With three distinct regions – Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh – each with its own identity, topography and culture, J&K is one of the most diverse states in India. Jammu abounds in temples and shrines; Kashmir puts picture postcards to shame with its lakes and gardens; and Ladakh offers stark mountain scenery, old monasteries and an insight into Tibetan-Buddhist culture.
In this excerpt from Lonely Planet’s India’s Best Escapes Jammu & Kashmir we recommend the top sights and experiences for visitors.
1) Romantic Dal Lake: The Dal Lake is the one all-encompassing representative of Kashmir in popular imagination, and has long been immortalised in literature, film and art. The mirror-flat waters reflect misty peaks while gaily painted shikaras (hand-powered boats with heart-shaped oars) glide by. You can choose to experience the lake by staying in an old-world houseboat, hopping on to a shikara for a joyride or by simply strolling along the Boulevard for stunning sunrise or sunset views.
2) Entrancing Leh: The country’s most popular new summer escape, Leh is all too easy to fall in love with. Not yet inundated by hordes of tourists (even during high season), its streamlined backstreets, traditional mud-brick houses, stupas and Tibetan-style fort and palace take you back to another age – you’ll be hard pressed to find any concrete in this charming town. Yet, Leh is not caught in a time warp. It is home to a host of restaurants serving international cuisines, as well as a slew of hotels, guesthouses and activity operators catering to travellers from all over the world.
3) Picture-perfect Pangong Tso: There’s not much to do at Ladakh’s most famous lake, Pangong Tso, but gaze at the mountain valley scenery and the surreal blue waters. Yet when it’s time to leave you’ll probably have to tear your eyes away from the ever-changing hues of the ‘enchanted lake’, emphasised by natural reflecting pools. In stark contrast to Pangong Tso’s tranquil setting, you’ll always find people congregated at the 3 Idiots Point (where the climax of the eponymous Bollywood blockbuster was shot), often jumping and clowning around and thereby doing justice to the locale’s epithet – although there are usually more than three.
4) Gulmarg Gondola: The most rewarding activity in Gulmarg is to venture up through the backing stands of mature pines towards the bald ridge of Mt Affarwat on the two-stage Gulmarg Gondola, the second-highest cable car ride in the world and the highest in Asia. The second stage whisks sightseers up over 4000m to Kongdori Mountain, offering views of soaring peaks, including the 8126m Nanga Parbat in Pakistan. In winter, experienced skiiers use the gondola to reach precipitious ski runs.
5: Nubra Valley: The depth and scale of the Shyok and Nubra river valleys, which emerge out of nowhere as you descend past the famous pass of Khardung La, make an instant and indelible impression. The mind-boggling proportions appear straight out of Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels, and you half expect to see giants emerge from behind the huge massifs. Driving through little-visited and sparsley populated Nubra in a car is a bit like watching a Nat Geo film – except that you’re in the picture, and it’s playing on the biggest screen you’ve ever seen.