December 7, 2013
TRAVELSunday, September 22, 2013
Kashmir — the top of the Indian diamond
‘Land of Kings’ Rajasthan presented in white, blue, pink and goldAnybody travelling to India even in late summer should be wary of the extreme temperatures prevailing in much of the subcontinent and those who cannot take the heat might be well-advised to head for the tip of the geographical diamond — to Kashmir. Nothing could be cooler than the unforgettable experience of a house-boat in a Srinagar canal (there are also floating hotels) — paradise on earth.
Until as recently as two or three years ago, it was something of a no-go area for tourists, given the border tensions with Pakistan and potential terrorist incursions. But now calm has returned to a region which seems to breathe peace and Kashmir tourism is eager to make up for lost time, according to the state’s Housing and Tourism Minister Nasir Aslam Wani on a visit to Buenos Aires some months ago. The hospitality trade is all that more hospitable when denied tourism for years than in countries where overseas visitors are a routine, year in, year out. India has many gods and guests find themselves being a few more.
Unique a city as Srinagar is, most of Kashmir’s delights are to be found beyond in this Himalayan state — the Switzerland of India although lunar landscapes are to be found in the more arid East.
Kashmir has no less than 100 mountains over 6,000 metres — i.e. higher than any other mountains in the world beyond the Himalayas except the top peaks of the Andes.
Apart from admiring the natural beauty (and nothing more is necessary for an enjoyable holiday), all kinds of mountain sports and activities are available: white-water rafting, trekking, etc.
But the altitudes do not exclude sports more associated with a level playing-field such as golf (there are three links) and cricket.
Virtually the whole state will seem a national park to the inexperienced visitor but there are specific areas, especially for the protection of animals in the Karakoram and Changthang wildlife sanctuaries. Dachigam and Kishtwar are other national parks.
Although pride of place was given to Kashmir by this delegation headed by Minister Wani (with Rajasthan in a supporting role — see separate box on this page), its aim was certainly not to discourage anybody from going anywhere else in India.
Argentine visitors to India have been rising and are closing in on five digits (8,300 in 2011) but the Embassy sees no reason why this should not be doubled in two or three years’ time.
The delegation sought to explain the slogan “Incredible India” in tangible terms. Incredible because of its variety which is rooted in its cultural and linguistic diversity (no less than 1,618 different languages with a new dialect every 10 kilometres) but incredibly it has all remained one country for the last 66 years.
Geography adds to the variety with infinite changes of landscape from the Himalayas down to the beaches of Goa and Kerala — the driest deserts and the wettest jungles. A brilliantly colourful variety reflected by the national bird, the peacock.
A key paradox of India is that it is a young and old country at the same time — over 5,000 years of history but with about two-thirds of its huge population (some 1.2 billion) aged below 35 years.
One catchphrase of the delegation was presenting India as “whole, holy and healing” — a mosaic of many faiths, festivals, spirituality, meditation and yoga with the Hindu pantheon of over 300 million deities, giant mosques, golden Sikh temples and the Buddhist frescoes from the 7th-8th centuries of the Ajanta caves (Maharashtra).
The direct healing comes from ayurveda but never underestimate the therapeutic effects of yoga and meditation.
Apart from exploring the geography and history of India, there are so many specific experiences which are uniquely Indian — riding an elephant, seeing Bollywood at source, buying a sari, to name a few at random.
Or to enter fully into the 21st century, check out India’s Silicon Valley in Bangalore or Hyderabad. And all the time Indian gastronomic delights at least three times a day — starting already at breakfast with a spicy sambar soup.
But if you want to start at the top of India (in geographic and other senses), try Kashmir.