Eye Of The Storm: Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir
Whitelines visits one of the world's highest ski resorts
Words & Opening Photo By Ed Blomfield
“Trapped Leopards Beaten to Death,” read the headline in The Times as I fastened my seatbelt and prepared for takeoff. “Two rare leopards have been battered to death and a bounty has been placed on the head of a third, highlighting the growing conflict between humans and endangered wildlife in India.”
It was a strange story. Residents of the city of Nashik, in the western state of Maharashtra, had clubbed one of the animals with sticks and iron bars after it strayed into a residential area and injured four people. Local T.V had shown footage of the terrified cat running across a city park and clambering over a boundary wall as dozens of people chased it for more than seven hours. It sounded like a twisted real-life version of The Simpsons – the episode where the whole town of Springfield goes snake bashing.
“A second leopard,” the article continued, “was beaten to death in the mountainous region of Jammu and Kashmir on Wednesday after it injured two people about 50 miles south of Srinagar, the capital.”
Kashmir?! I stopped reading. That was where we were heading. In fact, Srinigar was to be our final destination. And the article got better… “In the Anantnag district of Jammu and Kashmir, local authorities have put a bounty of 10,000 rupees (£125) on the head of a third leopard, which they say has killed three children within ten days this month.”
I put the paper down and turned to Josh Wolf, who was gazing through the perspex at a windswept Heathrow. I tapped him on the shoulder. “Er, Wolfie… did you remember to sort out your insurance?”
A Brief History of Kashmir
As it happens, arranging insurance for a snowboard trip like this was a tricky business, with or without leopards. Kashmir sits in the northwest of the Indian sub-continent, bordering India and Pakistan. Once known as a ‘princely state’, it existed for many years as a disparate collection of regions and religions (notably Muslim, Hindhu and Buddhist) bound together by a beautiful landscape of lakes and mountains.
“If there is paradise on earth,” the Mughal king Jehangir is said to have exclaimed in the 17th century, “it is here, it is here, it is here!” Following the second world war however, this diverse, peaceful region became the subject of a bitter tug of war between India and Pakistan that continues to this day. Britain, handing back the Indian colonies for self-rule in 1947, divided the subcontinent along a broad religious line between India and Pakistan. Leaders of the so-called ‘princely’ states were supposed to decide which of the two new countries they wished to join, but the Maharaja of Kashmir, under pressure from both sides, hesitated to make the call. To cut a long story short, India announced that the maharaja had finally signed Kashmir over to them – and moved their troops in to seal the deal – while Pakistan disputed this fact and pointed to the predominantly muslim population as evidence of their spiritual claim. The two have been squabbling over it ever since.
“If there is paradise on earth, it is here!” – King Jehangir
For 60 years this beautiful corner of the earth has been blighted by war and army occupation. While an uneasy compromise of sorts was reached in 1972, splitting the region between the two countries along the ‘Line of Control’, the political tension continues and occasionally flares up in the form of kidknappings and grenade attacks in the street. The Foreign Office website lists a catalogue of bloody incidents and advises against all but essential travel to the region, crippling the local tourist industry and making insurance for trips like ours hard to come by.
Why, you might well ask, did a spot of snowboarding in Kashmir ever sound like a good idea? I must admit I was wondering that myself as I sat on a plane which skidded across Asia, weighing up the relative threats which might await: terrorism, Delhi belly and (now it seemed) leopard attacks. The answer was simple: powder.
Tucked away on a plateau an hour north of Srinigar, on the Indian side of the Line of Control, is the small resort of Gulmarg. This place has been spared almost all the conflict thanks to a high altitude army training camp on its doorstep and its isolated position high in the Pir Punjals – one of the six mountain ranges that make up the Himalayas. For years it has attracted local tourists up from the south, particularly Bombay, who come to revel in the stunning mountain scenery and the novelty of seeing real snow, but recently tensions down in the valley have mellowed out enough for a trickle of western tourists to join them – albeit against the prevailing advice.
