The airport taxi was 830 rupees from Srinagar airport to the shikara stop where our houseboat host waited at the bank of Dal Lake. The lake was quiet as we made our way from the ghat to Houseboat Switzerland (the houseboats of Dal Lake are often named after European or Western places, perhaps a legacy of the tourist segment who used to come).
It was quiet, because Srinagar was kind of still under lockdown. Nonetheless, there were still individual boats who tried to approach ours to sell keychains and cheap saffron, for tourists were rare and we became a lot more important to the sellers by default.
- The Dal Lakeside
- The houseboats of Dal Lake
- When should you come to Dal Lake?
- How long should you spend in Dal Lake?
- Things to do while staying in Dal Lake
- Regular life on a houseboat
- Social norms in Srinagar
- Carbon offset information to Kashmir
The Dal Lakeside
The lakeside is blessed with incredible views of the Himalayas looming dramatically over the city. We drove past a considerable extent of it when we adjourned to the mountain village of Naranag. Dal Lake is often mirror smooth, lending itself to photogenic images of tranquility. Passing by a wooded finger of land, an impressive structure lay within; our houseboat host pointed it out and told us it was Srinagar’s international convention centre.
The lakeside road abuts a well-maintained pedestrian path laid along the contour of the lake. Chinaar maples sometimes grew by the banks of the lake. A symbol of Kashmir, they’re valued trees. So much so that, they expanded a road by breaking the traffic to flow around a single chinaar tree, rather than cut the tree down, or even move it.
On the other side were commercial areas – shops, hotels, and further on, light industry. They were closed, given the lockdown and strikes. Roller shutters were down on a cement shop. On the green-painted shutters were written in white letters: Go Green Go Clean Save Dal Lake. The sentiment was echoed in some variation on similarly-painted walls and hoarding in the area.
I knew that the lake, though picturesque on the surface, was probably eutrophic or nearly so, given the number of houseboats without clear indications of sewage infrastructure. So I was surprised when I was told the lake is also used recreationally. Apparently people come from all over India to for boat races, jet skiing, and swimming competitions.
The houseboats of Dal Lake
But could you really go to Srinagar without staying on one of the iconic houseboats of Dal Lake?
There are very many to choose from, and some are quite old heritage boats. The accommodation standard ranges from basic to opulent. Given the situation, we found massive bargains, even by Southeast Asian standards. And they’re really quite lovely, beautiful examples of Kashmiri carpentry and woodworking craft. Within, the furnishing tends to come across a bit dated, but reflects the style of bygone luxury; rich colours, patterned curtains, and vibrant carpeting.
Comfort would, of course, depend on the accommodation standard chosen. That said, being on a houseboat, rooms would tend to have a curved floor, which can be awkward particularly in the bathroom. Additionally, there are mosquitoes on the lake. So a houseboat stay may not be so comfortable for mosquito sensitive people. Be sure to bring enough repellent.
The houseboats weren’t just pretty. It’s also kind of practical, for living by Dal Lake. Though the houseboats don’t typically actually sail about the lake, they do really float. Srinagar had a terrible flood in 2014, which destroyed a lot of the homes in lakeside villages.
September was usually a rainy month anyway, they told us. But water usually only comes up to the ground floor level. But that year, water came halfway up the banks, and rose to well above the first floor. The only safe place was the Jamia Masjid, the main mosque of Srinagar. However, though onshore structures like kitchens were swept away, the houseboats themselves were safe.
When should you come to Dal Lake?
Srinagar is almost a year-round destination. However, depending on your personal preferences, you might want to plan to come in specific months. The riskiest time to come is between August and September, since this is the peak of the monsoon season. It’s likely to rain a lot during the monsoon, and there might be floods.
- March-April: Come at this time to see cherry blossoms.
- March-May: Come during this time to see the many flowering gardens at their best.
- June: Come in this month for the cherry season.
- June-July: Come at this time to see blooming lotus on Dal Lake. We went in August, and just missed this. Note that after major flooding events, the lotus fields would be gone, which happened in 2014. But we went in 2019, and they had long since re-grown.
- October-November: Come at this time to see the chinaar turn golden with autumn colours.
- December-February: Wintertime is cold, and it’s challenging to stay at the poorly insulated houseboats. However, that’s where the houseboat folk stay over the winter, and you could choose to experience that. The lake freezes over in the winter, and you can do winter activities like ice skating.
How long should you spend in Dal Lake?
The ideal stay duration in Dal Lake (or its sister lake, Nigeen Lake), depends on a few things.
Firstly, it depends on how many things you want to do in the area, or in Srinagar generally. If you came to Kashmir mainly to enjoy Srinagar itself, or shop for Kashmiri crafts and souvenirs, then give it at least 4 days for both sightseeing and shopping. However, if Srinagar is not your main destination of interest, and you’re really aiming to be in Kashmir’s great outdoors, then a couple of days would be fine as a token visit.
