Gulmarg is possibly one of the most enigmatic ski resorts in the world. It has no concept of hospitality. Hotels are expensive but provide minimal service. Restaurants give you arm-long menus but politely inform you that, no, they don’t have the chicken cutlet, nor anything else on the Continental page. Waiters, staff and passersby will shake their heads woefully at any request or query. Guests are shown into rooms with plastic sheets for windows and told that they must sleep triple with strangers. On one queen-size bed.
But anyone who either spends time doing mountain sports or goes to large festivals will tell you that this is par for the course. So what does Gulmarg have, then? It has the world’s highest cable car. It has possibly some of the finest ski and snowboard terrain anywhere. It has that fresh, crunchy powder that grinds softly against your snowboard and a magnificent view of Nanga Parbat. It has kahwa, drunk at a restaurant in Kongdori, just after a rush-inducing ski run down from the 4,000m-high Mt Apherwat. It has Yassin Khan, owner of Kashmir Alpine, the country’s first ski shop, and his son Arif, now on India’s Olympic skiing team.
So when I was invited to the first edition of the Gulmarg Winter Festival, supposedly a big-ticket event sponsored by everyone from MTV to Go Air, I jumped at the chance. Snowboard all day on Apherwat and listen to India’s finest music acts in the evening? It sounded too good to be true.
Alas, it was. Details of the flights or the hotel didn’t trickle in till the day before our departure. Once there, a disastrous sequence of events unfolded. Band members came dressed in shorts. Taxi drivers ran a merry business renting out the gumboot-fake-fur-coat nonsense. Hotel rooms were unready or unavailable. The entire festival audience seemed to consist of a bunch of journalists, music bands, organisers and three people from Delhi who appeared to have lost their way.
When it began snowing, the venue had to be shut down and shifted to a hotel. The venue, the backup hotel and the hotel where most of us were staying were at three ends of Gulmarg’s 3km periphery, so most of the planned ‘adventure’ activities consisted of walking, and more walking—on snow!
But I had a blast. When I saw the level of chaos on the ground, I grabbed two friends and went up Apherwat. This season, J&K Tourism has opened a new chairlift above Phase I (Kongdori). This opens up an entire new area of skiable terrain for intermediate-level riders. With the chairlift, Gulmarg has finally created the infrastructure to support beginners who stick to the Golf Course slopes below; expert skiers who head up to the Apherwat top; and intermediate riders, who can improve their skills on some of the upper slopes.
In the afternoons and evenings, the bands played on gamely, most shivering in the open cold. But clad in my alpinist’s down jacket, I enjoyed every minute of Raghu Dixit, The Chi Project’s incredible dubstep-sitar mix, Highway 61’s über-passionate rockstar-in-the-making Mohammed Muneem and other great music including Bombay Bassment and Space. They were all class acts and just about salvaged the event.
A music and adventure festival is a fantastic idea, and possibly a great way to promote Kashmir, winter sports as well as upcoming bands in one shot. Unfortunately, the first edition of the Gulmarg Winter Festival was not it.