In 2009, after I had visited Ladakh, I moved on to another city in Kashmir that has sometimes been called the Venice of the East: Srinagar. The city is famous for three things: floating gardens, houseboats and the ever-present threat of violence. The latter is evidenced by the constant presence of armed police and soldiers, and the fact that security checks before you can even enter the airport start at a 1.5km radius around it.

The Mughal emperor Jahangir is said to have once proclaimed of Kashmir: “If there is Paradise on earth, it is this, it is this, it is this.” Spend some time in Srinagar, and you may find yourself agreeing with him. In fact, Jahangir liked Kashmir so much that he even built a huge garden there in 1619, Shalimar Bagh, dedicated to his beloved wife Nur Jahan.

Shalimar Bagh

Let’s talk about the floating gardens first. They literally float on the surface of the 18 sq km Dal Lake, and have to be seen to be believed. I’m not completely sure how it works, but I do know that they comprise matted vegetation and earth. We were fortunate enough to be there in August, when the lotus flowers bloom, and they are simply lovely.

The floating gardens of Dal Lake

 

Lotuses in bloom on Dal Lake

And I just had to point this out: the gardens rest on beds that are even strong enough to support the weight of a man, like so.

A shikara operator stands on a floating garden

Besides the floating gardens, Dal Lake has loads to see:  artisan shops, a floating market and mobile vendors who will paddle up to you while you are floating along in your shikara (water taxi)

A row of shikaras waiting at the shores of Dal Lake

But by far the most impressive sight for me were the houseboats moored along Dal Lake. Built by the British in the Victorian era as summer retreats, houseboats are now mainly used as hotels. I stayed in one with my travel buddy Ding, and at first sight, they look fairly unassuming from the outside.

But once you get inside, it is ENORMOUS. We even had a personal butler to cook and attend to our needs. It’s even more astounding considering the amount we paid – I cannot remember the exact price, but it was part of a package (around $1,500-odd each for a five day trip in Ladakh and Kashmir, including food, accommodation and transport).

The living room of our houseboat. Yes, that’s just the living room.

Another surprising thing of note: a quick glance at the houseboat’s guest book revealed that a fair number of Singaporeans and Malaysians have stayed there, and in recent years too. There was even a framed article by former Straits Times reporter Koh Buck Song from 1996, about his stay in Srinagar.

 

As a matter of fact, violence did flare up in Srinagar shortly after my return to Singapore. To give you an idea of how hotly disputed Kashmir is, just consider that India and Pakistan have fought three wars over it since Partition in 1947. But I must stress that I never felt in danger while I was there, though people in Srinagar don’t seem to be very used to Asian faces: the women in particular were constantly pointing at us and giggling.

Srinagar, and Kashmir, is a beautiful, beautiful place. I’d love to go back some day.

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