Setting out on an unplanned trip to Kashmir on a shoestring budget provides a lot of insights into the life of the local people while enjoying the amazing scenery.
Kashmir is often termed the paradise on earth and the Dal lake and chinar trees are among its biggest attractions.
Touching down at the Srinagar airport in the evening and heading to the hotel room as darkness sets in is frustrating. Venturing out for a stroll at night is tempting, but many visitors do not make an attempt fearing that it may be unsafe.
However, in the morning Kashmir warmly welcomes you to its bounties. The first sight that greets travellers is that of the numerous tea shops on roadsides where elderly men sit smoking hookahs and exchanging gossip.
The Dal lake is ahead and looks stunning in the morning. The sun seems reluctant to rise and silhouettes of the Himalayan mountain range can be seen in the distance. Kites hover above the lake, while ducks swim over the water. The shikaras wait in an orderly manner and the canoes pass by, rowed by women as well as men.
As soon as visitors reach the lake, the shikara men surround them offering rides. Shikaras are covered boats which are decorated in an attractive way. Each shikara can carry four passengers, who can sit or relax by lying down. Shikaras are the best means of touring the Dal lake.
Budget travellers can insist on reducing the rates for a trip and shikara operators like Mir Muhammed would oblige.
"Dal lake is a canvas of nature and the images change as the shikara moves," says Mir.
A canal leads away from the lake and both its banks are lined with shops selling Kashmiri shawls and handicrafts. Small canoes bring goods for sale at the shops.
"During extreme winters, the lake gets covered with snow. Some years ago, the water turned into ice and kids enjoyed playing cricket on the lake surface," informs Mir.
More commercial activity can be seen in the interiors of the Dal lake. Traders sell fruits, saffron, jewellery and Kashmiri shawls on small boats and shikaras. These are sights that will remain in the memories of visitors for ever.
Small islands can also be spotted on the lake. They have big houses and beautiful gardens with eye-catching flowers and chinar trees, which are Kashmir's pride. During every season, the colour of the chinar tree changes. From yellow, it turns into red and sometimes the shade would be a mix of these shades. An outsider many feel that chinar is a true reflection of Kashmiri life – sporting a different colour during each season.
How to reach
Srinangar airport is connected to Delhi and Mumbai by daily flights. The nearest major railway station is Jammu, 165 km away, to where trains ply from all important cities in the country. Bus service and cars are a good option to travel from Delhi, Chandigarh, Himachal Pradesh, Haryana and Punjab to Jammu and Srinagar.