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Kashmir - Travel and visas
Fancy an alternative form of transport? Take a ride on a Bactrian camel in the Nubra Valley © f9photos, Shutterstock
All foreign nationals (excluding Nepalese and Bhutanese) need a visa for entering India, and the vast majority of visitors come on a 180-day tourist visa, details of which are given here. For information on other types of visa, including business and residency visas, see http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk/aboutyourvisas.html.
Visas on arrival are currently available for those from Cambodia, Finland, Indonesia, Japan, Laos, Luxembourg, Myanmar, New Zealand, Philippines, Singapore and Vietnam. These visas are valid for 30 days only and cost US$60. In order to qualify, you must have purchased a return ticket, be travelling for tourism purposes only, and have at least six months left to run on your passport. If you, your parents or grandparents were born in Pakistan, even if you now have a passport from one of the qualifying countries, you will not be allowed a visa on arrival.
All other nationals must apply for a visa before travelling to India. The price of the visa depends on both your nationality and where you apply: UK passport holders applying in London currently pay £92.20 (which includes a £10.20 processing fee) while, for comparison purposes, other EU nationals applying in London pay just US$42.20. Visa fees are payable at the time of submitting your application and are non-refundable, even if your visa is refused.
In the UK, Indian visa applications are handled by a private contractor, VFS Global (http://in.vfsglobal.co.uk). You should download the application form from the VFS website and then either submit it by post or in person at one of the visa centres, for which you can book a timed appointment. There are VFS visa centres in London, Birmingham, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Glasgow and Manchester. Take a good book to read as they are frequently running late.
In addition to your printed and signed application form, you must submit two recent 50 x 50mm passport photos (NB: this is not the same size as a standard UK passport photo), your passport, any supporting paperwork and a self-addressed Special Delivery Envelope (SDE; this applies to postal applications only).
If you apply in person, it typically takes five working days to process your visa, though Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Bangladeshi nationals should allow significantly longer. Those applying by post should allow a minimum of ten working days and send their documents by recorded delivery.
If you are travelling on a tourist visa, you do not usually need to register in India: this is a requirement for long-term visa holders only. However, special requirements are in place for Jammu and Kashmir due to the security concerns. If you arrive by air, you will be registered at the airport on arrival. Coming by road, you will need to fill in a registration form at a police checkpoint. There are no charges for this kind of registration and you do not need to show any documents other than your valid passport and visa.
Non-Ladakhis wishing to travel close to the border with China must have an Inner Line Permit. This is available only in Leh, can be processed in one day, and costs Rs20 with an additional Rs10 donation to the Red Cross. The permit is valid for seven days.
Mountaineering permits are required for some ascents. If the peak is under 7,000m you can apply yourself via the Indian Mountaineering Foundation’s office in Leh. Permits for higher peaks require prior authorisation from Delhi. Full information is available on the IMF website (www.indmount.org).
India is well connected to the rest of the world, particularly in terms of flights, and onward transport connections from the main hubs to Jammu, Srinagar and Leh are affordable. Bear in mind, however, that in the winter months Leh is only accessible by air, and that Jammu is currently the only major city in the state to have a rail connection to the rest of India.
As there are no international connections to J&K, this section is arranged as follows: international flights to Delhi and travel information on that city; domestic flights connecting J&K to other parts of India; train connections to Jammu (currently the only major city in J&K with an operational railway line); and road connections to J&K via Himachal Pradesh and the Punjab.
India has superb flight connections around the world, and you’ll generally be able to choose from a range of departures from your place of origin. If the primary focus of your trip is J&K, opt to fly into Delhi to maximise your onward travel options. Other major international airports in the country include Bangalore, Kolkata and Mumbai.
International flights via Delhi
Indira Gandhi International Airport (DEL) is the busiest airport in India and handles around 40 million passengers every year. The international terminal is brand new, making for a significantly more pleasant experience on landing.
Jammu, Leh and Srinagar all have airports with regular commercial flights to other parts of India, and it is hoped that flights out of Kargil will commence during the lifespan of this edition. Flying into the state is certainly the easiest way to get here, though if you head straight to Leh you will need to allow several days to acclimatise to the altitude.
The flight-booking portal Yatra (www.yatra.com) is an Indian version of lastminute and has the latest schedules for Indian domestic airlines. It also lets you book online. Alternatively, flight tickets can be booked from the airlines’ own offices, at the airport counters, or from a local travel agent.
The main domestic airlines serving airports in J&K are Air India (www.airindia.com), Go Air (www.goair.in), IndiGo (www.goindigo.in), JetKonnect (www.jetkonnect.co.in) and Spice Jet (www.spicejet.com).
You can fly to Jammu airport (IXJ) from Delhi, Chennai and Mumbai, and there are also occasional connections from Jammu to Leh and Srinagar. Flights from Delhi cost around Rs5,000 each way, and all of the options leave Delhi early in the morning. The flight takes 1 hour 20 minutes. Flights from Leh to Jammu also take 1 hour 20 minutes and cost Rs5,000.
