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Kashmir - When and where to visit
Whether you come in the dry or the rainy season, the state of J&K is a year-round destination and there are major attractions to see throughout.
J&K has a varied climate due to the state’s size and its variation in altitude and topography. Jammu has a humid, subtropical climate with summer temperatures well into the 40s (°C); a substantial drop in winter sees lows just above freezing. The area receives monsoon rains between June and September, and annual rainfall averages 1,100mm.
Srinagar is also subtropical and humid, though due to its increased altitude, temperatures are generally lower. Summer days touch a pleasant 30°C, but in winter there can be deep snow and temperatures hover around freezing during January and February. There is less rainfall here than in Jammu, though the spring can still be wet and we’ve been caught in storms and hail in September.
The climate up in Leh is dramatically different: it’s a desert. Winters are long and harsh with months of deep snowfall and bitter temperatures: it can get as low as –28°C. There’s little rainfall here – just a few millimetres each month – and for much of the year the days are warm and bright, albeit cooler at night.
In the last three to five years, however, Ladakh has experienced a marked shift in its weather, most likely due to climate change. Much less snow is falling, leading to concerns about the availability of water. In the same timeframe, however, there have also been huge and unanticipated cloudbursts: in August 2010 four inches of rain fell in just 30 minutes. Floods washed away villages, as well as homes in Leh, and more than 250 people were killed.
A stunning view over the city of Leh in Ladakh surrounded by winter snows © J&K Tourism
The state of J&K is a year-round destination: there are major attractions in every season, though if you want to visit a specific place or undertake a particular activity you will need to take the extremes of weather into consideration.
In winter Ladakh is only accessible by air, as the roads are closed by snow. This is the best time to spot snow leopards and to undertake the Chadar Winter Trek along the frozen Zanskar River, accompanying local teachers returning to Zanskar’s remote villages after their winter break. Ladakhi Losar, the New Year, is celebrated in late December or early January, the exact date set by the lunar calendar.
Srinagar in the snow is a postcard-perfect scene. You can keep warm with a kanger beneath your phiren, tucked up toasty warm on a houseboat, or use the city as a springboard for Gulmarg. The most developed ski resort in the Himalayas, ski passes, kit hire and lessons are exceptionally cheap and you can even try your hand at heli-skiing.
Whether your idea of heaven is heli-skiing in Gulmarg or joining the monks for their early morning meditation, trekking along the frozen Zanskar River, white-water rafting on the Indus or simply lazing on a houseboat with a good book, you won’t be disappointed.
The spring is when the snows begin to melt and the alpine meadows erupt into rainbows, with wild flowers everywhere you look. In Srinagar the magnificent tulip fields also come into bloom, and though the domestic tourists have begun to arrive, there are relatively few foreigners to be seen. Everything is lush, green and fresh, and the lower trekking routes start to beckon.
In the summer months, it’s time for trekking. The snow has retreated to the uppermost peaks, and the roads are clear enough to drive to Leh and even down to Zanskar. While Leh itself is busy, there are plenty of quiet retreats in the surrounding valleys. You can walk, you can ride, and few things are more beautiful than sitting out around a campfire beneath the stars.
Even the rivers and lakes look enticing in July and August. There are plenty of opportunities for kayaking and white-water rafting on the rivers of Ladakh, while to the west the lakes of Kashmir offer a variety of watersports, leisurely boat trips and trout fishing.
The greatest draw in autumn is the Ladakh Festival, which runs for two weeks at the start of September. It’s a wonderful celebration of Ladakhi culture and a prime opportunity to see traditional costumes and masked dance, archery competitions and polo. Come November the saffron fields of Kashmir are riotous purple; the crocuses are harvested and the saffron dried.
It is often said that a place has something for everyone, but in the case of J&K that is actually true. Thousands of years of history sit side by side with vibrant modern communities; spectacular natural landscapes ripe for exploration are dotted with all manner of architectural curiosities. Whether your idea of heaven is heli-skiing in Gulmarg or joining the monks for their early morning meditation, trekking along the frozen Zanskar River, white-water rafting on the Indus or simply lazing on a houseboat with a good book, you won’t be disappointed.
Buddhas of Kargil
Far less famous but no less impressive than the ill-fated Buddhas of Bamiyan in Afghanistan, which were destroyed by the Taliban in 2001, is the 7m-tall rock-cut Buddha at Kartse Khar. Dating back to the 7th/8th century AD, this statue was carved by early missionaries and the depiction of the body, jewellery and hair are typical of the Kashmiri style. Four other Buddha carvings, including the standing Buddha at Mulbekh, are also found within the district.
