Sunday, July 26, 2009

Kashmir Part-III : Gulmarg

Have you seen the 'Kashmir in Winter' ad of JK Tourism? It shows Gulmarg at its best. A la European landscape completely covered in snow with people skiing around is very enticing. Gulmarg is the center of winter sport activities and is specially famous as India's premier ski resort. Set up by British in 1927 as a ski resort, Gulmarg has hosted two National Winter Games. Those were scenes of winter and we were going there in spring. We thought that we would get an altogether different view of Gulmarg. But we were proved wrong. The weather took a turn and proved to be lucky for us. We were welcomed by a white Gulmarg covered in several feet of snow. Then it had snowed for full two days. What more you could have ask for.

We left a bright and sunny Srinagar post lunch after a half day sightseeing. It was a struggle to get out of the city. We went past the famous (and dreaded) Lal Chowk and other sensitive areas of the city. Once we got out of the narrow roads of Srinagar cramped with haphazard traffic, the snow clad hills of Gulmarg appeared in the horizon. It was about 50 km / 2 hrs journey to Gulmarg. Soon after we left Tangmarg, which is at the foothill of Gulmarg, a light drizzle had started. Halfway through our ascend, patches of snows started appearing by the road to our delight. This encouraging signs meant more snows up the hill. We were not disappointed when we had reached Gulmarg. The entire landscape was like a white sheet from which houses were poking their heads here and there. The snow along the road was indicator of thickness of the sheet which was several feet. All activities of Gulmarg are centered around the parking lot. All hotels, except the JKTDC huts, and eateriers are located on this stretch of about half a kilometer.

We had two nights bookings at the JKTDC hut. After reaching the central parking lot, we were kind of lost there for direction. By the time we had reached there it was late afternoon and the place was wearing a deserted look. Most tourists visit Gulmarg as day excursion from Srinagar. Day Tourist had left by then. Though there was a tourist office, even that office was closed, may be because it was a Sunday. After enquiring at the shops, finally someone was able to tell us that we need to go to the JKTDC Club house located at the golf club. The huts were some 1 km off this hustle bustle and are located near the gondola point. The club house was on the opposite side of this area. One has to pay an extra Rs.50/- for taking vehicles into that area. Only vehicles of tourist with confirmed night halt are allowed. Finding the club house was not that difficult. Though it was located somewhere in the white sheet of snow in front of us, it was located along the only motorable road passing through it. The road is a circular road running around the field where winter sports activities takes place. On arriving at the club, we understood that the white sheet in front of us is actually a golf course. This gets converted into a winter sport ground in winter.

Anyway, the guys at the club house were aware of our booking which was good. I was worried that if our booking had not reached this remote corner of India, we may have to face a situation of frantic calling of xyz in search for accommodation. The club provided the services of an attendant to accompany us to the hut which supposed to be another two kilometer further along the radial road. The weather had cleared by this time and a bright sunshine was shooting through cloud. Locals uses a cliché ‘Mumbai ka fashion aur Gulmarg ka mausam, kabhi bhi badal sakta’, i.e, Fashion in Mumbai and weather in Gulmarg can change any time. This labile psyche of weather was clearly visible. It was drizzling when we had reached Gulmarg, but now the sun was shining.

We were thrilled when we had reached the foothill of our hut. The hut was some way up on the mountain face and the entire area was covered in snow. There was no road, only footsteps on the snow to be followed. Fortunately we did not have to carry our stuff up as another attendant from the hut helped the one accompanied us from the club to take our luggage up the hill. The hut was almost covered in snow with only few feet of roof visible. This is what we had dreamt of. When you are in a beach, the ideal place for stay is a beach cottage located right on the beach (which I experienced at Lakshadweep). Then I had spent a night in the Jaisalmer desert resort where wind kept lashing our faces all the night. Now we were getting a chance to spend a night on a secluded cottage on a snowy hill among pine trees, half submerged in snow. I would have definitely not liked to spend the night here on upper floors of a multistory hotel.

Let me tell you few more details about the JKTDC cottages. There are about 9 cottages, each located separately on the face of the hill looking down at the golf course. We had booked a double room cottage. This wooden hut had two bedrooms with attached bath, a kitchen and one hall with sofas, a dining table and a shingri (fire place) at the center of the house to keep you warm. Though devoid of luxury, this probably is the best place to stay in Gulmarg. The double bedroom hut is normally priced @ Rs.2500/- per night which can be shared by two families like we did. Being a shoulder season we got the hut @1800/- per night. The attendant, Bashirbhai, lived in a separate cottage nearby. He would arrange everything for you – of course at a price higher than normal. You would happily pay that premium rather than venturing out in the snow and shivering cold. Else you can walk down about a kilometer to the parking place where there are several eateries. The rooms were well insulated. Electricity was there almost round the clock. But voltage was low and so we had to keep the room heater and geyser on all the time. If you switch off the geyser, the watch gets chilled in no time. Everything outside was under snow and the water flowing to the hut had come travelling through the snow.
On the first night we had our dinner outside at the Bakshi restaurant which was decent enough. The weather was clear enough with moonlight lighting up the snow covered landscape beautifully. We had most meals outside except one when weather was too bad too venture out.

