A boat beneath the Himalayas

Despite Kashmir's unresolved conflict, Natacha Butler continues the tradition of summer retreat to a wooden houseboat.

Srinagar's Dal Lake is glassy-smooth as we glide along in a wooden fishing boat, past homes on stilts and islands of bullrushes. The call to prayer is carried on the breeze. The snow-capped Himalayas rise around us, their reflection ruffled in our wake. Kashmir's summer capital is working its charm.

Lassa is paddling. All weathered face and twinkling eyes, he has been showing visitors the lake since he was a teenager, 45 years ago. ''You know what they call Kashmir?'' he asks in pitch-perfect English gleaned from tourists over the years. ''They call it 'paradise on Earth'.''

For decades it has been a paradise lost. India and Pakistan have fought two wars over the Muslim-majority state. It has been divided between the two - as Jammu and Kashmir - since 1947, and both nations claim the territory in full.

Twenty years ago separatist militants in Indian Kashmir began an insurgency. India says more than 45,000 people have died; human rights groups say the figure could be much higher. In 1995, six Western tourists were abducted in Pahalgam, 100 kilometres east of Srinagar, by the Islamist group, Al Faran: one escaped, one was killed and the others are presumed dead. That virtually ended international tourism in the region.

Despite a sharp drop-off in violence, widely attributed to a faltering peace process started by India and Pakistan in 2004, most Western governments, including Australia, advise travellers to avoid Kashmir. There is still sporadic unrest - a general strike and undeclared curfew were reported in Srinagar's old town last week - but foreign travellers are trickling back. This is good news for a region where 60 per cent of people rely on the tourism industry.

I'm in Srinagar with a friend to escape the scorching heat of my adopted city of New Delhi and to stay in one of Dal Lake's famous wooden houseboats. There are more than 1000 houseboats on the lake but the ones operated by Butt's Clermont are the pick of the bunch. Moored far away from the others, the five houseboats have two or three double bedrooms, a living room and bathroom, with spectacular views across the lake to the mountains from every room.

''You can stay in a hotel anywhere in the world but a houseboat in Kashmir, well, that is truly unique,'' says the endearingly eccentric owner Ghulam Butt, who had earlier welcomed us with a flamboyant sprinkling of petals.

It's hard to disagree. Stepping on to one of the intricately carved wooden houseboats is like entering an Aladdin's cave crammed with traditional wooden furniture, Kashmiri rugs and embroidered curtains. I'm not sure if it's the high-altitude air, at 1730 metres, but what could normally smack of kitsch looks genuinely tasteful here.

Butt's father started the business in the 1950s after being given a houseboat by a British couple who left India after Partition. The fashion for building houseboats began in 1888, during British colonial times. Foreigners were barred from building on land in Kashmir, so many bypassed the law by building on water.

''My father befriended the couple in Calcutta,'' Butt says, referring to the city that was the seat of British rule on the subcontinent until 1911. ''After they left for England he decided to build more houseboats because so many visitors wanted to stay on the lake.''

In the 1960s and '70s tourists flocked to Kashmir, a firm fixture on the hippie trail, and Butt's houseboats became some of the hottest addresses in town. ''I remember when Mr George Harrison of the Beatles came to stay,'' Butt recalls wistfully. ''He was very famous back then. My father was still in charge at the time and when I came home one evening there was Mr George sitting on the lawn with Ravi Shankar playing sitar. Mr George was such a lovely man.''

The boat Harrison stayed in has since sunk but his memory is kept afloat in the reception, where Butt has covered the wall with photos of famous visitors, including Harrison, India's last viceroy, Lord Mountbatten, and the former Australian governor-general, Bill Hayden.

After the trip down memory lane and the morning boat ride on the lake, it's time for lunch. The houseboats are operated as full-board and the meals are generous and delicious. Meat-lovers can tuck into spicy Afghan chicken and Kashmiri mutton stew while vegetarians can sample exotic dishes such as fried lotus roots and spicy dhals. For the less adventurous, the cooks can whip up a variety of Western dishes.

