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Dal Lake is located in the heart of Srinagar, the capital of the northernmost Indian administered State of Jammu and Kashmir. At 2700 acres, breath-taking Dal Lake is the second largest lake in the Kashmir valley. Surrounded on three sides by the majestic snow-capped Pir Panjal and Himalayan Mountains, the lake is best known for its houseboats. Approximately 2,000 victorian-era, ornately-carved pinewood and cedar houseboats dot the surface of this serene lake.
Dal Lake is a fairly shallow lake divided by causeways into four basins. The maximum depth of the lake is 20 feet with the majority of it being under 5 feet in depth. The water level can fluctuate as much as two feet throughout the year. Large numbers of beautiful gardens and orchards line the nearly 10 miles of shoreline. Many of the Mughal-era gardens were planted in the 16th and 17th century. The embankments of the lake also house a number of ancient Mughal monuments. The campus of the University of Kashmir overlooks the shores of the lake along with two hillocks which house the famous temples of Shankaracharya and Hari Parbat. In winter months the entire scene becomes snow laden, and if cold enough, the lake has been known to freeze.
The main attraction of Dal Lake is its houseboats. Originally built as vacation homes for British administrators during the Raj, tourists from all over the world travel to Srinagar for the unique opportunity to stay on a wooden houseboat. Many houseboats are furnished in a grand style, with hand carved furniture and fine woolen carpets. Similar to a hotel, houseboats vary in degree of luxury and have been graded accordingly by the India Department of Tourism. A luxury houseboat, like a luxury hotel, has fine furniture, quality carpets and modern bathroom fixtures, while the "D category" (the lowest category) of houseboats, is simply furnished. The appeal of the houseboat is that it provides a haven for those who like to spend a quite vacation away from the hustle and bustle of a city. A houseboat can be rented for a day or a week. In 2003, Wi-Fi internet was implemented across Dal Lake, making it the first lake in the world to provide wireless internet access to all visitors.
In addition to houseboats, kayaking, canoeing, and wind surfing are also a great way to take in the views of the breathtaking scenery around Dal Lake. Flora along the shoreline includes lotus flowers, water lilies and water chestnuts. During the summer months, local residents grow vegetables in the water. Beautiful floating gardens often cover sections of the lake. Dal Lake is also popular with birdwatchers. White breasted kingfishers, grebes, hawks and grey herons are common birds that make their home near the water.
For those who enjoy fishing, the Kashmir valley is an angler's paradise. A network of rivers and streams as well as high altitude lakes provide plenty of opportunity for catching brown trout and rainbow trout. Water trekking is a local name for three-to-four-day trips along the Jhelum River to various lakes in the area. Campgrounds along the way are part of the tour. Dal Lake is home to 17 species of fish. Fishing is the main source of occupation for a number of inhabitants around the lake. Because fishing is such an important industry, tourists are not allowed to fish in Dal Lake.
If not staying overnight on a houseboat, the City of Srinagar has a number of vacation rentals and real estate options for visitors to Dal Lake. Srinagar is a gateway to some of the most scenic and beautiful places in Indian. The world famous skiing resort of Gulmarg is just 30 miles from the city. Tourists can visit modern shopping malls or wander around markets selling everything from fresh fish to souvenirs. Srinagar is also known for its handcrafted items and has number of open air markets offering hand woven silk shawls, wool garments, Buddhist masks, antique jewelry, thangka paintings and many more fascinating items. Saffron, honey and walnuts are also a shopping favorite. A highlight of the city are the terraced Mughal Gardens with their numerous maple trees, bubbling fountains and exotic flowers.
Bicycle rentals are available for a relaxing ride around Dal Lake. Numerous hiking trails lead to the forested areas around the city and to some spectacular views. Wildlife and nature lovers will want to visit Dachigam National Park, 13 miles from Srinagar. Spread out over 34,841 acres, the park is rich in flora and fauna and also a great place for observing wildlife in the area. More than 150 species of birds make their home in the forest to include the golden oriole, golden eagle, black bulbul, and bearded vulture. Mammals in the forest include leopards and the Himalayan brown bear. The most popular animal is the rare Kashmiri stag called the Hangul which is an endangered species of red deer.
Beautiful Dal Lake has suffered increasingly from degraded water quality due to pollution, encroachment and over-use. As water is increasingly used for irrigation, and the growing City of Srinagar has continued to fill and build into the lake margins, the lake has shrunk by half in the last 20 years and has lost 40 feet in depth. The lake is now only one-sixth of its original size. Increasing numbers of people live on the lake itself, both on houseboats and on the islands. Floating vegetable gardens on reed rafts, some of the Kashmir's biggest vegetable producing areas, are also major polluters: pesticides used by farmers find their way into the lake causing major damage to flora and fauna. But likely the biggest cause of pollution is the City of Srinagar itself; all 15 major drains open to the lake, without waste-water treatment. After years of blaming the houseboats for the pollution, recent studies show that these houseboats contribute less than three percent of the total pollution affecting the lake.
Both national and international pressure has been brought to bear on local government to address the problems caused by long neglect. The houseboats, which have actual residential rights and are important for tourism, are being relocated away from the crowded lake outlet to another area where sanitation measures can be organized. Fifty-one of fifty-seven clogged springs have been cleaned and restored. Construction is under way to replace shoreline substandard housing for 7,500 residents and a leper colony to new, improved facilities with modernized sanitary systems. The next big project will involved replacing the existing drains with adequate waste-water treatment. These projects should produce nearly immediate results in the water quality. Concerted efforts at Dal Lake will assure this beautiful ancient lake is restored to health and remains both a viable tourism destination and a major cultural treasure in the Kashmir region.
For a truly unique vacation, consider a visit to the shimmering water of India's Dal Lake. Spend the night on a luxurious houseboat and the day walking among the wonders of the charming city of Srinagar. The varying landscape promises visitors a fun filled adventure which is sure to be remembered for years to come.
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