Gulmarg is attracting more adrenaline junkies and luxury vacationers from across the world than ever before, says Susmita Saha
Published on Wed, 13 Feb 2013 15:15:53 IST
It's 11am and I am standing atop the 4,390-metre Mt Apharwat, the crown jewel of the Pir Panjal region of the Inner Himalayas. The temperature is 14° below zero and Greg MacKenzie, a 70-year-old Scottish snowboarder, is about to descend 1,500 metres using his neon blue snowboard as a platform. At the summit, he first balances precariously, and then readies to glide down the snow-covered slopes in a virtuoso display of flips, turns and jumps, high up in the air. In a few moments, MacKenzie's world, I assume, will suddenly go white.
I had followed the snowboarder all the way up from the base station of the gondola where tourists had lined up to gape at the splendour of the untouched snow. The gondola zooms over an aerial distance of 5km, and a thick crowd gathers to try it out.
Next to me, the hardcore ski gang, sporting fluorescent puffa jackets, tattoos and dreadlocks queues up too, but not for the gondola. Instead they strap their custom-built skis on to the chair lift, a simple bench strung from a steel cable that goes around the slopes in a loop.
True, the pine-dotted slopes of Gulmarg are a magnet for snow sportsmen. Powderhounds, a website run by international ski and snowboard enthusiasts, promises that Gulmarg "will give you stories that will be retold for the rest of your life". It describes the terrain as one with "alpine bowls, chutes, cornices, glade skiing amongst ancient pines, and glacier skiing without the glacier."
An aerial view of the snow-covered mountains from a gondola takes your breath away
Yes, skiers are a happy lot here. But they too look a bit out of breath as we reach the top of Apharwat's oxygen-sparse atmosphere. However, coupled with the breathlessness, are enchanting views of thousands of ice-speckled conifers. Above me a thick curtain of fog peels away to reveal Nanga Parbat, the western end of the Himalayas, towering at 8,126 metres. There's blinding sunlight everywhere and the landscape is awash in tones of white and ivory. Beyond the summit an Indian Army camp is a tiny speck surrounded by a battery of mountain dogs with thick coats.
After a morning of trundling up the mountains, bundled up against the snow, I take a sedate trip back to the most buzzing café in town. It's owned by 28-year-old Billa Bakshi, a local resident who trained in snow science and heli-ski guiding in New Zealand and set up his own ski shop and restaurant in Gulmarg.
The air in Billa's café, which is a favourite haunt of international skiers — both professionals and amateurs — is heavy with the smell of saffron, a condiment that gets infused into all kinds of Kashmiri beverages and light bites. "Before 2004, we were getting foreigners — mostly Israeli backpackers — but not in large numbers. Now we get nearly 500 people skiing down the gullies in a single day," says Bakshi. Over a glass of gold-toned almond tea, he tells me about his heli-skiing programme and how he's training scores of local kids to work as guides and ski instructors.
Later that day some of his foreign students drop me back to my hotel, the Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa, which lies slightly above Gulmarg's main square. On the way, they rave about the spectacular night life that some 'underground' watering holes in the area have on offer.
But once I reach the hotel, my imagination is captured by something else. There is a gaggle of European skiers who have come to put their feet up after criss-crossing the toughest trails. Giving them company are leisure travellers who want to snuggle up in a centrally-heated room and watch the peaks of Pir Panjal spilling into snow-smattered valleys.
Enjoy your morning cuppa as you take in picturesque views of the sun-drenched mountains at Chaikash, the resort's tea lounge
The Khyber is a great place to stay and offers sublime eating experiences too. And yes, it is also the first of its kind in Gulmarg. Its inauguration on December 20 by Jammu & Kashmir chief minister Omar Abdullah is indicative of the winds of change sweeping across the region. "When we conceived this project in 2007, everybody thought we are crazy," says Umar Tramboo, managing director of Pinnacle Resorts, the promoters of the Khyber.
But they went ahead and built the hotel on a prime piece of land sprawling over more than seven acres at a height of 2,690 metres. At that altitude, winter temperatures hover around freezing and one is assured of gorgeous Alpine-themed scenery. In the hotel, your breakfast comes with views of quaint hutments of cattle-herders that have been abandoned in snow season. Indoors, the lobby ceiling has painstakingly-executed khatamband work, geometric designs formed by sections of walnut or deodar wood fitted into each other without using a single nail.
My own room turns out to be a super-spacious affair with a floor-to-ceiling glass partition looking on to an elegant sit-out. Outside, the entire terrain seems generously dusted with confectioner's sugar, and the balcony is perfect for lingering over a jumbo coffee and chocolate chip cookies.
Next morning, I rise at six to fuel up on butter-slathered croissants and head to St Mary's Church, a 110-year-old chapel that was renovated in 2003. On the way, a giant hot air balloon is being prepared for its tethered journey across the Gulmarg sky. I even spot Billa Bakshi's helicopter a few hundred metres away as it geared up to take a bunch of spirited souls to undiscovered ski trails.
The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa is the newest addition to the Gulmarg landscape and an indication of how tourism is booming in the area
As I wake up the next day, buried under a mountain of goose down pillows, the only thing visible outside is a whitewashed landscape. Gulmarg received more than six feet of snow this season with temperatures nose-diving 12 degrees below zero. From the first flakes in January to generous cascades in March, it is a page out of a fairytale. And that, for me, is truly a magical experience.
Getting there: There are daily flights from Calcutta to Srinagar. From Srinagar airport, Gulmarg is an hour and 15 minutes away by car.
Staying there: The tariffs at Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa range from Rs 14,500 onwards for double occupancy. For more log on to http://khyberhotels.com.