We were, as far as I could see, the only foreign tourists at Srinagar airport. Our little party stood in the spanking new, cathedral-like arrivals hall: two lone British passport holders — well, two-and-a-half, if you count my son, age six — three bored officials, one optimistic taxi driver and a stack of forms to fill out. Oh, and a platoon of Indian army jawans. During our stay in Kashmir, these rifle-toting khaki figures were such a ubiquitous feature of the landscape that I’ve already edited them out... in much the same way as, I imagine, those who live there would have to do in order to maintain their sanity.
Outside, snow lay in dirty piles, stacked up in shadow-bound corners. It was old, it was grubby, it looked distinctly shop-soiled but... “Look, mama! Snow!” Roshan shouted gleefully, jumping in. A magical moment: an important first.
The highway out of Srinagar is dotted with soldiers: on the roofs of houses, in the furrowed fields of mustard, in the walnut, apple and cherry orchards.
As we wound our way up from the valley towards Gulmarg, the snow lay thicker, and thicker on the ground beneath the pines. The road weaves through pine forest until you round a corner, and Gulmarg is laid out before you — a smooth ceramic bowl of white edged with trees, backed by a dramatic panorama of mountain peaks. The sharp winter sun set everything sparkling.
The road took a turn by a sign which read, ‘High Altitude Warfare School’.
We finally crunched to a halt outside a row of single-storey shacks, all but the last with their shutters down. The last proudly proclaimed ‘Kashmir Alpine Ski Resort’ and the grand domo of Gulmarg’s only privately owned ski shop emerged from the shadows, beamed a four-toothed smile that rivalled the glitter of the sun-kissed snow. “Welcome! Welcome! Have chai!” Yasin Khan has been skiing these slopes since he was a tot, and his children have followed in his tracks. Half-a-century of outdoors life has left his face etched and weathered, his eyes alight with enthusiasm undimmed, it would seem, by dwindling tourist numbers, army jeeps, civil strife or the harsh climate of the mountain winters.
As our eyes adjust to the darkened shack, an Aladdin’s cave of equipment is revealed: snow-shoes, hiking boots, snowboards, gloves, hats, ski-pants, poles and, of course, skis and skis and skis, stacked up around all three walls. We fix up to meet the next morning for our first adventure on the snow, and then make our way to our hotel — ‘Rosewood Cottage’ — which would be our base for the next couple of days.
The road was icy and treacherous. We slithered to a halt where it ended, unloaded the car and stomped up a steep, snowy slope to the door. Inside, the large, carpeted living room was cosy; the traditional tin stove (bukhari) in the middle had been stoked up in preparation for our arrival. The false Formica ceiling with recessed coloured light bulbs was pure seventies disco, but our room with its emperor-size bed and massive quilts was heaven. Our caretaker lit the bukhari here too, and by morning we all felt lightly smoked, like well-cured ham.
The morning sun glittered on the carpet of snow outside, crusted with a diamond frost on top. We slithered and slipped and hurled snowballs at each other until we reached the ski-shop and Yaseen. His son, Arif, would be our instructor for the day, and we quickly realised what a privilege this was. A national champion, he had skied around the world — Switzerland, New Zealand, Scotland and Japan. As an eight-year-old kid, and well before the first stage of the gondola was built in 1998 — Arif used to carry his skis and walk up the mountain in order to ski down: a three- to four-hour walk for a 10-minute ski.
Nowadays, people are carried up in a matter of minutes to the top for the ski down. But, we were told, the gondola was currently closed for repairs. Although part of me was sad — the view from up there must be out of this world — I was secretly slightly relieved. Heights were never my strong point, and I definitely didn’t feel that novices like us would do well strapped to our skis and pushed gently from the top.
The ski-boots fitted into their stays with a satisfying clunk. And I immediately stood up straight and keeled over sideways. I was obviously missing something.
“Weight forward,” Arif prompted. “Lean into your shins. Eyes front. Crouch down.”
“Whatever you do,” he said, as I straightened and leaned back, “don’t lean back.” My skis shot up in front and I fell backwards on to my (thankfully well-padded) stern.
Heaved up again by a helpful assistant, and feeling distinctly wobbly, I clutched my skipoles like stabiliser wheels on a toddler’s bike. “No sticks,” Arif said sternly, and aimed me down the gentle slope. With nothing to hold on to, I felt like I was in free-fall, victim of Newton’s first law of physics. I accelerated gently, glided down, and keeled over sideways again. It seemed as good a way as any to stop, and the snow was not too hard.
He taught us the ‘snow-plough’ — angling the tips of the skis together to make a triangle — in order to control your speed, and bringing them together in order to stop. The next hour or so was bliss. The three of us gradually got more and more vertical and less and less inclined to keel over sideways. Although we were far from ready to try the steeper slopes that more practised skiers were whooshing down nearby, by the end of the lesson all three of us had managed at least one descent without mishap.
Time for sledging. Roshan decided that this looked like much more fun. He rode like an elf on Santa’s sleigh, pulled along by a grinning assistant until we reached the snowy run next to Gulmarg’s one and only church. Our first descent was a threesome: Roshan in front, me in the middle, and our guide firmly holding the reins behind. Before I’d had a chance to draw breath we were off — whizzing down the slope, the snow a white blur on either side, hair streaming, whooping and calling, sailing over bumps, and careening to a halt at the bottom, hearts pounding. It was great.
