The name Kashmir stirs exotic images of spices and mountains, of a far-off land caught in a political tug-of-war and of a culture balanced between mountain purity and hectic urban bustle. My husband and I wanted to see it for ourselves. Although the Canadian Government’s travel advisory warned against all travel to Kashmir, the current situation seemed calm. Before heading to this northwestern union territory, we checked with a few local contacts who all confirmed that besides a lot of security checkpoints and military presence, they felt comfortable going there. Plus we wouldn’t be trekking, which we figured should lower the chance of needing to use our travel insurance - coverage is void if travelling to a location against our government’s advice. So, with a window of opportunity, we went. And I can whole-heartedly say, I am glad we did.
~ If you are considering going, please check the current situation and your own government’s travel advisory to make an informed decision. ~
Srinagar is a great base for exploring the region. Our guesthouse would have arranged a car and driver for any day trips we may have wanted to do, such as to the nearby valley of Sonamarg. For longer treks, I recommend the excellent White Magic Adventures who we recently finished spending three months trekking with on their inaugural Great Himalayan Trail (“GHT”)-India expedition.
For this visit, we chose a slower pace and stayed within the city of Srinagar.
From Raj Bagh, the old city took an hour to reach on foot. Busy streets full of blaring horns and friendly locals made it a welcoming yet wearying walk. We meandered down narrow streets and curved around old mosques. Fruit stalls sat beside clothing shops. Housewares shared shelves with hair dryers and face creams. This older section gave a sense of Srinagar’s historical architecture and its distinctively creative nature. Bay windows and boxed extensions often jutted out from houses. Higher floors might be wider than lower levels. Brick walls intermingled with wooden beams and the occasional brightly coloured tin roof added a touch of ramshackle charm to the neighbourhood.
Buildings in the old city are protected, and new structures that displace any traditional buildings must go through a lengthy approval process. Hence, I never saw one new building during our entire morning of wanderings. But there were a heck of a lot of renovation and maintenance projects going on.
Over by Dal Lake where the lake itself was dense with vegetation and overgrown with tourist houseboats, sidewalks lined the main road. These paths offered a slightly easier route to stroll compared to the old city. As the focal point for most visitors to Srinagar, the Dal Lake area brimmed with toutes offering rickshaws, shikaras (covered boats hand-propelled by a private oarsman), restaurants and any other service you may—or may not—want. There were some good fresh fruit sellers and Kashmiri products available from a row of shops near the gateway to the lake. In my opinion and for most shopping needs, City Mall along MA Road and the surrounding shops of Lal Chowk offered more charm and interesting wares.
14th Avenue Cafe and Grill’s mug of Lavazza coffee turned out to be worth the detour on our morning walk. This cafe sits across from a wide brick pathway that follows the southern side of the Jhelum River, just southeast of the Lal Chowk district. The lack of motorcycles and drooping electrical wires to duck under made this sidewalk a particularly enjoyable stretch for us walkers.
Elsewhere, clusters of green and white e-bikes stood ready for use at various points around the city. Launched in 2023, the program aims to promote healthy living and reduce vehicle emissions. It started as a collaboration between the youth led Kashmir-based startup, Curve Electric and Srinagar Smart City Limited. The first thirty minutes are free of charge and thereafter cost five rupees for every half hour.
The oddest and most disturbing sight was the inexplicable number of rough-looking street dogs. And I don’t just mean down and out dogs who had to scrounge for food in the garbage. The majority of stray hounds had lost patches of fur, chunks of skin and, quite frankly, any semblance of the once-cute puppies as they had come into this world. On more than one occasion, I watched a dog awkwardly balance on shaky legs, oblivious to an oncoming car until the vehicle blasted its horn and was nearly on top of the poor canine. Local residents are calling for more action by the city, including a neutering program and a better garbage collection protocol to help curtail this rising problem, as reported in the Kashmiri Observer earlier this year.
In all our wanderings, we never faced off with any aggressive dogs. In fact, they all seemed rather sleepy and docile.
For those looking to experience a comfortable homestay-type experience, I recommend the Sea Green Guest House. We stayed in one of their spacious rooms with two large windows, an ensuite with hot water and carpeted flooring. The family provided hot water bottles that took the chill out of the cool October nights. Meals were home cooked and nicely spiced. Afternoon tea (for a modest price) and our smiling hosts made this guesthouse a favourite - and a stay we happily extended from five nights to eight.
Click to view or book: Sea Green Guest House
There are back-to-back houseboats along the shore of Dal Lake for tourists to rent. They range from glamorous to more basic. Personally, the thin walls and congested line-up turned me off. I preferred the low-key homestay away from the toutes and busy tourist zone. Note: These are not the same houseboats as pictured above.