For now Gulmarg is still the preserve of hardy travellers (typically Aussies and Kiwis passing through India on the backpacker trail, or serious freeriders hunting out new terrain) but slowly this is changing as whispers reach home of a powder stash of epic proportions. The big shift came in 2005 when work was completed on the second stage of a gondola up Mt. Apharwat, instantly transforming Gulmarg from a sleepy dot on the map to the home of the world’s highest lift (4000m).
“Gulmarg is still the preserve of hardy travellers, but slowly this is changing as whispers reach home of a powder stash of epic proportions”
Peter Robinson, an Australian entrepreneur with a passion for Kashmir, recognized the area’s potential and used his extensive local knowledge to launch a tour operation called Ski Himalaya, and with his help media types – including snowboard filmmakers, newspapers and magazines – have begun descending on the place in droves, spurred on by tales of empty powder riding at 13,000 ft. It was all the encouragement I needed: while Europe suffered its worst season in recent memory, myself, Ryan Davis, Nelson Pratt, Josh Wolf and photographer Natalie Mayer took the plunge for ourselves.
Arrival in India is a bewildering experience. At Muhatma Gandhi International Airport we left the tidy and efficient German Airbus and soon found ourselves shuffling through a parallel universe. Everything in the arrivals hall had a retro flavour, from the lemon yellow signs and dated typefaces of the cigarette adverts to the elevator music being piped over the tannoy. Even something as familiar as changing up cash had an element of the weird about it – peering over the desk we could see photocopiers propped on metal ammunition cases, peeling linoleum and a counting machine as old as the hills. It was like visiting the bank during the blitz.
Catching the shuttle bus from one terminal to the next involved an hour’s wait and a full-on scrum with dozens of other passengers, all of whom seemed to be carrying about 16 suitcases tied up with rope. We trundled past burned-out propellor planes and army helicopters on the edge of the runway, then pulled straight out onto a busy street to a cacophony of horns and made our way across town. We were pleased to see the stereotype of holy cows wandering the road was true – even if the one we spotted appeared to be chewing on a pile of dust!
One curry, seven security checks and a few hours later we were onboard another aircraft lurching into Srinigar. This place was even more of a culture shock. Bordering the landing strip and terminal were high walls topped with barbed wire, while soldiers lurked to and fro in the background carrying automatic rifles. Here we met the weathered-looking Bashir, Peter Robinson’s right hand man in Kashmir, who guided us to a pair of 4x4s and instructed a crew of locals to strap our snowboard bags to the roof.
“I stared transfixed – genuinely certain of death”
With news bulletins from flak-jacketed journalists in Iraq and Afghanistan fresh in all our minds, we were a little unsettled at the sight of real life machine-gun emplacements on the street corners, not to mention regular check points and armoured vehicles. Then we accelerated out of town towards the mountains, flying past pedestrians and slower-moving traffic with absolutely no concern for what was coming the other way. Several times I stared transfixed at an oncoming bus as we crawled past a lorry – genuinely certain of death – only to slip through an invisible gap at the last second or even hurl two wheels over the side of the potholed road. The driver’s tactic was just to keep the horn blaring, as if that would somehow scare the other equally psychopathic road users into submission. For the most part the five of us maintained a stony silence, punctuated by nervous giggles at the more outrageous pieces of driving.
It was a relief to start climbing into the mountains. In the crisp air of the pine forest you could almost imagine you were winding your way up to Meribel or Mayerhofen, save for the odd truckload of soldiers passing in the other direction, or the distant woodsmoke spiraling up from the valley below.
Night had fallen by the time our battered little 4×4 rounded the last corner into Gulmarg. The driver struggled valiantly to charge up a snow-covered track to the hotel, his headlights swooping over the trees like a scene from Blair Witch, but to no avail. We bailed out and dragged our bags the last few yards to the Grand Hotel Mumtaz, our home for the next week and a half, and were greeted with the surreal sight of a line of smiling men in red uniform who showed us straight to our rooms.
