Kashmir was as beautiful as I’d heard. It met all my expectations and more. Tall chinar laden mountains, hurt-my-eyes expansive green valleys, colourfully dressed chatty locals, delectable local food, lush gardens of flowers and fountains, a marvellous drop of the mountain at every turn of the road… not surprising then that Kashmir is called Heaven on Earth.
Therefore, Kashmir warrants not one, but many visits to take it all in. The itinerary I’ve listed here is the most commonly done, an introduction to Kashmir if you will, and a tourist should start here before attempting the more challenging routes. You can also avail of a travel agent’s multi-day package (dime-o-dozen, INR 12-15k / person usually for 4 nights and 5 days), but here’s how to do it yourself, by road, the best way to experience the region’s true beauty, in my view.
The stuff-of-movies / honeymoon-talesy houseboats of Dal Lake.
What was slightly putting-off in Kashmir and took some getting used to, was the constant soliciting, selling and overpricing of goods and services. Tourism is the only source of income for many in the valley and it seemed to me as if the locals aimed to wring the most out of every deal. Therefore, expect to be overcharged for everything, and thus, bargain hard everywhere. Although, I think there’s a thick line between a ‘tourist’ and a ‘friends/family’ in Kashmir. Once you cross that line, things turn around remarkably.
Another thing. Don’t be surprised by the number of Indian army men and paramilitary forces you encounter in Kashmir. I knew to expect it but was surprised by the sheer number of them. They are everywhere: hidden in nooks, perched behind stone bastions and wire mazes, in abandoned structures where you can barely spot them. Convoys of them pass through at all hours of the day, causing a halt in road traffic. They came useful to ask for directions in many places.
Now, to the five-day do-it-yourself Kashmir road trip itinerary.
What this itinerary doesn’t have. Pony rides. Luxury stays. Leisure time off. Winter sports.
Kashmir is the northernmost geographical region of India, made of the Himalayan mountain ranges, verdant valleys, lush lakes, and gushing rivers. The valley was apparently formed of a lake, drained through the gap of Baramulla. India controls half the area of the former princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, which comprises Jammu and Kashmir and Ladakh, while Pakistan controls the rest, divided into two provinces, Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan. The dominant religion of the region is Islam.
Tourism in Kashmir is fraught with constant tensions between Pakistan, Islamic militants, and the Indian army. But, for the most part, tourists are safe.
There are two ways to do my itinerary.
First – set Srinagar as the base and take day trips to nearby areas of interest. The towns mentioned in this plan are all in different directions and you’ll likely pass Srinagar in all of them, as you move from one to another.
The other way is to go from one town to another, passing Srinagar but not stopping there. This will increase your travel time, but you might want to do it to merely to spend your night in a different place (also, usually, a different altitude).
A daily cab (Innova/ Tavera) with a driver can be hired starting at INR 2500/day.
If you prefer a bike, which we used, they can be rented from Kashmir Travelogue or Kashmir Adventure Bikers for INR 1400/day. Documents asked: Passport copy, Aadhaar card, Driver’s license. You’ll need to deposit your Aadhaar card with them.
Day 1: Srinagar
The capital of Kashmir is noisy, dusty, curious, colourful. We arrived with zero bookings and were approached by Nissar at the airport who promised a world-class hotel at Dal Lake for INR 4500/ night. We agreed to check it out before committing—our intention was to use the free ride from the airport to the city (It normally costs INR 500 to go from the airport to Dal Lake/ Lal Chowk. There is a prepaid taxi booth outside the airport gate. However, Nissar promised to adjust the amount with a full day car hire for sightseeing which would’ve cost INR 2000. Alternately, we could simply pay him INR 500 if we didn’t like his place, or didn’t take the cab. To our tired minds, it seemed like a no-loss deal).
