Ski Kashmir 2011 Blog
Gulmarg, Kashmir, India is JUST 50 MILES FROM PAKISTAN BORDER, 200 miles by road. We’re just 20 miles from the disputed Azad Kashmir region, which borders Jammu and Kashmir and Pakistan. SEE MAP CLICK HERE
Kashmir 2011 Blog
Day 1 – Tues, 25th January 2011 – Exciting Anticipation
We’re all here, all twelve of us, waiting for our 2200hrs flight from Heathrow to Delhi with Virgin Atlantic. It’s all very exciting.
It all kicked off a couple of years ago with our mountain guide Dave Cumming and myself discussing where we should ski next. Kashmir kept coming back into the conversation. Why Kashmir? Mystic, intrepid, Himalayas and of course deep, light, powder snow.
Gulmarg – the highest cable car in the world. Top station 3,950 metres. Delhi – 8th largest city in the world. Taj Mahal – the most beautiful building in the world. Combine this with what is reputed to be some of the lightest powder in the world and it’s easy to understand why this Snoworks Skiing Adventure sold out within 1 day of being advertised!
Will it live up to expectations? Like any adventure, it’s up to each individual to help make it into an unforgetable adventure. Meeting new people, discovering new culture, seeing new places, making new friends and as always skiing unbelievable places. And as we say at Snoworks… ‘work to live, live to ski!’
Day 2 – Weds 26th Jan – Delhi to Agra
My first time to India and for many others on this first ever Snoworks Adventure to Kashmir. And though we’re still far from the mountains, awe has taken grip already in the form of wide eyes, gaping jaws and mass silent reverence. They say one visit to India ‘changes your life forever’. Now I know why.
Nothing prepares you for your arrival in Delhi…or New Delhi as it’s known today. Despite visiting Japan and South America, never in my life have I seen so many people, cars, buses, trucks… and rickshaws on the move, each vehicle overloaded with fathers and mothers, children, dogs, goats and possessions. My jaw dropped lower when I spotted (my first…there were more) a family of 5 hanging, oddly comfortably, onto one 125cc scooter. Traffic everywhere, swerving, constantly honking horns with roads and sidewalks awash with human activity. This was organised chaos, Indian style. Wonderful. Or maybe, just full.
We’re heading south towards Agra, home of the magical Taj Mahal. First we’re doing the tourist trail before we start the journey back north west and into the Himalayas. This part of the journey was a mesmerising 5 hour visual feast through endlessly varied scenery ranging from miles of barren shrub land, populated by peasants working on the sugar cane fields, interspersed by monkeys…and sacred cows. Lots of them.
We finally arrived to the tranquility and luxury of our hotel in Agra; but at first it just didn’t seemed right having been witness to the poor environment beyond these doors. Rich and poor existing side by side in stark contrast is an uncomfortable feeling here. Part of me wanted to be out there amongst the chaos, where the real culture was and not in a western hotel sanitised from reality.
Day 3 – Visit to Taj Mahal, Thursday 27th Jan
We awake early to more beautiful weather. The other good news is there is more snow coming this weekend to Gulmarg, but skiing seems a long way from our minds. The tranquility of the hotel bedroom is interrupted upon opening the windows to hear the reassuring hustle and bustle, a reminder that life in India never stops.
We board our coach and head off to what is the most recognisable and beautiful building in the world, the Taj Mahal. Like being in search of powder snow, expectations were high, and I was prepared to be underwhelmed. Echoes of friends’ voices reminded me how incredible their own experiences had been seeing the Taj, so there was a great deal to live up to… and despite all the hype, the Taj Mahal left us speechless…
As we walked towards the impressive red stone castle entrance, it became suddenly quiet. The streets nearby seemed muffled. Wow! This was something else. Whilst I try to come to terms with the contrasts of India I can only stand in amazement at the beauty of this immense structure. In 1631, emperor Shah Jahan was grief-stricken when his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal, died during the birth of their 14th child. The Shah had the Taj Mahal built in her memory in 1632, one year later after her death. Built in white marble and encrusted in precious stones, this is one helluva shrine and testament to love! (Sadly, at the end of the Raj, British soldiers pillaged the real gem stones from the building, so today these are replaced with replicas…!) The silence said everything. People wondering around in awe, on sacred ground.