The 7m-tall giant buddha of Kartse Khar, carved by early missionaries in the typical Kashmiri style © J&K Tourism
The Mughal Road
When the Mughal emperors travelled to their Kashmiri paradise in the 1600s, the road they took was far west of the current National Highway. Their route has recently been paved and now hosts the annual Mughal Road Car Rally, as well as giving other motorists the opportunity to pass through the spectacularly beautiful Hirpora Wildlife Sanctuary.
At first glance Jammu’s Mubarak Mandi is a crumbling wreck, a pitiful place of neglect. Look closer, however, and this 19th-century palace complex has remarkable, wedding-cake architecture and is overrun with monkeys. Some restoration work has already been done and shows the possibility that the buildings may yet return to their former glory.
Trekking in Zanskar
The vast majority of trekkers head to Ladakh as the routes are more easily accessible from Leh, but it’s well worth the effort of travelling further afield to Zanskar. The landscapes are more striking, there are fewer people on the trails and there are fantastic opportunities for spotting flora and fauna, including the elusive snow leopards. Even in winter you can join local teachers on the Chadar trek as they brave the snow and ice to return to their rural schools after the winter break.
Meditating at Thiksey Monastery
Joining the monks in their early morning prayers sends shivers down your spine. The room, dark save for candlelight, resonates with sonorous chanting and we sat completely spellbound. Though other monasteries such as Hemis are better advertised, we prefer the laid-back atmosphere of Thiksey where you feel more a part of the community than simply a spectator.
We grew up with the idea of the Shalimar Gardens as an Eden-like place, never guessing once that they were real. The discovery that they did exist, and indeed survive to the present day, was a cause for great excitement. Come early in the morning to Shalimar, or to the equally beautiful Chashma Shahi, and you’ll not only be able to explore the gardens before the crowds but also see the mist rising eerily off the lawns and water channels.
Houseboats of Srinagar
If you take home one image of Srinagar, it’ll be of India’s floating palaces, the houseboats of Dal and Nagin lakes. Stay just one night afloat and you’ll see why the colonial British hired boats for months on end; take a shikara ride among the lotus gardens and you’ll probably never want to leave.
There’s a certain draw to visiting places with superlatives attached to them, and the (probably) highest motorable road on earth is no exception. Yes Khardung La is touristy, yes it gets crowded, but without climbing Everest it’s probably the closest you’ll get to standing on the roof of the world, and that makes it worth the effort.
Top 10 Adrenaline Hits
• Run the Ladakh Ultra Marathon and prove your endurance at altitude
• Rock climb in the sandstone cliffs around Sonamarg
• White-water raft through the rapids of the Indus River
• Fish for trout in high-altitude lakes around Srinagar
• Complete the Chadar Winter Trek across frozen rivers to Zanskar
• Ski off-piste at Gulmarg, India’s top winter sports resort
• Horse trek to the Thajiwas Glacier
• Paraglide above the lush, green landscapes of the Vale of Kashmir
• Try heli-skiing at a price you can afford
Your itinerary is inevitably going to depend on a variety of factors: the time you have available, how far you want to travel, the time of year and, if time is short, whether you’re going to focus on Srinagar or Leh. We’ve therefore suggested a mixture of options in the hope that there’s something here for you, wherever and whenever you’re going.
With just two days based in Srinagar, book yourself on to Chicago Houseboat to see what it’s like to live aboard. On the first day take a ride on the new gondola to the shrine of Makhdoom Sahib, then continue up the hill to Hari Parbat Fort and have a picnic in the surrounding eco-reserve, looking out across the city.
After lunch pay a visit to the Hazratbal Shrine with its sacred hair of the Prophet, then return to Dal Lake via the Jamma Masjid, making sure you’re back on the boat in time to watch the sunset across the water.
It is often said that a place has something for everyone, but in the case of J&K that is actually true.
Rise at dawn and take a shikara ride to the floating vegetable market, admiring the patchwork of floating islands as you go. Buy some honey macaroons to keep hunger pangs at bay, and then return to land for a tour of the Mughal Gardens.
Chashma Shahi and the Shalimar Gardens are a must, as are the tulip gardens if you’re visiting in April. Finish up your day with a drink at the Vivanta by Taj hotel, the entirety of Srinagar laid out at your feet.
