SRINAGAR -- The Himalaya have always possessed a special mystique. Sages have wandered the snow-capped peaks seeking communion with the spirits. Nations seeking their impregnable protection have warred incessantly over them, for besides being called a Gateway to God, the stately Himalaya are also the pathway to power.
Through it all, travelers have come here to soak in the serenity of pristine lakes by moss-covered temples and meandering paths cut into soaring rock. The 10th-century Persian poet Firdausi may have said it best when he visited Kashmir: "Agar firadus ber roye zaminast, hamin asto, hamin asto, hamin asto (If there is paradise on earth, it is here, it is here, it is here)."
Today in Srinagar, the heart of Kashmir, welcomes are heartfelt. It has been 15 years since a violent insurgency against Indian rule erased Kashmir from travel itineraries, killing tourism, the state's largest industry. Now, as India and Pakistan tentatively embark on a long overdue dtente, tourists are beginning to return.
"For four years, we had almost nothing to eat. . . . Now things are better and people are coming back," says Lhasa, a boatman with intense blue eyes, as he guides his shikara, a gondola-like boat, across the tranquil waters of upper Dal Lake. When the call to prayer echoes from the marbled minaret of the Hazratbal Mosque nearby, Lhasa lowers his head in silent observance.
Religion has always defined life in Kashmir. Once, this land was renowned for a syncretic way of life that fused Islam with Hindu and Buddhist philosophies. Now, Kashmir is polarized by Islamic extremism imported from Pakistan and India's own Hindu nationalism. Still, traces of the past linger in ancient Buddhist stupas, Hindu temples, and Sikh gurdwaras, keeping alive the hope that Kashmir might someday return to its roots.
Above Dal Lake, the Shankaracharya Temple stands like a sentinel atop a mount called Takht-e Sulaiman, or Throne of Solomon. A trek up to the site, which dates to 250 BC, brings the reward of a sweeping, 360-degree view of the Kashmir Valley. On one side lies Dal Lake surrounded by undulating mountains, like water lovingly cradled in stone hands. Opposite lies the city, and glimpses of the intriguing alleyways that wind between colonial, Islamic, and Hindu buildings.
From this distance, Srinagar looks tranquil. But the turmoil of recent years becomes apparent when you descend into town. Many of the cozy hotels along Gupkar Road, the wide boulevard that hugs Dal Lake, are still sandbagged, and soldiers cradling AK-47s patrol the streets.
Yet Kashmir is safer for tourists than it has ever been. The streets burst with the bustle common to India's cities. Toy sellers, photographers, fortune tellers, snack vendors, and hawkers of every conceivable handicraft pepper passersby with cheerful beckonings.
Many of the older folk are clad in the traditional pheran (a loose gown with upturned sleeves), black fez-like hats, and laceless shoes called gurgabi. Some women wear veils, but most are adorned with brightly colored traditional costumes and elaborate jewelry.
Gupkar Road was once Srinagar's finest address, and beyond the tangle of trees and billboards, it is possible to glimpse a few surviving mansions. Before them, on the lake, scores of elegantly faded houseboats nudge one another along the far shore. Like the mansions, they are built in a 1920s colonial style: clean lines framed with intricate carved railings, large shuttered wooden windows, and wide verandas. Houseboats are the best way to experience Srinagar, and most offer surprisingly good value for money.
With three lakes -- Dal, Nagin, and Anchar -- and the Jhelum River, water pervades life in Srinagar. Taking a shikara through the city's narrow canals reveals a maze of floating lotus and vegetable gardens and waterside shops that sell hand-woven carpets and pashmina shawls. A number of houses are boarded up, another legacy of the insurgency.
"It was a mad time. . . . A kind of obsession had gripped us all," said Yunnis, an ex-insurgent with the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front who surrendered to the Indian Army in the mid-1990s. "Now, I realize we were wrong."
Monuments to mistakes and madness can be found all over Kashmir, mostly in the form of sprawling "martyrs graveyards." Between 35,000 and 70,000 lives have been lost here since 1989, and the burden of grief reveals itself in many eyes. Most Kashmiris seem tired of conflict, though, and would prefer their home to be globally known for its culture.
