There are so many reasons for one to skip a trip to Gulmarg. Afterall, I have been going there for years; the cabbies plying between Srinagar and Gulmarg are scamsters right?; and my favourite – isn’t Kashmir a militant state? Yet each year I somehow end up in Gulmarg for two, may be three, weeks. So what if I have been going there for years; so what if a few cabbies are scamsters; so what if the state is ravaged by militancy? I have been going to other places for years too! Cabbies in other cities are scamsters too! And Kashmir IS NOT a militant state anymore. Proof? I have been there for two weeks and am back; safe and sound.
Mangal and I have been in touch for a few months prior to the trip. We’ve known each other for three years now and have almost always been talking at regular intervals. A lot has been going on in the year gone by; so there was no dearth of stuff we would talk about. For instance, Mangal’s good and not so good experiences at the institute where he is an instructor, my cold injuries from Nun, Mangals fast approaching wedding date etcetra. I would tease him often about him getting married and he would shrug it off by blaming his parents for forcing him to get married. Of course he knew that I knew that he wasn’t being forced to do anything. He was getting married; PERIOD. Mangal also needed a rucksack, so I had one arranged for him a week or so before leaving Chennai. I was scheduled to fly out of Chennai on the 14th of February and I had planned for a stay of a couple of weeks in Gulmarg. Mangal was assigned to conduct an adventure course in Pahalgam, so he wouldn’t be back in Gulmarg till the 15th, a day after I arrived.
On the 14th, I was off on my way to Srinagar (via Delhi) by 0700. I had a layover of a couple of hours at Delhi, before heading off to Srinagar. I was at Srinagar by 1 and a cabbie called Zahoor was waiting for somebody called “Jeery”. We were off on our way to Tangmarg in a jiffy. Zahoor didn’t have the chains required for traction between Tangmarg and Gulmarg, so I had to change vehicles at Tangmarg which was not such a big deal as long as I got to Tangmarg before 4. After that, it could get difficult to find willing drivers unless one pays them double – onwards and the return fare since they would have to return without a passenger. I was at Tangmarg by 3 and in less than an hour I was able to get Gulmarg. I had called up Haji Nazir to inform him about my arrival, so accommodation for the next fortnight was not a concern. By 5, I had a new address at Hotel Yemberzaal.
In the evening, while I was in the restaurant, I met with Mr. Reshi, an old friend of mine. It was good meeting him after almost a year. Since the winter national games were on around the same time I was there, Mr. Reshi was busy, being one of the many gentlemen involved in organising the event; so we agreed to meet once the event was over. I did however go out for a walk later on in the evening, meeting with a few friends in the village but then returned to the toasty bukhari on the restaurant at Yemberzaal to keep a check on my fingers. Yes the recovery from the injuries on Nun was not total yet, and the cold was making me uncomfortable, even causing pain in the right middle finger, the worst affected on Nun. While I was out, I did meet with Pradeep, a friend since two years. He was doing an intermediate course at JIM and he was in a ritual “fall-in” since the trainees at the institute had a trip planned for HAWS. We managed to speak for a few minutes and agreed to meet later in the evening before the course set out on their slow march towards HAWS.
I have stayed at other places in Gulmarg in the past, but even on those trips I have often eaten at the restaurant in Yemberzaal. Its not just the food being good; of course that is one of the reasons; but more importantly its just got something to do with the way Yemberzaal is. Its never too crowded, the restaurant is spacious, the furniture well sequestered and the staff very friendly. I often hear people rave about Bakshis and Global; quite frankly the buzz is overhyped. Anyways! Supper was at Yemberzaal and I usually have roti or rice with mutton or chicken in gravy, spiced up to suit my south Indian palate but I cant quite remember what I had for dinner that night. What I do remember is that it was tasty.
