A view of Dal Lake in winter and the beautiful mountain range in the background in the city of Srinagar Kashmir India.
Women Who Travel

On a Solo Trip to Kashmir, a Mother Discovers the Joy of Time That Is All Her Own

With its traditional houseboats and otherworldly beauty, Kashmir is an ideal backdrop to revisit for slowing down.

The day was clear flying into Kashmir, and the plane flew so close to the powder-coated mountains that they felt almost within reach. I’d been battling guilt about this solo trip, leaving my husband back in Bombay to tend to our older teenager who was recovering from a stomach flu. Leaning into the window, I caught a fleeting glimpse of the oneness that India's mystics and yogis spoke about and knew immediately there was nowhere else I’d rather be. Kashmir’s otherworldly beauty is what has continued to draw me back, time and time again.

It was in my forties that I discovered the joy of traveling alone. While young people often travel this way to find themselves, doing the same at my age is more for reclaiming and rediscovering who I once was; enjoying my own company unencumbered by domesticity and motherhood felt thrilling and at times wrong. Seven years prior, I had booked my first solo trip to Kashmir, despite this northwest region near Pakistan being in ferment and with police presence everywhere. Yet, something about the frozen valley had spoken to my soul. In the heart of Srinagar, a riverside city of great beauty, sailing in a yellow-roofed traditional shikara boat on the cold blue waters of the lakes surrounded by glistening white mountains, I’d found a space to breathe, alone. Since then, Kashmir, which has regained some sense of calm and normalcy since that first visit, has remained my sanctuary.

I arrived in the city during chillai kalan, Persian for “deep cold,” and the toughest winter period in the region. It was shrouded in fog, with a veil of gray skies and silent, empty houses with pink and green roofs standing tall amidst the leafless poplar trees. I was the only guest at Dar-Es-Salam, a simple hotel that sits on the edge of Lake Nigeen.

A shikara slices through the calm of Dal Lake


The suite on the shikara, complete with richly handwoven carpets and a four-poster bed

Shunali Shroff

Savoring the stillness, I would gaze out at the serene lake from my window each morning. It was liberating to suddenly have all the hours of the day to myself. But I found ways to fill them that suited my schedule and desires entirely.

On a drizzly morning, I arranged for a boat ride on the Dal lake with the formidable Zabarwan mountains to the east and the Shankaracharya Hill to the west. My elderly boatman, whose face and blue eyes reminded me of a Steve McCurry portrait, helped me into the shikara and offered me a blanket and a wicker basket of kangdi, or hot coals. to hold between my hands.

We sailed along the floating gardens and markets, and stopped by the tea seller’s shikara for a cup of saffron tea. Anchored along the serene waters of the Dal were houseboats with names like Queen's Lap, Lucifer, Manhattan, Sydney, and Jannat (meaning paradise) to cater to global tastes, and also the world's only floating post office. The stillness in the dead of winter created a particular tether to the place. 

An artisan paints intricate designs on wood

Shunali Shroff

Savoring the winter stillness on Dal lake

Shunali Shroff

Yet, traveling alone has its ways of finding company. On a previous trip, I was befriended by a local family, the Mirs, who this time invited me over for lunch. We sat on floor mats, warmed by kangdi, eating a vegetarian meal of haak, a local leafy green, nadru, or lotus stems, dried cauliflower, and pickles with rice. Their friendship helped me to get even deeper into the destination, in a way I perhaps wouldn't have been able to with travel companions. They brought me to one of the oldest historic places in Kashmir valley—the shrine of Imambara Zadibal, which was constructed in 1518 using elements of Persian architecture. The brightly colored decor was such a display of artistry, that then and there, I decided to spent the rest of the afternoon with the artisans who maintain this very specific Kashmiri craft, including brothers Ali and Hussain Mohammed. As they painted intricate designs on wood, Ali remarked that art had been a source of sustenance for Kashmiri families for generations, even through the region’s decades of militancy and curfews.

“We turned to art to keep ourselves occupied and to make a living through it,” Hussain explained. However, he also opened up about the toll that the years of confinement had taken on people's mental health, and as he spoke, I could see an unspeakable sadness in his eyes.

And yet the kindness is pervasive. Some days after, I slept on a traditional houseboat with walnut wood carvings, rich handwoven carpets, and four poster beds. The staff—three men in their seventies who fussed over me like doting aunties—ensured I was never long between servings of rich and aromatic ristaa, goshtaba, and rogan josh, each savored indulgently at my own pace. On a rainy day, I watched these men serve kehwa, a type of green tea, to soaked vendors hawking shawls and jewelry in their shikaras,

On my final day, a notification that weather had postponed my flight pinged on way to the airport: snowfall was predicted in Srinagar, and all flights would likely be canceled. I asked my taxi driver to take me to The Lalit Grand Palace, a hotel that was once the grand palace of the Maharaja of Kashmir. Sitting inside its bar, overlooking the elaborate gardens and the lake beyond it, I watched in eager anticipation of snow. The possibility of another night spent away from home thrilled me. I was grateful for my family, but I couldn't help but feel a pang of longing for a few more days of independence.