There are regular flights to Leh airport (IXL) from Delhi, Chandigarh, Jammu and Srinagar. The flight from Delhi takes 1 hour 15 minutes and costs around Rs4,500 in the winter months but up to twice as much in summer. Tickets in high season can be in short supply, so book ahead to ensure you get the date you want and be aware that even in August bad weather can still cause flight delays and cancellations.
Srinagar (SXR) is the best connected of the state’s airports thanks to the constant flow of domestic tourists holidaying on the lake. It's possible to fly here from Delhi, Mumbai, Amritsar, Bangalore, Chandigarh, Indore and Nagpur. The direct flight from Delhi takes one hour 10 minutes and tickets start at Rs4,500. Before booking check that you are looking at a direct flight, as some of the options route via Jammu.
Note that due to concerns that J&K flights might be targeted by terrorists, security on flights to and from destinations in the state is particularly tight. Additional baggage checks are common and you may not be able to carry hand luggage on the plane. Please check with your airline prior to flying for its latest baggage requirements.
The only major city in J&K to have a railway station is Jammu, and though the line is being extended to Srinagar, this part of the route is unlikely to be operational before 2017.
Travelling by train in India is a memorable experience, and if you buy a first- or second-class ticket it’s a pleasurable one. Don’t underestimate the value of travelling in an air-conditioned compartment. Trains run more or less on time and when you buy a ticket (which must be done in advance), you automatically get a seat reservation.
Train timetables and fares are available from the Indian Rail website (www.indianrail.gov.in), though you might find private sites such as http://erail.in easier to use. It is possible to buy tickets online if you have an Indian SIM in your phone, otherwise it’s easier to book through a local agent and you’ll only pay a small commission. You can either buy a ticket for a single journey, or buy an IndRail Pass, which is valid for up to 90 days. The latter is only available to foreigners and must be paid for in foreign currency: more details are available at www.indianrail.gov.in/international_Tourist.html.
Via Himachal Pradesh
Visitors heading to Ladakh by road from Delhi will probably come up from the plains via Himachal Pradesh. The long and arduous road that is closed in winter. The section from Delhi to Chandigarh and then the popular hill resort of Manali, the usual point at which travellers break their journey, is not too bad. The Manali–Leh Highway is the most challenging section of the route.
The Manali–Leh Highway runs 490km between the two towns and crosses a number of high passes: Rohtang (3,979m), Baralacha La (4,890m), Lachulung La (5,060m) and Taglang La (5,328m) among them. There is significant risk of altitude sickness at these points, and snowfall and ice frequently close the passes even in late spring. A tunnel is under construction beneath the Rohtang Pass but as less than half of the length had been excavated, it is unlikely to open during the lifespan of this edition.
Travelling by road, you should allow two days to reach Leh from Manali: the going is very slow. The buses break the journey at Keylong or Sarchu, and those in private vehicles are advised to do likewise. The Himachal Pradesh Tourism Development Corporation (www.hptdc.nic.in) runs daily tourist coaches from 1 July to 15 September.
One-way tickets cost Rs1,600/2,200 (with/without accommodation). HPTDC also runs an onward connection to Delhi from Manali (Rs1,220) in air-conditioned Volvo coaches. If you are hiring a taxi, Leh-based drivers charge from Rs16,355. Expect to complete the journey to Manali in around 18 hours, still split across two days.
If you are travelling to the western part of J&K (Jammu and Kashmir districts, as opposed to Ladakh and Zanskar), it is more appropriate to drive up from the Punjab. It’s just 211km from Amritsar to Jammu and the journey takes around three hours. J&K State Road Transport Corporation (JKSRTC; www.jksrtc.co.in) operates a bus service between the two cities with more than a dozen departures every day, and tickets cost just Rs135. Hiring a taxi for the same journey will cost you Rs4,200.
Continuing on to Srinagar, the road is far slower and prone to landslides and closures during bad weather. The opening of the Chenani–Nashri Tunnel near Patnitop, scheduled for 2016, will significantly reduce the journey time, but until then the highway is closed around 40 days each year.
The main route between the two cities is the 289km National Highway 1A (NH1A). Driving this road takes eight to ten hours depending on the weather, though as there are plenty of interesting things to see on the way it’d be a pity to just drive straight up the valley without stopping. JKSRTC operates numerous buses along this route every day and fares start from Rs230. A taxi will cost you Rs4,500.
J&K is a large state and transport infrastructure is relatively poor. Journeys by road are often long and uncomfortable, regardless of your means of transport, as even the national highways are badly maintained and narrow; accidents and road closures are frequent. Take local advice on the latest journey times, depart early in the morning if you have a long way to travel and make sure you’ve got a really good book (other than this one, obviously) to help pass the hours.