Note that you don’t have to stay on a houseboat during your whole time in Dal Lake. The ideal length of stay on a houseboat depends on things like, how much you like the idea of staying in boat accommodations vs more conventional land accommodation on the shore side. While a houseboat stay is arguably more charming, the quarters are more cramped, and you can’t just walk off the boat whenever you like. This could be a problem if you are travelling with restless children.
Your houseboat may also be visited a lot by shikara merchants peddling various Kashmiri goods. Depending on your travel style, this could be a convenience, or it could be an annoyance for when you just want to enjoy tea at the houseboat decks and verandahs.
For a more detailed guide on what kind of goods the merchants sell, the quality range and authenticity, see my article on souvenirs to buy in Srinagar.
Things to do while staying in Dal Lake
Srinagar is a pretty interesting city. There are a lot of things to do in Srinagar, but many others have written about that. So I will just mention one, who listed more or less the kinds of things I probably would have done, had we gone during a more favourable time. However, in this article I want to focus on what you can see and do in the immediate vicinity of Dal Lake itself, if you don’t plan to venture away from it much.
As the most touristy part of Srinagar, there are a lot of things to do in Dal Lake. I can safely say that, since we managed to do a few things even under lockdown conditions. Unsurprisingly, it always involves getting on a boat, so you need to budget for that. It’s not expensive, like at least 100 rupees or something, but it will add up.
The lockdown situation did put a downer on our mood, so it was tempting to remember our stay there as being dull (bad pun intended!). However, thinking back on it, actually it wasn’t dull at all.
Shikara ride to Dal Lake gardens
Firstly, what is a shikara?
Even in the low season, we saw many of these on Dal Lake. Shikara are the slender, shallow lake boats of Srinagar, with colourful roofs, opulent cushions and curtains. They strike a romantic image, gliding gracefully over the still water, the more so given that the oars used in Srinagar are typically heart-shaped. Though your houseboat would usually have their own utilitarian boat for ferrying you to and back from shore, a shikara ride is a must-do Dal Lake experience.
Visit the flower gardens of Srinagar
A great activity to combine with your shikara ride is a visit to a ‘floating garden’ in Dal Lake. There are many gardens in Srinagar, but there are two that lie within the lake itself.
Nehru Park is the one we went to, as it was near to our houseboat. It was nicely laid out, and even though it was well past spring, there were still many flowers.
Char Chinar is the other garden within the lake. This is some distance away, and best reached from ghat 23, if you’re staying on the shore side. We didn’t go to this one, but apparently its signature attraction are chinaar trees.
Gardens on the shore of Dal Lake
We didn’t go to any other gardens during our stay. This was partly because we were distracted with trying to find our friend, considering the lockdown situation. But it was also partly because the gardens were supposedly closed, though it wasn’t clear whether the army ordered them closed or it was the local authorities.
However, of the many gardens of Srinagar, there are a few notable ones just in the Dal Lake area. If gardens are your thing, you could visit the Indira Gandhi Memorial Tulip Garden, said to be the largest tulip garden outside of the Netherlands’ Keukenhoff. Nearby are other modern gardens such as the Jawaharlal Nehru Memorial Botanical Garden.
Further north along the lake, you will also find old, Mughal era gardens such as Nishat Garden, and Shalimar Bagh Garden, immortalised in poetry and perfume. Near the tulip garden and slightly inland there’s also Pari Mahal, or the ‘Fairy Palace’, another Mughal era garden terraced up a slope.
Shopping at the floating markets
Inside Dal Lake, there is a whole semi-floating village. Under normal circumstances, I can imagine this area to be buzzing, with the many shops open to showcase famous Kashmiri crafts from lacquer to cashmere, and goods from almonds to saffron. But they were closed when we looked around on a boat, only the signage telling us what we’re missing.
Perhaps the silver lining of being there when all the shops were closed, was that I wasn’t tempted to buy everything.
We did pass a couple of stores selling confectionary and convenience goods, that remained open. I was amused to see ‘Maggi Point’ advertised on many such ramshackle kiosks. Clearly, Maggi instant noodles is as much a ubiquitous favourite here, as it is in Malaysia.
Near the end of our disappointing tour, we passed by a boatyard, where shikara and probably houseboats are made. Pine, we were told, was the wood of choice.
Visit the vegetable market
Dal Lake’s floating vegetable market was still taking place, however. I suppose such necessary commerce keep going no matter what.
It’s an early rise to see the vegetable market, for the boat ride has to begin before dawn to get you there at about sunrise. Your boatman could help you buy some vegetables for yourself, which you can probably ask your houseboat to cook for you.
Take a tour of Kashmiri crafts
Aside from just shopping for Kashmiri crafts, you could also take a tour that shows you how they’re made. There was a place that was open in the floating shops area of Dal Lake, which would normally have cashmere weaving if not for the strike. Our houseboat host also took us to a carpet shop where there was also a demonstration of how the famous Kashmiri carpets are woven.
Take a tour to lakeside attractions
A stay in Dal Lake isn’t limited to attractions within the lake itself. In the immediate vicinity of the lake, there are a few attractions that you could add to your Dal Lake itinerary.
