By Moutushi Ghoshdeysarkar
We the people of the plains, living near the sea level have a remarkable attraction towards the mountains and specially the white ones. The mountain people can hardly live away from them if not forced. Either ways mountains are revered by one and all, possibly because it is close to the perceived heavens. Whatever the ethos, man has always found the beauty of a snow capped mountain supercalifragilisticexpialidocious. Well I wanted to use that word because it kind of suits the grandeur of those high peaks. It simply means wonderful. Pardon my idiocy.
Gulmarg is just an hour and a half, tops two from Srinagar. It is a steady ascend from Srinagar at 5200 ft to 7021 ft till Tanmarg that is the base of the mountain atop which the ‘meadow of flowers’ lies. We started from Srinagar with a slight drizzle and took a detour to Parihaspora, the ancient seat of glory built on a plateau by Lalitaditya Muktapida, the ruler of Kashmir, around 700CE.
Parihaspora or Paraspor as it is called now; 20kms from Srinagar, is known to the locals more for the SSM College of Engineering and Technology that stands atop the plateau sharing grounds with the ruins of an ancient temple that was magnanimous and housed idols which reached the skies according to Kalhana, the 12th century Kashmiri author famous for ‘Rajtarangini’.
By the time we reached Tanmarg, the drizzle had turned into a steady rain, though not a heavy shower. Our driver convinced us that it would be best to hire the snow boots and jackets from Tanmarg, and he knows exactly the place. We also ended up hiring a guide @ 700 a day, who would supposedly get the tickets for the Gondola next morning and wait for us at the Gondola gate.
From Tanmarg the mountain slopes up. ‘Peril in Paradise’, a detective thriller by Satyajit Ray written in 1987 states that ‘Feluda’ (The sleuth) and party had to go up these slopes in Horses. Roddur was looking forward to it after the extraordinary experience we had in Pahalgam.
However this is 2018 and the Innova went on uphill; the rain and the mist restricted our view. It was chilling outside. After a couple of enquiries we found the building called ‘club’ where our hut would be allocated. I had booked the JKTDC hut online.
Vicinity was almost nil but we shortly found our hut and its care taker. The most interesting thing in the hut was a ‘Bukhari’. We sat around it as Fayaz bhai (care taker) got the fire going. Later I and Roddur tried a hand at it, and boy its fun!
It was too foggy and chilly to step out and then it started raining, which cleared the fog a bit but lowered the temperature further. It was hovering between 2 to 5 degrees. We kept indoors hoping for a better tomorrow.
The next morning didn’t get any better. The weather had been thus for the past 6 days and was likely to continue. Our guide Tarik bhai came with the bad news that the Gondola was not operating and offered to take us around the other places instead. The rain and the chill or the fog which were alternating did not create a welcoming outdoor, so we decided to be at home near our Bukhari.
Tarik bhai demanded his 700 bucks as he had come and supposedly his day was wasted. We gave him the money out of sympathy as tourists are the only means for earning for these people. But we felt cheated.
Fayaz bhai told us that the boots and jackets were being charged at double the rate in Tanmarg. I read in ‘tripadvisor’ that these are available at a cheaper rate in Gulmarg and should not be hired from Tanmarg. Yet the weather and the trust in the driver Iqbal bhai which was the residual effect of Suhail (the driver for Pahalgam) being such a wonderful lad, led me to hire them and the guide from Tanmarg. Bad mistake.
It is not the money that made a big difference; we were paying out large sums as tips absolutely out of empathy; but the feeling of being cheated in paradise made our hearts heavy. Till then we had been experiencing hospitality at its best, in India.
We decided to brave the rains and went out around 11 am. We took a car till the slopes of Khilanmarg, a place to learn skiing in winter, when the snow is deep and steady. The horses were asking 1200 per head. The car asked for 1500. It was raining and we didn’t think the pony ride would be worth so we took the cheaper option.
The snowline was a little way up the slope from where the car dropped us. We walked up alongside horses and men, over streams and rocks and muck and reached. Here also there is a shack for refreshments.
The day tourists looked miserable. Though Gulmarg is a small place, its weather is unpredictable, and since its all about the amazing view from different points, the rain and the mist could render the whole day a waste. I would definitely recommend a stay over.
We had lunch at Grand Mumtaz Hotel. They had a dish called ‘Fried Ice cream’ in their menu but none, from the waiter to the manager could describe it, leave alone producing one.
The food was good, as in all through Kashmir we found people didn’t know how to ruin a dish, whatever we ate, wherever we ate, it was delicious. But if I have to rate it amongst Kashmiri food joints, it was not the best we had. We played Monopoly, cards and lighting the ‘Bukhari’ for the rest of the evening and night in our cosy room. It poured like cats and dogs all through the night making the prospect of the Gondola ride very bleak.
To our hearts delight, we woke up to a sunny morning. Fayaz bhai fed us a quick breakfast and almost shooed us to the Gondola, which was a short walk from our hut.
