Travel in the Cedar Fragrance of Kashmir

Fascinating and inscrutable, fragile and forgotten, Kashmir runs the risk of becoming a literary cliche and a projection of the glowing descriptions of the increasingly blurred books in memory of travelers. But the written word always betrays the reality and no words can manage to fully describe the seduction of a traveller in the northernmost Indian state.

Kashmir is one of the most fascinating parts of India. With great scenic beauty, Kashmir is a region of beautiful lakes, romantic houseboats, forests, streams and mountains. Located on the border with Pakistan, China and Tibet, the region of Kashmir is situated about 1000 km north of Delhi and is the largest valley of Himalaya. The lakes on whose warm waters are reflected the snowy peaks of the Himalaya are a major scenery of this fascinating region.

In the period between the 1960s and 70s, the houseboat in Srinagar lived a moment of great notoriety when it was learned that one of the Beatles stars George Harrison learned playing the sitar from Pandit Ravi Shankar. Kashmir became then the ideal for those in search of exotic paradises.

I was lucky enough to visit the region which is now called Jammu & Kashmir shortly before the dream became nightmare. The best way to arrive in Kashmir is certainly to get to Delhi by plane and then take a domestic flight to Srinagar.

Along the road that leads from Delhi to Srinagar, we cross the north Indian plains with vast expanses burned brown by the summer sun, and the rich cultivated lands of Punjab, where vegetation does not wither even under the scorching sun. The highest mountains are sighted for the first time after the Banihal pass, where it passes into what is perhaps the only existing road tunnel in India.

The landscape changes dramatically immediately after the pass, unfolding like a huge green carpet and gold in a regular checkerboard of fields and meadows divided by a sparkling network of ditches and waterways as we enter the valley of Kashmir. The valley is part of the rearing large terraces on the Indian plains of Jammu & Kashmir that includes mountains, valleys and plateaus.

To the south, at the foothills lies the Jammu district. Towards the northeast instead, the peaks of the great Himalayas, preserve the wild beauty of Ladakh. For most people, however, Kashmir coincides with the homonymous valley, circumscribed by a magnificent amphitheater of mountains. The best time to visit Kashmir is from October to April, when the weather is dry and also at high altitude the temperatures are pleasant.

A trip to Kashmir can only start from the beautiful Srinagar, very impressive with its beautiful landscape scenery dominated by Dal Lake and in the background the mountains of the Himalayan chain. Placed right in the center of the Kashmir valley, on the banks of the Jhelum River, Srinagar amaze us with the beauty of its landscapes. In Dal Lake we enjoy water sports of all kinds such as boating, fishing, surfing and swimming.

Srinagar is the happy city of beauty, which was for centuries one of the main cultural and philosophical centers of Asia. The mountain passes were used both for the purpose of business. From the high mountain passes then came not only silk and spices but also new ideas. Srinagar stood at the crossroads of major trading routes between India, Central Asia and China, opening the Kashmir to the Greek influences, Persian, Tibetan and Chinese, as well as to those from the Indian subcontinent. The result is what made Kashmir unique.

But there is much more, starting with the landscape of a lush valley crossed by rivers and dotted with lakes, at the foot of wooded regions in turn encased by ice-capped mountains. The unusual varieties of trees, flowers and fruits from the Himalayan cedar to bow to the poplar. The pale pink color of the almond blossoms in the spring. The lotus flowers that bloom in the warmth of the late summer. Cherries which, like precious stones, shine in purple wooden crates.

The saffron fields of Pampore that, in autumn, stretch as far as the eye can see. And then there is the wealth of handicrafts, can evoke delicate tactile sensations: the feeling of softness of the famous shawls tush wool pashmina that slip through your fingers like butter, the waxy smoothness of walnut boards, artifacts of paper, rough to the touch but wonderful to behold and the violent contrast between the rough texture of numdah and the softness of a rug in dense knots.

