When 73-year old Ross Oakman and his wife Belinda of Australia earlier this year planned to visit Kashmir with their close friends, some of them raised eyebrows. But all their "fears" disappeared once they reached Srinagar.
"This place and people are fascinating. We feel at home away from home here," said Wilson Peter Charles, one of the 10 members of the group on an adventure tour to Kashmir.
The group is part of the Silk Road adventure travel group, famous for the off-the beaten expeditions in Central Asia, China Taklamakan, Karakoram and Himalayan regions. Under the 'self-drive Great Himalayan adventure Safari 2018', the group landed in Delhi last month and started journey in Sport-utility vehicles (SUVs) following the old colonial route of Shimla.
The group traversed mountainous passes to Ladakh, Zanskar and finally reached Srinagar.
A passionate traveler, Oakman had first time visited Kashmir in 1973. "In past over four decades, lot has changed in Srinagar. There are more vehicles on roads which cause frequent traffic jams. But one thing that has not changed is hospitality of Kashmiris….they are so friendly," said Oakman, as he led his group to eco-luxury houseboat 'Sukoon' in Dal Lake—where they have been putting up for past four days.
The group went to various areas of Downtown including historic Jamia Masjid. "This mosque is spectacular with great architecture. Ambience here is mesmerizing. …I could not have asked for more," said Peter as he posed for a photograph at Nowhatta. "I feel safe in Downtown," he said with a smile.
The travelers were mesmerised to see old houses in narrows lanes of Downtown. They relished traditional Kashmiri herbal tea, Kehwa, popular meat delicacy Harissa and Kashmiri bread.
"We were amazed to see old houses, historic sites and heritage markets in Downtown," said Oakman.
They also had a shikara (boat) ride in Dal Lake. "It is a unique water body with houseboats, hamlets and rich flora and fauna. We feel blessed to here," Belinda said.
"We received warm welcome in Kashmir. Unlike other places, we found people in Kashmir always ready to help us from showing directions or hosting us meals."
Oakman said he has travelled to many trouble-torn places like Tajikistan. "Situation can be hostile in any place and at any time. We believe that is part of our travel. Though there are more forces visible on roads here, but we did not face any problem in Kashmir," he said.
The group has uploaded photographs of their Kashmir journey on their social networking sites. "We have received so much response from friends that they too want to visit Kashmir," said Belinda.
Oakman believes that Kashmir has immense potential to become one of the best adventure tourism destinations in world. "You have Mughal Gardens, resorts mountains, glaciers, streams and lakes literally all under one roof. There is just need to project Kashmir in right perspective," he said.
Bilal Chapri, director of Discovery Journeys, who had organised the trip said "it is my endeavor to make all innovative efforts to revive and promote Kashmir as one of the best tourist destinations."
He said under his company's self drive adventure travel programme, travelers themselves drive SUV vehicles navigating challenges and face high Himalayan altitude.
"The group from Austrailia was highly spirited and enthusiastic team. They had a special experience to self-drive and know the terrain, feel the places and get to know the local people and their way of life. This also brings you up close to the nature with a very independent way of traveling," Chapri said.
"Their experience matters most. Such foreign travelers can be ambassadors for promoting Kashmir as a safe and adventurous destinations," he added.