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Kashmir getting back on tourists’ radars

The signs that greet you as you emerge from the little airport in Srinagar, Kashmir’s main city, give you a sense of how unexpected the place is going to be. The first one I saw advised, “Do not get your daughter married before the age of 18. (It is a criminal offence.) Education first. Marriage afterwards.”
I began bumping into town, and a policeman’s kiosk announced, “Enjoy your stay in the valley. You are safe in our hands” — one of those assertions of security likely only to heighten your sense of insecurity.
When Kashmir was a haven for Western honeymooners and lotus-eaters in the 1980s, Srinagar welcomed two flights a day if it was lucky. Quite wonderfully, about three dozen flights a day now come here. Still, in a week of sightseeing recently, I encountered only a handful of foreign visitors around Srinagar, yet 1.3 million Indian tourists flocked to Kashmir last year, rediscovering a place that has long been renowned for its mountains, valleys and gardens.
After more than 20 years of having been associated mostly with curfews and fighting, Kashmir is on its way to becoming a hot destination again.
The mountainous region in northwest India, bordering China, Tibet and Afghanistan, has long been a target for foreign incursions, but its most recent problems began after India and Pakistan were divided in 1947, and each thought it had a reason to claim it.
Pakistan controls the rugged northern part of Kashmir, but the fairy-tale valley surrounding Dal Lake remains in Indian hands, and more than half a million Indian troops have been trying to keep the peace in the predominantly Muslim state for the last quarter-century. As locals rise up against what they see as an occupation, more than 70,000 people have lost their lives violently since 1989.
But in November 2012, the British Foreign Office followed Germany and Japan in declaring it was safe for tourists to return to the region — the U.S. State Department remains cautious — so for now you can enjoy gorgeous new amenities in an area that is only now being rediscovered.
The Taj Group opened Vivanta, a chic glass-filled hotel above Dal Lake, in 2011, and another rambling space, the Lalit Grand Palace, is set in a maharajah’s palace.
Best of all, last year saw the opening of Sukoon, Kashmir’s first “luxury houseboat,” where guests can enjoy superb gourmet meals while slipping into a lulling rhythm in which days are spent watching gondolas drift beside a lotus pond and shopping means a slow paddle to a grocery above the reeds.
Before Sukoon, all the 2,000 or so houseboats on Srinagar’s Dal and Nageen lakes were divided into two categories, “A” and “Deluxe” (often rebranded as “Super Deluxe”), which meant that every one of them claimed top status, and none deserved it.
The Sukoon, moored on Dal Lake, is Kashmir’s most luxurious houseboat since beginning operations last year. It offers rain forest showers and gourmet meals.
The Sukoon has five stylish suites.
For me, the great beauty of setting foot in Srinagar was finding echoes of many of the exotic sights of central Asia. In a combination you’ll find nowhere else, blue-eyed girls walk among white-bearded old men in skullcaps to pagoda-like mosques, which look like nothing so much as Katmandu made over by Afghans.
Tibetan Muslims share thukpa (noodle soup) and momos (dumplings) with their Kashmiri neighbors along the twisting alleyways of the old town. Tidy, flower-ringed Cotswold-style cottages sit among Hindu shrines and crumbling, two-story wooden houses.
And above a tiny, deserted “7-D Entertainment Centre,” a tethered helium balloon carries giggling riders, as in some “Monty Python” cartoon, every one of its passengers receiving tickets bearing the legend, “Break down fear. Relief is here.”
(Reported by Pico Iyer for Rising Kashmir)

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