The ride through Srinagar was eventful, with traffic jams and noisy honks; people in Srinagar love their horns and use them liberally. We arrived at ghat 17 and were ferried by a shikara to a cluster of ramshackle houseboats, one of which was Nissar’s Star of Kashmir (not available online). The houseboat was not luxurious but it was unique, and we loved the wooden loft that jutted daintily out into the water. The area was less touristy and crowded than I’d expected. We were a bit tired from the early morning flight, and so, we decided to stay put, at least for the night (we negotiated the nightly charge down to INR 3000/night eventually). We spent another thirty minutes fending off the package deal the houseboat manager was trying to push down on us (this would be a recurring theme) before we managed to retire to our quaint room.
If you like serene and quiet, you could base yourself in the less touristy Nigeen Lake, instead of Dal Lake. But we found staying at Dal Lake convenient because it was in the middle of the city. I’ll also recommend staying in a houseboat rather than on land; the experience is memorable.
Sukoon Houseboats was recommended to us for a luxury stay on Dal Lake. It looked beautiful but was unavailable in the days we went.
Things to do in Srinagar
Shankaracharya Temple: The temple—dedicated to Lord Shiva and from the 9th century AD—is located on top of the Shankaracharya Hill on the Zabarwan Range in Srinagar. At a height of 1,000 feet above the valley, it gives a nice view of the city of Srinagar, and especially, of the serpentine 8 km long Dal Lake. The temple can be reached by climbing about 250 steps. The area is under CRPF control, so you cannot carry cameras or mobile phones to the top. There are no locker facilities (that I noticed). So, best leave them in the cab or at your hotel before you come.
Mughal Gardens: There are several so-called pleasure gardens in Kashmir. The most famous are Nishat Bagh, Shalimar Bagh, Chashma Shahi and Pari Mahal. These gardens are fashioned after the Persian Paradise gardens—made of terraces—arranged around a central water channel—lined with fountains—and planted with a variety of flowers and trees. In the end, though, one garden is like the other. Altogether, I enjoyed Nishat Garden the most. More on the gardens here.
Shikara Ride: An hour-long shikara ride costs upwards of INR 1000 for an hour (again, depending on your negotiation skills) and takes you to up to 7 points of interest in Dal Lake, which include a ‘function-boat’, some interesting movie spots (Mission Kashmir!), and the Dal Lake market. The best time to take the ride is at dusk just around sunset. The weather is balmy and the ride is pleasantly soporific. We were exhausted when we did it, but the ride took away all our tiredness (just as Aamir, our shikara rower promised). Beware of the many other shikaras that will row to yours, stick by its side, and try to sell you their overpriced goods.
Lal Chowk: is Srinagar’s city centre of sorts and also a bustling marketplace. Jawaharlal Nehru, the first Prime Minister of India, had unfurled the Indian national flag in 1948 in Lal Chowk, shortly after the country gained independence from the British. The chowk has been used for several political meetings since. The iconic clock tower at Lal Chowk was built in 1980. I preferred the shops here to elsewhere in the city, the ‘no bargaining’ policy (in many but not all stores) providing relief. But you’ve got to look for the good stuff.
Mosques: You’ll spot several unique mosques on your tour around Srinagar. Hazratbal Mosque and Jamia Mosque are among the most impressive. The Jamia Masjid is located in the middle of the Old City, very near to Lal Chowk. The impressive and humongous mosque (33,000 people can pray here at one time!) was commissioned by Sultan Sikandar in 1394 CE and today is considered the focal point of local dissent and political discourse. You’ll often find the main doors locked, in fear of a riot. The Hazratbal Shrine is another impressive mosque located in the Hazratbal area of Srinagar. It is said to be home to a relic, Moi-e-Muqqadas, which is widely believed to be the hair of the Islamic prophet Muhammad.
Day 2: Sonmarg
Sonmarg is located in the Ganderbal district of Jammu and Kashmir, about 80 km from Srinagar. The ‘Golden Meadow’ is perched at 8,960 ft, and is close to several peaks such as Machoi Glacier, Sirbal Peak, and Kolahoi Peak. It also has a historical significance, as a gateway on the ancient Silk Road, connecting Jammu and Kashmir with Tibet. Ponies can be hired for a trip up to Thajiwas glacier, a major attraction during the summer months. But what we really enjoyed, was the 25 km ride to zero point through Zoji La pass.
