Skiing in Kashmir

BackPacking Granny sent us this post from her old, cool, schoolfriend who had just been skiing on the borders of Pakistan! 

Skiing in Kashmir – images of snowy peaks and misty horizons, mystique and danger. Fifty years ago and more I heard the name and ached to go. Pals pushed off with Encounter Overland and brought back photos of the luxurious house boats; gorgeous cheap (no longer) Pashminas and rolled up rugs but somehow I never managed to make the trip – until a few weeks ago…. and then I went skiing!

Friends either looked admiringly, jealously or simply horrified! The British Foreign Office put out a warning to all citizens, not to go to the area a manSkiing in Kashmir had been shot on the border of the disputed zone.

The flight from Kuala Lumpur to New Delhi was uneventful and there was a smiling man with my name on a placard to meet me at arrivals. Coming from about 34 degrees Celsius, it was a shock to see so many people swathed to the ears with thick wool, boots and gloves – and this was a reasonable 8 degrees – I was heading for minus 4!  There was nothing wrong with the hotel nor the food, but I was cross that the return car trip to the airport the following morning cost me the equivalent of £18 – for a five minute drive – and the driver told me that his monthly wage was a measly £95; Yes India has changed, computers, the internet and the ubiquitous mobile phone have arrived and it is no longer a cheap destination.

Somehow in the steamy heat of Penang there had been thermal undies to be bought, along with waterproof gloves, thick socks and a down filled jacket which was so lightweight that it took some convincing that
it really would be warm enough – it was. I started the art of layering.

It took about an hour before our motley group assembled at Srinagar Airport – not a place destined for a return visit. It was cold, dirty and badly equipped for waiting passengers. Finally we crammed into an aged jeep and set off. The road climbed pretty quickly and the landscape changed dramatically with sparkling pine trees dusted with fresh snow. Living in the tropics and returning to Europe only when the sun is high in the sky it has been some time since I have experienced snow but it still looks lovely from the interior of a heated car. The word resort in the phrase, Gulmarg ski Resort is a bit of a stretch; no trendy  shops, no bars nor restaurants, no après ski to speak of.  Mmm –  was this really such a good idea?

The hotel that had been booked was quite simply the worst ever; the lobby was colder than outside; the whole place stank of diesel or kerosene or whatever they used to attempt to heat the communal dining/sitting room and my eyes watered, I felt sick and my head thumped within minutes. Memories loomed large of the 1970s Portuguese butane heater explosion which took down the entire building. The bedroom was faintly better but one could have successfully stored ice cream in the bathroom – which had no bath, but only icy or scalding water from a rudimentary shower; I am not generally known to be a moaner, but the thought of going into orbit should that leaking heater explode was too much and I explained in my best tactful, but firm voice that the following morning I would be moving elsewhere. I am not going to dwell on that first night, but suffice it to say that I took to my bed fully clothed with my new double knitted woolly hat on my head.

Skiing in Kashmir

A good fifteen years has passed since I last skiied, so apart from being out of practice I am clearly much older and possibly more brittle. My instructor was a charmer and had the longest eyelashes of any man I have met – then I found that all Kasmiri men have long eyelashes and are charmers! I managed to fall getting on to the T-bar the first time and I repeated the experience the first time that I got off the wretched thing, but repeating to myself through gritted teeth, “Keep standing and straighten your skies,” worked and the rest of the time I kept upright.  That first morning proved that there are muscles in the body which are rarely used and I sank into the first of many very hot baths.

After two days of practice I felt that I was ready for the gondola and the grown up slope. Station One is well over 8,000 feet above sea level and the air is pretty thin. For the first time in mySkiing in Kashmir life I began to understand how asthma sufferers feel. No such thing as a colour coded choice of runs in Gulmarg; no groomed slopes either. This is skiing in the raw and even if one skis all day long it is possible to carve fresh lines in virgin snow on the last trip down. The start is fairly gentle but suddenly the narrow piste twists and turns and plummets from green through blue and red categories and into a precipitous black section where my instructor taught me the art of side stepping – safer than skiing but very very tiring.  After only a few moments of our meeting, Mohammed Akbar had asked me my name and my age. He seemed stunned that one the age of his mother (she of nine living children) could possibly venture out in skis and from then on and in a gentle but tedious manner he reminded me that I was ‘very aged’ and must go slowly on the slopes! It was not difficult to obey.

Station Two (at 14,000 feet above sea level and not a tree to be seen) fulfils the experience of going to the top of the world and the breathtaking scenery was worth it. Tramping just a hundred yards or so from the gondola there is a lonely board, which commands that you go no further – this the disputed area between India and Pakistan. All that is there is a scruffy control hut, a few miserable looking military men and their small pack of feral dogs. Why on earth would anybody dispute this area? Apart from its natural beauty there can be little reason for craving ownership. In fact I doubt that it is ownable.  It is and should remain God’s country.

