When the plane dove below the thin layer of clouds, we spotted snowcapped mountains in the background and dark green land below. We instantly knew we would like Kashmir. For the uninitiated Kashmir traveller, the location of the houseboats is a bit confusing, even after arriving. A trip up the hill to the Temple of Shankaraya gives some perspective. The great view over Srinagar and Lake Dal helps understand that houseboats are only allowed in a small section of Lake Dal, in a kind of wide inlet called Golden Dal. The approx. 1.000 (!) houseboats line the northern shore of Golden Dal and the island that sits right in the middle of it. These houseboats do not float around, but are attached to the shore.To buy a houseboat made costs about 200.000 Euro and hardly anybody dares to make this investment nowadays, with the flow of tourism constantly threatened by media reports of unrest, demonstrations and curfews. That these reports are often blown out of proportion is not surprising. Just days before we arrived, this was exactly what we read in the international and Indian media. Locals later told us they heard about it through foreigners calling them and inquiring about the situation.
The other Indian disease that hurts the tourism industry is corruption. To get any kind of permission can take forever unless you pay your dues.
From about 12 or 13 pick up points along the road, small boats called Shikaras take you to your houseboat, which is usually a unit of two boats with a small platform in the middle that serves as a terrace. For those who think you are confined to a tiny vessel – wrong: three en suite bedrooms, a living and dining room are the standard equipment and usually people eat breakfast and dinner on the boat. Even though the boats are right next to each other – you can literally step from one to the other, being on such a boat can be truly soothing. The only sounds you hear are the soft voices that carry across the water and the paddles slapping against the water.
It is never boring though, boats pass by selling food, handicrafts, saffron and other spices, flower seeds, honey, almond oil, Kashmiri shawl and we are pretty sure we overheard the word vodka in the midst of Ramadan. We had a guy come into our living room with four suitcases full of gems, necklaces, bracelets and rings. This can get rather tiring, although people are extremely polite and not overly pushy. Also when you are in a boat gliding peacefully across the lake, vendors in shikaras sneak up to you with their ware.
Interconnected with Lake Dal by a small canal is Lake Nagin, a small lake that also features a few houseboats.