“You could almost imagine you were winding your way up to Meribel or Mayerhofen, save for the odd truckload of soldiers…”
No one had known what to expect from the accommodation, and given the fact this is a developing country we were prepared for something basic, but as it turned out the rooms were warm, comfy and fully kitted out with en suite bathrooms and T.V. Let’s not forget this is a remote mountain town in the Himalayas, where hot water is a luxury and even satellite phones have been known to give up the ghost, yet here were Liverpool F.C. playing Chelsea, live on ESPN. It was bizarre. We grabbed a late dinner – the first of many Hotel Mumtaz curries – and with our bodies not knowing what time of day it was (or what all this spicy food was about!) crashed out at journey’s end.
Following breakfast on the first day we were introduced to Shabir, our guide for the coming days. With his piercing blue eyes he looked like a typical Kashmiri, but whereas most of the Gulmarg locals cruised around in traditional long woolen overcoats known as ‘pheran’, Shabir was fully kitted out in branded outerwear and a bright bandana. More and more tourist jobs are being created in Gulmarg but it was obvious he’d landed one of the cushiest. A previous Indian slalom champion, he had been trained in avalanche safety by a crew of Canadian patrollers and was now helping train new recruits for the Gulmarg ski area.
On the way to the lift we stopped to check out the monkeys hanging out near one of the hotels. There were about half a dozen of them loping along the tree line and scavenging through the rubbish outside, but maximum respect was saved for the big male on the rooftop who got jiggy with a lady monkey for the benefit of Wolfie’s camera – National Geographic eat your heart out!
Walking on we caught our first glimpse of the gondola that had brought us on this 7000 mile search for powder. It was a rickety old French number that looked like it had seen a fair bit of service back in the 80s before being shipped over to its new home in India. The doors clearly didn’t open properly and the bubbles were leaving the station at painfully long intervals, but looking up the cables at the mountain beyond we couldn’t care less: up there in the distance was some of the best terrain any of us had ever seen – a powder laden ridgeline that dropped down either side into an endless series of gullies, bowls and tree lines.
Individual tickets for the journey up were scrupulously checked and re-checked by the gondola staff – apparently there had been an issue the year before with some Russian skiers bribing lifties to get extra rides; this year the authorities were making a public show of nipping such behaviour in the bud.
On the way up, we were initially a bit disappointed to see the snow looking tracked-out beneath the pylons. Queues of grizzly freeriders in the lift station were our first warning and here was the proof: Gulmarg’s secret is officially out.
Still, as soon as we boarded the top section and began the approach to the summit of Mt. Apharwat things looked a whole lot different. Provided you were happy to hike a while to get back to Kongdori (the mid-station) there was plenty of scope to find fresh lines further along the ridge, and in any case the stunning view alone was worth the trip. A lake of cloud stretched below from one side of the valley to the other, while looming in the distance were the mighty Himalayas and the ninth highest peak on Earth, Nanga Parbat. It really did feel like the roof of the world. With Shabir leading the way we did a quick warm-up run, then traversed the crest for a few hundred metres and dropped down into a virgin powder field.
By this point Wolfie was getting seriously excited. For the past few months he and the boys had been couped up in a matchbox apartment in Austria with bugger-all snow and butterflies in the garden (in January!). Fed on a diet of bratwurst and lager, this finely tuned athlete was now unleashed on an empty playground of windlips, couloirs, pillows, and drops – it was all we could do to stop him shooting off down the valley.
We bagged some shots and after an all-too-short run began the hour-long traverse back to the mid station. Here we re-fuelled on pilau rice outside the local café, a meal that would become a daily tradition for the rest of our trip. The café was run by a bearded guy in a thick hat who produced delicious rice from a dark, ramshackle kitchen while his sooty-looking son smiled a lot and poured raw diesel onto the stove beside our table. It was ace.
Such were the queues at Kongdori and the stop-start nature of the single gondola that it was hard to get more than a handful of runs in a single day. We’d spotted literally dozens of potential lines but after just one more descent the light was already fading so we cruised back to resort down the single piste – a winding rollercoaster track through the trees. For anyone thinking of visiting Gulmarg themselves, be aware: grooming in these parts is severely limited and the lift is slow – you should really only come here if you’re looking to freeride and are prepared to hike.
That evening Shabir took Josh Wolf and I to get our boards serviced at the ‘Kashmir Alpine Skishop’, in reality a tumbledown workshop on the edge of town run by a wiry old character called Yasin Khan.
