India: Jammu and Kashmir: The Crown Jewel of the Indian Himalayas
There is nothing like the silence of the Himalayas. If you are quiet enough, you can almost hear the mountains vibrating, relaying an ancient message too profound to be conveyed in words. These majestic peaks are not just an unforgettable sensory experience, but a spiritual one sure to inspire wonderment and bring you face to face with yourself along the way.
Jammu and Kashmir is the Northern-most state of India and the crown jewel of its vast and varied territory. In his travelogues, British diplomat Walter Lawrence wrote of the land, “The valley is an emerald set in pearls; a land of lakes, clear streams, green turf, magnificent trees and mighty mountains where the air is cool, and the water sweet.” A skier’s paradise in the winter, this Shangri-La blossoms in the summer months, when its hill stations become a haven for those seeking refuge from the punishing heat further south. For the adventurous ready for the journey of a lifetime, replete with ancient culture, history and breathtaking natural beauty, the Himalayas await.
Summer is usually the hottest time to visit the Indian subcontinent, when the country is either sweltering in 110F heat or drenched in monsoon rain, however it is the best time to visit the Himalayas where the air is fresh and the landscape resplendent with spring blooms.
You will want to plan at least two weeks for this epic trip to see and experience as much as possible, as well as acclimate to the time difference and altitude.
The journey begins with a flight into Delhi, landing at the Indira Gandhi International Airport. At least a day to recover from crossing the globe should be spent in the Indian capital, though the sweltering summer temperatures will make leaving the air-conditioned environs of the hotel a daunting task. Instead, book a spa treatment to release the stress of travel and try to get on local time.
From Delhi, you’ll want to book a flight to Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir (in the winter, the capital moves to the city of Jammu). An hour in the air, the flight offers a scenic view crossing over the mountains below.
Situated 34 miles West of Srinagar, Gulmarg is distinguished for being the best ski destination in India with annual snowfall averaging 46 feet and slopes that rival the Swiss Alps. In the summertime when the only snow can be found on the looming mountain caps, the land comes alive with vibrant blooms of lilies, daffodils, buttercups – a total of 21 different varieties of flora. In fact, the name Gulmarg actually means meadow of flower.
Summer temperatures from June to August average highs of 68 and lows of 50 degrees with minimal rainfall. The town is situated 8,000 feet above sea level and a good place to begin to acclimate before traveling even higher into the mountains to the East.
The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa is the marquee luxury destination and the only 5-star hotel in Gulmarg, offering both traditional rooms and private cottages. The Khyber Spa by L’Occitane is an experience not to be missed. Indulge in customized treatments infusing locally cultivated herbs with traditional L’Occitane preparations and the purest waters from the Himalayas while immersed in enchanting views of the forest meadows and mountains.
Golfing has been an attraction in Gulmarg since the early 1900s when vacationing British colonizers came for the summers. Here, golfers can enjoy one of the world’s highest golf courses, with 18 holes spanning 7,505 yards of greens.
For nature lovers, Gulmarg is a paradise of wildlife protected within a biosphere reserve. Take a ride on the Gulmarg Gondola, one of the highest in the world extending 13,000 feet which reaches the summit of Mount Apharwat, covered in snow year-round. Trekking tours can be arranged with a travel guide or hotel concierge while local touts will be eagerly pushing pony rides. Alpather Lake is reached by the gondola then a short pony ride, and offers incredibly serene and mesmerizing landscapes. Used for ice-skating in the wintertime by locals, in the summer months it’s an ideal spot for an afternoon picnic.
After a few days rejuvenating in the blissful nature of Gulmarg, travel back East to Srinagar, where you landed and plan to spend a couple days exploring this ancient city. Founded over 2,000 years ago, the summer capital of Jammu and Kashmir is situated around Dal Lake and surrounded by mountain peaks ranging from verdant tree topped hills to imposing icy behemoths.
The city is as famous for its traditional Kashmiri crafts as it is for the panorama of colorful houseboats lining the waterfront.
Staying on a houseboat is a unique highlight of visiting Srinagar. It is recommended to stay on the river facing houseboats, which have a better view and are more easily accessed than the lakefront boats. These ornate wooden masterpieces came into existence because of a law that only native Kashmiris could buy land in Kashmir. As a result, houseboats sprung up as an alternative way to skirt the ruling and today are a tourist attraction and charming aspect of local life.
Taking a ride on a Shikara, a small hand-paddled and vibrantly painted long boat, is India’s answer to the Venetian gondola ride. These are used to ferry passengers along the lake and to visit the floating gardens where lilies and lotus flowers bloom from mid-July.
While Dal Lake itself offers infinitely picturesque landscapes, the Mughal Gardens are a place of contemplation amid immaculately maintained landscape of flowers and fountains. Constructed in 1619 by the Mughal Emperor as a romantic gesture to please his wife, the gardens continue to seduce with their classical beauty.
Srinagar is an ideal place to sample traditional Kashmiri food and shop for local handicrafts. Kashmiri cuisine centers around rice and meats including lamb, chicken and fish prepared in a variety of curries and spices. The most famous dish is called Wazwan, which is a 36 course meal, featuring between fifteen and thirty different preparations of meat, meant to be shared among four people and is central part of celebrations and weddings.
Kashmir is known for its high-quality hand embroideries which can be found on a wide variety of garments, accessories and home furnishings. Additionally, the name cashmere has come from this region, where fine goat hairs and woven together to make the softest shawls. The word pashmina is used interchangeably with cashmere in India so don’t get confused and come ready to bargain.
Two to three days will be enough time spent in Srinagar before you are ready for the final destination, Leh. Travel by road spans 422 kilometers and can take up to twelve hours depending on unpredictable traffic, which at any moment can be halted by a passing bullock cart or passing animal herd. There is one flight a week from Srinagar to Leh, but by flying you would miss the spectacular sights the road weaving through the Himalayas offers. Instead, take either a bus or a private taxi, both of which stop overnight in Kargil. A private taxi will cost around $360 one way.
Soaring high in the Himalayas at an elevation of 11,562 feet above sea level, Leh was once the capital of the Kingdom of Ladakh and shares a similar culture with its neighbor to the East, Tibet. To this day, Buddhism is the major religion in the region with prayer flags and monasteries a ubiquitous sight amid the backdrop of glacial mountains.
To live like Ladakhi royalty once lived, book one of the 6 rooms in the Stok Palace Heritage Hotel, built in 1820 and opened to the public in 1980 with the blessings of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. Rooms retain their original craftsmanship and the royal suite is decorated in the hand painted motifs that the Namgyal King once gazed upon from his four-poster canopied bed.
There are a variety of day trips that can be organized from Leh to experience the vastness and majesty of this incredible land. Many places require foreign nationals obtain an Inner Line Permit (ILP) before visiting protected areas or sights near the Tibet border. Permits are granted the same day and can either be arranged through most hotels for a commission or by visiting the Deputy Commissioner’s office in Leh.
The fearless can rent a Royal Einfield motorcycle to explore the areas around Leh and drive on the some of the highest motorable roads in the world. This is the best way to experience the splendor of Ladakh — the sense of freedom on open roads cutting through mountains terrain at 17,000 feet above sea level is something that has the power to change your life.
Whether by car or motorcycle, the Pangong-Tso Lake on the border with Tibet is a top choice for travelers, often described as a Heaven on Earth with its clear blue waters reflecting a panorama of the surrounding mountains. A four hour drive from Leh, it is advised to camp overnight, falling asleep to the whispers of the Himalayas.