DemosNews: Kashmir

On the plane, the seat-back monitor’s topographical map of the flight course depicted the Kashmir Valley as a green, oval-shaped hole in the middle of white mountain graphics. As the captain announced our descent into Srinagar, The Himalaya were in view on the plane’s right.

When I say they were on the plane’s right I mean that looking down I could see where the mosaic of snow-covered rice paddies ramped up to snowcapped, awesomely pointy peaks. But that is looking down. Looking out, level with the plane at ~25,000 feet, Nun Kun, one of the world's tallest mountains perched prominently over other giants above the clouds in the distance.

At the plane’s left, the same rice paddy fields disappeared into a thick mist that veiled the Karakoram Himalaya, Pakistan, the world’s second tallest peak – K2, and our destination – Gulmarg Town, where there is a gondola lift that takes riders above 14,000 feet.

I first heard about Gulmarg at a party in Delhi where I met Mike, our “tour guide” for the trip. (Mike, strangely enough lives in my same little neighborhood in Delhi and grew up in, get this, in Cleveland Park, DC. Crazy coincidence. DC, what.) Mike has been working on launching a guided package tour to bring foreign tourists to Gulmarg. As his second group, we were his guinea pigs.

The Srinagar airport has more MIGs than commercial planes. It is entirely camouflaged and military vehicles greet the planes. A statistic that floats around is that Kashmir is the second most militarized place in the world, after Iraq. There are 650,000 Indian troops in Kashmir and indeed, they are everywhere, including in the middle of snow-dumped mountainsides.

From the airport we drove an hour into the mountains to a town called Tangmarg. This is a true way-station where the foothills meet the mountains and the pavement yields to snowpath. Here we left Mike’s comfy Toyotas, checked in at a military checkpoint, and drank some chai while Mike did all the necessary shouting and waving and stirring things up in order to get some jeeps.

Almost all of the cars that you see above Tangmarg are Tata (that’s the biggest Indian car manufacturer) SUVs that look something like a 90s Jeep Cherokee but boxier. These cars are cars, not jeeps. They do not have four wheel drive even though many of the ones in the Gulmarg area have major "4X4" decals on the back windshields. Let me tell you, these things are about as well suited for a snowy road as a Mazda Miata. And that’s before 15 locals and all their children and possessions get loaded into them.

The road from Tangmarg, and all the roads in the Gulmarg area are either unpaved or primary pavement only, so plowing in the way we Americans think of plowing is simply not possible. And there is A LOT OF SNOW.

Instead of plowing, the government of Jammu and Kashmir/The Indian Military has employed a three-pronged approach. First there is a giant, awesome, all-terrain snowblower. This looks something like a cross between an old fashion John Deer grain harvester and a vehicle from one of the older Star Wars movies. This behemoth is responsible for cutting a path after the deep snows. Secondly there is a plow. The plow is mounted to the front of a heroic antique truck. I think it must be soviet, but who knows. It is rad, but from what I saw, largely unable to have much effect the road conditions. The third prong in the snow clearing offense is a couple groups of local fellows. These guys are damn effective. They walk the roads with pickaxes and break up the thick sheets of ice that form on the roads from the snow left by the first two modes of attack. Like I said, these guys are damn effective but there are only a few of them for what I wold guess to be around 100 Km of roadway. So every once in a while you come across a patch of lovely cleared road where the guys have been working. The other 90% of the time, you are in a two-wheel-drive, weighed down Tata on what is effectively a snowy ice-road with big snowbank walls on either side. We crashed. A lot. And we pushed stuck vehicles, whether our own or ones that were stuck in our path, a lot.

Also worth noting: the snow clearing crews make lovely phallic statues out of the broken up ice.

So back to Tangmarg: we rounded up some “jeeps,” got the requisite chains put onto the rear wheels and headed up into the mist that still covered the mountains ahead. The ride to Gulmarg was beautiful, complete with beat-heavy hindi music, very few cars, and an untouched snowy forest all around. Every once in a while, we passed a military truck, another jeep or one of the AMAZING local buses that just flat out don’t belong on these "roads."

The feeling of careening around these mountain snowroads is a lot like snowboarding when you are really pushing the line between in- and out- of control.

