Houseboats and Hiking in Kashmir

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The Travelers
Wesley Rotary Smith, his wife Kasha, and their daughter Berkley (1).

The Plan
In the decade since Wesley had studied in India, he always regretted the missed opportunity to take in Kashmir, which is hailed as a paradise on Earth by Indians. After some online research, the Smiths learned two key things: houseboats are a great option, and the military occupation of Kashmir is in still in full effect, as it has been for decades.

The Smiths flew from Beijing to Srinagar with a stopover in Hong Kong and an overnight stay in New Delhi. Direct flights between Beijing and New Delhi are about eight hours, and flying from Delhi to Srinagar takes about one hour. Once in Srinagar, the Smiths immediately found their way to Dal Lake and a deluxe houseboat with a view of the entire valley, as well as several temples and mosques.

The Cost
For two adults and one toddler, the overall cost was RMB 3,300 (plane tickets excluded). This price includes a six-day stay in a houseboat, meals, excursions, and several boat rides.

Houseboat living is very relaxing. Rides in a shikara – or a small, flat-bottom boat not unlike a gondola from Venice – around the lake are amazing at all hours of the day. In the early mornings, they spotted huge, floating farmer’s markets and kids dressed in British uniforms paddling to school. Throughout the day, the lake is a hunting ground for eagles and kingfishers. By late afternoon, the valley skies are at their deepest blue and the sunsets are inspiring. At night, hundreds of houseboats compete for the most spectacular "curb appeal" with their lamps and torches.

On the banks of the winding, glacial Dal Lake, the city of Srinagar offers the flowery Mughal Gardens and a collection of other picturesque ruins, including an area referred to as Old City. Other curiosities in this most devout community include holy pilgrimage sites of Shiva worshipers, beautiful Kashmiri Sikh temples, a magnificent shrine that is said to house the hair of Muhammad, and a Christian Church that is over 130 years old. There is absolutely nothing around Dal Lake and Srinagar that doesn’t make for a great photograph.

Shopping in this part of Kashmir can also be relaxing. Hill villagers have formed cooperatives to bring their wares to the lake and will call from their rowboats, informing listeners of their stock: some of the finest embroidery, silk rugs, and leather goods you can imagine. The name of the game is pick-your-price and don’t be offended by a ridiculously high initial offer from the salesman: It’s all about bargaining.

In Search of Adventure
In spite of how nice the houseboat was, going on an adventurous excursion was too tempting to refuse. The Smiths spent one day on horseback, riding up a trail that eventually lead to Khyber Pass, a 53km passage through the mountains of Hindu Kush. Along the way, they met farmers, shepherds and villagers. The views were amazing, and the horses did all the work. The next day, they hiked to a glacial mountain that remains snow-capped throughout the year and is high enough to make their ears pop more than once. Daytrips like these offer stunning views and fresh air, but camping trips of any length can be arranged for more adventurous hikers.

The Best Part
Berkley loves the water and thoroughly enjoyed staying on a houseboat. The houseboat owners arranged all trips, guides, transportation, meals and more. Thus, the family never opened their wallets after negotiating everything in advance.

The Worst Part
The presence of military personnel and the resulting curfew meant that the entire city was closed for two days during their visit. As luck would have it, they hardly noticed because the houseboat staff took care of every little desire they had. In fact, they were too hospitable, overfeeding them and checking up on them constantly.

Kashmiri food is incredible, especially the tea and mango juice. Local bread and cheese are a daily must-have, and nothing was ever too spicy or caused an upset stomach.

Since they traveled after peak season (March-October), they did not book anything in advance and it was a wise choice. There were hundreds of vacant houseboats and in the end, the Smiths had a 3-bedroom houseboat to themselves. Furthermore, the ability to choose in person means you have bargaining power by grouping the cost of accommodation, meals, and daytrips into an all-inclusive price. Check out before you travel to India for some great tips.


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