maintained – or possibly even vandalised – by security forces. In a place where perception is all, tensions mounted so the fort was again closed.
Returning to my houseboat in this sadly contested region, I couldn’t help thinking of Emperor Jahangir. Nearing death and asked what he cherished most, he reputedly said: “Kashmir, the rest is worthless”.
The British Foreign and Commonwealth Office (FCO) has very recently lifted its advice against travel to Jammu and Srinagar in Indian-administered Kashmir. You can find out more about the current situation here. Ask your insurance company if your policy will be valid if you travel to Kashmir; you may need to arrange special cover.
UK nationals require a visa for India. Apply online at in.vfsglobal.co.uk; you need to submit forms, photos, fees and passports either by post or in person at one of several visa-processing centres.
A six-month tourist visa costs £32 plus £10.20 service fee. Processing time is usually three to four working days (longer for postal applications).
Apr-Aug: Spring and summer see hot days (typically 25-30°C). The Vale of Kashmir is shielded from much of the July-August monsoon; March-May is wettest.
Sept-Oct: Autumn is the best time to visit: warm days, cool nights, clear skies. Srinagar gets especially crowded during the Dussehra and Diwali festivals.
Nov-Mar: Winter; few visitors but beautiful snowy vistas.
The author travelled with Indus Tours, which can tailor itineraries to Kashmir and the rest of India. A five-night Mughal Road itinerary, including one night in Rajouri, two in a Dal Lake houseboat and two at the Taj Vivanta Srinagar, plus Delhi-Jammu and Srinagar-Delhi flights, transfers from Jammu via the Mughal Road and all sightseeing, starts at £630pp. Day excursions to Gulmarg (from £58pp) and the spectacular Zoji Pass (from £70pp) can be added. Jet Airways flies Heathrow-Delhi daily (from £597 return; 8.5hrs), with onward connections to Jammu (70mins) and Srinagar (80mins).
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