Snowflakes in paradise
Each season showcases a different facet of the valley, making Kashmir a year-round destination
The land snoozed under a blanket of snow and the pine trees shrugged off their load of white flakes with a sigh. Snow banks lined the road like piles of whipped cream, and icicles, resembling the fingers of a vampire, hung from green-roofed homes.
We were driving to Gulmarg in India's northernmost, newly minted Union Territory of Jammu and Kashmir. We had expected to see some military presence to quell volatile reactions to the constitutional change in the status of the erstwhile state of Jammu and Kashmir. Would hawk-eyed army personnel barricaded behind secure kiosks punctuate snowy vistas? Barring a few stray ones, standing behind their sandbags at Srinagar Airport (which incidentally receives 42 flights a day), and on the outskirts of Srinagar, it did not look like a place under siege.
Though tourism had slumped since the new constitutional arrangement was put in place, it was evident that domestic tourists were returning like birds of paradise. The beauteous valley of Kashmir, the Helen of Troy of destinations over which wars have been fought by neighbours India and Pakistan, remains embedded in the collective conscious of Indians as a mysterious Ice Maiden, desirable but oft times unattainable.
Our car swung past the outskirts of Srinagar, where men in warm pherans (long wool cloaks), and women in winter wear shopped for groceries in shops bulging with merchandise. The icy road to Gulmarg from Srinagar (53km) arrowed ahead, flanked by forests of pine even as we listened to old Hindi film songs, apt in a destination which was once the most desired locale of the Bollywood dream factory. When we reached Gulmarg, it turned out to be a bubble of tranquillity, a destination that seemed to exist on another planet.
On our first morning, we woke up to blue skies and candyfloss clouds that had settled on jagged peaks. The snow on the undulating slopes and in the bowl-like valley of Gulmarg (8,825ft above sea level) shone with a wind-buffed brilliance. Evergreen pines and robust deodars encircled the valley like warriors on an eternal vigil. Black ravens streaked across the skies, cawing raucously, in stark contrast to the white snow-scape over which they skimmed.
At the centrally heated 85-room Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, where Alpine style meets Kashmiri décor, we felt warm and toasty. The resort glowed with Kashmiri carpets, 20kg copper samovars in strategic niches, papier-mâchés screens, embroidered silk drapes and other artefacts, which showcased the artistry of the local people. The pine-clad and slate-roof resort spreads luxuriantly across seven acres of a coniferous forest with a choice of four scenic dining outlets and the Khyber Spa by L'Occitane where pine forest views and body-pampering therapies come together in a delicious melange.
A secret desire to learn how to ski prompted us to visit the pine wood, centrally heated Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering nearby. There, students in neon gear were being trained in the finer nuances of skiing. Sandy Rigzin, a guest ski instructor, was putting some of his students through the paces. Six courses up to March 2020 were sold out, he told us. Indeed, there are a total of three skiing schools in Gulmarg but we were clearly not within the requisite age limit (7 years to 45)!
We then headed for the gondola, one of the highest and longest in Asia, which swayed up to Kongdoori mountain (first stage), swinging over dark green forests of pine and sheer mountain slopes, powdered with soft unmarked snow. A short walk away from the Kongdoori station, we hurled snowballs at each other, tumbling and falling into the feather-soft mounds which we gathered in our gloved hands and blew away with our chilled vapour breaths. Past mounds of feather-light snow banks was a string of open-air food stalls. In a snowy little hollow, an enterprising man, whose face was hardly visible from between several mufflers, hawked sweet corn and American corn in different flavours! Indian enterprise and optimism were alive and kicking in that panoramic wonderland - the messaging was clear: "Tourists are coming."
Soon, we were off on a sledge, pulled by a rope held by its owner, leaving a snowy wake behind us. On a powdery slope, the man accelerated even as we let out whoops of delight tinged with fear, marvelling at the sight of pine trees whipping past and soft snow flying around like divine confetti. Others in our group, took off in snow mobiles while some tried their hand at snowboarding.
On a previous visit, we had embarked on the second stage of our journey in the gondola to the top of Affarwat mountain from where one can see the Line of Control and frozen Alpather Lake. (This time around, the gondola had a few technical glitches and we could not go up to the second level.) Tourists from South East Asia and Indian tourists were playing in the snow, jumping around and posing for photographs. On the other side, seasoned skiers from Europe were getting ready to take off for Tangmarg, along a mountainous forested route spiked with a hint of danger. After all, who could resist the thrill of skiing or even just vacationing in the highest ski resort in the world, dwarfed by the craggy Himalayan Affarwat peaks?
On our last evening, we sipped kahwa, local tea fragrant with saffron and cinnamon and garnished with almond slivers, in the Khyber's glass-walled Chaikash, a tea lounge with an outdoor terrace. The night sky glimmered with a gazillion stars and the moon poured its silver beams on the eternal mountains that seem to shine with an inner light. An aura of peace and mystique seemed to envelop Gulmarg like a benediction.
Kashmir is a year-round destination with each season showcasing a different facet of the valley. Srinagar is the nearest airport and well connected with flights from the rest of the country.
The nearest railhead is Katra though Jammu, which is a more convenient option for travel by rail and road. In Gulmarg, the spiffy Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa is the top of the heap while there are other modest hotels like the old-world Highlands Park. The ski season extends from mid-December to March.
For more information, visit: www.jktourism.jk.gov.in and www.khyberhotels.com.