See Chinar trees at Chinar Bagh Heritage & Culture Park
We passed by this park once, located at one end of Dal Lake. Our host pointed out the maples to us, and that’s when I learned that the chinaar are the official tree of Kashmir. The whole point of the park is that it’s full of chinaar trees. I can imagine that this would be a fantastic place to visit during autumn.
Explore Hari Parbat Fort
The towers and parapets of this fort is just visible on its namesake hill from parts of Dal Lake (more obvious from Nigeen Lake). I’m always interested to visit castles, so I felt somewhat aggrieved that the place was closed. Aside from the fort, apparently the historical hill also has a Hindu temple and some Sufi shrines.
One of the nearest attractions if you’re staying at the south end of Dal Lake is an old Hindu temple on top of a hill. Shankaracharya Temple was open near the end of my trip (kind of), so I agreed to take a guide to drive me there. But I have to say that, at least at the time, it was not a great experience.
For starters, there was a heavy CRPF garrison. My driver could not even get all the way up to the temple entrance. I had to get out at the base of the hill and cross the barricade on foot, since a car and its passengers have to cross separately. Getting back in, the car then has to stop at another barrier, where you have to surrender your phone and other electronics. So come with a trustworthy driver if you don’t want to entrust your electronics to the Central Reserve Police Force.
I felt indignant on behalf of my Kashmiri driver, since he was local, but he could not go in, yet I could.
You have to hike up a lot of stairs to reach the actual temple, which is not large or even architecturally interesting. There is a lovely panoramic view, but I couldn’t take photos.
It was a bizarre experience, what with the barracks around it and the park’s benign eco awareness signs being signed by the CRPF instead of the local municipality. There was no information about the temple, but there were placards exalting the services of CRPF members in foiling terrorist attacks – none of which actually even happened in Kashmir.
The area has the feeling of being a military temple. Apparently the park around the temple was built by a colonel upon an ‘inspiration’, so I suppose that explains it.
Hazratbal Mosque & garden
Hazratbal shrine is not the main mosque of Srinagar (that would be the Jamia Masjid in the old city). But it is the one most often photographed, since it lies by Dal Lake, its white dome standing out well in images. It was closed for restoration at the time of my visit. Near the end of my trip, my host thought it was safe for me to visit its gardens.
Passing by the area under restoration, I could see the beautiful marble work of the shrine, which reminded me of the marble workers of Agra who built the Taj Mahal. The park next to it is shaded by chinaar trees, each with its trunk enclosed around by wood to form benches.
Although it is by the lake, it’s easier to reach by land. The atmosphere is peaceful, and you can take pictures within its grounds.
Regular life on a houseboat
We were the rare tourist during a difficult time, so we were able to monopolise our host’s attention. Quickly enough, we began having our meals with the family in the kitchen. We learned from the boys that you could go fishing in the lake while staying at the houseboat. (I’m not sure about the water quality of the lake, though.)
In the evenings, you could play games. There’s UNO and carom, which I had not played in literal decades. Seeing the carom board reminded me of my parents and their friends, who taught me the game as a child in the 80s. And to our surprise, the MVP was our host’s wife! She was extremely good.
We were fortunate to arrive soon after a wedding had taken place in the neighbourhood. So there was leftover wazwan. Later on, a cousin came over and she painted our hands with henna with a couple of tubes she had left in her purse.
Social norms in Srinagar
What’s the vibe in Srinagar, and how should you dress? I think as long as you aim for ‘conservative Asia’, you’ll be fine.
The area around Dal Lake is the most tourist-oriented part of Srinagar and thus, the most used to tourists. Outside this area, particularly in downtown Srinagar, you get a sense that the local society is conservative, with an intact community. Women riding pillion behind men always ride side-saddle, whether in niqab or in more mainstream Kashmiri garments. Only children and girls riding behind other girls ride motorcycles astride. On the other hand, women walk and shop freely, with the men seemingly condemned to be their chauffeurs.
In Srinagar, I was modestly covered, but in modern body-fitted clothing, while Baiti was fully shawled and in loose clothing. Later in our friend’s village near the downtown area, we met up with two other foreign travellers they were hosting, a Cuban-American woman and an Argentinian, both similarly dressed. We didn’t attract undue attention.
At one point, after spending some time in the area, Vero (the Cuban-American) observed something that I had noticed as well. Despite the depressed local economy, there were still no homeless people in Srinagar. Everyone always has someone, or somewhere to go to. The people here have a strong sense of community still, and it reminds you how much can be endured through sharing and solidarity.
Carbon offset information to Kashmir
A return flight between Kuala Lumpur and Srinagar via Delhi produces carbon emissions of approximately 3,556 lbs CO2e. It costs about $18 to offset this.
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For me, there is nothing better than staying on a houseboat, except I am a mosquito magnet, which is great for my fellow travellers but not so wonderful for me. Great article thank you for sharing.
You’re welcome! I do feel for the mosquito magnets, the mozzies really do prefer some people over others! I’m usually the beneficiary! Definitely need to bring insect repellent of some kind if you attract them.