Yasin took one look at a nasty gouge in Wolfie’s base and gave a better assessment than you’d expect in a fully-equipped British snowboard store, sucking in through his teeth and suggesting he cut a p-tex patch and clamp it with araldite for two days. We settled for a quicker temporary job, and for the equivalent of about three quid he agreed to fill any scratches, give the board a wax and deliver it to our hotel room for 8.30am the next morning. Bargain! He then brewed up a coffee so strong you could stick a spoon in it and led us next door to his second business, a rug shop, where for half an hour Josh and I were given the run of hundreds of carpets, scarves, and saris and taught to recognize genuine pashmina from rabbit fur. Naturally we left the place a few rupees lighter but it was all good natured haggling.
“Grooming in these parts is severely limited and the lift is slow – you should really only come here if you’re looking to freeride and are prepared to hike”
Passing a pair of soldiers on the way back to the hotel I asked Shabir what he thought about the political troubles in Kashmir. “The fighting is between militants and the army,” he explained. “they’re not really interested in civilians or outsiders. Most of the ordinary people want peace – it’s only the politicians that benefit from the fighting. Some people want to be joined with Pakistan, some people want to be a separate state, but most of the people want peace.”
Shabir had more reason than most to dream of an end to the conflict, having been forced to turn down two offers of work in Canada and New Zealand because the governments don’t look favourably on Kashmiris.
“Do you have monkeys in England?” he asked me, shifting to a more lighthearted subject. “No,” I replied.
“No monkeys?!” It seemed hard for him to believe. “What about leopards?”
“No, no leopards either. Are they, er… are they common in Gulmarg?”
“Oh yes, very common. They mostly come out at night.”
And with that unnerving thought we parted ways.
When Monkey’s Attack
We spent the second day exploring further along the ridgeline, sharing the gondola with a variety of folk from rich Indian holidaymakers with vintage 70s ski equipment to Scandinavian powder hounds. One time we found ourselves squeezed into the cramped cabin with a soldier clutching his rifle, surely the most unlikely companion yet.
Every time we started to feel like we were on a normal snowboarding trip something strange would happen to remind us where we were – like the wild dogs prowling around the cornice at the top, or the guy mysteriously welding bits of machinery in the lift station. None of this concerned us as long as we were picking off powder lines, but in the afternoon came news that the top section of the gondola had packed in. What had started as a familiar delay had turned out to be a problem with the gearbox, and a few hapless skiers were eventually lowered back to the piste by rope. Luckily for us we were between rides at the time, but over chicken curry that night we were forced to come up with a contingency plan.
Sure enough, by the morning of the third day no progress had been made at restarting the top section. Worse still, rumour was circulating that an engineer would have to be flown over from France with the necessary parts. This could take anything up to two weeks! Plan B, Monkey Hill, came into action.
Monkey Hill was a steep, tree-covered face overlooking the base station of the gondola that we’d first spotted as we waited for the lift to get started (in Gulmarg – even before the latest break down – you never know exactly what time they’ll crank the lift up. If they say 9am it’s more likely to be 10 or 11). There was no lift access to the hill but the hike looked do-able and we could already spy numerous pillow lines, drops and stumps.
“Before you can say ‘rabies’ the five of us were retreating down to the road with a pack of simians in hot pursuit”
There was only one problem: a posse of monkeys clambering around the trees near the bottom. We got as far as the fence line, striding through deep snow, when one of the males leapt down in front of us and screeched through bared teeth at Ryan. Panic set in and the other monkeys could smell it. A whole gang of the bastards came running over to join the leader and before you can say ‘rabies’ the five of us were retreating down to the road with a pack of simians in hot pursuit. A handful of locals were gathered at the bottom laughing at us and we felt pretty small as they suggested bringing some bread as a kind of peace offering the next time.
Having circumnavigated the monkeys we managed to bag a few shots of a pillow line bathed in sunlight before the bottom section of the gondola sprang into life. For no apparent reason a search point had been initiated across the road to the lift station, so we found ourselves queuing at a small hut to be patted down by a surly-looking soldier. They even had a female official on hand to frisk Natalie – just another of the odd experiences that are part of everyday life in India. Back up at the mid-station any faint hope that the top lift might be running was soon dashed, and we spent the rest of the afternoon constructing a monster gap jump that would become known as Nelson’s Nipples.
