Experiencing snowfall, building snowman, skiing down the pristine white slopes or simply snowballing each other is a dream for every individual who is fond of nature, because they say when “snow falls even the nature listens”.
Keeping this in mind we decided to make a short sojourn to the valley of Gulmarg 56Km from Srinagar at the end of March. The petite flight from Jammu to Srinagar (about 15 minutes) took lesser time than the time to check in and boarding due to strict security military exercises at the Jammu Airport (be sure to check in 02 hours before departure time at Jammu and Srinagar Airport to avoid inconvenience due to elaborate security check up). With the low cost airlines charging between 1200/- to 1400/-, sometimes the return fare thrown in for free, it is a steal.
Be sure to pack in protective eye glasses (the UV glare of the snow hurts your eyes when you are out skiing), gloves (if you want to stun each other with snowballs or build a snowman), extra pair of boots (preferably the water proof ones), caps and gloves besides the extra layers of woolens for your body. Of course not to mention some painkillers (need them if you are a first time skier), ointments, moisturizers, sunscreens and antiemetic if you have motion sickness while negotiating the mountain curves. Even if you forget to do that, there is no problem as about 13km short of Gulmarg is Tanmarg where you get full set of protective outfits on hire.
Flying at an altitude of 20000 feet over the Pir Panjals Range, the breathtaking sight from the plane windows just give you a prelude of the magnificent scenes to unfold and unfurl once you reach the ground. If you are lucky the Air Force sometimes gives you the consent to fly over the sanctified shrine of Vaishno Devi where you can see the temple nestled snugly among the mountains with the serpentine road snaking its way up from Katra.
The trip from Srinagar to Gulmarg, usually a distance of 56 Km usually takes an hour and a half and the taxis usually charge between 1400/ to 1600/ for the round trip depending on the type of vehicle you hire. The snow at Gulmarg usually lasts till mid April, and to enjoy both the sun and the snow we decided to visit it towards the end of March when one can combine the trip with the once a year opening of the Tulip garden in Srinagar which remains etched in your mind.
As soon as you land in Srinagar the chill in the weather and the warmth of the people strike you. The valley has gone a sea change; the town shorn of its ominous presence of security forces has been given a fresh breath of life. With tourism in full swing, you could see life and vibrancy coming back, with smiling bubbly children in neat uniforms making their way to schools, shops and restaurants doing brisk business and the city bustling with multitude of tourists, taxis, hawkers and shoppers-you could feel that peace had been given a fair chance to bring back the smile and prosperity san the shadow of the guns.
Cruising along the national highway towards the apple town of Sopore, the countryside just demonstrates the commencement of spring with the bare apple orchards, maple, and Chinar trees slowly rousing up from their winter slumber with the primary offshoot of fresh green leaves.
Midway you take a left turn leaving the national highway towards small bustling town of Tanmarg about 13km short of Gulmarg.The road to Tanmarg is a slow but sure climb almost flattish with a panorama of snow covered PirPanjal range dotted with fir and pine trees in front of you. The temperature begins to drop suddenly as you traverse Tanmarg and the road winds uphill lazily , both sides lined by huge piles of pure pristine snow, which I have seen only on the silver screen or perhaps dreamt. The cold nippy clean mountain air, the smell of the pine and fir trees, and the perfect silence fully justifies the saying-‘if there is heaven on earth it is here-but it goes beyond that –if you want to be one with the maker of this earth this is the place to be.’ During the winter months when the roads are covered with snow the cars bind their tires with iron chains to prevent them from slipping which are put on from Tanmarg itself. It takes about half an hour to reach the mountain top and cross the threshold into the town of Gulmarg or the meadow of flowers which during the winter months turns into an immaculate ring of ice. Situated at a height of 2730m above sea level in the district of Baramullah, on the lap of Afarwat Hills in the Pir Panjal range the main town is around a 3km x 1km valley which is overlooked by the snow covered majestic peaks of the PirPanjal range whose gentle snow-covered peaks are a delight to many national and international skiers. Surrounding the valley is an array of hotels from heritage to budget type which are also available through online bookings from various travel portals (the price ranging from 1500/ to 8000/ per night). Be sure to acquire a room with a view which directly overlooks the valley and the hills because of the spectacular vision of the hills which changes its color and hue during different hours of the day as nature brandishes its paintbrush from bright yellow golden sheen in the early morning to the vibrantly shining pristine white of the midday and finally to the sublime orange color in the evening leaving an everlasting vision etched in your reminiscence for lifetime.