The ride through the Zoji La Pass was a memorable experience: the roads were treacherous and dusty, but the views were ‘drop-dead’ beautiful, totally worth the heart-stopping moments. Located at 11,500 feet, the Zoji La pass is located in the Kargil district and links Kashmir valley to Ladakh. The pass is said to be one of the most treacherous in the world. The word Zoji La means “mountain pass of blizzards”
At about 15 km from Sonmarg is the Baltal Valley whose splendour can be enjoyed in the ride through Zoji La Pass. The valley acts as a base for pilgrims camping for the yatra to the nearby Amarnath Temple. (There are two routes: Sonamarg – Baltal Route and Pahalgam – Chandanwari Track Route)
An under-construction tunnel is expected to replace Zoji La Pass, enabling all-weather connection between Srinagar and Kargil.
Day 3: Pahalgam
Pahalgam is located at an altitude of 7,200 feet and is 95 km east of Srinagar. The travel time from Srinagar is around 3 hours. The town is the starting point of the annual pilgrimage to the holy cave of Amarnath. The Lidder River runs through it offering several picture-perfect picnic spots. Literally, the name of the town translates to mean the ‘Valley of Shepherds’.
The main things to see in Pahalgam are Betaab Valley, Aru Valley and Chandanwari. The ride to Pahalgam is plenty interesting too, lined as the streets are with apple orchards, saffron fields, and cricket-bat factories.
Betab Valley lies between the two Himalayan Ranges–Pir Panjal and Zanskar. It can be reached in ten minutes from the Pahalgam city centre. The valley is named after the Sunny Deol-Amrita Singh hit debut film Betaab. The final point is a man-made park (INR 100 entry fee) with some good views of the Lidder River and mountains. The park is worth a 30-minutes stop and it can get crowded.
Aru valley is located 12 km from Pahalgam and takes about 20-30 minutes to reach. As always, the ride was better than the destination with several awesome views of the Lidder River and the valley as we rode along to the top. Aru valley is also the base camp for trekking to the Kolhoi Glacier and Tarsar Lake. It is also the location of the JKTDC at Aru Valley. You can take a pony ride to see the valley or have a chai and plate of bread pakora at the JKTDC canteen once you reach the final point.
Chandanwari is where the Amarnath Yatra starts—the other route. It is situated at an elevation of 9,500 feet and is located 16 kilometres from Pahalgam.
Outside vehicles are not allowed to do sightseeing in Pahalgam. They can only drop you at the hotel. Only local taxis can ferry tourists in the town. Since we had a bike, we had no problem moving around.
Day 4: Pahalgam
Laze around in the day and take in more of the beauty of Pahalgam, or move your ass and head to one of the highly touted treks that start from here. Among the popular ones are Sheshnag and Verinag Lake treks. There are several trek organizers to go with, Highhill Tours being one. We were too tired to do a trek, so we just soaked the beauty around and lazed in the market area—both plenty interesting. Be sure to eat at Food Point, a nondescript eatery frequented by locals. I had my first wazwan dishes here. If you fancy an early morning coffee, go to Volga. But again, be prepared to tip heavily.
Day 5: Gulmarg
At 8,700 feet over sea level, Gulmarg is best visited in winter when there is a couple of feet deep snow, and the mountains are covered in them, offering entrancing views. Gulmarg is also home to the famous skiing location of Kongdoor-Aferwat. In the summer and autumn months though, you can simply enjoy rides in the Gulmarg Gondola and the views of the valley it offers.
The Gulmarg Gondola is Asia’s largest and highest and world’s second-largest and second-highest cable car project. It can be ridden in two phases. Phase 1 is at 9800 feet above sea level and takes you to Kongdoor valley. Tickets are available from 9 am to 5 pm. Tickets costs are INR 750/ pp.
Phase 2 of the Gulmarg Gondola is at 13,700 feet above sea level. Tickets are available from 10 am to 4 pm. Phase 2 is often closed due to bad weather or maintenance and there is no way to check beforehand. To go to phase 2 you need to reach phase 1, either through the gondola or on horse/ foot (takes 45 min-1 hours). From Phase 2 you can see the Nanda Devi peak and, some say, even the LOC. Ticket costs are INR 950/ pp.