More sightseeing and we visited the equally impressive, Agra Fort. For this tour, we were met by our local Indian guide, 76 years old and still going strong with all the enthusiasm of a teenager, he shared his knowledge of the fort which has as much history and romance as the Taj. His passion for the subject made it feel like he lived this time himself! A history that spans two generations of the Mughal emperors.
Back on the road to Dehli. Most 4 hour drives would involve plugging in the iPod and reading a book. Not in India. Too much to see, to take in. Too western.
Tomorrow we fly Delhi to Srinagar and then up into the Himalayas and the ski resort of Gulmarg… back into an environment closer to my comfort zone. But then this skiing adventure is to Kashmir, one of the most politically volatile countries in the world. So you never know…!
Day 4 – Arrival at Gulmarg, Kashmir, Friday 28th Jan
Another beautiful sunny day in Delhi and our transfer to the airport for our flight to Srinagar in Kashmir awaits. It still seems amazing to think that we will be skiing tomorrow. Our flight is just 50 minutes long with superb service on board, and our first stunning glimpse of the Himalayas. Landing in Srinagar just after lunch time we start our ascent even here as the airport itself is at 1600 metres. Following the customary form filling we board our 4 x 4 jeeps for our 90 minute transfer up to Gulmarg.
This is another journey not to be missed with so much diversity. Very grand , colourful buildings along the roadside which wouldn’t be out of place in the richest European cities, followed by busy hustling villages full of local life, however much more peaceful compared to life on the Delhi streets. It is a life far removed from being at home in the UK.
We stop for drinks and snacks just before the road starts to snake up the mountain. Kashmiri coffee and tea (a very sweet and strong brew not to everyone’s taste!), for the first time the air is colder and our thoughts are taken up with the excitement of skiing in the Himalayas.
On arrival at our hotel we have everything done for us. Whilst the hotel staff carry our luggage to our rooms we take the time to gaze at the mountains on this clear bright day – we are surrounded by snow and the area is vast and remote. It’s fantastic not to be surrounded by hotels and people and we get a true feeling of being ‘away from it all’. We are next to a poma and t-bar lift and this makes up the resort’s nursery slope! Even though there has been no fresh snowfall and the temperature is cold, the snow on the ground is light and fluffy, no hard crust here – it should be fabulous at the top of the mountain.
We are shown into the dining room for Kashmiri tea (a clear drink very similar to jasmine tea with almonds – very good) and local cakes. We are introduced to the staff and the owner of the hotel – Aquil. It was his great great grandfather who built the hotel, which was at the time the first hotel in Gulmarg. Aquil himself is full of enthusiasm and life, eager to please and nothing is too much trouble. This is the one thing that is so impressive about staying here – all the staff are so helpful and friendly and will do anything for us. It is wonderful to be staying in a hotel with such character and to be so warmly welcomed. Not everything works all the time at such altitude (we are now over 2600 metres) but any problems are quickly sorted out and I find it amazing how this is possible at such a high and remote area.
We settle into our rooms – each one has a sitting room with a traditional bhukhari (a wood burning stove as we know it) which belts out some fierce heat. These are maintained by the staff and we don’t have to lift a finger. There is a massive separate bedroom and en-suite bathroom. Then down for dinner in an amazing dining room/bar area – animal skins on the walls and what Aquil tells us is the largest bhukhari in the Himalayas – I’ve never seen anything like it! Snow consistently falls from the roof due to its heat and the crashing sound was a little alarming when it first happened.
Dinner was a feast! Local food: curry, lentils, salad, roti, different types of rice, potato, cauliflower, paneer (the local cheese), spinach. Not all dishes are hot and spicy, but all are definitely delicious! We are able to have wine and beer and this is unusual as most hotels have no alcohol, I’m not sure whether this is due to government restrictions or the majority of the population being Muslim.
And so off to bed with massive excitement in the air for our first taste of skiing in this wonderful mountain range – totally untouched by Snoworks skis!
Day 5&6 – Skiing Gulmarg Sat 29th & Sun 30th Jan
One lift, no pistes, endless powder. This is why we here. The one lift in Gulmarg (other then a few nursery tows) is a two stage telecabine. Stage one is a gentle climb with the slopes tree-lined. Stage two goes steep and takes you to an altitude of 3,950metres. In Gulmarg you buy the ski passes each time you ride. 250Rupees per ride. That’s the equivalent of £3. How many runs a day? At the moment we are averaging three. Three runs in most ski resorts would be about an hour’s skiing but here in Gulmarg it’s a day!
