Surprisingly enough, I never met one person in Kashmir who knew the song.
Led Zeppelin’s 1973 rock ballad was written by a band who had never visited Kashmir and the lyrics were inspired by a drive through southern Morocco. Robert Plant wanted to capture the desolation of the area in verse and Kashmir seemed like a better name than south Sahara. Just as Toto never visited Africa and Bob Seger never made it to Kathmandu before he wrote a song about it, the lyrics still somehow are able to conjure up images of mystical places. I just had to go to Kashmir.
Kashmir, located in Northern India has had a long military history with many parts of the area disputed by Pakistan and the Kashmiris themselves. China claims a small part as well. In spite of occasional political flare-ups, there are daily flights from Delhi and Jammu. Other than checking in with a security booth on arrival, getting there is just like flying into any other airport in India.
In former times during the British occupation of India, the English never conquered the regions of Jammu or Kashmir nor were they allowed to build there. This rule was circumvented by the British occupying vacation houseboats on the alpine lakes. After the British left and India was partitioned, the locals continued the tradition. Now there’s over 1200 floating hotels on Lake Dal and Nagin. If you go to Kashmir, you stay on a houseboat. Prices for a room start at around $40/night.
Other than the Himalayas in the distance, Srinagar looks similar to other Indian cities. That changes when you board a shikara. the personal sized boat that ferries passengers from the dock to their accommodation. These small cushioned boats hold up to six people (and an oarsman) and not only provide transfers, but are also rentable by the hour as a cruise to visit attractions on the lake. Taking a trip around the lake is like stepping back in time and is one of the most relaxing moments a person can have in the country. Other shikara pass by with passengers or merchants. Need some saffron tea? There’s a boat for that. In the market for a fur hat? The floating hat shop will show you a dozen options. You can buy dried fruits and nuts, clothing, drinks, or even contraband beer. Kashmir scarves and saffron are the obvious choices and with a little negotiation one can get a great deal.
Houseboats vary in luxury and price, but usually have a couple rooms, a public area and a dining area. Many of them offer dining options aboard the boat with family members or staff bringing firewood, cooking and helping organize tours. Its easy to get lost in the relaxed lake life and forget about the nearby mountains, but that’s the second reason visitors come to Kashmir. There’s great hiking and horseback riding in some of the nearby mountain towns.
We opted to take a day trip to Pahalgam, a hill station about 2.5 hours from Srinagar. A popular choice for visitors with more time is to travel to Ladakh via Sonamarg. The drive takes about 10 hours and includes some of Kashmir’s most scenic spots . Regardless of where you go, the Himalayan mountains and surrounding valleys are beautiful and don’t disappoint. Pahalgam is best visited by horseback and there’s no shortage of hustlers charging whatever they think they can shake you down for. In Kashmir, you can bet that if you’re dealing with someone who speaks English, they’re adding a hefty commission to what the actual horse handler charges. The same is true of almost anything including boat rides and taxis. If someone is arranging a tour for you, you can usually save quite a bit of money setting it up yourself. Check into pricing before you get there and assume that everyone has doubled or tripled the price that locals are paying.
Srinagar has a few attractions that aren’t on the lake, most notably Shankaracharya Hill which affords visitors a great view of the city as well as having a small Hindu temple at its peak. An hour west is the town of Gulmarg which offers some of India’s best skiing. If you arrive mid-April, you can catch the tulips. There’s really never a bad time to visit Kashmir.
Finally, one of the most interesting restaurants in Srinagar is Mughal Darbar, a carnivore’s dream with traditional Mughal meat dishes and a few vegetables thrown in for good luck. Kashmir can be combined with other Indian destinations and a one way fare to/from Delhi is about $60.