You can buy the tickets online but you can also buy on-site—preferable really—because what if the gondola is closed for the day? Also, all you get online is a voucher which will be required to be exchanged for a boarding pass at the ticket counter. So, there’s really no point.
Another tip for the Gondola: either be late or very early because the ticket queues can be long (especially during season—the winter months). Also, do not listen to the stories the local guides tell you. The heckling can be relentless and they’re just out to make a quick buck.
The Khyber Resort is a good upscale alternative to JKTDC. I’ve heard of people planning their trip in winter to accommodate availability in the hotel. We stayed at the JKTDC hutments and booked on arrival at the clubhouse. If the manager is not around, go to the restaurant to get his contacts. Or book online.
Good to Know
Partaking in Kashmiri Wazwan should be on top of your list of things to do. Kashmiri Wazwan dishes are multi Kashmiri dishes, usually meat-based using lamb, beef or chicken, and served during weddings. During a wedding, guests are seated in a group on a dastarkhwan or sheet and they share the meal in a Traem. Most restaurants in Kashmir list several delectable Wazwan dishes on their menu. Rista (meatballs in red gravy), rogan josh (tender lamb cooked with Kashmiri spices), and yakhni (meat in spiced yoghurt curry) are among the most popular ones.
There are only a few shops in Srinagar that sells alcohol (since liquor is haram in Islam). 3 are on Boulevard Road. One is hidden inside a shanty next to ghat 7 (I think – check with your driver). Prices are astronomical and arbitrary, but what can you do? As far as I know, one cannot purchase alcohol anywhere else in Kashmir; only in these stores in Srinagar.
Good Time to Visit
March is the most pleasant with remnants of snow and with the onset of balmy weather. October, when I visited, was not half bad. The valleys were green, loads of flowers, days sunny, nights tolerably cold. I didn’t see any snow though. The best time to visit for cryophobics is March to October. For those looking to enjoy winters, it would be between November and March.
Avoid shopping at tourist hotspots like Gulmarg and the Dal Lake Market. I found goods at Lal Chowk more reasonably priced and the vendors less likely to hike up prices, therefore avoiding acrimonious negotiations. On the way back from Pahalgam, you can pick up saffron from the store before Pampore (INR 150/1 gm). You can pick up Kahwa from departmental stores to gift people (INR 150 onwards for a small box). Other commonly purchased gifts are dry fruits, Kashmiri shawls, stoles, and carpets. Try getting them from Lal Chowk or the Polo View Market.
Varghis Khan’s blog was a useful resource to plan our trip.
We checked the JKTDC website for Government Hotels in Jammu and Kashmir. Like all government hotels, they were in great locations and inexpensive (INR 1700-2300/night). Not the best maintained though.
Read the TripAdvisor forums, such as this one on Gulmarg Gondola, before you visit a place, to prepare for the assault of touts.
Alternate Itinerary Additions
You can consider visiting Yousmarg, Doodhpathri, and Aharbal, all 2-3 hours from Srinagar and much less touristy than the ones above.
Alternate 5-day trip
Guerez valley or Gurais, is located in the high Himalayas, about 123 kilometres from Srinagar in northern Kashmir. It is 8400 feet above sea level. While Gurez is touted to be beautiful, it is close to the ‘LOC’ or Line of Control and falls barely on the Indian side of the border. For the longest time, Gurez was off-limit to tourists, and even today, it is quite difficult to reach.
Srinagar to Guerez by road looked like an awesome alternative which we evaluated but eventually discarded because it was our first time in Kashmir and we wanted a taste of the tourist track before we committed to something more adventurous. We got to know that a chopper service (INR 3000/per head) to Guerez is available at the Srinagar airport. The service is available only on Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays. It wasn’t operational when we went probably because of the Covid-19-related restrictions. By road, the journey takes 6-7 hours. There’s a JKTDC guest house at Guerez for an overnight stay.