GULMARG And for those wanting to make the most of the last bits of winter, we find a place that’s welcoming tourists once more
I am stuck in a cable car that seems to dangle perilously at 13,000 feet on the snow-covered Afarwat peak of the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas in Gulmarg. No electricity.
My guide Farooq senses the anxiety on my face, tells me not to worry. The generator will be on soon and the world’s second highest cable car service will be back in action. My hands, holding the steel bar tightly, ache a bit. I look down. Way below is a slope, plastered with inches of flaky snow, the tips of a few rocks jabbing out dangerously. My heart sinks a few notches. What if?
And then I see it! The sheer daredevilry of skiers and snow boarders racing down the slopes in jazzy glares and bright outfits — florescent yellow, electric blue, dazzling orange, blood red, parrot green…
One after the other, the skiers — a group of about 10 — are leaping off a big snow-clad boulder atop Afarwat, the highest (13,750 ft) ski point in the Indian Himalayas, landing with a thump way below and sliding off at high speed, leaving behind geometric patterns with their skis. Those on snow boards are sliding down the same slope, negotiating with their body, ripping through the snow, throwing up powder in the process. A few falls don’t stop them. Quickly, they resume the thrilling trip that ends at Kongdoogri Mountain, a shoulder of Afarwat standing at 12,293 ft.
My cable car begins to move now but I am no longer sheathed in fear. My eyes chase the speedsters and their display of raw energy. By the time I take another cable car from Koondoogri to return to the starting point of the Gulmarg Gondola ride, a fresh batch is lining up to slither down the Afarwat. They come from all over the world… Belgium, Germany, France… some flaunting their government’s warnings against visiting Kashmir. A rare Indian is queuing up too.
What’s so special about skiing in Gulmarg? “The snow is light and powdery, which skiers enjoy the most,” says a Belgian, who’s coming back after 10 years. Plus, Gulmarg having just reopened, the queues are much shorter!
Below, I can see the snowy meadow of a golf course dotted with people taking their first wobbly ski lessons, with the help of guides trained at the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering nearby. The 44-year-old institute is run by the Union Tourism Ministry and headed by Colonel J. S. Dhillon, a local legend who has 22 Himalayan peaks to his credit. In the crowd are tourists “just trying it out”, serious students in their second year of classes, and children training for an upcoming ski tournament.
I plod along warily on my pair of locally rented rubber boots, falling at least twice, and getting up to the claps of smiling children with ruddy cheeks. I soak in the picture postcard surroundings, the lofty conifers, the snow-clad church, the little huts with interesting pink doors, and the striking log houses with their green roofs all covered in white.
I am staying at a brand new hotel called The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, the first five-star luxury hotel to open in Gulmarg, with 80 well-appointed rooms, four cottages with central heating, a cigar lounge, fitness centre and great food. A heated pool and a spa are being added to the striking wood and stone building. The staff is 70 per cent local, the hotel having attracted a lot of workers back to Kashmir. Says one security guard who was in Chandigarh till a month ago, “Kashmir has remained on the boil for so long, we had forgotten how it was before. When something like the ultra-chic Khyber opens up, we want to take it up.”
As I hunt for more information on Gulmarg’s ski scene, I am led to Billa Bakshi, an effervescent Kashmiri in his 20s. An ardent skier trained in New Zealand, Billa runs Heli-ski and, over a cup of kahwa at his restaurant-cum-ski joint, he tells me more. “I took 200-300 people heli-skiing last year. This year, 400 people have already signed up. I have turned away people because I have only two helicopters.”
Devoted to skiing, Gulmarg keeps nudging you to try out the sport. I almost give in to my driver’s insistence, but chicken out at the end. Anyway, there’s always a next time!
(The writer was hosted by The Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa)
The 52-km drive from Srinagar takes a little over two hours by road. Taxis are available at the airport.
Begins at Rs.14,500 per night