The skiing here is huge. There’s one patrolled area from the top. No pistes, no markings just a huge off-piste bowl. Head outside the patrolled area and you’re on your own. Bowl after bowl after bowl of off-piste. These first two days we’ve been skiing close to home. Getting the group acclimatized and getting the ski legs. First run, powder, second run powder, third run powder. This is not the place to come if you’re into piste skiing and fancy restaurants. But if you want skiing taken back to it’s bare routes then come. Piste machines? Not a single one!
Another day of contrasts. Skiers with fat skis, ABS backpacks and helmets heading for the powder. On the streets local Kasmiri’s interspersed with armed army personnel. Tension remains relatively high in the area as Kashmir borders the three countries of China, Pakistan and India. We are in Indian-patrolled Kashmir so Indian army presence is high. Everyone’s very friendly and keen to make all the visitors as welcome as possible. Tourism is the only source of income here in Gulmarg so it’s vital that all visitors are treated extra special.
Tomorrow’s forecast: powder and clear skies.
Day 7 – Skiing Gulmarg Mon 31st Jan
We’re woken with the sound of our Bukhari being lit to warm the room followed by morning tea. A bukhari is a wood burning fire and is the traditional method of heating in these areas. Every room is equipped with your own personal bukhari. Lit at 7 in the morning before we get up and just before we get back from skiing, the whole hotel is heated by bukharis. Kashmiri hotel workers constantly dart in and out of our rooms making sure they are all well stocked with wood.
Today looked like being an epic day. We rode the two stage gondola to the top and split into two groups. Dave Cumming, the Snoworks mountain guide, quickly shot off the top station and into a bowl that he had enjoyed first tracks in yesterday. I quickly followed with my group and enjoyed some of the lightest powder we’ve had this year.
For our second run we had decided to skin to the top of Mount Apharwat. A couple of hundred metres vertical above the top station. From here there are numerous bowls that open up. 1 hour and we were at the top. A hard climb but as always those that are willing to work for the powder will be rewarded the most.
Year by year Gulmarg has been attracting the international scene. We meet skiers from Russia, USA, Australia and Britain. Everyone is incredibly friendly as we all have one thing in common, the search for powder. One guy turns to me as he’s about to get into the gondola, “Hey were you in Niseko last year?” Yep I was there. We’re all on the powder circuit and Niseko in northern Japan and Gulmarg are amongst the top destinations. Here in Gulmarg it still seems empty. As everyone waits for the gondola to open there are a maximum of 50 skiers and boarders waiting for the first lift.
As our hotelier Aquil said when he welcomed us, “heaven can wait, you’re now in Gulmarg”.
Day 8 & 9 – Tuesday 1st & Wednesday 2 Feb, Skiing in Gulmarg
Another 2 days of clear weather. Although it hasn’t snowed recently we are still being rewarded with fantastic snow conditions. Tuesday and Dave Cumming took his group up to the top of Mount Apharwat and across towards another peek called Sharks Fin. From there the group skied west through a long field of unskied snow. Another skin followed onto the west face of Mount Apharwat with a brief lunch stop and a magnificent view across to the line of control between India-controlled Kashmir and Pakistan-controlled Kashmir. They were close enough to see the barbed wire fences stretching across the snow-capped mountains between army posts.
Another day of contrasts. It seems extraordinary that here we are with ABS backpacks, fat skis and smiles on our faces as we enjoy untracked snow whilst young soldiers wait day after day, week after week, month after month in army bases high in these mountains.
The group then headed back over the North shoulder of Apharwat down an unnamed gully to the north of Snow Leopard Face. The are endless off-piste routes back down to Gulmarg all with unique names some Kashmiri, some western such as Hapat Khued and Shaggy’s Face. It’s another reminder that the development of this resort is a partnership between Kashmir, eager to develop tourism, and western aid in the form of ski patrol and avalanche expertise.
The other group skied local off-piste routes getting the best out of the area working on a combination of off-piste skills and sourcing slopes with some great snow conditions.
In the evening we all headed off for an off-piste safety lecture provided by the local piste patrol. Gulmarg has seen the benefits of bringing tourism to the area but this has to be balanced with safety. To the unprepared these mountains are dangerous but with the right expertise you can have the best skiing ever.