And then the food from lotus stems curry, spicy vegetables and karam sag, fried lamb chops, mutton cooked in a sauce of yogurt and spices, finely minced meat balls cooked in a creamy sauce of cardamom, milk and broth, all sent down with the help of cups of kahwa, the spiced tea with cinnamon, cardamom and saffron.

And finally the people, with the mixing of races and religions from the Aryans to the Scythians to the Mongols gives birth to the the beautiful melodious sound of Kashmir. From the abundance of historical evidence, the sober majesty of the sun temple at Martand, the formal elegance of Mughal gardens, these are the main attractions of Kashmir. There are other places that have some, but only in Kashmir are all these wires woven in the experience of traveling through the Valley.

There are in this regard the Gujar probably related to the Huns. They speak Guari and living in low mountains of Siwaliks, north of Jammu. They raise cattle and sheep and grow corn. The tribes are divided into hundreds of clans, in patriarchal families and the legacy is handed down from father to son. Marriages are arranged and in the dowry brides pay cash and buffalo.

The Changpa, however, are semi nomadic herders of Tibetan Mongolian strain, who live on Rebo in tents made of yak and goat hair. The Balti could even be descendants of the Celts. They raise sheep and goats and greatly benefit from the milk, wool and meat. Many tribe members make and sell handicrafts.

The Bakarwal are the nomadic shepherds par excellence and their name in Sanskrit means those who are taking care of the goats. Moving over the pastures with the family and men are distinguished because they wear a long shirt topped by a woolen cloak.

The myths of Kashmir is wrapped in an aura of fantasy and mystery, and is described by a legend. At one time, the valley was a vast lake, as deep as the sky and the pitch for the gods. But it was targeted by a demon that destroyed, looted the people who inhabited the shores. In desperation, the people appealed to the ruler to save them, who did so by forming a depression in the west that emptied the lake from its waters. The demon was killed and the Valley was called Kashmir, in honor of its savior.

Although it may seem strange, paleontologists have discovered to great heights in Kashmir fossils of corals and other marine animals. Water is at the heart of the Valley of Kashmir, almost as important as a faith. We hear the sound everywhere, given the abundance of springs, rivers and lakes. The word nag means snake. In ancient times, in fact, the serpent cult was practiced in the vicinity of the sources.

The valley of Kashmir, according to geologists was the collision point between the tectonic plate of the Indian subcontinent and the Eurasian plate. Kashmir was inhabited as early as 2,500 BC. During the Maurya empire it was introduced to Buddhism, but later Hinduism prevailed and had its heyday in the eighth century AD during the reign of Lalitaditya.

Many dynasties ruled the region but from the year 1003 were the Lohara, who exercised power and kept it until 1346, when the land came under Muslim control, finally annexed by the Mughal Emperor Akbar in the year 1586.

Kashmiris are a water people in a mountainous country, completely free of coasts. The waterways offer ways easier access to traffic and communications in an area made for a third of the mountains and one third of water. The main one is the Jhelum, the waters of which were, in turn, bearers of prosperity or ruinous floods.

One of the sources of Jhelum is the enchanting Verinag source in the southeast of the valley. The Mughal emperor, Jahangir, built a garden all around, the upper end, beyond the chinar avenues. From a deep octagonal basin originates the river that bends in a meandering arc from the southeast to the northwest. The Jhelum is navigable for almost 160 kilometers, starting from the eastern end of Anantnag, beyond the saffron fields of Pampore.

The course winds its way right in the heart of Srinagar, spilling into the Wular Lake and, beyond, to the western end located just before Baramula. The river, its tributaries and canals are alive, crossed by boats of Hanjis, boasting a descent from Noah himself. Given their skills in building boats, this claim may well be true.

Local crafts include bahatch, a barge from the raised bow capable of carrying heavy loads, and doonga, smaller bahatch, sort of aquatic dwelling made of woven reeds. The shikara are boats that look like gondola, and is known for its use as a floating car across the Dal Lake. But the boat best known of all is the houseboat, which serves as a hotel to most tourists visiting Srinagar.

