Travel black book: India's paradise on earth

Who: Sunil Kaul, 46, managing director of Leica Camera Asia Pacific. He and his wife, housewife Laxmi, have two children, Aditya, 14, and Ambika, 11. They have lived in Singapore for almost 15 years.

Favourite travel destination: Srinagar, Jammu and Kashmir, India.

Why: Srinagar is the summer capital of the state called Jammu and Kashmir in northern India. The state is composed of three regions - Kashmir, Jammu and Ladakh - and its capital actually changes with the seasons, so in the summer, it's Srinagar and in the winter, it's the city Jammu.

The state has four seasons and you can have a great time all year round, from skiing in the winter to golfing at 3,000m above sea level.

The state's nickname is Paradise on Earth and many Indian poets refer to Kashmir as "Janat", meaning Heaven or Paradise.

I was born in Kashmir but moved away when I was a child because of my father's job, so I have never had the chance to live there. Each time I visit, I discover new elements. I think Kashmir has one of the most beautiful landscapes in the world and it is always fascinating for me to discover stories from the people and learn from their simple way of life.

Favourite hotel

Vivanta By Taj, Dal View, Srinagar (Kralsangri, Brein, Srinagar 191121, Jammu and Kashmir, India; tel: +91-194-246-1111; www.vivantabytaj. com). It is on the Zabarwan mountains, with panoramic views of Dal Lake, its floating markets and the Himalayas in the distance. Being 3,000m to 4,000m above sea level and with views that change with the seasons, the place is meditative and magical. Rooms start at $323 a night.

Favourite restaurant

Restaurant culture is not very established in Kashmir and if I were to answer honestly, I would say the best restaurant is my mother's kitchen. Still, there are many places where tourists can get a good meal in Srinagar, such as Mughal Darbar in Residency Road (tel: + 91-0194- 247-6998; www.mughal-darbar. com).

Almost all Kashmiri dishes are meat-based, using lamb, goat or chicken and ingredients such as aniseed, saffron, cinnamon, ginger and cumin powder.

Mughal Darbar is a Muslim Kashmiri restaurant known for its waz- wan, a multi-course meal which is traditionally served during festivals and ceremonies. Dishes in the 20- to 40-course meal include rogan josh, rista (meatballs), daniwal korma (roast lamb with yoghurt) and aab gosh (lamb cooked with a fennel and cardamom spice mixture).

Favourite souvenirs

Kashmir is known for its handicrafts, from intricately woven carpets to embroidered shawls, and wood carvings to paintings. There are many shops in Srinagar selling these, as well as jewellery, silver and copperware and papier mache products.

Such skills are a dying art so I like to buy them directly from the artisans. You can customise handmade pieces.

Best place for breakfast

If I stay in a hotel, I will not have breakfast included so that I can go out to get a taste of the local delights. A typical Kashmiri breakfast is a serving of spiced flat bread, called baquerkhani, with a cup of the state's favourite drink - salty milk tea.

This tea, called sheer chai by the Pandits and noon chai by the Muslims, is made of tea, milk, salt, almond, pistachio, cardamom, cinnamon and bicarbonate of soda, and cooked in a samovar. Kashmiris drink this tea many times a day and I recommend it highly.

Best day trip

There are plenty of picturesque places, including Nishat Bagh and Shalimar Bagh (beautifully landscaped Mughal gardens north-east of Srinagar), the banks of Dal Lake or Pahalgam, a town where the melting snow forms rivers and lakes which run through the valleys and are perfect spots for a refreshing bath in the summer.

The locals here are very friendly and helpful, and love to host guests or help grill a meal of fish fresh from the river.

To experience nature at its best, head to your picnic spot on horseback. Horses are available for hire throughout the countryside at about $10 for half an hour. Or you can hike on the scenic mountain trails in and around Sonamarg, Gulmarg and Pahalgam hillstations.

Favourite cultural sites

The Shankaracharya Temple on top of Shankaracharya hill in the Zabarwan Mountain range overlooking Srinagar is worth climbing the 243- step staircase to the top.

References to the temple go back to 2,500BC, though the current structure is probably from the 9th century. It is a holy site and is thought to have once been a Buddhist temple, but is now a Hindu temple dedicated to Lord Shiva.

Hazratbal Shrine on the left bank of Dal Lake is Kashmir's holiest Muslim shrine. The name Hazratbal means respected place and the shrine contains what is believed by many Muslims to be a hair of the Prophet Mohammed.

Wake up before dawn to see the floating vegetable market, said to be the only one in India, on Dal Lake. Most of the vegetables are grown around the lake and are sold from 5 to 7am daily.

Advice for visitors

Stay a week and get a guide to take you around. You will definitely need help to navigate the sometimes difficult terrain, to communicate with the locals and to understand the local culture.

This article was first published on July 27, 2015.
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