Rajib went a couple of minutes before us to get the tickets and got them with ease till the first phase (740 INR each – credit card facility is available). The second phase tickets (900 INR each) they said would be made available at the base of the first phase.
Dressed in snow jackets and boots and loaded with our cameras we boarded the little yellow cable car. It has a sitting capacity of 6, 3 facing either side, front and back.
The car goes up and down on the cable at a very comfortable speed, way up to about 10000 ft (Kundoori Mountain). Gulmarg is at a little more than 8600 ft, the second phase takes one up to 12293 ft on the shoulder of the Apharwat peak which is at 14000 ft.
Roddur was not very comfortable, he is scared of heights and has extreme motion sickness too, but he managed. We decided to check out the first phase and then buy the tickets to the second phase.
As soon as we emerged from the base station, a horde of horse men, sledge men, ski men and snow bike men surrounded us. We wanted to walk up to the snowline of the first phase but the whole place was shrouded with mist and the direction unknown so we gave in to the touts and hired three horses for 500 bucks each to and fro.
The ride was not very enjoyable; the horses were also feeling the chill and slipping on the wet rocks and mud. But it wasn’t afar and I was thrilled to see so much snow.
I made Roddur try some skiing which he didn’t like at all.
We also rode on sledges only because they said if we don’t then they won’t get food. It is agonizing to be pulled by another human, when you are sitting on a plank, up a steep slope. I even felt sad for the horses. But this is their only livelihood. We went on for a while and then when the slope got even steeper we walked beside them.
I walked with a Chachaji, who was holding my hand and preventing me from falling in the snow that was knee deep. It was fresh snow from the day before. Talking about Kashmir and its state of affairs, he said ‘hamara (our) India’ in a very pensive tone. Standing in Kashmir, looking at the people, talking to them, it is absolutely impossible to take sides. Our army is very vigilant, we saw convoy after convoy as we went from place to place, we also saw personnel posted at every nook and corner. Yet the hopelessness in the eyes of the people creates an air of melancholy and confusion. All does not seem well.
From where we stood, not so far away I could see the waterfall that is a stream flowing under a large rock which is fed by the glacier above. There were paper trees on one arm of the Kongdoori. Snow bikes were blazing past up and down the slopes. Then all of a sudden the crowd thinned out and the snow fall started. One of the sledge man who was still with us said he’ll go call the others who had gone for some tea.
The three of us stood there, in the country of the white witch, amidst a snow blizzard. It was both scary and thrilling.
After which seemed not like a while but a considerable amount of time, the sledge men came back and took us downhill in a manner which is a ‘must experience’ once in a life time. The sledge puller sat in front of the sledge, I sat at the back putting the legs around his midriff and he held it tight with his hands, the man controlled the speed of the sledge with his legs as we slid downhill.
The blizzard was still on and our horses or their keepers were nowhere in sight. There is a shack for refreshments where we huddled along with others of our species.
A little later we were on our way down, the horses were cold and uncomfortable due to the freezing air, and so was Roddur. He shivered by the mention of a climb to the second phase, would have possibly bitten me if he had the strength to. The red cars on the cable, moving above the white snow were too alluring to be left out.
Yet we did. One the child was not at all interested and two the weather was bad and vicinity minimal, so the great views expected from the car atop were not going to happen.
After the Gondola ride and the snow experience, I and Rajib were beaming with happiness like little kids and the actual kid in our group declared he never wants to see snow in his life.
Thanks to the day being a bit dry, I walked around, gathered some pine cones and tried to befriend the ponies who were happily munching away after a hard day’s work.
The next and the last morning in Gulmarg was another delight. There was fresh snow on the grounds of the huts, the ponies were grazing and the whole vista was sunlit. Swift clouds came over pretty soon as we prepared to go back to Kashmir.
Iqbal bhai was supposed to pick us up but we cancelled him, as it was he on whose insistence we had to go through the distasteful incident. There were reparations. The guide gave back the 700 bucks as we met him while returning the boots and jackets, he realised it was iniquitous to receive payment for the services we never took.
On the way back we visited a place called Baba Reshi. It is nearer to Tanmarg, half way or more down the hill from Gulmarg. The Sufi saint Baba Payam ud din Reshi (15th century) used to live and meditate in this region and then it became the site of his tomb and a shrine for his disciples. The ornate structure was built in Mughal and Persian styles.
The vehicle we hired from Gulmarg for Srinagar cost us only 1700 INR and 300 INR extra for the little detour as opposed to 3300 INR that Iqbal bhai charged.
There are many other places nearby that can be explored by foot or pony or car, but one needs more time, as days may have to be spent indoors due to the erratic weather. En route Srinagar, beyond Tanmarg the weather was pleasantly cool sans the chill. We passed many towns and also got caught in a traffic jam. This time we went to a different part of the town and not the usual boulevard beside the Dal lake where we have been residing at the Walisons Hotel ever since we stepped into Kashmir. We were to check in to a house boat in the Nigeen Lake but that story goes into the another blog, which will cover the Mughal gardens and the ancient temples.