A trip to Kashmir remains forever in the memory and heart, also for the wonderful houseboats built with inlaid wood and invented by the British, which still adds to the already evocative landscape of Kashmir that touch of romance and charm more. The houseboat was the British response to an edict of the governor of Dogra that no foreigner could own property in Kashmir. Built of weathered cedar wood, the first houseboat were small and very mobile. They used to escape the summer heat of Srinagar being towed down the river to the Wular lake at shade of chinar trees.

The hunting season begin in bright autumn days and last throughout the winter, when you opened the duck hunting in the reeds of Wular and Manasbal lakes. The houseboat docked even Shadipur and even further down along the river, up to Bandipur, from which you could submit in the mountain forests for the bear hunt.

The modern houseboat are too large to permit such ease of movement. They are visible along the banks of the Dal and Nagin lakes, moored in a long irregular line, variable aspect of the sumptuous and battered, although the basic shape is the same. A verandah protrudes aft above the broad square keel and leads into a living room embellished with pieces of furniture inlaid walnut and fabulous carpets.

Going beyond is the dining room, and still later, a corridor leading to the bedrooms. At a certain distance there is the Cook boat, source of all meals. The luxury houseboat are used to show off large quantities of wool embroidery, tapestry and richly carved furniture. Paradoxically, the style does not affect the warmth and there is no experience comparable to staying in a houseboat.

The part of the magic lies in the simple fact of being on the water and the resulting views of the lake and mountains. The elevated aft is the best place to taste the delicate and changing dawn and the bright shades of the sunset, admiring the birds glide on the water surface. Shopping, as inevitable as night and day, reached the houseboat as shikara laden with goods and flowers.

The dal lake, is divided into four basins that are called Gagribal, Lokut Dal, Bod Dal and Nagin. The two islands Sona Lank or Char Chinar and Rup Lank, joined to the gardens and orchards that surround them, add an extra touch charm to this lake. Entire communities live here for centuries aboard houseboats, without the need to ever go down to the ground, because the whole life takes place on the water.

These traditional boats have a roof garlanded with lotus flowers, while inside them, where tourists sit, have a real bed, so as to make them more comfortable. Staying in one of the legendary houseboat on the lake is a unique experience. Here the atmosphere is romantic, that welcomes us to the ancient splendor of past glories, far from the noise of civilization.

Large modern houseboat, were specially built to accommodate the tourists who come to stay in this part of India. Usually at the stern there is a large carved wooden porch, a real entrance to the houseboat; soon after we find the living room furnished with period furniture and embellished by famous Kashmiri carpets. Then you have a small room used, by service personnel, it is used to set the table for breakfast, lunch and dinner, and finally there is a small hallway leading to the bedroom and bathroom.

Not far away is the houseboat anchored-kitchen, used by the cook to prepare various meals of the day. The most romantic place remains the aft veranda, from which you can admire the delicate nuances of color of dawn and dusk, but mostly to see the unfolding of everyday life on the waters of this magnificent lake, in a charming atmosphere.

The houseboat that hosted us can be considered as a real garden island, as it is part of a group of three houseboat that uniqueness as have access to a large ornate floating garden of beautiful flowers that serves as a reception base. The waters of the lake and canals are so transparent, that sometimes have the color similar to jade and are covered with water lilies, lotus flowers and floating gardens made by twisting stems of aquatic plants, to form so the platforms that will be covered with earth.

In the early morning, on a shikara that moves lazily on the still waters of the lake, we look at the impressive and unique vegetable market which takes place on boats-overflowing stalls of products, in the middle of the lake. The wandering, our shikara without a definite goal along the intricate maze of channels, enables us to approach closely and with great tranquility to the lakeside communities.

Along the many canals filled with water lilies and adorned with shady willow trees, we see mud and brick houses that apparently seem uninhabited and in ruins. We see the many bridges on Jhelum and also admire the skill with which the locals build and cultivate their gardens and floating gardens.