The two main attractions of the town during winter months are skiing and the Gondola ride. Depending on whether you are a novice or a professional skier you can take your pick. The gentle slopes of the valley are ideal for beginners, with prices ranging from 600/- to 800/- you can put on your ski boots which clamps on to the skis with a professional guide who teaches you the nuances of skiing first on the gentle slopes of the valley. Watching the skiers performing on the sports channel is totally a different ball game than when you put on the ski boots for the first time-the wearing of the ski boots is a daunting task in itself for it seems that somebody has hugged you in a bear grip. It is fun once you get a feel of it and be sure to learn as to how to brake by splaying your feet, or take a turn before zooming on the steeper slopes but it is great fun to get thrown on the soft snow which cushions your fall like a bed of goose feathers.
Sunshine is delicious, rain is refreshing, wind braces us up, snow is exhilarating, and there is really no such weather as bad weather only different kinds of good weather, and you get a combination of all these at Gulmarg. The sun shines brightly, the wind whispers on your ears and virgin snow beckons you up the slopes of Afarwat Hills after your preliminary basic education at skiing and what better way to go up the slopes than the Gondola-the ropeway which is a marvel in engineering and consists of 36 six seated cable cars supposedly the highest in the world supported by 18 solid steel towers with the capacity to ferry about 600 persons per hour and is in two stages. The first stage takes you to a height of 3950m to the bowel of Kongdoori Valley and the second stage for professional skiers and snowboarders to a height of 4200m. The charges for the Gondola ride is minimal (Rs.300/ for each stage) for the enlivening breathtaking site that awaits you , the ropeway winds its way through pine and fir covered trees whose branches are laden with soft powdery snows like dripping molten candle wax, the mountainside dotted by gujjar hutments all pregnant with snow and as you look at a distance you can see the creator on his full glory-snow covered Nanga Parbat in the horizon, ragged peaks haughtily reaching up to the sky, gentle sloping snow covered valleys -it is the journey of a lifetime as you are hauled up the slopes in a gentle swooping motion. The first stage of gondola takes you up to the gentle bowl of the Kongdoori Valley which is a smooth expanse of snow, dotted with few restaurants, avid skiers and snowboarders enjoying the wonderful slopes, and breathtaking panoramic view of the whole mountain range. The guides and skis’ are available here also who charges you from Rs. 800/ to Rs 1600/ depending whether you just glide on the valley or come down the mountain slopes skiing with a guide and of course you have a choice to come down in a man pulled sleigh also, but that seemed a little inhuman like the Kolkata rickshaw pullers. So we decided to do a little skiing on the gentle slopes, while my ten year old daring son decided to have a go at skiing down the mountain slope while we took the easy way out by descending down the slope on the gondola. Our heart skipped a beat when he took a little more time to come down, but I can vouch for the guides, they are considerate and really well trained as they guide you down slowly and surely down the slopes, where there are multiple tracks from the straight simple road down for the beginners to the much tougher pathways which winds across the gondola towers for the professionals. At the base of gondola if you are not still satisfied with your histrionics you have the snowscooter ride traversing you across the valley. The breathtaking beauty, the nippy fresh air, the love in the air keeps your mind and belly satiated. As the night settles the town the valley becomes totally deserted, not a single soul is seen on the streets and a comforting peaceful silence settles down, pierced only few sporadic sounds of dogs barking, and just sitting out on the balcony room and gazing out into the town annihilates you in a world of inner peace and tranquility. And as the time of parting was drawing nearer, I just muttered an old Irish blessing “May the road rise up to meet you Gulmarg, may the wind be ever be at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face and the rain and snow fall softly on your fields. And until we meet again, may God hold you in the hollow of his hand.santanu