The two dogs came rushing, skidding down the mountainside. Ears pressed down against their heads
The two dogs came rushing, skidding down the mountainside. Ears pressed down against their headsand thrashing tails whipping up a cloud of snow, they tumbled and slid their way down the gully fringed by the silent pine and deodar forest – a flurry of white against the sombre black of the venerable trees rising up to a blue sky. I was speeding along myself, head down and leaning forward, knees bent inwards in the braking mode, with the distant exhortations of my instructor Tanveer ringing in my ears.
But the dogs went faster, tumbling over in their excitement, until one of them did a little summersault and lay totally still. My heart jumped into my mouth for a split second. Had that idiot hurt himself? But no, there he came again, cavorting down the snow slopes with his friend, the happiest ball of fur for miles around.
There was little I could have done anyway but speed along, feeling gravity’s pull. I was on my third foray down from Kongdori, a little over halfway up the Apharwat range that dominates the plateau of Gulmarg. My friend Krishna and I made our way through the upper snow fields, through the pine forests and past the nomadic gujjar huts buried deep in the snow, and down steep snow gullys, our heads down, leaning into the breeze with the gentle swish of the skis and the occasional cry of a raven in our ears. I was probably the slowest person on the slopes, not that I cared. I’m not a huge fan of speed on mountains, and as brightly clad people on snowboards and skis raced past me in little flurries of snow, carving graceful patterns, I grinned to myself and concentrated on not falling.
I was staying at probably the best possible place to enjoy these magnificent snowscapes – The Khyber. This opulent resort situated in the rear of the forested Monkey Hill, is only a few years old. It had been a short flight from Delhi to Srinagar, with some fantastic views of the Himalayas for company. The valley stood bare and dusty under the winter sun, but as we approached Tangmarg, snowdrifts appeared. These deepened the higher we climbed, and when we finally reached Gulmarg, it was drowning in a sea of white, as a result of a heavy blizzard which had swept through a couple of days before.
I was shown into one of the resort’s south-facing balcony rooms. The view was to die for. Snow lay piled high all around. Forgive my enthusiasm, but I hadn’t seen snow like this in a very long time. Huge chunks of it were lying heavy on the pine branches, seemingly defying gravity. And yet, every now and then I would hear a soft crashing sound and look out to see a flurry of white hanging around like a fine mist about the trees – a mini tree avalanche. Behind the expanse of forest, the range rose up steeply, wispy clouds smeared across the sky glowed in the last rays of the setting sun, adding to the drama of an already incredible scene.
On our first proper day at Gulmarg, Krishna and I headed out to the famed gondola. Designed by the French firm Poma, the gondolas were ready in 1989 before insurgency broke out across the valley, and plans were shelved. It was only in 1998 that the first stage to the Kongdori station was opened. At a height of 10,050ft, that was already quite high as far as ski lifts go, but the gradient of descent wasn’t exciting enough for pros. However, word was spreading about Apharwat’s virgin slopes of powder snow among the hordes that make their way to the Alps or to Alaska. When the second stage of the gondola up to a little shoulder of the Apharwat peak at 12,992ft was opened in 2005, Gulmarg became a bonafide skiing destination.
We bought our tickets and stood in line. Our tickets weren’t for the second stage but only for the first, as a curfew in the valley had prevented operators from Tangmarg getting to Gulmarg. The line was a colourful mass of puffa jackets and eager, sunburnt European faces and a veritable forest of skis and snow-boards. The gondola clearly showed its age, creaking and clanking its way up through the thickly wooded lower slopes, every inch of which seemed to be raked with ski tracks.
The Kongdori station is a gigantic snowfield a little way above the pine treeline. Above it rose the final three thousand feet of the Apharwat massif, bare except for clumps of birch thickets. Men sold chocolates and cigarettes while the skiers humped their gear up the slopes to start their runs. Instructors from the town offered day-long skiing courses around the Kongdori snowfield, and a refreshing number of Indian tourists were actually taking them up on their offers.
The next day the curfew deepened and the gondola didn’t run at all. It didn’t really affect our plans as we were scheduled for our first instructions on the baby slopes with Tanveer Ahmed, who, like all good instructors everywhere, wouldn’t take no for an answer.
