Skiing lessons and gondolas in Gulmarg leave Gustasp and Jeroo Irani wanting more.
Our plane glided past the white-knuckled fists of the Himalayas, swooped over the handkerchief-sized airport in Srinagar to land on the tarmac, cupped in the icy palm of the eternal mountains. Kashmir pulled out all the stops and socked us between the eyes — in more ways than one. We were winded because of the biting cold and breathless because of the raw primeval beauty of it all.
“It’s so lovely,” we gushed as our car sped from the airport, down roads lined with bare poplars, past green and red-roofed homes to the Vivanta by Taj, Dal View, Srinagar. This two-year-old hotel is one of only three luxury hostelries in Kashmir which is studded with mid budget and budget accommodation. The Vivanta, with its out-of-cellophane look and state-of-the-art facilities, makes a powerful statement that the valley is open to business. The hotel unwinds elegantly on a ridge and affords wrap-around vistas of dreamy Dal Lake and the Zabarwan Mountain range which flexes its muscles at a blue sky. We stayed there for two days and explored Srinagar whenever we could tear ourselves away from the drop-dead gorgeous views that our room provided.
Early one morning, when the lights on the houseboats moored on the lake’s edge still glimmered like static fireflies, we left for Gulmarg, the country’s ultimate winter getaway. Afzal Guru had been executed the day before and the hotel staff urged us to leave under the cover of darkness to avoid any unpleasantness. But in that fresh dawn, a tenuous peace prevailed.
Soon pine forests of dark green unfurled above us and beyond, rose mountains draped in shawls of snow. The country’s premier ski resort, situated at an altitude of 8,825 ft, was just waking up when we arrived. We checked into the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, a two-month-old luxury hotel which too seems to assert in no uncertain terms that the vale of Kashmir has a bright future as a tourism destination. The lavish 85-room resort combines Alpine lodge quaintness with 21st century comforts and Kashmiri ambience.
The centrally heated Khyber was a haven to which we retreated when Gulmarg’s sub-zero temperatures seemed to slice us to the bone. We walked up to the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering (a Central Government initiative) helmed by the formidable Col Joe Dhillon who has scaled 24 mountain peaks and, in the process, has lost two toes to frost bite!
The skiing institute has launched highly subsidised adventure courses for the young and the young-at-heart in an effort to convert under-exercised Indians into nimble skiers and mountaineers. The institute itself with its cozy blond wood, centrally heated interiors and modern equipment, excellent residential facilities and cafeteria is becoming increasingly popular and courses fill up quickly as youngsters now realise that Kashmir is as safe as any other destination in the country. Indeed the colonel is very optimistic that the valley will retrieve its place in the sun as the country’s premier destination, and recent events will ultimately turn out to be a blip in the larger scheme of things. It was a sentiment echoed by many local residents we spoke to – drivers, hotel staff, ski instructors, gondola attendants.
We had a skiing lesson scheduled for the next morning and after mastering the art of clipping on the special ski shoes and strapping on the skis, the nuances of balancing on them, moving sideways and then forward, slipping, falling — falling a lot we might add — we were able to do a few feeble runs down gentle slopes near the institute. We stoically ignored the helmeted young toddlers on miniature skis who were skimming around us like tiny gnats.
Indeed, young Indians were revelling in this winter wonderland, trying their hand at skiing, snowboarding and floating away in a hot air balloon like flitting sky gods. Sheer exhaustion, or perhaps ineptitude, prompted us to cut short our ski lessons and we retreated to the institute for some hot coffee.
The next morning when a wan sun had painted the slopes outside our room with brush strokes of violet, pink and lavender and a sky, streaked with red-blood slashes, canopied the world, we stepped out for some more fun. We swung up in the two-stage Gulmarg Gondola, the highest in the world, which wafted us first to Kongdoore (10,050 ft) mountain where we relaxed at an open-air restaurant and sipped coffee under blue skies. Skiers whooshed around us like graceful ballerinas, young and reckless, but were a grand spectacle for those seated at the café. Later we floated upwards once again to Mount Affarwat in the second stage of the gondola and felt bouts of breathlessness as we were at 13,500 ft.
Skiers from overseas gushed about the beauty of Gulmarg and the fact that the facilities were cheap (especially heli skiing where skiers are dropped on top of the mountains so that they can ski down the more advanced slopes) compared to stylish European ski resorts.
Standing atop Mt Affarwat, we felt like monarchs of that hushed white world — snow-laden pine forests, undulating powder-packed snowy slopes, and jagged peaks that seemed to be within hand touching distance!
We wished we could have lingered. The siren call of the valley was irresistible. We knew that we would return.
How to get there
Srinagar is the nearest airport and well connected with flights from Mumbai and Delhi. The nearest railhead is Jammu Tawi (305 km) and one can also drive from Jammu to Srinagar.
The ski season extends from end November to end-March almost to the beginning of April, weather permitting.
The Vivanta by Taj, Dal View, Srinagar, and The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa in Gulmarg combine luxury with spectacular views. There are modest options as well.
For more information, contact: J&K Tourism