None of the things we wanted to get accomplished in the first day happened. In fact not even the jeep ride went at all according to plan because we couldn't make it up the road to the hotel we were staying in and so ended up walking it for the last 250 yards. The owner of the rental shop was MIA and our avalanche safety equipment was nowhere to be found. No problem. The sun was going down, the living room in the hotel was cozy and filling up with a full cast interesting characters and it was snowing, which I learned meant that the lift would not open early. (I later learned that a) the lift never opens early or on time for that matter; b) the lift often doesn’t open at all; and c) who the hell cares about the lift when you can ride DOWN from the base of the lift in amazing conditions!)

The first night, I struck up some pretty great conversations with folks in the living room and watched my group get completely trashed on cocktails of low oxygen levels and beer labeled “consumption by non Indian Military is strictly prohibited and punishable by law.” I wimped-out from the party completely, worried about altitude sickness and overwhelmed with antsy anticipation for the next day’s tracks.


I woke up with the sun on morning one in Gulmarg. Outside there was fresh snow on the ground and I was rearing to go. After breakfast, the motley crew of us from Delhi headed out to meet a man named Yaseem at his shop, the "Kashmir Alpine Ski Center."

Yaseem is a wily, tall chap with a couple teeth missing from his big, suspicious smile. His claim to fame is that he has been renting ski equipment in Gulmarg from the same shop for more than 30 years. No doubt business was rough for the last twenty and now that the fighting in the region has stopped and tourists are returning, his enterprise should finally have a chance to come back to its former glory. The Kashmir Alpine Ski Center is, no doubt, nothing more than a one-room shack attached to a sort of mini-mart cum Hookah bar. There is a slew of rental equipment ranging from this year's top-of-line (mostly left by visiting pro teams is my guess) to 1970s throwbacks, (in addition to boots and boards/skis there are also 80s ultra-neon one-piece powder suits on rent. they are awesome).

I got my hands on the board I wanted and was pretty happy. After a big hearty breakfast of beans and buttery fried eggs back at our lodge, we met our guides for the day and headed to the Gondola.

The Gondola to the top of the mountain is in two phases, the lower phase takes you to a place called Kongdon, at around 11,000 feet above see level. At Kongdon you have to get off the gondola, take a few steps forward and get right onto the next phase of the gondola that takes you up to a landing just below 14,000 ft, a few hundred feet from the summit of Apharwat Mountain.

For the next three days we had several spectacular runs. The first day I spent most of the day with come Brits who were in Gulmarg for the season. We ended up riding most of the day below the range of the lift. Hiring jeeps in town to drop us at the top of long runs and then picking us up where the road crossed the mountain again several thousand feet below. This was true backcountry skiing, never seeing another track the whole day. The terrain was outstanding with sustained steep pitches all the way down the mountain and some runs lasting almost an hour. Also lots of big rock outcroppings to hurl yourself off and great snow conditions. Then of course at the bottom of the run it was always fun to pile into one of the Tata Jeeps, pump up the volume on the Bollywood hits and go careening around the mountain roads to the next drop point.

Another real highlight about this setup was riding down into small hill towns, military encampments, and deserted summer-time shepherd camps. Not exactly the type of terrain I am used to having snowboarded at US resort mountains my whole life. One highlight was the ride to the Babarishi Sufi temple. A beautiful Muslim mystical religious temple in the mountains. Sightseeing on snowboard is pretty much as good as it gets...

The nights in Gulmarg were a blast too. Most of the people up there are pretty hardcore skier/riders. Lounging/partying with pro skiers, a film crew, guys living in Gulmarg for the season, a bunch of vodka guzzling Russian tourists and lots of fun-loving and friendly Kashmiris was great times.

© 2021 NCW of DemosNews
THE DILLI: This is the blog of Noah Waxman, an American guy in Delhi (Dilli), India.

March 28, 2008 at 3:07am
DemosRating: 5
Hits: 1267

Genre: Away (Spectacles)
Type: Creative
Tags: Kashmir, India, Travel, Snowboarding

Links:  http://www.thedilli.blogspot.c...

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sakurachan   You're a fabulous writer NCW, and I'm green with envy at tha...
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