The baby slopes were thronging with people, mostly Indian tourists, and they have to be the world’s most difficult bunch. Yet, despite long ski lift queues, the Kashmiris in charge of the government-run skiing operations handled it with admirable aplomb, ensuring everybody got their turn. Krishna turned out to be a natural, mastering the braking techniques, and hand-pole coordination in about an hour. Of course, he fell quite a lot, which is par for the course if you’re learning how to ski. I took far longer, with my safety-first approach, and my determination not to fall. But once I figured that falling on your ass in the soft, powdery snow is actually quite fun, I made some progress, much to Tanveer’s happiness. “See bhai, you’re the best first day student I’ve ever had,” he said with a straight face. But my falls were mostly restricted to negotiating the ski lift. We had to stand in a sideways line and edge along like crabs in a mess of skis and poles, for a chance to grab onto the whizzing poles on an electric line and be hauled uphill while balancing on our skis. The trick is to keep the skis parallel and not let go until you reach the top of the incline.
It was a very productive day, and humping our gear back to the hotel in true skier style, I felt virtuous enough to celebrate with a couple of cups of excellent kahwa and a delicious croissant sandwich. The slanting sunlight disappeared slowly from the forested bowl behind the resort and the pines turned a dark black. The bits of snow sticking to the branches started glowing a luminous white and far above, the Sunset Peak gleamed in the sun.
The next day the gondola was running, and Tanveer had decided that his students were too good to be mucking about on the baby slopes. But first we caught the gondola to the second stage, that is, to the top of Apharwat. We shared our gondola with a couple of British guys, leaders of a skiing package group from England, who were poring over a ski map of the range. “You think Steve and the others can find their way to the nose of the ridge here, and we can catch up with them before we hit the birch forest there?” one asked. “Well I’ve been wanting to do the traverse to the Apharwat north bowl and come down that way till shepherd’s bowl at the base of the army ridge,” replied the other. “Sure, if we can make our descent down Mary’s shoulder quickly first, you and I can come back up and do some off piste,” agreed his companion.
As our gondola rose higher, and more of Apharwat’s snow-covered ridges fanned out beside us, I realised why Gulmarg’s slopes are considered off piste heaven. This term basically means virgin slopes, where experienced skiers pit their skills against the snow. On Apharwat, apart from the two snow bowls on the either side of the gondola line, which are monitored and controlled for avalanches, the rest of the slopes are strictly off piste.
The Apharwat station, despite its height, was nice and warm. Long lines of skiers and snowboarders were snaking up the final slopes to the summit to begin their descent. Many were already on their way down, carving graceful parabolas in the snow. From here, the entire valley was visible. The upper slopes of Apharwat tumbled down into the distant belt of pine forest and then finally to the bowl of Gulmarg. Beyond and below the valley glowed with a green, aquatic light. I could imagine how, eons ago, it was a gigantic lake. Beyond it to the east arose a wall of mountains with the peak of Haramukh and the Nun-Kun massif enjoying pride of place. To the south, the ridges of Apharwat stretched away in a series of snowfields. To the north glinted the giant Rupal face of Nanga Parbat. It was now time to descend to Kongdori for a day of aching thighs, twisted knees and a sore bum. After all, I had to earn my gushtaba.
What To Do
In winter, there’s really only one thing you can do, and that is ski. Both the stages of the Gulmarg gondola are now operational, so you can take it all the way up to Affarwat station for some great views. Although skiing rates vary, you could get in touch with my excellent instructor Tanveer Ahmed (7298739464, firstname.lastname@example.org, ₹500/ day). I hired a pair of Curving Skis (including boots) from Billa Majeed Bakshi’s ski shop (95962511399, 9596404291 email@example.com) for ₹400–500 per day. You could also hire Powder Skis for ₹800–1,500 per day. Billa is also the director and lead guide of Kashmir Heliski (from ₹90,000 per person for a day of heliskiing).
Where to Stay & Eat
The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa (Tel: 01954-254666, Cell: 09906603272; Tariff: ₹21,275–1,50,000) is a massive property. The Vintage Gulmarg (Cell: 9796100444, 09796100700; Tariff: ₹14,000–24,000) too is a luxury hotel with spectacular views of the Apharwat range and the golf course. A number of hotels are clustered around the gondola base, including the Grand Mumtaz Resort (Tel: 254564, Cell: 09818468786; Tariff: ₹10,500–16,000). JKTDC Gulmarg (Tel: 254507, 254424; Cell: 09797052424, 07006656620, 09797809457; Tariff: ₹3,000–30,000) is a comfortable option. It is the best to eat at the restaurants in the hotels you’re staying in.
Air Nearest airport: Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar (62km/ 2hrs), which has flights connecting New Delhi, Mumbai and Leh. Taxi (Tel: 0194-2303113) to Gulmarg costs ₹2,000–2,500 for return
Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawi (349km/ 11hrs). Taxi to Srinagar costs ₹4,500–5,500
Road Take NH1A. Taxis near TRC in Srinagar charge ₹2,000 to Gulmarg Bus JKSRTC deluxe bus from Jammu to Srinagar is ₹500–600 per head