During the winter the temperature drops below zero and the lake completely freezes and all activity that takes place normally on the lake freezes completely and the incredible greenery surrounding it cloaked in white. I think back to Kashmir as a dream from which you would not want to wake up.

It may be for the magical atmosphere of the lakes of Srinagar, in which are reflected the blue sharp profiles of the snow-capped mountains. Staying in one of the houseboats of Dal Lake, which in spring is covered with floating mats of water lily, it was a unique experience, which in my sensory memory is still linked to the fresh, resinous scent of cedar wood of the Himalayas, the essence of which make these romantic floating dwellings.

A paradise for shopaholics, the famous local handicrafts is a source of continual temptations with the beautiful carpets, the particular objects in papier-mache, jewelry, fine wooden sculptures and especially the fabulous and inimitable shawls. Precious and famous all over the world, these shawls are woven from the wool of the hircus goat and an wild ibex living over 4,500 meters.

For this very hot and soft tissue they were fought in the past real trade wars. The most valuable wool is the Shahtoosh with which is weaved a shawl, also called ring shawl, that has no equal as regards lightness, softness and warmth and that despite its size passes through the wedding ring. The wool is produced from a rock goat, which survives in the winter at a temperature of -40 ° C, which then in the spring loses the fleece rubbing against rocks. It is woven in its natural colors, brown or white.

The Pasdaran craft ensnare with a simple and compelling strategy, pounding until victory or nausea! You do not need to buy anything, but you'll make a special price and from the depths of the boats extract shawls, silks, carpets, wooden boxes of walnut or bright enamel paper mache.

The best way to approach Srinagar is getting on a shikara and follow the path through the heart of the city, along the canals ornamented by shady willow trees, even under the old bridges on Jhelum. At first glance, the interior of the city has a ghostly appearance. The houses of mud, brick and wood protruding on the banks and some have such a sagging appearance that seem about to crumble at any moment. Others are actually dotted with chunks of wooden pillars, cracked and covered with moss. But the impression of ruin and disorder runs hand in hand with the appearance of life.

The river is a place where people live, like the banks. Throngs of boats are moored to poles, emerging from the water as the mooring posts that dot the lagoon of Venice. The women sit in the bow, grinding grain or calling loudly. As any major highway, at regular intervals the river is dotted with staircases giving access to a maze of narrow alleys connected to the streets behind so as to originate a steady stream of activities between water and land.

Grouped near the shores rise houses, shops, schools, places of work and worship: a diversity that is based on the same connective tissue. The hanging gardens and orchards fall to the river to graze the waters and the carved windows or cane mats add a touch of color. After an hour on the river, you realize that the ugliest buildings are those modern, anonymous assembled with reinforced concrete and repaired by a dazzling roof of galvanized sheet.

If space on the lakefront is the privilege of a few, it is not so at the Moghul gardens of Shalimar, Nishat and Chashma Shahi. Here is all the splendor of the royal Srinagar, where the imperial passion for creating gardens is enhanced by the beautiful views offered by the lake and mountains in the background. The Shalimar Park is surrounded by an aura of peace and tranquility.

The regular rows of fountains and trees seem to recede into the backwaters snowy mountains. On Sundays the children play with the water, doing dance colorful balloons on the fountains jets from the disappointment of the caretaker gruffly. The focal point of the garden is the airy Black Pavilion, located in the back of the highest of the three terraces, whose graceful lines were conceived for the delectation of the ladies of the court.

If Shalimar is regal, Nishat is theatrical, with its flower gardens, old trees, iridescent fountains from the foaming waters in the carved gargoyles. The twelve zodiac signs that represent as many terraces in a gradual descent seem to merge with the lake. The first was created in 1633 by Asif Khan, brother of queen Nur Jahan. l

Located on the shore of the lake, it occupies the Zabarwan hill, from where you have a magnificent view of the waters of the Dal Lake. The second was created by the Moghul Emperor Jahangir in honor of his wife, Queen Noor Mahal. The garden consists of four large terraces and the presence of many channels and fountains results in the beautiful water features.