One of the oldest structures in the city is the Jame Mosque, built in 1380. Rebuilt several times since, it is best visited on Friday, when the mirwaiz, a local religious leader, lectures on life, religion, and politics.
Around it lies the bustling old bazaar, with tiny shops where cottons, handicrafts, and antiques come at prices completely determined by one's haggling skills.
The dusky silhouette of Hari Parbat Fort, built in the late 1700s by the Emperor Akbar, is also visible from here, and cabs to there, and nearby towns, are about $20 a day.
Drive past the saffron fields of Pampore to Pahalgam, where the Lidder River provides some of the best trout fishing in the world. At Sonamarg, the endless pine forests and wildflower meadows offer exhilarating pony treks. And at an altitude of about 7,500 feet, Gulmarg has some of the finest skiing in Asia and boasts the highest green golf course in the world.
Trekking through these regions was once and is again becoming a favored pastime for tourists, many of whom make their way from these places to neighboring Dharamsala.
Dharamsala was once a sleepy hill station with just one provision store, named after its kindly, elderly owner, Nauzer Nowrojee. But in 1959, when the Dalai Lama fled the Chinese occupation of Tibet and a reluctant India offered him several locations at which to set up a government-in-exile, Nowrojee was one of those who convinced the Dalai Lama to make Dharamsala his new home. This transformed the town and nearby McLeod Ganj (where the Tibetan government in exile is centered) into global destinations.
Spiritual enlightenment is clearly the town's main industry. Overcrowded shops in hastily built buildings burst with multicolored fabrics, prayer beads, meditation tapes, porcelain Buddhas, and other artifacts.
With rooms going for as little as $2.50 a day, and with a surplus of wild parties and serious work available, many visitors stay for extended periods, even years.
"I came here on a college study tour . . . but stayed on because I felt like this was a better education than college," says Brad, a junior at the University of Colorado who has spent four months here working as a volunteer with the Tibetan government-in-exile.
Wandering McLeod Ganj's slopes after lunch reveals a town where monasteries, schools, and libraries sit between rows of shops, cyber cafes, and quaint houses. The mix makes for interesting people-watching. Committed Buddhists and human-rights workers try to ignore the tie-dyed teenagers in braids looking for a party. Israeli soldiers on leave compete hard with the French for attitude. Domestic tourists, who come here to escape steamier climes, seem baffled by it all.
Suddenly, from the terrace of a dilapidated building, a wizened man wielding a megaphone reminds everyone that a prayer meeting is to be held the next morning at Tsuglag Khang, the main Tibetan Buddhist temple.
Preserving their unique culture is the foremost concern of most Tibetans, who fear their way of life is being systematically destroyed by China. At the Norbulingka Institute, established to ensure the survival of Tibetan Buddhism cultural heritage, students learn a variety of crafts in wood, metal, silk, and thangka, or Buddhist religious, painting. Other Tibetan centers worth visiting are the school of Tibetan medicine, where traditional doctors will diagnose your health by feeling your pulse, and the Kalachakra Temple, where Kalachakra tantra, a form of Buddhism that the faithful believe will bring world peace and harmony, is practiced.
Beyond the Tibetan community, Dharamsala has its own allure, and fortunately, one does not have to travel too far to find it. Pastoral villages dot the area, seemingly unchanged over centuries. Everywhere, farmers coax bullocks to plow stubborn fields.
A short drive will take you to Kangra Valley, where there is an art museum and a hang-gliding club, where the brave can get a bird's-eye view of the valley. The rest can go to Naddi and trek trails that run deep into the mountains. If you are lucky, bands of roving monkeys will follow you; if you are luckier still, you will be alone.
There is something ethereal about taking in a view of the Himalaya. The fears and dreams of nations lie encrusted within their jagged peaks and silent valleys. Yet, beyond the hard facts of life, the landscape holds the fragile promise of something else, something beyond and within us, which each one of us must discover on our own.
Jehangir Pocha is a freelance writer based in Asia.