In search of a cooler, calmer Kashmir

For decades, the region's stunning beauty has been overshadowed by violence and unrest. However, a period of relative peace tempted Adrian Hamilton to visit – and he was entranced by what he found

The tourists are coming back to Kashmir. Not yet the Western tourists, at least not in any numbers: most governments still generally advise against travel because of the continuing unrest. It's the Indians themselves who are arriving in their droves, to escape the heat of the plains and to revel in the garden valley after two years of relative calm. Srinagar airport, for all the continued security, has the bustle and the chaos of India. The houseboats on the Dal Lake are booked to the gunwales, as are the cheaper hotels.

"Oh," declares a Kashmiri lady, "all those Gujaratis in bare feet, and the Bengalis: so noisy!" On the other hand, they're bringing in the cash. There's been more than 20 years of visitor drought since the state of emergency was declared in this haven of a country, a land that would be independent but has been divided between India and Pakistan since its Hindu ruler decided to go with India rather than Pakistan at independence.

"Fifteen minutes," is the mantra you keep hearing from the Kashmiris themselves. That's the time it would take for a terrorist outrage to reverse the last couple of years of success and plunge the state back to the long years of security clampdown. Even the young Chief Minister, Omar Abdullah, grandson of one of the heroes of the country after partition, admits he daren't hope. "We've been through so much," he says with an air of caution born of experience.

The shopkeepers, earning a decent income at last, are more optimistic. "The people have tasted the fruit of commercial success," says the man who owns one of the country's best craft shops: Suffering Moses. (It was dubbed that by a British visitor a century ago, complaining of the protestations of poverty of the merchant.) "They're not going to go back." And it is true that the strikes called in protest at police actions or in memory of the martyrs of the separatist movement are supported more out of ritual than enthusiasm.

Certainly there have been no threats against Westerners since the first years of the troubles two decades ago, and little sign that the separatist factions wish to target a tourist flow on which the majority of Kashmiris depend for a living. What most concerns the authorities is the annual pilgrimage up to the ice lingam at Amarnath, the phallic symbol of the Shivaites. Hundreds of thousands of Hindus come in for the two-month window when it is possible to make the trek (the rich Indians, of course, go by helicopter). However, this too has now passed for another year without incident. There's not a Kashmiri you meet who doesn't feel that the skies are lifting, however tightly they cross their fingers and mutter about continued Indian occupation.

Hope is infectious, which makes it a marvellous time to go to Kashmir. That and the fact that, as Westerners and particularly as British people, you are more than welcome. We buy their crafts for a start, both the exquisite papier-mâché bowls and ornaments for which the state is celebrated and the shawls made of Pashmina wool. Standards remain high and, thanks in part to some European buyers encouraging the best, designs have also kept up with the times.

It was the great Muslim ruler of the 15th century, Zain-ul-Abidin, who first brought in the Persian craftsmen to create an industry to give work to an isolated and impoverished people. You can see his grave still, beside his mother's, in the city's centre. The matriarchal monument is quite breathtaking, a Central Asian rounded mass of brick that looks like a Byzantine church. In contrast, the grave of Badsha – "the Great King", as he was known – is a simple affair, just one among many in the cemetery around. It's a reminder of the piety and gentleness of a country which has more sufi shrines than almost anywhere else in the Muslim world.

There are monuments, too. Plenty of them, from the early and breathtaking eighth-century temple of Martand to the 16th- and 17th-century mosques of the capital. Srinagar itself is a city of wood, although most of the old bridges across the river have been replaced by steel and concrete.

But the high wooden houses are still there, lurching perilously to the sides or towards the river. "No, no," declares Saleem Bagh, the head of Intach (the Indian National Trust) who is driving a remarkable programme to record and preserve the old city. "I keep telling their owners they're not about to fall over. They were built to survive earthquakes. You can prop them up at an angle of 45 degrees and they'll survive. The problem is to find a commercial use for them."

It is the water, however, which makes Kashmir so special: the water of its lakes, the springs of its Mughal gardens, the rush of its mountain streams and the lushness of its rice terraces and valleys. The British never ruled Kashmir (they sold it in 1846 to a Sikh general who had possession).

However, the houseboats moored around the main lakes were a British invention, there to provide accommodation as foreigners couldn't own property. The boats – really barges – rest like stately railway carriages from a past era, barely bobbing in the still-shallow waters. The first edition of Lonely Planet's India guide, published in 1981, paints an idyllic picture of indulgence: "There are plenty of 'supermarket' boats cruising by if you need soft drinks, chocolate, toilet paper, hashish or any other of life's necessities."

You can escape the crowds on the smaller Nagin Lake or in the outer reaches of the Dal Lake, where the proprietor of Butts will proudly show you his gallery of the presidents and the foreign pressmen who stayed there.

To sleep in one is an experience enough, but to wake to the mist rising from the lake and the fishermen standing on their low skiffs, or to glide in a a brightly decorated shikara through the floating market gardens and see the wildlife around, is to understand why this nation brought not just conquerors but holy men to settle here.

Driving past the fields of saffron to Pahalgam, in the foothills of the Himalayas, where nomads herd their sheep and goats and ride wonderful little mountain horses, their feet nearly touching the ground, you pass a place where cricket bats are made from the willow. Stacked like a giant children's construction kit, they're for all ages and all competencies. "Which name do you want on it?" the craftsman asked as he shaped two bats for my grandchildren. "There can be only one," I answered. "Of course," he said, breaking into a grin – and the name of Sachin Tendulkar was firmly affixed to handle, shoulders and face.

The politics of Kashmir may be fractious, but when it comes to cricket, the subcontinent is all one.

Travel essentials

Getting there

Greaves India (020-7487 9111; greavesindia.co.uk) offers a seven-night itinerary to Kashmir from £2,145 per person, including BA flights from Heathrow to Delhi, internal flights and B&B accommodation (including one night on a houseboat, three nights at the new Vivanta by Taj Dal Lake Hotel and two nights at The Oberoi, New Delhi). Sightseeing, excursions and traditional shikara rides on the lakes are also included. Contact Greaves for details on travel insurance to Kashmir.

More information

The FCO (fco.gov.uk) advises against all travel to or through rural areas of Kashmir and against all but essential travel to Srinagar. Travellers intending to travel to Srinagar should only travel there by air, and should check the local security situation before doing so. "Despite an overall decline in violence in Jammu and Kashmir in recent years, there is a high risk of unpredictable violence... If, despite this advice, you decide to travel to or remain in this region, you do so at your own risk.

Review your travel insurance policy, security arrangements and be aware that the level of consular assistance that we can provide in Kashmir is extremely limited."

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