The bridges on Jhelum constitute a point of view of Srinagar, the gardens another along with the Shankaracharya hill, also called Takhi-I-Solaiman, the throne of Sulaiman. After breakfast we walk on the Shankaracharya hill to visit the temple of Shiva, built by Raja Gopadatya in 371 AD and situated on top of a hill, about 300 meters above the Dal Lake and to see the magnificent panorama of the valley. Here, we embrace with our eyes the Jhelum valley and the winding course.

In the distance, the snows of the Pir Panjal range shine in immaculate white against the blue sky and south-east you can admire the hill above Anantnag, where the clear waters of the rivers flow into the beginning of his seething in Jhelum navigable. Further downstream stretches Srinagar nestled between Lake Dal and Nagin, with the houses clustered, sanctuaries including the so-called Tomb of Christ and the ancient mosques.

The view from the Throne of Sulaiman recalls that the Kashmiri landscape is dominated by valleys, lakes and mountains. Hidden from view are the waters of Wular, the Manasbal and Ganderbal lakes. We continue our visit to Srinagar on Jami Masjid, the main mosque in the city. Of impressive proportions, the original building was built by Sultan Sikander in 1398 and is a typical example of Indo-Saracenic architecture. The mosque was built around a courtyard, which holds thousands of faithful and well-supported by 370 wooden pillars.

Later it was destroyed three times by fire and rebuilt each time. The building that we admire today was finally rebuilt during the reign of Maharaja Pratap Singh. Of great value is also the mosque in two floors of square plan of Shah Hamadan, located on the banks of the Jhelum River, between the third and fourth bridge, and is the first mosque built in Srinagar.

His full name was Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, which stemmed from the Persian name of the city of Hamadan. Its structure is made of wood and its main features are the beautiful carvings of the frames and the bells hanging from the ceiling. The interior, richly carved, along with paintings and antique chandeliers give the building an air of great opulence. Of great interest is also the mausoleum, star-shaped, the mother of Zain ud-Abidin, built in the fifteenth century.

We also visit the Dachigam National Park, which is just 20 kilometers from the city. In this beautiful park we admire the Himalayan black bears, leopards, the Hanguls, a rare species of deer and many species of birds.

Far away across the wide valley, whose heart is Srinagar is the valley of Liddar the upper end of which Srinagar from the Hindu temple at the top of the Shankaracharya hill stands the mountain resort of Pahalgam, the starting point of a long and difficult path that leads to the Hindu shrine of Amarnath. This pilgrimage attracts thousands of devotees every year.

We visit Awantipura and Martand Sun Temple. These impressive sanctuaries stand serenely amid the green valleys and scenic gorges of Pahalgam. The temple was built by Emperor Avantivarman, during his reign in Jammu and Kashmir in ninth century AD. He was a great devotee of Shiva and Vishnu and then built two main shrines to these deities. In fact, he was the founder of this ancient town.

Based on the traditional curiosity, the temple testifies to the footprints of the aristocratic house of Jammu and Kashmir spanning over almost 1100 years. The original layout of the complex shows that the temple was built on the central part of a large oblong courtyard and four small shrines in every corner. The temple is decorated with beautiful carvings and structures that reveals the skillful architecture and art of that time.

Another road leads to the peak of Kolahoi with its pointed shape needle and the vast glacier below. To the north-west there is the valley of Lolab, a crescent plain populated by forests of cedars and pines, dotted with pale wood sorrel and violets.

The Sindh valley is on the road in Ladakh and wooded areas are similar to those that once was in the Alps. We also visit the villages of Gujjar and Baisaran, a valley that is nestled in a picturesque pine forest and in the evening we are back to Srinagar with the dinner and sleep overnight at the Houseboat.

Today we have excursion to the Gulmarg mountains. Gulmarg is a ski resort to 30.00 meters, which boasts the longest runway in the world, attracting skiers from all over the Asian continent and beyond. Climbing up the sides of the valley are the mountain pastures and vast expanses of blooming meadows.