Part of a group of massive bumps beneath the lift above Kongdori, Nelson’s Nipples are two breasts of snow about 20 foot high and 60 foot from nip to nip. Wolfie had first eyed them over a plate of pilau in the café, and there was a lot of debate about whether the slope above would generate enough speed to clear the gap. With nothing better to do we decided to give it a whirl, initially shaping a modest take-off then graduating to a full-blown run-in; by the time we’d finished it looked like Chad’s Gap.
“He charged down the run-in and launched himself into space – like Eliot in E.T. crossing the moon on his bike”
It was getting late and the light was disappearing when Nelson made the long hike and strapped in for a third time. He’d already tried it twice, slamming straight into the far wall on his first attempt before readjusting the wu-tang on the lip and getting closer the second time. Ryan and Wolfie – faced with the reality of this Evil Knievel-esque leap – found their enthusiasm melting away with the sun. Their preferred option was to leave the project till the next day, but Nelson was in determined mood. He charged down the run-in at mach 10, launched himself off the kicker… and into space. He looked like Eliot in E.T., crossing the moon on his bike. There was just time for him to tickle an indy grab before heading back to earth for a sketchy landing on the far side of the gap. Not perfect, but a balls-out jump and one of the best photos yet.
As if to celebrate his feat there was a full-on party getting started back at the hotel. Peter from Ski Himalaya had rounded up some local musicians and a charcoal barbecue was fired up loaded with dripping meat on hooks.
As the drummers banged away and a pipe player whined out over the top like a snake charmer in a cartoon, other locals took turns dancing a traditional Kashmiri dance, circling each other with sticks and swinging at each other in a kind of mock sword fight. The hotel’s staff (including one smiley character known to us westerners by the genius nickname ‘yellow hat’) looked on as what seemed like the whole town descended on the place for a laugh and some free grub. Spiced tea was served from the biggest silver teapot you’ve ever seen, then a strangely effeminate bloke in spangly outfit took centre stage and blasted out a song.
It was about this point, listening to the wails of ‘the ladyboy’ as Ryan had predictably christened him, that we realized how few women we’d seen since leaving Srinigar – to be precise: one (the lady on the checkpoint). We knew that all the resort workers made a daily commute from nearby towns like Tangmarg (Gulmarg is practically a ghost town at night) but it was only now that the eerie lack of females struck us.
I asked the hotel manager about it and was given the telling reply, “No women in Gulmarg. Gulmarg only tourist place.” Natalie then, was a triple novelty: she was white, she wasn’t in muslim dress and she was pretty much the only girl in resort. Men were literally lining up to dance with her. Finally Nelson came to the rescue with some contemporary Bollywood dance moves he’d picked up off the inflight movies and we all piled into the dining room for a buffet of weird and wonderful food. Deep fried hairy vegetables (!), mutton rogan josh, “mutton balls” (that looked suspiciously like testicles), chicken tikka and some sort of hollow kebab sausage (a.k.a. ‘donkey dick’) were all added to the mixture of spicy foods doing the rounds of our stomachs.
The band moved inside and began playing well into the night and we downed a few more illicit beers. Alcohol is banned in Kashmir, but since the ever-present Indian army are largely non-muslim there’s a healthy black market; bottles of beer sold to tourists like ourselves were usually stamped ‘property of the army’.
Before long the ladyboy and one of the more stubbly local men dressed in a scruffy cardigan leapt into the centre of the room and began an impromptu opera. For about an hour the pair of them fired lines to and fro, clutching their hearts and occasionally imploring the skies. It was basically a love story in the mould of Elizabethan theatre, the ladyboy playing the role of the woman and batting her eyelids a lot.
“Word spread that one of the Russian group had been attacked by a snow leopard”
Somewhere in the blur of this bizarre duet a burly kiwi appeared at the table and plonked two beers down in front of me. He was totally hammered and had a slightly manic expression, like a Vietnam vet that had spent too much time in the jungle.
