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As a first time traveller to the northernmost state Jammu & Kashmir, nestled in the Indian Himalayas, one may have mixed feelings over security as goes the general perception. However, the hospitality of the land called the paradise on earth for its beauty will leave you pleasantly surprised.
“In Kashmir if guests are shy of having the food served to them, we pick a piece and hand it to them. Still if they are hesitant we break it into half. That’s our culture,” says Arshid Hakim while handing the piece of broken biscuit. In an old Hindu home in the old city of Srinagar in the valley of Himalayan state Jammu & Kashmir (J&K), now a residence of a Muslim family, one can sense the warmth as the members show the different rooms and old household possessions such as the mud stove for cooking and the heavy wooden slippers to walk on snow.
As a traveller who has never been to the northern most state of India with two important international borders that separate India from Pakistan and China, one may have mixed feelings over the security. However, the beauty as it is rightly called the ‘paradise on earth’ and the cordiality of people will make you forget all the doubts you may have had. “People learn hospitality from their homes as opposed to the management schools in the rest of the country,” says Shafiul Alam Ishaque, general manager at RK Sarovar Portico, one of the two brands of hotels in the state capital of Srinagar, the other one being the luxurious Taj Group.
Overcoming the past
Entering the city from the airport, one may notice the presence of the CPRF (Central Reserve Police Force) a little more than in any other city of India to get intimidated, but the local population has accepted it as part of their lives. “Don’t get intimidated by the police officials, it’s a part of daily life in Kashmir now. You can move as freely as you want to,” said the cab driver on the way to the hotel. Identified as disputed region due to territorial conflicts and the insurgency caused by the separatists and the nationalists since 1990’s, the state has suffered its share of hardship. Once what was the one of the tourism capitals of India, J&K is now struggling to regain its glory. But the situation is changing as people are once again opening to unwind the beauty hidden in the Himalayan state and the government too is providing all its assistance. “Many international brands will be opening in the course of three to four years in Srinagar and government is also trying to connect it better through the railways by 2019,” says Ishaque who is originally from Kolkata and worked in the hospitality sector in states across India before coming to Srinagar three years back. In 2015, the state received nearly 8.5 million domestic and 0.2 million foreign tourists.
The old city
As you move in the city, even in the most sensitive areas such as the ‘downtown’ as the old city is referred to, you will notice the old houses, some with broken glasses and hit by insurgency, preserved in their state. People, about whom you may have many perceptions about thanks to the media and the films, are refreshingly friendly and open in talking about their daily lives. In the morning one finds many small shops baking, in the traditional mud oven called the tandoor, breads or paratha for the morning breakfast taken with noon (salty) tea. You may even find yourself invited for a breakfast in the hospitable Kashmiri household. For the non-Kashmiri taste buds, they offer hot Kahwa prepared with saffron and almonds to drink over the conversation. The entire set up may remind you of grey treatment as in any Tim Burton’s film, however, with more transparent and friendly people.
Nature at its best
Away from the city on the hills, the gardens in Srinagar such as Nishat, Pari Mahal and Chashma Shahi offer refreshing air and take you to a different experience. With summer being the best time to experience the different shades and species of flowers, the gardens also provide different views of the beautiful valley. One can see how and why most tourists are attracted to these gardens amidst the noise. Even the local population can be sighted who come to relax or to take a walk through the bed of flowers. If the colourful gardens were not enough, a peaceful shikara (boat) ride in the evening will make your day as you float over the city’s most popular Dal Lake. Bordered with hundreds of houseboats on both the sides, Dal may have lost 40 pc of its charm as say the local people, but for a visitor the lake that is spread across 18-22 square kilometres still comes as awe. The owners of the beautifully decorated houseboats, with sometimes names such as ‘Chicago’, ‘Paris’, ‘Hong Kong’ or ‘Hollywood’, also invite you to see the interior made of pine wood. The usual tariff extends between INR 4500-5000 in a houseboat that generally accommodates eight rooms. As you relax in your decorated shikara, you may even get a juice from the floating boat market. Sheer luxury and peace!