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Gulmarg 2013

One of my friends once told me that, in the mountains one quite often tends to visit the same places more than once. Its been quite true for me in that I have climbed twice in Sikkim, thrice in Ladakh and so on; but with Gulmarg, its been a prolonged affair. Its hard to reason out this constant need for more in Gulmarg. Afterall there are other places in India where one can ski off piste. There is Manali and then there is Auli. So why Gulmarg? The Kashmir valley is rife with militancy, political unrest, constant bandhs and what not. In the last few years that I have visited Kashmir, I have almost always landed at Srinagar in the midst of a statewide bandh, with illiterate youth, who neither care for the cause of the province, nor are aware of who their instigators are, waiting to hurl stones (for a couple of 100 rupees) at vehicles plying between Srinagar and Gulmarg (perhaps to other neighbouring villages and towns as well). Perhaps the apt ones to answer this question are the number of foreigners who visit Gulmarg just to explore the Afarwat. Especially the ones who I keep running into year after year. Its the same story each year. Bandh on arrival, stone pelting or road blockade on departure. But if one can somehow rise above this irksome recurrence, there is so much fun to be had in Gulmarg. Its almost as if Gulmarg is cut off from the rest of the state. In my numerous visits to this small village, I have not once come across a violent incident related to militancy or law and order. I almost cancelled the trip this year; lot of things to be taken care of at home. But Mangal Ustaad, an acquaintance of mine in the Indian Army and an Instructor with JIM, persuaded me to visit. All he had to say was that the snow conditions this year were terrific and it seemed like a mouthwatering prospect to me. So I reasoned that a couple of weeks would do me no harm. I booked a flight to reach Srinagar on the 20th of Feb. I reached Srinagar at about 1/2 past noon. Surprise surprise, it was a statewide bandh. I was stranded at the exit gate of the Srinagar International Airport, with a few gentlemen who were on their way to JIM (Jawahar Institute of Mountain Sports). Stranded because there were incidents of locals pelting stones at vehicles on their way to Gulmarg, Anantnag etc. I hung around for an hour, thats about how long my patience lasts; spoke with a cab driver who was willing to drop me at Tangmarg (about 13 Km short of Gulmarg) for 1200 Rs. I asked the guys if they wanted to join me. A bandh, stone throwers enroute and a vehicle which didnt belong to the institute seemed like recipe for trouble to those poor guys. So we parted ways. The driver kept calling his other driver friends to inquire about the situation enroute. Fortunately, for the 2 hours that I was driving with him, there was not too much trouble along the way. I reached Tangmarg by 4 in the evening. I met a few foreigners who had skied down to Tangmarg earlier that day. I asked them if they would drop me at Gulmarg, and they agreed. I reached Gulmarg by 1/2 past 5 and stayed at Bakshis for the first couple of days. I would advise folks to stay away from this place, unless you are White. After two horrible days at Bakshis, I moved over to Yemberzaal, my favorite hotel in Gulmarg. Perhaps the only good thing about the first two days, was skiing on the highland slope in the village. I always spend a couple of days skiing in the resort before venturing in to the mountains. Although the technique for skiing off piste is quite different than what one would use on a beaten track, its the confidence factor that counts. A few days in the resort does a world of good to ones confidence.

I was using Dynastar Legend this year. Good all purpose skis. After I continued skiing at Highland and 85 slope for a couple more days after moving out of Bakshis. By the fifth day I was feeling pretty good about going to the mountains. I was planning on doing a couple of downhill runs from Merry shoulder, but the chair lift was under maintenance. Therefore the only two options left for me were to go to the top of Afarwat or to ski down from Kongdoori (also known as phase 1). I chose the former. The run from the top of Afarwat to Kongdoori was pretty nasty. Had a couple of mighty falls, but since the limbs were in their respective places, I continued skiing after a brief inspection of my equipment. The rest of that day was spent skiing down from Kongdoori to G1 (point where the Gondola service begins – quite near the resort). I must have done may be 10 runs, since the Gondola was up all day.

The following day, I came back to the mountain. I was not keen on going to the top. I wanted to explore new routes between Kongdoori and G1. After may be 4 rounds, on my way up towards Kongdoori in the Gondola, I met with a chap who called himself Hem. He offered me some water since I was thirsty and had somehow managed to empty my water bladder. It turned out that he was an officer in the Army, posted at the HAWS. The two of us hit it off rightaway. He told me that he belonged to the 108 NDA course. I told him about my brief visit to the NDA in 2001. We did about a dozen rounds together. After a few hours on the mountain, we decided to call it quits. Hem was kind enough to drop me at my Hotel and he even invited me to HAWS before leaving Gulmarg.

The following day, I did to Merry shoulder, what Hem and I did to Kongdoori. I cant remember how many runs I did between Merry shoulder and Kongdoori. Must have been at least a dozen. It had snowed the previous night and the conditions were fantastic. Its amazing how quickly a mountain as big as Afarwat gets tracked out. 2013 was tremendous in that regard. There were very few bad weather days this time. Almost every time I was on the mountain, the weather was favourable. In the evenings I used to meet with Mangal, Jitu and other instructors at JIM. Very good friends and humble people. As are most soldiers from the army. Mangal and Jitu are on deputation at JIM. After a brief chat, I usually head out to try out the local cuisine. Rista (spicy meat balls), Mathe Maaz (Minced meat in gravy), Sheekh Kebab (Spiced meat on skewers), Kokur (Chicken in red gravy), Kashmiri Roti, etc. I mostly ate at the restaurant in Yemberzaal. I seldom ate out, and that too only for change of taste.

After a couple of weeks, it was time to head back home. These two weeks were the best of all times I have visited this beautiful place in the past. The day before leaving Gulmarg, I called on Hem. It was a sunday and he was busy with a demonstration in his unit. I met with a few of his fellow officers. Ben, Boro and Chandra. All fine gentlemen, as one would expect of an officer. After a drink with the boys, I thought it apt to return to the hotel and begin packing for the flight the following day. The skiing experience was excessively satisfying this year. The piste conditions in the resort were splendid. Off piste skiing was brilliant. Unfortunately, the only thing this year that was consistent with the past was the unrest. On my way back, there were blockades, because a guy called Afzal Guru had been hanged and the locals felt that that was reason enough to smash windows of vehicles transporting innocent tourists. I was traveling with 4 foreigners who were quite anxious since we got into the cab. I assured them that we would reach unharmed at the airport. We were held up at Tangmarg for a while but were mobile in about 15 minutes. I noticed an army convoy and asked the driver to stay with the army. In a couple of hours we reached the airport. I reached Chennai by 11 in the night.

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