“How’s it goin’ mate? I’m a guide here,” he explained in a thick accent.
“Cool,” I replied, “Whereabouts you from?”
“Canturbury. Christchurch Heli.”
“Any idea when the gondola’s gonna be fixed?”
“Haha! Fuck knows! You’re in India now!” He warmed to his theme. “How’s that? You travel half way around the world, go to the lift and they’re like, ‘Sorry, it’s not working.’ Gotta be gutted ey? Course you could go down to Srinigar instead and try not to get blown up! Haha!”
Then he stood up and left.
I was just getting my head round this disturbing conversation when word spread that one of “the Russian group” had been attacked by a snow leopard earlier that day. Apparently it had been sleeping beneath a log when a skier woke it up by riding over the top. Initially the cat had darted off towards the woods, then turned round to see what the disturbance was and decided a Russian skier was nothing to be scared of – so it ran back to attack him! The terrified bloke was forced to fend it off by thrusting at it with his ski pole. Listening to the story I couldn’t help but think how us snowboarders didn’t have the luxury of ski poles…
We stayed in Gulmarg for a total of 10 days. I could go on and on about the riding, but to be honest Natalie’s pictures do the talking. This place has so much potential it’s ridiculous. Everywhere you look there are kickers spots and natural features to play around with, all that’s needed is a little imagination and a willingness to do some digging. Unlike France the trees are nicely spaced out and even in town there were numerous ledges, jibs and drops that looked doable – like the fence Davo cab 180’d to the bemusement of some local passers by.
With the lift closed much of our time was spent hiking around on Monkey Hill, where we gorged ourselves on mushroom pillows and lived in constant fear of sleeping leopards. I remember one morning, getting our boots on in the hotel room, I had a conversation I never thought I’d have on a snowboard holiday. It went something like this:
Me: Did you remember to pack some bread for the monkeys?
Josh Wolf (deadpan): I’m more worried about the snow leopards.
Such was the irrational terror Wolfie and I worked up in each other about those damned leopards that one evening, on a spooky moonlit walk to Gulmarg’s only bar at the Highland Hotel, we carried a can of deodorant and a match to serve as an improvised flame thrower.
For a few days the resort’s sole piste basher was put to use ferrying people halfway up Mt Apharwat from the midstation at Kongdori. This was like a Health and Safety officer’s worst nightmare. About twenty snowboarders managed to cram themselves into the low pen on the flat bed behind the driver’s cab, while another thirty or so skiers hung onto two ropes strung out the back.
“An Indian passenger jumped off early and was rewarded by getting his leg run over by the caterpillar track. A collective cry went up from the crowd, prompting the driver to stick the machine in first gear and run over his leg the other way”
Having helped pass up all the snowboards I found myself with no space left in the pen, so I perched on the very back and clung to the metal rail for dear life. Opposite me was a soldier clutching his AK47 and casually smoking a cigarette. After much hollering in Kashmiri the engine roared to life and we trundled up the steep face, at which point I noticed the driver had left the grooming tiller down. Basically, if I slipped off my precarious bouncing seat I would land beneath a hundred furiously spinning spikes and be ground up like sausage meat.
A neighbour in the relative safety of the pen noticed my predicament and linked arms to keep me from falling to this bloody doom. Then, as we reversed round at the top, an over-eager Indian passenger jumped off early and was rewarded by getting his leg run over by the caterpillar track. A collective cry went up from the crowd, prompting the driver to stick the machine in first gear and run over his leg the other way! By some miracle his limb was only pushed down into the deep snow and he survived with just a bit of a bruise.
What was strange about visiting Gulmarg the way outrageous incidents like this were mixed in with a kind of mundane holiday routine. We’d get up in the morning, eat the same omlette and soggy toast, take the first of many rushed trips to the toilet and set out riding. Then, in the evening, we’d return to the hotel and chill out in the room watching international cricket matches on the TV, or take a scalding hot bath next door (hot water was switched on for such limited periods three or four of us would share the same mysteriously brown water. Nelson claimed after one hard day’s hiking he’d never had a better soak in his life).
