The Winter Games Federation of India announced in mid-March that it was bidding to hold a professional-level international skiing competition in Gulmarg next winter. A recent visit found the Valley’s favorite winter destination quite unprepared for such a turn in the spotlight…
Winter’s white bounty begins to bless Kashmir's pristine ski resort town as I arrive in late February, muffling the shouts of touts offering rides and the laughter of tourists playing in the distance. Apart from the hubbub surrounding my Sumo the small central square and stubby main street lie still. Across the broad central meadow a group of female Kashmir University students on maiden voyages down bunny slopes tack tentatively left then right. An hour later the icy flakes, falling harder now, prick my face as a tourism official drives me to my VIP accommodations via snowmobile.
My hut is pleasantly furnished, with a central bukhari, matching upholstered furniture and warm, colorful rugs in the main room, which is dominated by a picture window. The view is half-blocked by snow when I arrive but the nearby satellite television offers diversion. The bedroom has a bukhari of its own, a smaller, kerosene burning edition, and a domestic assistant by the name of Ali Mohammad has also been provided. During the guided tour he stops and smiles, pointing at the windows of the slope-facing back rooms. “For safety!” he shouts; they are boarded up with two-by-fours in case of avalanche.
As I nuzzle next to my wood-burning bukhari and dig into a good book that evening the snow descends with greater fury. Fat flakes are whipping by the window in sheets when Omar Hajam, a young local ski instructor, pops in to make sure I’m getting settled alright. We discuss the weather and the following day’s skiing and he informs me that I can rent skis from the government-owned ski shop, which his father manages. Then I realize I’m without adequate ski clothes and ask if any are available at the shop.
“Yes, we have,” he responds quickly. “We will get in the morning.”
The next morning Gulmarg looks as if a sweet tooth had employed a rather free hand with the icing on his gingerbread world. Great dollops of whipped-creamy foam grace the tops of flat-roofed shacks and huts. The broad branches of tall fir trees sag with puffy lobster tails of white. A sudden misstep in the wrong place and one could sink chest deep. And still the snow falls. Just outside my picture window it’s piled six feet high, with only the tops of a dozen or so fir trees visible. As I dig into an omelet an ominous sliding noise swallows the room; a thick slab of snow has broken loose overhead and as it slides down the inclined tin roof the scraping swells like an incoming mortar shell. It drops outside my window in innocuous cow dung thuds.
Omar appears and we stroll over to the ski shop. The walls are lined with endless shelves of boots and the room is filled with rows of skis awaiting command like soldiers in formation. But there are no clothes.
“Oh,” says Omar. “Maybe you can get them at the Alpine Ski Shop.”
After a kilometre trudge through thigh-deep snow, I do just that. And walking down the main road that afternoon I recall hearing something about a Gulmarg skating rink. I ask Omar.
“Oh, yes, we have,” he shoots back excitedly. “A very nice, big one, it is over by the gondola.”
It is also, I discovered later, buried under about ten feet of snow.
Widely praised as the best skiing in the Himalayas, Gulmarg appears blissfully unaware. At least twenty inches have fallen since my arrival and we may be looking at twenty more. The flakes are big and fat and land with an audible “tshk,” and if Gulmarg had any infrastructure, any legitimate economic or political leadership, the place would be booming. Instead this small Himalayn ski town is under- or mis-developed in every imaginable way.
To begin with, the two ski rental shops are separated by bunny hills. Even worse, both are over a kilometre from the modern, two-stage gondola, touted at the mountain’s base as “the world’s highest” and the only access to the respectable slopes. Thus any visiting skier without the brawn and foresight to lug a full complement of equipment to this remote resort must trudge up, over and back, dodging streams of unpredictable trainee skiers all the while. By the time he gets outfitted and back to the gondola sitting down to a hot chai in the subterranean restaurant has a stronger pull than heading up-slope for a chilly whoosh through heavy powder. Maybe that’s why on this day no skiers wait to clamber aboard the gondola pods as they swing around and begin their ascent.
In all of Gulmarg there are no swish restaurants or convivial bars, open air hot tubs or skating rinks, chic boutiques or massage parlors, cafes with electric outdoor heaters. Perhaps I shouldn’t expect such refined delights in the northern-most, conflict-ridden state of a developing South Asian country. But Gulmarg also lacks the more mundane: indoor heating, snowmaking and snow-removal machines, and rental shops with equipment from this century. Further, the only regularly available transportation around town is the Kashmiri version of Calcutta’s hand-pulled rickshaw: a cracked wooden sled pulled along by a youngster yanking a rope. In many ways, Gulmarg has yet to enter the 20th century.
Gulmarg’s sole high-tech convenience, in fact, broke down several weeks prior to my visit. Finding themselves without a gondola-repair team, the Tourism Department had to fly in parts and engineers from France. In all, the resort’s primary lift was out of commission for over three mid-winter weeks, which translated into a loss of reputation and lakhs of rupees for the town.