The best known among these is Gulmarg, a recess of circular shape that dominates the main Kashmir valley. From Gulmarg part, a ski lift in a thousand meters of dizzying climb above the pine forest leads to the pastures. A few kilometers beyond, through meadows, forests and ridges, it reaches the snowy slopes of Khilanmarg.

On a clear day, the views from the meadows of Gulmarg are superb. The hills merge with the bottom of the valley, to the rice fields and walnut groves and bushes of wild blackberries. In the distance, the sun shines on the zinc roofs of Srinagar. With a little luck, to the north, the view sweeps over the great mountains of the Himalayas up to the high peak of Nanga Parbat, which stands free and clear through the entire length of the Valley, for more than a hundred kilometers away.

The days in Srinagar passed away very quickly and now an off-road vehicle will take us, after about 440 km at 3,500 mt to Leh, the capital of Ladakh. The departure is early, and we should go in the day about 210 km that separate us from the small town of Kargil, located at 2,750 meters above sea level at the confluence of the rivers Drass and Suru, where we spend the night.

Gradually we climb altitude leaving behind the verdant Kashmir Valley and stop for a quick meal at Sonamarg, which was an excellent base for hiking. Through the Valley, almost diagonally, it is Sonamarg, the Golden Meadow, the point where the Sindh river plunges headlong into a ravine. Sonmarg is a very nice little valley with its flowery meadows, located about 85 kilometers away from Srinagar. Dominated by the early Himalayan foothills, it was a strategic point on the legendary Silk Road.

Sonamarg is a narrow grassy and flat strip enriched with edelweiss and surrounded by large spikes on which the sides shine hanging glaciers. The sides of the mountains are covered with large forests of silver fir, sycamore and birch is one of the last outposts of unspoiled nature and magnificent. From here we admire the beauty of the Thajiwas glacier, the biggest local attraction during the short summer season.

After lunch we take a real trail that winds its way up steep switchbacks that take us to the famous Zoji La Pass at 3529 mtrs, a real natural watershed between the lush Kashmir and arid valleys of Ladakh. This year the snow has been particularly abundant and its opening took place only towards the end of May. Due to the significant amount of snow that had accumulated, we have ascertained that the pitch was only passable for a few days before our departure from Srinagar.

Alternatively, however there is a flight to Leh, but it was certainly not the same thing. We leave behind Sonamarg. We go up in altitude by tackling the steep curves of a road from the narrow-track that ripped the mountain, with a fund that crumbles winter ice and the summer heat then turns into dust. Our jeep in an easy manner addresses the pitfalls of this tormented path, unlike the buses and trucks overflowing with goods, which continuously give the impression that they can do it.

There really are only a few kilometers as the crow flies from the line of actual control, the fictitious border between India and Pakistan. The arrival at the checkpoint of the Zoji La Pass, the dividing line between Kashmir and Ladakh causes a certain emotion, also due to the fact that in the sides of the path there are two high snow walls over 4 meters.

Beyond the pass the topography of the area has changed dramatically, lush conifer forests of the Kashmir valley has disappeared, which have given way to a barren landscape, almost completely devoid of vegetation. Towards the late afternoon we arrive in Kargil, a small town with medieval characteristics, located at an altitude of 2730 meters by the river Suru, which is the starting point for all excursions to the valley of Zanskar.

In the past the city was an important trading center of the caravans carrying silk, ivory, precious stones and carpets to and from India, China, the Central Asian regions and the distant Turkey. The name of Kargil derives from two words "Gar" and "Khil". "Gar" in the local language means "everywhere" and "Khil" means "the center of the place where people want to stay."

This theory is supported by the fact that Kargil is equidistant from the cities of Srinagar, Leh, Skardu and Padum. In Kargil we see some fine architectural examples of Turkish origin, with a walk in the bazaar and we do find some nice local crafts for daily use, such as teapots and brass hookah.

We have an early morning departure for the next day of the transfer through the first spectacular mountain landscapes of Ladakh and along the river valley, beyond which lies a completely different world. But this is another trip.

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