“I’m writing this from the splendour (albeit slightly faded) of the Royal Palace houseboat on Dal Lake near Srinagar. True not at its best in winter, it’s a sea of colour in summer when the lilies are in bloom. Outside heavy snow is falling and news has just arrived that all flights in and out of the city have been cancelled. Time then for me to relax, with no distractions, and reflect on the past three weeks in India. A ski trip yes, but not quite as I know them.
India, I love it and I hate it. Nowhere do you see so many extremes, the beauty and colour of this country is immeasurable, the friendliness, helpfulness and kindness of the people knows no bounds and yet the poverty, filth and red tape constantly saddens, annoys and frustrates. Fortunately I mostly love it and when you mix the exotic with one of the best lift-accessed ski hills on the white planet then you have all the ingredients for an unforgettable holiday.
Getting to Gulmarg is straightforward enough. Delhi is the hub for international flights, some 10 hours from London, from there connections to Srinigar leave in the morning. We flew with Kingfisher Airlines who I must say in common with the beer of the same name were refreshingly first rate. The first thing that strikes you on arrival in Kashmir is the huge military presence. Figures vary but it appears India has ¾ million armed personnel here. I can’t work out if I’m relieved or just saddened (both I guess). Young soldiers shivering from the cold, many from Southern India have probably never seen snow, line the 40kms of bustling road from the airport to Tanmarg, the village at the base of the ski hill ‘Apherwat’. That first taxi journey is when you begin to absorb a little of the real essence of Kashmir, the chaotic bustle of life in the villages, the incessant beeping of car horns, cows wondering across the road, men standing around everywhere, veiled women scurrying between dilapidated shops, children playing cricket on waste ground. Tanmarg is a taxi terminal; from here you need chains to continue the 15km of switchbacks to Gulmarg. Most Indian tourists blatantly ignore this advice and obliviously launch their Maruti Suzuki’s up into the snow, only to come unstuck and block the road. Fortunately this is accepted as part of the fun and good natured pushing of everyone’s cars is an inevitable feature of the drive up the hill, road rage seemingly hasn’t arrived here yet!
Most striking on the ride up the hill are the trees, huge and beautiful Himalayan Pines caked in snow everywhere and most pleasing to the skier’s eye is that they are perfectly spaced, lots of gaps to focus on! The tree skiing is without doubt one of the loveliest features of the skiing in Kashmir. For Europeans used to skiing above the tree line or occasionally in trees all too often too tight to relax in, the tree skiing is something very special. Most stunning are the stands of silver birch which we called paper trees these are found incredibly at an elevation of 3500m. For me some of my most memorable moments were weaving through the paper trees in knee deep powder.
Gulmarg was founded by the British in the days of the Raj as a hill station. In the summer scores of ex-pats would travel up to escape the heat and relax amongst the cool mountains. It became well known for its golf course around which its 20 or so hotels are positioned. There is no village centre as such, indeed there are no permanent residents of Gulmarg, only tourists or those working in the tourist business. Everyone else is supposed to be out of town by 6pm. For tourists après skis focuses on the hotels, in our case this was the historic Highlands Park Hotel. Although the furthest located from the Gondola the HPH is without doubt the hotel with the most character in Gulmarg. Stuffed with furniture from its Raj roots and uniformed staff from the 60′s, this warm and atmospheric lodge style hotel has everything, despite the inevitable power cut, you need to be comfortable after a days skiing. Sleeping accommodation is in 2-4 bedroom lodges, each room is heated by a wood burning stove known as a bukari (top tip bring some eucalyptus oil to help you sleep!) and an en-suite bathroom, where most of the time hot water flowed. The new owner has plans for wind power and hot tubs but assures me the character of the HPH will remain.
Skiing or ‘sikiing’ as the locals pronounce it first came to Gulmarg in the late 1970′s, a couple of ‘pomas’ turned the golf course into nursery slopes and introduced winter sports to the Indians. A few hardy Europeans turned up and got to know the runs down to Tanmarg well with the odd venture onto Apherwat by skin, but then in 1989 the troubles in Kashmir escalated and the tourists turned away. Meanwhile the Jammu and Kashmir government decided to put in a gondola lift on the mountain and in 2005 they completed the construction of the second phase to 3995m just short of the summit of Apherwat making it one of the highest lifts in the world. Giving ski descents of 1350m to Gulmarg or 2300m if you go on down to Tanmarg it wasn’t too long before the tourists were coming back!
So what exactly is the skiing like? Well in 20 consecutive days skiing I can only tell you what it was like for me bearing in mind that next year could be different – though talking to locals January 2008 was pretty typical. 20 days skiing, 20 days of untracked powder all day, best continuous skiing… period! When I say powder I mean powder the light fluffy stuff your skis love to float in, that is if you have wide skis. Please do yourself favours if you come here don’t bring skis less than 100mm wide under the foot, it’s the norm here. Depths varied from boot deep to close to waist and we had a seven day in the middle without new snowfall. Ok, mountains at 4000m are affected by wind and yes some of the turns at the top were wind affected but in the trees the snow was always sweet. When it snows in Kashmir it really does snow, storms typically last for 3-5 days and you can expect the top stage of the gondola to be closed during this time. Don’t worry that’s not an end to your skiing there are fabulous descents to be done down below Gulmarg. Plus it gives the higher mountain a chance to stabilise.
As a guide from a snow safety point of view I was very happy not only about the state of the snowpack but also the control work being undertaken. By and large the snowpack was very stable throughout leaving concerns with the upper layer due to wind or fresh snowfall, both of which were relatively easy to avoid. To enable skiers to use the top gondola an ‘in-bounds’ ski area has been created and this is controlled by a ski patrol team headed up by two snow safety experts from Treble Cone ski field in New Zealand. For the first time in 2008 they have been given permission to use explosives for their control work under the watchful eye of the Indian army. In addition they train the local ski patrol, post a daily advisory and hold weekly lectures for the local skiers on avalanche awareness. All in all Brian and James are providing a superb and valuable service.
Downsides?? Well everywhere has its faults and India certainly has its share. I’ll expand on a few problem areas in a moment but its important that no matter what is thrown at you, as the notice board in the gondola foyer says; Rule no.5 “This is Kashmir – Relax!” The lift is prone to power problems which affected me on two out of 20 days. But on both days they restored the power and we had great skiing. The ticketing system is laborious but works. Getting in and out of the cabins requires teamwork and care. These are minor things. Worthy of more attention is the queuing. In my first two weeks there were only 75-100 Europeans in the resort and no queues. In week three numbers doubled and coupled with the power problems we had lengthy waits. Overpopularity could become Gulmarg’s downfall. Undeniably as word gets out more tourists are going to come to Gulmarg and three factors will affect what happens: firstly whether the political situation improves, Western Governments advice not to visit Kashmir is currently keeping numbers down. Secondly, western tour operators need to operate responsibly keeping the size of their groups small and spreading them through the season. (One Russian tour operator brought 85 Russians in for the third week.) Thirdly if plans to put more lifts in actually come to fruition. A chair is ‘promised’ for next winter and will make a big difference.
The snow is still falling as I finish this, the lift might not be working but I bet the skiing is awesome. I’m sorry to be going but I’ll be coming back and in the meantime I must say I’m looking forward to a good bowl of pasta and glass of Pinot Grigio!”
Nick Parks, February 2008