Himalayan Paradise – Kashmir and Ladakh
“Pale hands I loved beside the Shalimar,
Where are you now? Who lies beneath your spell?…”
Dubbed the Kashmiri love ode, when set to music, this became the most popular song of Edwardian times immortalising the romantic Shalimar/ Mughal Gardens of Srinagar, 5,600 feet high in the Himalayas. Here the serene, shimmering, pink-tipped lotus strewn Dal Lake slumbers below snow dusted mountains and where ornate houseboats quaintly named Windsor Castle, Sound of Music and Young Pinafore rest permanently berthed.
Step aboard across a wide verandah into a spacious sitting room, with polished walnut wood furniture, hand-woven Kashmiri rugs, crewel curtains and applique cushions. Behind lie several bedrooms, some boasting four posters, a dining room with a table that easily seats twenty, plus a maple wood dresser lined with bone china and crystal. Alongside, staff operate from a swaying annexe from whose kitchen appetising smells waft to whet the most jaded of appetites. If a houseboat doesn’t appeal, there’re many good hotels enjoying lake and mountain views.
Dotted with mighty chinar (sycamore) trees, the seventeenth century Persian influenced Gardens are threaded with terraces, canals, waterfalls, fountains and marble pavilions, still true to the original design, the curves of a beguiling, fragrant floral lexicon lovingly tended.
Of Srinagar’s ancient mosques, three rather grand ones reward a visit as does the intriguing museum and on a jaunt across a wooded hillside I glimpse a green metal contraption labelled Bear Cage where hunks of meat are hung inside to lure trespassing 220lb black bears. Take a leisurely shikar ride across the Dal, past the floating post office and villagers cultivating floating vegetable gardens, and soon you’ll hear the flap of paddles as vendors selling all manner of items glide up and gently persuade one to part with one’s money. They’re never offended if you don’t buy, although it’s difficult not to splurge.
In May the rushing Indus is fed by glacier melted snow while in the fir, pine and spruce meadows of Sonamarg, (Path of Gold), Doodpatri (Valley of Milk) and Gulmarg (Path of Flowers, that morphs into a popular ski resort in winter) horses roam, brown cows munch and shaggy sheepdogs round up bleating flocks. A must do is the all-seasons, high-wire gondola at Gulmarg and during the hour- long ride be enthralled by spectacular views. En route, homely family enterprises selling saffron and saffron products abound with relatives roped in to harvest the scented purple crocus in autumn. Dried fruit, especially apricots and pale yellow raisins, and walnuts and almonds are a speciality of the area and feel the love of khawa, traditional golden tea flavoured with saffron, cinnamon and honey.
Papier-mâché for which Kashmir is celebrated is irresistible – a glowing, delicately wrought box or tray perhaps, an eggcup, or intricate Christmas tree decorations.
Leave the alpine pastures for the magical yet stark aridity of Ladakh, once a part of Tibet. In the small main town of Leh, (11,500 feet) one is struck by the sight of soaring, slender, needle- straight poplars that are put to practical use in roofing. The mountains are sheer rock of many hues; the altitude may have adverse effects so take time to acclimatise.
Leh, gut-punchingly located against a dramatic backdrop of snow covered peaks, enchants with its mud brick thatched dwellings, trickling streams, fields of barley, whitewashed stupas, multi-coloured prayer flags fluttering in the breeze and bustling bazaar. Buy hand-knitted woollens or thangkas ( paintings on cotton or silk). Meander along rough- hewn alleys and be captivated by age-old traditions. Raise your eyes to ibex horns on a roof top – these, like our horseshoe, promise good luck, then duck into the modest but fascinating Ecology Centre.
Five hours by road lies the mesmerising indigo- emerald Pangong Lake reached by a zigzagging ascent to 17,500 feet along a narrow, boulder strewn mountain pass, largely unpaved, punctuated with a variety of signs exhorting safety, Better To Be Mr Late than Mr Never, and the unnerving Avalanche Area. The eagle eyed will spot yaks, (yak cheese is beige and tastes like cheddar), herds of mules nudging pashmina goats, plump Himalayan marmots and is that the Abominable Snowman? Then venture through the picturesque Nubra Valley, another thrilling journey that reveals sand dunes, green villages and a ruined palace.
Numerous gompas (monasteries) of antiquity perch on rocky outcrops their vivid, mural -decorated chambers containing imposing statues of Buddha.
Keen trekkers and climbers hasten to Ladakh with river rafting and kayaking beckoning in summer. At day’s end, let your taste buds feast on a bowl of skyu (flat barley gnocci floating in a rich vegetable stew), momos (wheat dumplings wrapped in ravioli-style pasta) and ginger tea.
And now joo-lay! the Ladakhi word for hello, please, thanks and… goodbye.