“We were passed by a group of soldiers carrying – for no apparent reason – various small animals in wooden cages”
In this respect – bar the curry-induced diarrhoea – it was as easy as any other snowboard trip. But interspersed with this daily pattern were moments of sheer weirdness, like asking to make a phone call and being led to a small room lined with cigarettes on the far side of town. Sitting at a makeshift desk beneath a bare lightbulb were two guys operating an ancient phone attached to a printer. This was supposed to print out a receipt of the call cost, but unfortunately on our visit the phone line proved about as reliable as the gondola.
Another time were hiking to a kicker spot when we were passed by a group of soldiers carrying – for no apparent reason – various small animals in wooden cages. Indeed, seeing soldiers became so common we stopped even commenting on them. They were everywhere: watching your every move at the lift station, walking around the slopes or just chatting to the manager at reception. Someone from one of the other groups wandered down to take a look at the High Altitude Warfare School at Sonamarg, and came back telling us he’d seen a sign labelled ‘Dagger Training Field’. By this point though, nothing surprised us.
Exploring a few lines in the woods beside the road one day, we met a young guy called Arun who was up from Bombay on holiday. Arun was one of those chirpy Indians that are thrilled to meet people from other countries (“You are from Yorkshire? Wonderful! I have friends in Bradford.”) He immediately whipped out a camcorder and began recording our meeting for posterity. “You look like a cool guy,” he said to me earnestly. “You look like Rajesh Khanna, he is a famous Bollywood star.”
It turned out Arun worked in one of those giant call centres that companies in the UK have shifted to India. “They teach us to find out the weather in England,” he said, “That way we can make small talk with the customers. And my email name is ‘Sam Jacobs’, because it sounds more western.”
I asked him why he had come to this troubled corner of the country on holiday. “Kashmir has suffered from conflict but normally it is… heaven on earth.” He said ‘heaven on earth’ like he was describing a delicious mouthful of food. “The Kashmiri people treat you like brothers – they are very welcoming to their home. You will not find this in other parts of India.”
As if to prove his point a man in a long Kashmiri coat appeared with a tray of spiced tea and biscuits and shyly invited us to sit with them at their coffee shop. “You see these long coats?” said Arun. “They are called pheran. Underneath they carry baskets of hot coals to keep themselves warm, which we call ‘winter wives’. Sometimes they fall asleep holding these baskets!”
Sure enough each of the men had a small basket of charcoal, like a portable barbecue, hidden under the folds of their coats. Arun asked Natalie to take some portraits of him posing beside a tree in his sunglasses, which he would be using as headshots to try to launch a career in modelling. “Wow! Thank you!” he gushed, “in Mumbai they ask 2000 rupees for pictures like this.”
It snowed before we left the resort, a beautiful blanket on the trees and roads that saw tourists like Arun being towed around the resort on crude wooden sledges. People told us this was the worst season for snow ever, but next to the winter we’d been having back in Europe it was like Narnia.
The fabled leopards had thankfully failed make an appearance (although we did see some giant paw prints in the snow) then finally it was time to leave. Before departing the hotel we spent an awkward half hour sorting out reasonable tips for all the expectant staff, but in the end it was a well-thumbed copy of FHM that made the biggest impression of all. We’d left it on one of the beds, and when Natalie dashed back in to grab something she found a crowd of grinning bell boys gathered around an interview with Jenna Jameson. At the sight of Nat they jumped about a mile and the ringleader sheepishly thrust the magazine behind his back. God knows what kind of impression we’d given them of western women! At last we jumped back in another 4×4 with horrendously bald tyres for the nervy journey back to Srinigar, where we would be staying the night on one of the famous houseboats.
On the way down, without the jetlag, the scenery passed in less of a daze. We saw ramshackle houses, horse-drawn carts and children playing cricket in rough fields. To be honest the winter landscape down in the valley was pretty bleak compared to Gulmarg.
At one point we got stuck behind three truckloads of soldiers, and Peter’s wise words were ringing in my ears. “Srinigar’s pretty safe really,” he’d said, “Just don’t hang around near any army trucks ‘cos that’s what they tend to chuck grenades at.” Never had I been so glad for one of the driver’s insane overtaking maneuvres! Amongst the muddy streets and higgledy piggeldy shops were dozens of newer houses with massive satellite dishes, and everywhere were billboards advertising cement companies.