Skiing in Kashmir Day four and my confidence was high; Within sight of the local garbage disposal team – crows, dogs and monkeys who gather daily round the stationary rubbish lorry, ‘my pride came before a fall’, both feet went from under me and down I went like a sack of coal – right on my coccyx (that tiny triangular bony structure at the bottom of the spine). I hit my head hard on the ice and winded myself for quite a few moments – and that’s when I felt truly ‘very aged’. Three young men hauled me to my feet and feeling cross with myself, skiing was cancelled and the hotel beckoned with its Panadol and bruise preventing Arnica cream.

Boredom started to set in. There is an ice rink but not yet open; there is a market of sorts but the long walk was not worth the effort. Resorting to type I ambled off to the only five star place in town for tea and scones with clotted cream (yes really!). Huge, luxurious, indoor swimming pool and spa centre (opening next month), welcoming staff, lovely interior and great views; no alcohol – none at all. Will a dry five star hotel in Gulmarg be a tad ambitious?

The penultimate day saw heavy snow and visibility down to a few feet. The gondola promptly closed. Fate took over – that was the end of the skiing for this year. It carried on snowing throughout the day and The 5 star Khyber Hotel kindly sent a courtesy car to pick us up for dinner so we stepped out dressed for the occasion. Within sight of the hotel lights, the car stalled and several attempts later the driver gave up the effort, and we walked the rest of the way – up quite a steep hill ankle deep in fresh powder snow. I could have done with a drink on arrival but remember – no alcohol!  Dinner was memorable, the food was good and they did allow us to surreptitiously sip a bottle of curious Indian white wine that my friend had secreted in his luggage. Towards the pudding course a concerned member of the hotel staff approached our table to ask how we intended to return to our own hotel! Stunned I suggested that the courtesy car which had brought us, would do the honours. No – said car was still stuck in the snow. Horrified I stared at him. Surely he didn’t intend us to walk back at nearly midnight – the snow was now falling faster than earlier. We stared at each other! I prompted gently that he might find us a couple of complimentary rooms for the night – after all they had been open only for a mere three weeks and had only twenty rooms full (two of them occupied by the Conde Nast photographer and assistant).  He hesitated and then went off to consult with senior management. We sat in silence and I began to identify some cosy spot in the lobby where I could curl up and sleep. Five minutes passed and the man returned to our table beaming – two complimentary rooms were available.

By breakfast there was four feet of fresh snow outside, the car was still stuck and we were due to leave at 9.30am for our flight. The next two hours were a lesson in survival. I learned to put one foot gently in front of the other and concentrate on staying upright. My friend went ahead as he was clearly faster. The story of the tortoise and the hare comes to mind as half way ‘home’ my hotel guide asked in faltering English where ‘number two person was’. ‘Ahead’ I gasped and he shook his head. I peeled back the borrowed jacket hood and looked in the direction of his finger – all I could see was a fur hat and a couple of waving arms. Trying a short cut my friend had fallen – in an area of 12 feet of fresh snow – and like a beetle on its back he could not stand. Thank heavens for the hotel man who hauled him out and set him back upright.

Skiing in Kashmir

Back at our hotel a healthy argument ensued; our hotel management insisted that the road was closed and that we cancel the trip and stay on; our travel agent equally pressed us into leaving.  It was easier to understand his enthusiasm when it transpired that the driver had been in the village since the night before and was charging the tour operator whether we went or stayed. Back into the snow, and another hour to trudge back down the covered road with a queue of Indian bearers all hauling our luggage. As I tried to place my foot into a space already formed by the man in front, the phrase ‘Indian file’ suddenly made sense. The jeep, complete with snow chains joined a short convoy behind the snow- plough. Three hours and a couple of small avalanches later we were half way down when our snow-plough abandoned us to return home. When snow falls on snow, it is remarkably silent. No birds screech and the monkeys have other plans. Only the sudden crashing of snow from laden pine branches interferes with the peace. Another snowfall blocked our road, and there we sat for two hours waiting for the twin plough to reach us from below.

Skiing in Kashmir There comes a time in a long car journey when nature must inevitably take its course. I was the only woman in the convoy and one by one, the men lined up to relieve themselves. It really is not fair is it, that for a woman to take a pee it is a great deal more complicated, uncomfortable and exposed. Finally I gave up and appointed my companion as lookout.  All the layers had to be peeled down and sinking into the snow behind the vehicle I got on with the task in hand. Half way through the event I heard voices and looking over my shoulder I saw about six local gentlemen bearing chattels above their heads, walking up towards us from the other direction. Nothing in God’s good earth could have stopped me from what I was doing just then and from the look of amazement on their faces I reckon that was their first sight of a white bum! After all most of their ladies are still kept in purdah and they hardly see another woman’s face let alone a lower part! I learned a long time ago that if there is an event over which one has no control then one has to just shrug and accept it.

We did finally reach Srinagar – 9 hours to drive a 2 hour journey. The airport was closed; all the flights were cancelled; the delay was three days. Trying to rearrange flights from Kashmir at the weekend where the internet is patchy and foreign mobile phones are blocked was as exasperating as it had been back in the 80s. I don’t know yet if my insurance will pay up but I have the front cover of the local paper, which proclaims that ‘Snow cuts off Kashmir’, so I have the proof.

Will I return to Gulmarg? If my great age does not prevent me I think that I will, and you will probably find me taking tea and scones, or in the sauna or pool at the new five star hotel!