“We are developing infrastructure in Gulmarg,” admits Abdur Rashid, officer of the Gulmarg Tourism Development Corporation. He listed the addition of two more snow grooming machines and two new rope lifts for the coming ski season. “We hope by next year to be able to accommodate 5,000 skiers per day.”
In March the Tourism Department announced plans for a new chairlift and Rashid says that public and private developers are working to develop a connecting valley, where land will soon be auctioned and hotels built. He adds that part of the problem has been the sudden increase in tourists.
“Visitors are up more than 40 percent over last year,” Rashid said. “We’ve definitely had a good season; I think it is due to early snowfall and a better situation in the state overall.”
Indeed, with violence down and visitors on the increase, Gulmarg is ripe for development. For now, however, this fertile fantasyland lies mostly fallow, which often provides altogether different and unintended entertainments.
A late morning ride on the gondola can be quite pleasant. Moving silently through the falling snow 100 metres above the ground, white-blanketed Mt. Apharwat looks serene and peaceful, and the occasional skier slashing through the fir trees is inviting, even inspiring. The slow, leisurely pace gives a passenger time to think, to gather himself before taking the plunge.
I’ve skied a few dozen times in my life, including visits to Colorado and Whistler, British Columbia, but I’m not an expert skier by any means. I don’t own my own equipment. I have never skied back-country bowls or a double black diamond. I wouldn’t know virgin powder if you sprayed it in my face, and, until this week, I hadn’t hit the slopes in over three years.
Scanning the ground below as my pod reached its mid-mountain destination – a wreath of fog and the previous night’s snowfall rendered the summit off-limits – I make a frightening discovery: no groomed runs. Thus the past few days’ 2-3 feet of snow wait like quicksand in near-freezing temperatures. Nor are there any trail-markers or named runs, no blue squares or other signage, no employees with radio transmitters offering assistance. Which direction to go, I wonder. Is there a wrong way?
I learn later that no trail map of Mt. Apharwat’s skiable terrain exists – such a valuable commodity has never been produced. The place is also sans boundary fencing, leaving open the possibility of coming face to face with armed soldiers keeping vigil along the nearby Line of Control. It was as if the management were saying: “We got you up here, good luck getting down.”
I follow a couple confident-looking foreigners around a small shed and up to a summit point overlooking a dip and then a ridge. Shortly after they slide down and vanish I put on my skis, take a breath, and push off. Two seconds and twenty feet later I’m buried up to my belly button in thick wet whiteness. I laugh. Then I yank my legs out and lumber back up to my original take-off point.
OK, I think to myself, I’ve got a few options here: slink back to the gondola and ride down with tail between legs; attack the mountain and make glacially slow progress, sinking or falling every few metres and darn near wearying myself to death; or attack the mountain relatively successfully but unknowingly swerve off track, fall into eye-high snow and disappear from the face of the earth.
Walking towards the gondola with skis in hand I hit upon a fourth option: find a couple guides and accept their offer of assistance.
It’s slow going at first – I sink hip deep at nearly every turn, flip onto my face at one of the steeper sections, and, because of the shooting pain in my legs, fall over on purpose a few times – yet we finally reach terra firma. Unused thigh and calf muscles throb angrily, but my kindly guides tell me I’ve done well and that part of the problem is my skis, which are thin and not made for this deep, heavy snow. We do it again, a bit more quickly and enjoyable this time. And then I climb on that rickety gondola a third time and head down on my own, just to prove to that mountain, if any question remained, precisely who was boss.
Body groaning, I return to my hut and flop onto the couch. I ask Ali Mo for some hot water. He goes into the kitchen then reappears five minutes later.
“Glass of water?” he asks, face screwed up with uncertainty.
“No, no, a pot. Of hot water,” I explain for the third time. “Like tea, but no tea.”
“Ok, ok, ok,” he intones, toddling away.
Minutes later the phone rings. It’s Miraj, the ski patroller who helped me communicate with Ali Mo the first night.
“Mr. David, Hello!” he begins. “What is it you are wanting?”
“Hi, Miraj,” I reply. “Um…nothing. I think I’m alright over here. Ali is making me something to drink.”
“No, no, Ali is here in the room with me.”
“Oh.” News to me.
“So what is it you wanted?” he asks again.
“Well, I would love some herbal tea – tea without caffeine – but I figured you didn’t have any of that so…”
“Yes, we have,” he interrupts, as if I’d asked whether Gulmarg had snow.
“Really?” I respond, pleasantly surprised. “You have herbal tea?”
“Of course, we have everything you need,” he explains.
“What kind? Chamomile, ginger…?” I query, warming up to the idea.
“Don’t worry, Ali will come over and make it for you,” he reassures me before hanging up.
And twenty minutes later with a bright smile on his face Ali Mo serves up a pot of regular Lipton tea made without milk, which he warmed and poured into a separate container.
…With only eight months until the curtain is raised on another winter season, Gulmarg needs to get its act together, and fast.