Take to the water in Srinagar on one of these colourful boats on the lake © Maximum Exposure Productions 2013
Jammu, Leh and Srinagar all have civilian airports and domestic flights link them together, as well as with other parts of India. Flights are most regular in the summer months when customer demand is highest (and prices also increase), so you may need to book well in advance to guarantee a seat.
The flight from Srinagar to Leh takes 44 minutes and costs from Rs4,870 each way; flights between Jammu and Leh take 1 hour 20 minutes and tickets start from Rs5,000.
Tickets can be booked online via the Indian travel portal www.yatra.com (which includes tickets for India’s budget airlines) and the individual airlines’ websites, as well as from airport ticketing desks and through local travel agents.
Security is particularly strict on flights originating in J&K due to terrorism fears, so check airline baggage regulations before travelling. Note that you are usually required to have both a print-out of your ticket (even for e-tickets) and your passport in order to gain access to the departure terminal.
The best roads in J&K are the national highways: NH1A in the west between Jammu and Srinagar, and NH1 from Srinagar to Leh via Kargil. These roads carry a mixture of trucks, taxis and private vehicles, as well as frequent military convoys driving between the different military bases. Though mostly covered with tarmac, the surfaces are far from smooth, with pot-holes a common hazard. In the narrowest sections there is not space for a vehicle to overtake, and high passes are forced to close when it snows.
Away from these highways, the road conditions deteriorate further. Many roads are unmade, making for very slow progress, and some quite important routes, including the main road from Kargil to Zanskar, are closed completely throughout the winter months, reopening again only in late spring.
The JKSRTC (www.jksrtc.co.in) operates a reasonable network of buses between J&K’s main towns, and they typically stop in the larger villages en route too. Public buses are the cheapest way to travel and depending on the type of bus (standard, deluxe, coach, etc) you might even get your own seat. Larger items of luggage (and occasionally additional passengers) travel on the roof, so buy a small padlock for your rucksack or case and keep valuables inside the bus with you.
Given the winding roads and tendencies of the bus drivers, you may consider taking anti travel sickness medication, even if you don’t normally feel nauseous in the car. It may also come in handy for other passengers, as will wet wipes and tissues, and given your close proximity to them it’s in your own best interest to share.
Leh, Kargil and Zanskar all have their own taxi unions, which set rates and other taxi-related regulations, including which taxis can go where. The regulations are designed to protect local drivers from outsiders stealing their business, but can be infuriating for visitors forced to change taxis to continue their journey or prevented from using their original car and driver for both outward and return journeys.
That said, you quickly get used to the system and the fixed rates remove the usual hassle of haggling over price. Taxis can be either cars or minivans and drivers have to be registered. The drivers frequently speak a few words of English and some are knowledgeable about local sites and culture, acting as informal guides for their passengers. They know where to stay and where to eat and, on the whole, we consider the standard of driving to be high by regional standards.
If you have a car and driver for several days, it is appropriate to tip the driver at the end of your trip, even if you’ve prepaid an agent for a package. We work on the basis of Rs200 tip per day and it’s always gratefully received.
Though it is possible to hire just a car in India, more often you get a car and driver together. It is likely then that if you are driving yourself you have bought or imported your own vehicle, or are driving the car of a friend.
EU driving licences (which include UK photo-card driving licences) are valid in India, though you may wish to get an International Driving Licence before leaving home. These are available from the RAC and some larger post offices and cost about £7.
If you are bringing your vehicle into India from another country, you will need to purchase a carnet de passage en douanes, or ‘carnet’ for short. This document, also available from the RAC, is a waiver for import duty and guarantees you will remove the vehicle from India at the end of your trip. The cost of the carnet is determined by the value of your vehicle and full details are available on the RAC’s website (www.rac.co.uk).
The rules of the road are theoretically very similar to those in the UK, and vehicles are supposed to drive on the left. The reality is that people drive wherever there are fewest pot-holes and rules are typically observed only when a policeman is watching. Driving anywhere in India, and especially in the mountainous parts of J&K, is not for the faint-hearted.
You would have to be exceptionally fit and not just a little bit mad to consider cycling in Kashmir. The roads are badly maintained, the motorists homicidal and the altitude is an additional hurdle. In spite of all this, you will see cyclists on the road. All of them are foreigners, and most of them are undertaking epic bicycle journeys across India, across Asia or round the world.
It is possible to hire bicycles in Leh. These are mountain bikes rather than road bikes, and rentals are typically by the day, though you can request longer packages. Demand and wear a helmet, regardless of how silly you think you look, and make sure you have spare inner tubes and the tools required to fix a punctured tyre. Do not, under any circumstances, cycle at night or be tempted to undertake other vehicles, regardless of how slowly they are moving.
If you are considering bringing your own bike to Kashmir, take all the spare parts you could possibly need with you. The boneshaking roads take their toll on bikes as well as bodies, and so replacement parts will be available locally. If you forget something or something breaks, it would have to be couriered to you from Delhi or even from abroad.