The ski patrol is headed by an American who is working hard training up local skiers from Gulmarg. Eventually the plan is that the local ski patrol will be well trained and able to operate their own piste patrol. However this still seems a long way off. It takes years to establish a well run operation with the expertise required in an environment such as here in Gulmarg.
Another example of how the west is being used is the introduction this year of Gulmarg Heliski. This is an operation from New Zealand. Three years in the making and finally after much negotiation and red tape they got the go ahead to run the operation. Although a private company this has brought a much needed service to Gulmarg in the way of backcountry rescue.
Day 10 – Thursday 3 Feb
We’re woken around 6.30am to the sound of the ‘call to prayer’ echoing across the village. At 7.30 our personal porters Monzur, Rehman and Ramese, light the bukharis in all our rooms and bring us all tea in bed!
Cloud overhead so we decide it’s a good day to take an off-piste route to Drung. All week the local guides that gather at the bottom of the telecabine have been working hard to sell their services. Earlier I had employed the services of a local guide for one of our group members and today I had also promised a local guide called Radik that we would use his services to guide us to the village of Drung. Snoworks’ philosophy is to use local services wherever and whenever we can to plough back some income into the local community. So this was the perfect day for Radik to show us the route to Drung.
Dave Cumming and myself agreed it would be great to have both groups skiing together. The route started from the top and followed the skyline across to the south past a small army base. From here there are numerous routes that you can take into the valley towards Drung, It’s a fantastic ski, probably getting on for 15 km downhill off-piste. After a short walk out at the bottom with the skis strapped to our backpacks followed by a further ski and we arrive in Drung with taxis waiting.
The taxis took us along a dirt road through the countryside to a restaurant in Talmarg. Another great opportunity to get further insight into local communities.
Our last evening in Gulmarg. We arranged to meet all off Nedous’ staff after dinner for a special farewell. One thing you can be guaranteed in Gulmarg is that every member of staff will work exceptionally hard to make sure your stay is a memorable one. Farewell speeches thanking all the staff followed by a speech from Omar, Aqil’s father thanking us and saying how many of his staff had worked here through generation after generation. The fact we were able to personally thank each member of staff by name particular touched their hearts.
Day 11 – Friday 4 Feb
New snow overnight and it’s still snowing as we head to the lift station. Our last morning skiing in Kashmir. Strong winds and the top section of the gondola closed for the day, so a day skiing through the trees on the lower section. This is the first day we had not been able to get to the top. We skied until mid afternoon through the trees on the lower section, packed and headed by taxis to Lake Dal, Shrinigar to stay on one of the famous houseboats for the night.
No trip to Kashmir is complete without a stay on one of these boats and we had booked a couple of the very best. The houseboats were originally built by the British to circumnavigate rules about building new properties in Kashmir during the British Raj. After the Raj ended the Kashmiris continued the tradition of the houseboats and it is now a thriving tourist industry.
As soon as we boarded our small boat to take us out to the houseboats we knew we were in for an experience. I had been warned that we would suddenly be inundated with salesmen in other boats coming alongside selling all sorts of local goods – jewellery, leather goods, scarfs, hats, all sorts of souvenirs. We arrived at our houseboat, unpacked and relaxed with a drink savouring the experience.
Outside the locals had already begun to gather to sell their wares. Without further ado I invited them in and away we went spending our remaining rupees and savouring the experience. Like many of these places barter is the only way to fix a price. It’s a fine line between paying the price you feel is right but not bartering too low – this is their livelihood and their only income.
In the morning a few of us took a boat tour around the houseboats and floating shops. This is like a city on water, an incredible experience and one that you must do if visiting this part of the world. We finish our tour, load up and head to Shrinigar airport for the flight back to Delhi.
Coming into Kashmir was relatively easy, going out was a different story. There must have been at least 5 checkpoints. Security was high. Eventually we boarded the plane, took the short flight back to Delhi, transferred to the hotel and finished with a fantastic last meal followed by the customary speeches as per all Snoworks Adventures.
For me this was an experience to remember for a long, long time. Norman’s testimonial summed up my feelings perfectly.
“From the stunning grandeur of the Himalayas to the quirkiness of Nedous Hotel and wonderful staff. It really was a completely different and thoroughly enjoyable experience. Skiing in a Muslim country and virtual war zone . This really was an adventure.”
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