Tuesday, 5 January 2010

Journey to Gulmarg Ski Resort, Kashmir, India

Edinburgh – London – Delhi.

After an overnight stop in Delhi it was great to pick up some last minute things before flying the 1 hour 20 minutes to Srinagar in Kashmir, India to make my way to legendary ski resort of Gulmarg! I always stay in the Main Bazaar of Parha Ganj in Delhi as its good value, a well placed location for connecting and there is always something to see. A pomegranate & orange juice followed by a superb masala dosa and a full head shave was just what the doctor ordered. The main bazaar is a hectic backpackers spot but always full of action and interest with storage facilities, cheap shopping, some great local food haunts and some nice places for a quiet beer!
I arrived in Srinagar airport and travelled up to Gulmarg ski resort in good time (2 hours) as there was not too much snow about on the roads. Passing villages with people going about their day-to-day business, shopping, playing cricket, building and travelling in all sorts of vehicles from large jeeps, trucks, buses and even by horse & cart – a step back in time. We wind our way up past the village of Tangmarg on the Gulmarg road through the beautiful forest and finally pull into the valley arriving at the legendary Bakshi’s restaurant at Gulmarg ski resort. Gulmarg literally means valley of flowers and in summer is a riot of colour in which the Indian middle class come to retreat, play golf and take in the spectacular views from the gondola and around. This is how the ski resort has developed on the back of this summer retreat and with the extension of the gondola from 3000m to the top elevation of 3950m. it has opened up access to some 20 huge bowls across the Pir Panjal range offering some of the best steep, powder skiing in the world off the highest ski lift in the world.
A warm welcome from all the boys at Bakshi’s restaurant on my return and it’s a traditional cawa Kashmiri tea to settle in. I unpack and come down for dinner feasting on their signature dish - Afghani chicken with potatoes and green salad. Reports were that snow was needed and waking up the next morning it started dumping. Sunstone had bought the snow – but to be honest for a resort that gets over 20 meters of snow per year – odds are fairly good that snow is never far away! The Gondola was closed with white-out conditions and it was a good day to get my bearings again, sorting my room out (above the ski shop again) getting my gear ready for some fresh powder tomorrow – yee haa! We walk over to Pine Palace Hotel and say hello to the staff there and Brian & Tim who are snow safety this year. Brian returns for his 3rd season and has been a real asset to Gulmarg Ski Resort putting in sound processes and safety procedures with a remit of training & developing the Gulmarg ski patrol. Some tea, coffee and ice cream hanging out with Tara (Canadian), Momo (French) and Cindy (Indian snowboard instructor from Manali) while we watched the snow continuing to fall and build to 15cm at 2600m. It must be getting twice that up top at 3000-4000m, morning would soon tell!
I awake the next morning to a beautiful sunny day and looking forward to some freshies. We take the gondola up to the mid station and Brian is heading up to the top to perform the safety control work as there is certainly potential for slides with new snow on a firmer base. We decide to skin up Mary’s shoulder to get some exercise start the acclimatisation process. The sun streams through the trees hitting the beautiful snow glistening and sparkling in a thermonuclear explosion. Yanik, Tara, frank and I arrive just above the trees, gear up and head down in some sweet deep powder – 30-40cms. A two minute ride I score 5 face shots and get the heavenly floating powder feeling again – welcome back!
The top is now open so we take the Gondola to the top station at 3950m and skin up to Apharwat summit at 4200m. A glorious day with a huge cloud inversion offers stunning views of Nanga Parbat – just spectacular. We head out far across skiers left in between bowls four and five to the ‘singing trees’ where we score some deep deep powder, silky sugary light pow in which we sink into the layer before the snowfall which gives a depth of at least 50-60cms and I’m back in the sublime! We ski a 1500m vertical line and with only 2 runs for the day taking close on 6 hours is evidence of the huge vertical that Gulmarg offers. What a big day for my first so it’s back to base and a solid dose of Ibuprofen , a long hour stretch for the calf muscles and a hot shower before some more Afghani chicken to celebrate the first day skiing. I bump into an old ski friend - Roland from my home ski field of Criagieburn in New Zealand – gotta love the worldwide ski bum community! We have a couple of beers catching up and then play the crazy card game ‘spoons’ which is a little like musical chairs but played with dessert spoons spread across a table in which there is one less than the card players. Whoever feels to grab a spoon loses the round. This sees me dive across a table and then upside down curve under it smashing into a Finnish guy to snaggle the last one but unfortunately the Finnish guy falls back on his chair in the fraca breaking a chair in the process – doh. 500 rupees between us all as it was a combination of about 10 people in a huge ruck! Fortunately I didn’t lose but Toby a Londoner (now claiming to be a kiwi as he’s living in Ruapehu) spelt out the word ‘club’ after losing 4 rounds and has to dance like a ‘night clubber’ for one minute - which is a long time in front of a packed restaurant with no music – good times - Gulmarg style.

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