Happy and tired, and after several more slow trudges up and swift sledges down the slope, we trudged back to the Highland Park Hotel — Gulmarg’s grandest — for lunch.
The hotel was built by people who understood why visitors come to Gulmarg: the view. The entire frontage is glass-paned, giving diners a panoramic view across the whole valley and the Apharwat peak beyond. In distinct contrast to the architects of Rosewood Cottage who had tried to make up for the fact that the windows were small (and impossible to see out of, double-‘glazed’ as they were with sheets of polythene) by tacking together an enormous poster of some snowy Swiss chalet that covered one entire wall.
Late that night, however, we made another discovery: the stars really do come to earth in Kashmir. Taking advantage of a power cut, we bundled ourselves up and got out of bed to stand for a long, shivery minute on the snow-covered pathway outside the cottage. The altitude, remoteness, cold dry air and a fortuitous power cut conspired to present us with the world’s most stunning night sky. Through the black pine trees, the Milky Way floated like a shimmering scarf, tempting you to stretch up, and dip your fingertips into the crystalline darkness. The sky here was uncaged; it evoked the awe and splendour of spotting a tiger in the wild. We stumbled back to bed feeling small and blessed.
The next day dawned clear and bright; the snow was now looking distinctly patchy. The monkeys, who travel in great furry clans, were busy at the site’s rubbish dump, and everyone was out, gazing across to the opposite hill, where the Grand Mumtaz Resort, Gulmarg’s latest, poshest and almost-complete 60-room hotel, stood, a smoking ruin. It had caught fire sometime in the night, and now lay smouldering. I suddenly wondered at the wisdom of these wooden houses at the heart of which was a wood-fire. If our cottage caught fire, there’s no way we would have woken up to the smell of smoke. That’s how it smells anyway. We set off down the slope, negotiating our way past a fire engine, slewed at 45 degrees across the road with its rear bumper firmly lodged in a tree.
With the snow almost gone, and the weather set to fair, the prospect of more skiing was fast receding. So we decided to heed our friends’ suggestions that you should not, simply must not, leave Srinagar without staying, at least one night, on a houseboat on the Dal lake.
Our taxi driver, Bashir, was talkative. On the two-hour journey back to Srinagar, he pointed out the chinars and the paddy fields, the walnut and cherry orchards. The road was being widened in preparation for the 2010 Commonwealth Games, when Gulmarg would host the winter sports competitions. Workers in their buff-brown heavy pherans were hard at work with pickaxes and shovels.
We wended our way through the old part of the city; timber houses and ancient onion-domed mosques, and across the partly-frozen river. We could have been in turn-of-the-century St Petersburg. At the edge of the lake, a flotilla of gaily-painted shikaras stood waiting to ferry people across the water. The minute we poled off, our boat was surrounded by others — floating grocery stores offering soft drinks and fruit juice, imported chocolates and Kodak film, tiny pots of saffron, silver trinkets, gems and jewels and papier-mache mobile-phone holders. We finally floated free of our retinue and away from the town into the quiet backwaters.
The only sounds were the slop-slop of oars stirring the water, and the occasional bird cry. A kingfisher hovered above, dived and appeared. The water is not deep — a few feet at most — and you can see, clear down, to the abundance of pondweed that covers the bottom. In this glassy cold, it feels like you are on a sky-ship, sailing over a green forest.
We moored finally at a wooden jetty in front of a row of grand houseboats, bade farewell to our boatman and made our way towards the Crystal Palace. Our host, Mehraj Din opened the carved and stained glass-panelled sliding wooden doors and we stepped in. And gasped.
It was, I realised later, a moment straight out of childhood. I am standing at my mother’s dressing table. On it is the wooden jewellery box she, and I’m sure every other Bengali bride, was given on her wedding day: carved on all sides and lined with velvet. I used to fantasise about being small enough to climb inside and shut the lid; I would curl up on the thick pile, surrounded by wooden walls, and twinkling precious pendants. The Crystal Palace was well-named. Chandeliers twinkled opulently; the living room was set with heavy carved furniture; the carpets swirled with red and gold patterns, echoing the wooden inlay of the ceilings and the latticed pelmets that edged each room. Roshan set off at a gallop down the long, narrow Orient Express-like corridor that led from the front of the houseboat, all 175 feet of it, down to the back where we would be staying, whooping and giggling with unrestrained delight. Christmas came early for us, this year.
But this pleasure, like all pleasures in Kashmir, came not unmixed. The television showed footage of the gun battle at the Taj in Mumbai, on a compulsive, compelling, hideous loop. Our plans for a trip into Srinagar were vetoed; the city was under curfew for the elections. We holed up for the day in our cedar-scented jewellery box, while in the wider world, horrors were unleashed or restrained.
The next morning, we set out at dawn for the vegetable market. Every morning, farmers load their shikaras with spinach and turnips, carrots and potatoes. We floated among them in our gaily-painted boat, bundled up in hats and brightly-coloured scarves, enjoying the feeling of being largely ignored, like migrant birds, while the business of the day continued around us. A friendly farmer threw us a black carrot — it was earthy and heavenly: not unlike Kashmir itself.