Kashmir and Ladakh

We visited Kashmir at a time when we thought it was relatively safe to go there. However if we had had the internet and access to more information on the situation there we might not have gone. As it was with only Lonely Planet to guide us, it seemed like an amazing side excursion for our trip to India.

If you are thinking of going there I would check carefully the situation on the web and at what level tensions are between India, Pakistan and China all of which control different parts of Kashmir. There may be some parts that are safe and some to avoid.

We visited the Indian part of Kashmir which included some of Ladakh and mainly stayed in Leh in Ladakh and Srinagar in Kashmir, crossing the Himalayas between them by lorry.

Leh has a mainly Buddhist and Moslem population, though there are also some Christians and Hindus and other minorities. They have generally lived in harmony with one another through the ages, and the town has an almost Tibetan feel to it. The streets are dominated by the hill behind where the ruined Leh Palace looks over the town. You can walk up the hill to the top where you can see the layout of the Indus Valley below which is mostly desert except for where the river runs through the valley. Agriculture along the sides of the river have made the swathe of green wider than it would otherwise be. Leh is at 11,500 feet and you will certainly feel the effect of the altitude on any walks or treks you do there.

Close to the town there a number of monasteries including Tikse Gompa. This sits on top of a low hill and contains a huge two storey statue of Maitreya which is amazing to behold. It is beautifully painted and made of clay, gold paint and copper. The monastery itself has undergone quite major restoration in recent years by the Indian government so is in good condition though there are some complaints that the traditional building materials have not been used so the way the monastery looks has changed somewhat. Even so if you only have a few days in Ladakh it is well worth a visit. If you arrive at the right time you may see the monks blowing their huge Tibetan horns on the roof of the monastery.

We only had four days in Leh and lost some of that time due to illness, then had to leave to get to Srinagar. There were no flights out, so we travelled the 400km highway to Srinagar by lorry. The road was intense with constant switchbacks through the mountain passes and riding on the cab of the lorry the mountains seemed even closer and the road more dangerous. Once we came out of the mountains the lorry drivers dropped us off where we could pick up a bus for the last part of the journey.

There were sporadic incidents in Srinagar while we were there but for the most part it was very relaxing as the final part of our Indian trip. The city is built on the side of the beautiful Dal lake where tourists can stay in one of the many houseboats moored out on the lake. These are beautifully kept and the owners can cook for you if you require on some of the boats. Small boats called shakaras are used to transport travellers and goods about the lake, many of them are very ornate, and if you are cheeky you might be allowed to borrow one of the less valuable boats for a paddle round the lake on your own.

There is bicycle hire which can be used to reach some of the beautiful Mughal gardens around the lake and it is fun to ride around the backwater villages that surround the lake. Again it is wise to check the safety situation before getting too far off the beaten track.

There are many shops around the city selling hand made pots made from paper mache which is beautifully painted. If you are staying on a houseboat, the owner will be more than happy to get a vendor onto the boat as then he will get a commission from any sales.

Because Srinagar is quite cold for some of the year you may notice Kashmiri gentlemen appearing a little more rotund than you would expect. However all is not as it seems, as underneath their robes they are carrying a traditional hot water bottle to keep themselves warm.

In recent years a cable car has been built to reach a shrine on top of a hill for a Sufi saint, no doubt worth taking for a view of the valley.

Image (cc) WildExplorer, Flickr

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