The roar of thunder woke us up next morning. When we looked out through the window, it was snowing outside. We all jumped out of the bed to enjoy the snowfall thinking it may stop anytime. We had seen a brief snowfall once at Shela Pass on the way to Tawang. But nothing likes this. It was as if someone was showering cotton likes flakes on the landscape. Holding those snowflakes coming down the sky was an experience cannot be explained in words. It can only be felt. When we had understood that the snowfall is going to continue for sometime, we got ready for day’s activity. Bashirbhai had arranged for our snow dresses and boots. If you get out without those water proof snow dresses, you would end up getting wet.

We were the first tourists to be out on the winter sports ground for that day. The snowfall had stopped by now and the weather cleared. Sledge pullers were after us like leeches right from the moment we got out of our rooms. You feel pity for those poor fellows, but we wanted to do skiing only. They would tell you to go for 8 point or so sightseeing on the field and start with a price of about 500 bucks. We did not understood what would be that so called sightseeing as everything was under snow. We had taken a detour of the circular road around the field and saw nothing worth visiting other than indulging yourself in some winter sports. When we saw people who were being pulled around in sledges, it looked so cruel and inhuman, something like Kolkata hand rickshaw pullers. You sit on a wooden sledge which is pulled around by some skinny poor fellow. Everyone from sledge puller to the ski operators would quote astronomical prices citing govt. approved rate. We had a hard bargain for skiing. We managed to get it for Rs.250/- per head as against the original quote of Rs.750/-. That probably because we were the only tourist at that time. Tourists from Srinagar normally arrives by 11 am or so. You should book your activity on the spot. If you book at the hotel or you accompany some agent from the hotel, then the final price agreed will also include his commission. Though united to keep prices stable, the Ski operators are actually individuals with their own ski kits. It was our first experience of ski. Most of us picked up the tricks fast. In about half an hours of skiing I had only one fall and was able to do it alone. I was also worried about my fluid back and slip disc. But it was fun. It was tiring and had drained us out. So do not expect to ski for hours when you pay 700 bucks or so. The weather also had taken an ugly turn by then. The entire Gulmarg got covered in a blanket of cloud. Soon it started to rain with small hail. The weather had cleared after some time. Some more tourists had arrived by then. We were shocked to find the prices some of them had paid for sledges to reach there and it was their turn of shock when we had revealed our prices. The ski point was at a walkable distance and we had comfortably walked down.

On our return, we hired a sledge for our daughter, more out of sympathy than need. These guys were following, literally pleading to have a sledge ride. We paid him 50 bucks for a ride back to the cottage. We paid another puller 10 rupees for a photograph. By the time we were back in the hut, the drizzle had stopped and it had started to snow again. The snowfall continued all through the day. As we had hired the dresses for the day, we had several foray outside to enjoy the snowfall. When we were in Dehradun, we saw people flocking to Mussorie to see the often brief spell of snowfalls. But here we had a full day of snowfall. The scenes of flakes coming down as if someone showering cottons from the sky will always remain in our memory. The evening that day was too cold for us to get out and so we had decided to use the services of Bashirbhai. Taking advantage of the situation he also served us roti @15 rupees. He also charged 150 per day to keep the fire on in the hall.

The snowfall continued through the night and also next morning. We had planned to leave by 9 am and proceed for Sonamarg. But our vehicle which was parked outside and was withstanding the bitter cold and snowfall for almost 40 hours had refused to start. The driver used all his experiences, but finally he had to go down to Tangmarg and get a mechanic. We lost a couple of hour in the process. When we finally left Gulmarg at round noon, it was still snowing. Seeing the humps of snow and weather, the driver suspected that Sonamarg may be closed. In his opinion, the landscape there would not be different from Gulmarg. So we had decided to call up the JKTDC Office at Srinagar. We were informed that the route to Sonamarg had been closed due to excessive rainfall over last two days and hence we will not be able to make it to the JKTDC hut. As we had confirmed fully paid booking they offered us alternative accommodation at Srinagar.

The snowfall got converted into rain as we lost height. When we had reached Srinagar, the official at JKTDC was quite helpful in getting our booking converted to Srinagar. But the incessant rain became a nightmare. It was an alternate drizzle and downpour. We had waited for rain to stop and when it finally stopped around 3 pm, we headed for some local sightseeing. The driver had also informed us in the evening that the route to Gulmarg had also been closed that day as the snowfall had not stopped.

The weather had played a spoilsport for the next one and half day. The rain had rarely stopped and with great difficulty we could complete the remaining sightseeing of Srinagar. The temperature had also plummeted prompting most shops to shut down and locals preferred to stay indoors. But we took solace in the fact that had it not rained; it would not have snowed at Gulmarg. The thrill we felt at Gulmarg was much higher than those customary visits to the dull Mughal gardens.

(Events described were for 5th, 6th and 7th April 2009)