The following day I was up early. After a light breakfast I was about to leave for highland slope to rent, may be buy my skiing equipment, but I was advised by Mr. Reshi to wait so we could go together. He said that he would be at the hotel in an hour but it took him over two hours to get there. That day was almost wasted, because by the time we set out it was past noon. We checked out a couple of places but I couldn’t find what I was looking for. So I rented a pair of carving skis and sundry from a shop near highland and did a few runs on the highland slope. I was back at the hotel by 5 with a day well wasted behind me. Since it was late, I skipped lunch and instead opted for Thums up and chips. This was going to be the trend for the rest of the trip. Skip lunch and opt for a heavy, early supper. So I was at the restaurant munching chips and watching some rubbish on cable trying to pass time, till it was time for supper. At about half past six, Pradeep called me and we agreed to meet at Yemberzaal. Just when we ordered dinner, his colleague, Divyansh, followed him to the restaurant. Over the course of my stay there, Divyansh and I became good friends. Pradeep and I had dinner while Divyansh had some coffee. We spoke about climbing, skiing, gear, apparel etc. Since Divyansh and Pradeep were part of a course, they said they would extend their stay for a couple of days after the the course was over, if I was willing to hangout with them; skiing of course. I was more than willing. I usually spend a lot of time alone in Gulmarg, so I actually didn’t mind the company.
The next two days I was skiing at the resort while Divyansh and Pradeep were in the last stages of their skiing course. I had planned a brief trip to Srinagar on the 17th, so I had decided to go off piste after the Srinagar trip. I used to meet with Divyansh and Pradeep in the evenings over a drink or dinner; both fine gentlemen, quite in line with what one would expect of an officer. On the 17th, I was on my way to Srinagar after breakfast. A trip to Srinagar involves “Sumo” rides from Gulmarg to Tangmarg and then Tangmarg to Batmalu in Srinagar. I was held up en route Tangmarg because of army convoys and road blocks. By the time I reached Tangmarg it was almost 11. I took the first available ride to Srinagar and was there in about 90 minutes. The purpose of visiting Srinagar was checking out skiing equipment with an acquaintance there. He had some of the equipment that I needed; he had skis and bindings, but he didn’t have the right boots and poles and a bag. So I thought it wise to wait till he had everything in place. I had spent over two hours at his office before heading back to Gulmarg. No road blocks or convoys on the way back, so I was at the hotel by 6.
18th onwards, I started going off piste. The Gondola and the chair lift to Merry Shoulder would virtually multiply my options. I would start from the hotel by 10 and return by 5 invariably, which meant that I would have to skip lunch for an early supper and opt for light snacks with soft drinks instead of lunch. In the evenings I would meet with Pradeep and Divyansh for dinner. Their course was over on the 19th, so on the 20th I took them along with me. They seemed to be enjoying skiing out of the resort for a change. I was even able to give them a few tips on skiing off the beaten track. Pradeep took to it quite easily. Divyansh had a painful knee condition, so I advised him to take it easy. Pradeep had to leave on the 21st. After seeing him off in the morning, Divyansh and I went to the mountains again. He was a lot more comfortable than the day before and was even able to manage on his own. Mangal was skiing with us too; so we were a happy bunch that day. We wound up by 4 and returned to the hotel by 5. After some tea and snacks, Mangal had to go to his hotel to take care of some business. We asked him to join us for dinner later on.
Divyansh had to return to his unit on the 22nd. So he was on his way to the airport quite early. I saw him off by 9 and was on way to the mountains in an hour or so. For me it was more of the same; Taking the Gondola or the chairlift to a certain high point and then exploring different routes on the downhill. Mangal was gone in few days too, to be home in time for his wedding. That meant that I would have most of my meals at the restaurant in my hotel. I usually don’t mind skiing in snowfall conditions but 27th was a washout for me since there was heavy snowfall with zero visibility. With a heavy heart I returned my equipment on the morning of 27th instead of evening, as I had originally planned, since I had a flight back home on the 28th. I also used the day to meet with acquaintances in Gulmarg and at JIM.
On the morning