The hearty food, hospitality and stunning views would make it easy to stay on the houseboat and wile away the hours in an armchair but there's much to see in and around Srinagar. A good starting point is a taxi to the old town, which is criss-crossed by canals, bridges and elegant shrines. Centuries-old brick and wood buildings - poorly maintained but beautiful nevertheless - line the town's narrow, winding streets.

Nasir Shah has been running tours in Kashmir for more than 30 years and will show travellers the sites for about $20 a day. Although foreign tourists are making a comeback, the town still feels alluringly off the beaten track and it's a great place to shop for local crafts such as wicker baskets, painted boxes and gorgeous scarves.

Our first stop is one of Kashmir's oldest shrines on the banks of the Jhelum River. The richly decorated shrine of Shah-e-Hamdan was built in 1395 by Kashmir's sultan to honour the Persian scholar Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani, who is widely thought to have brought Islam to the region. Entry to the mosque is for Muslims only although non-Muslims are welcome to peer inside and admire the interior. Other mosques welcome non-Muslims, including the main Jamia Masjid and Hazratbal Shrine, considered Kashmir's holiest shrine as it contains a relic believed to be a hair of the Prophet Muhammad. Built in white marble in 1968 on the shore of Dal Lake, the shrine is a serene place, though it has also been mixed up in some of the worst violence of the past 20 years.

After wandering around the old town, we take a short drive around the lake to Srinagar's famous Mughal-era gardens. Along the road, Indian soldiers are on patrol, a stark reminder of Kashmir's unresolved conflict. Although India withdrew 30,000 troops last year there are still hundreds of thousands of Indian security personnel in the region, the majority in the volatile border areas. Re-enforcing the message, a sign outside one of the gardens reads ''No weapons allowed inside''.

After paying our 10 rupees (25ยข) entry fee we enter Shalimar garden. Water flows through daisy-sprinkled meadows, and ancient pavilions are surrounded by ordered flowerbeds. Set high on a hillside is the dramatic Pari Mahal, a former Buddhist monastery with a lovely garden with panoramic view of Dal Lake.

Kashmiris love their gardens and on weekends they are often packed with picnicking families. With the mountain backdrop it's easy to see why Kashmir is sometimes described as the Switzerland of the East.

As the light starts to fade we wind back around the lake to our houseboat. Ramzan is busy preparing it for the evening. He has worked on Butt's boats for 40 years and looks after guests with a charming mix of efficiency and warmth.

''Ah, sir and madam will be hungry, maybe some snacks and Kashmiri tea before dinner?'' he asks, plumping cushions on the sofa and switching on the lights. Minutes later he reappears with a steaming pot of chai, some old-fashioned china cups and slices of sponge cake.

Once again the call to prayer echoes around Dal Lake. ''Dinner will be served soon,'' says Ramzan, returning to collect our cups. ''Tonight it's special. We grill lamb kebabs and paneer in tomato. It's a little spicy, we like it little spicy.''


Getting there

Thai Airways flies to Delhi for about $1360, to Bangkok (9hr) and Delhi (4.5hr). Fare is low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne, including tax. Air India, SpiceJet, Jet Airways and Kingfisher fly from Delhi to Srinagar (1hr 15min) from about $110 one way, including tax. Australians require a visa for a stay of up to six months.


The Australian Department of Foreign Affairs warns against travelling to Jammu and Kashmir. Though Kashmir is relatively peaceful at the moment, it remains a volatile area and conditions should be checked before travelling.

Staying there

Butt's Clermont Houseboats in Srinagar have full-board tariffs from 4800 rupees ($120) a night for two people. See www.buttsclermonthouseboat.com.

Touring there

Culture and Nature Expeditions has a range of itineraries, including a guide for a day from 75 rupees and a guide, car and driver for a day from 3500 rupees. Ask for Nasir Shah. See www.cnekashmir.org.