If your two days are in Leh, prepare yourself for immersion in Ladakh’s Buddhist culture. Start your visit with a walk in the Old Town, climbing up the narrow streets from Main Bazaar to the LAMO centre for an introduction to Leh’s history. Have a cup of tea at the atmospheric Lonpo House before continuing up to Leh Palace and then Tsemo Fort. If you’re feeling less than fit, or haven’t yet acclimatised to the altitude, you might need to take a taxi between the two.
On day two go to the Shanti Stupa before breakfast so you can explore it before the crowds. Drive back into town via the far older Tisseru Stupa, and have a bite to eat at one of the many cafés in Changspa. If you’re an adrenaline junkie you now have time to do the descent from Khardung La by mountain bike, or spend a more leisurely few hours taking a meditation class at the Mahabodhi International Meditation Centre.
With a week in Ladakh, use Leh as your hub for exploring the district. Travel first to the south of Ladakh, visiting the monasteries of Thiksey and Hemis en route to Tsomoriri and Tso Kar lakes. Stay in a tented camp and take the opportunity to do some walking in the surrounding hills, being careful to keep back from the Chinese frontier.
Pass through Leh again as you drive back north, continuing on to visit Phyang and Likir, where you can spend the night with the boy monks at their school and admire the impressive, gilded Maitreya Buddha. There are finely preserved wall paintings at Alchi and, if you have time, the lunar landscapes just before Lamayuru are a fascinating geological feature. If at any stage during your trip the Dalai Lama is preaching, drop everything else and join the devotees hanging on his every word.
In a week you also have time to drive the length of the Vale of Kashmir from Srinagar to Jammu. Having explored Srinagar itself, travel to the relaxing hill resort of Pahalgam via the saffron fields at Pamore and the two remarkable temples at Avantipore. If it’s winter and Pahalgam is inaccessible, go to Gulmarg instead for a rewarding (and affordable) day on the slopes at the Himalayas’ premier ski resort.
The drive southwards through the valley is spectacular: the hairpin bends clinging to the mountainside are an attraction in their own right, if a little hair raising. Take time to visit the stunning Sun Temple at Martand and, if you’ve not yet had your fill of horticulture, the Mughal Garden at Verinag. Approaching Jammu, the Hindu shrine at Katra is an important pilgrimage site, and quite a contrast from the Muslim pilgrimage places further north. End your trip staying at Hari Niwas, the former palace of Maharaja Hari Singh, sipping gin and tonics on the lawn overlooking the Tawi River.
(Photo: Don't miss a chance to browse the bazaars of Kashmir for treasures – you never know what you might find © J&K Tourism)
If Kargil’s airport reopens to commercial flights during the lifespan of this edition, a week will also enable you to visit the Central Asia Museum in Kargil town, the finest museum in the state, and some if not all of the five stone Buddhas. You’ll be able to get up to Dha-Hanu or, alternatively, down into the stunning Suru Valley with its unique Dard culture and the twin peaks of Nun and Kun. If you’re determined, it’d also be possible to reach the northern part of Zanskar, stopping for the night in the tent camp at the foot of Rangdum Gompa.
Two or more weeks
A fortnight or longer is sufficient to travel across larger parts of the state and/or to do an extended trek. If your interest is primarily in Ladakh, start in Leh exploring the town and the monasteries between Leh and Lamayuru. Take the short (two day) trek from Lamayuru through the mountains to Rangdum and then allow yourself seven to ten days in Zanskar. Don’t miss Karsha Gompa or the 12th-century rock-cut monastery at Phuktal, the latter of which is only accessible on foot. In Padum there are superb Buddha carvings down by the river, which are unfortunately often overlooked.
Coming back, drive through the Suru Valley, making sure you see the Buddha at Kartse Khar. Attempts on Mount Nun are best undertaken from the base camp at Tanyol, 6km from Panikhar, but more leisurely walks along the valley are also a pleasure, especially in spring when the slopes are covered in wild flowers.
The trekking opportunities in Kashmir are also under-appreciated, and two weeks is ample time to get up into the mountains and away from other foreigners.
From Pahalgam to Sonamarg it’s a four-day trek via the Amarnath Cave, and your companions will be Hindu devotees visiting the cave’s Shiva ice lingam. You can then trek the further seven days from Sonamarg to Naranag (base camp for Mount Haramukh and Gangabal Lake), where there are some notable 8th-century Hindu temples (now in ruins), and then to Srinagar.