Later I asked our tourist liaison whether this was a sign of rebuilding after the huge earthquake that had struck the region in 2005, but apparently the quake hadn’t really affected this part of Kashmir. Instead, the castle-like new homes were just status symbols for the well-off. “In Kashmir we care about two things in life: A house, and marriage. And we spend a lot on both these things. When a man has a house with ten bedrooms people will look at it and say ‘Yes, he is wealthy.’”
Srinigar sits on the banks of a number of rivers and lakes. We drove to a pier beside the most famous stretch of water, Lake Dal, and had our board bags loaded onto a precarious little boat. Then we paddled across to the centre of the lake clutching a ‘winter wife’ each, where a long line of houseboats twinkled in the darkness.
We’d been expecting something like a glorified canal barge, but as we stepped off and were greeted by the owner it became clear his vessel was far more spectacular than that. The boat was a huge floating hostel, intricately carved from wood and decorated within with chandeliers, thick red carpets and polished furniture. A China teapot and sponge cake was waiting for us on a silver tray, while in the dining room a table had been covered in linen and laid for dinner. The whole place felt like a throwback to the days of the Raj, and actually this wasn’t far from the truth – Srinigar’s houseboats were first introduced in colonial times when British ex-pats would come to fish and play golf in the summer. The tradition has since survived 60 years of isolation and war.
Over a dinner of ‘mutton yoghurt’, the tourist guide that had met us at the pier hung around making chit chat. He was upset that people had been scared away from visiting Kashmir and experiencing this kind of hospitality. “Kashmir is like a beautiful woman with two lovers. For years Pakistan has been brainwashing kids into fighting the Indian occupation but these days people realize neither country is good for Kashmir. They want independence. And finally people like yourselves are starting to come back.”
The rest of our evening was spent lounging around the wood stove feeling like royalty. Occasionally salesmen would appear in boats and come onboard to show off their wares – everything from rubies to cans of Pepsi. It was obvious they’d been tipped off by someone that we were staying there, but with so few western tourists to squeeze some income from you couldn’t blame them. The next morning we awoke as the call to prayer wafted over the lake, and stepped outside to a breathtaking view of Lake Dal, stretching like a millpond towards the hazy mountains.
One more taxi ride awaited us, with perhaps the craziest driver yet. This old dude drove like he was in a police chase, and when he got held up in traffic he just repeatedly rammed the car in front. Even madder, the guy in front just kept chatting on his mobile phone!
“’Srinigar’s pretty safe really,’ he said, ‘Just don’t hang around near any army trucks ‘cos that’s what they tend to chuck grenades at’”
Zig-zagging through barbed wire checkpoints on the approach to the airport terminal, I was suddenly reminded of Alex Garland’s book The Beach. In case you missed it (or the dodgy film version) it’s about a group of hardcore backpackers that discover a hidden paradise off the coast of Thailand. Sheltered from the relentless march of the tourism by its position in a national marine park and a well-guarded marijuana plantation on the other side of the island, the travellers establish a utopian community in this so-called ‘Eden’, but in the end the secret leaks out and like any other beach the tourist invasion begins.
Here in Gulmarg we’d stumbled upon a kind of winter version of that beach. It was remote and largely undeveloped, and as in the book there were Kalashnikov-wielding soldiers nearby to put off all but the most determined travellers. Was all this about to change as magazines like us put the place on the map? Peter from Ski Himalaya had spoken to me about trying to develop Gulmarg into a proper resort, with better grooming, efficient ticket administration and more lifts. They even had aspirations to hold the 2010 Commonwealth Winter Games.
Yet Peter admitted that negotiating the labyrinthine world of Indian politics and dealing with local big-wigs was an uphill struggle, and I couldn’t help thinking that progress would be a long time coming. As long as the FCO keeps issuing its negative travel advisory, and as long as the high profile military presence remains, it seems unlikely Gulmarg will ever attract the regular hordes away from places like Chamonix. And perhaps, from a selfish freerider’s point of view, that’s for the best.
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