Featured Image: Snow-covered Gulmarg as seen from the Phase-I cable car station.
VERY part of Kashmir has its unique beauty. And every season here casts its charm in a new light. The change of season can be very distinguishing in the Kashmir Valley as it is nowhere else to be seen in India.
Continuing with our rediscovery of the nature’s wonderland, we began our journey to the winter sports capital of India ~ Gulmarg.
The journey from Srinagar passes through paddy fields, apple orchards, pine and fir forest along the snow clad mountainous road. Gulmarg is about 56 km from Srinagar. It took us about two and half hours and we made the best use of this clicking the breath-taking natural view standstill on both sides of the road.
On the way, driver Mudassar showed us some locations where Bollywood films have been shot in the recent past.
On reaching Gulmarg, visitors are required to hire the services of guides at the very entry gate. Also you need to hire jackets, boots and a few other related gears that are needed to venture onto the snow. Local village youths serve as the guide and each one has to wait for their turn. In off season a guide has to wait for up to a week for his turn to come.
Our guide, Zahir who is in his early 20s, jumped on to the rear most seat of the Scorpion we were travelling in and took us to a shop from where we hired our snow gears.
By the time we drove into the parking zone, a drizzle ushered us onto a cloudy and chilling day! We looked around only to be amazed by milky white snow everywhere. The view is simply breath taking!
Gulmarg has the world’s highest cable-car service popularly known as Gondola ride. The Gondola takes one to a higher altitude on the Mount Apharwat, where all the adventure sports are run.
As we began our journey, the view that we came across seemed beyond our imagination. At times, you feel like travelling amidst milky clouds.
Guide Zahir showed us snow covered houses of shepherds, who have move downed with their families and cattle to escape from the snow. They will return once the snow begins to melt. Winter temperature in Gulmarg goes several notches below minus.
Gondola ride is offered in two phases. Phase I takes you to an altitude of 8,957 feet above the sea level; Phase II takes to 12,959 feet. In winter, all snow adventure sports are operated at the Phase I level. Since we visited in the second week of April, there was snow in abundance.
During summer, when the snow melts down, those wanting to indulge in snow sports have to go to Phase II level as it still remains covered with snow.
A few careful steps on the wooden steps wet by snow, we were into altogether a different world. All around ~ from pine trees to makeshift restaurants, to mountain tops ~ everything is covered with snow.
Here get several adventure sports such as like snow-bike, skiing, cycling, sledging, etc. One should be a little wise while negotiating the price to avail these activities as the operators begin by asking for exorbitant sum of money.
I chose to try skiing. It’s quite tricky at the beginning. After falling off a few times, I learnt to balance myself using the two ski sticks and with the heavy boots on. It’s a real fun to pass through the snow covered slopes; you need to be careful as a wrong step might end you up several yards down the slopes.
Tired by my maiden adventure, we took a tea break supported by hot noodles in what is probably the highest restaurant in the world!
We opted for snow biking next. The trained operators, who take you around on the snow-clad mountains, look no less than a Hollywood hero. Decked with colourful glasses, caps, jackets and boots, they teach you beforehand on how to embark on this adventurous ride.
Snow-biking is the costliest sports in Gulmarg: a single ride can cost you anything between Rs 2000 to Rs 3000 per bike and only one person can take the ride at one time. After we made ourselves comfortable on the separate bikes, my operator tells me that it’s going to be a lifetime adventure for me!
Truly, it’s beyond words to explain how much I enjoyed the snow biking. The operators took us to a no-man’s land located just a few inches short of a glacier point. We went out on the snow and the view is unparalleled from all we had come across till then.
Our next try was a sledge ride. Initially we were reluctant to take a sledge ride: one tends to feel pity for the men who pull the sledges manually. But our guide Zahir convinced us reminding that it was the only source of livelihood for the sledge pullers and not taking a ride would be greater injustice.
During the sledge ride, Zahir walked along to show us the St Mary’s Church built by the British in 1902, a Shiva temple where the famous song “Jai jai Shiva Shankar, kata lage na kankar” cast on Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz was shot, a golf course, a few lakes and a fishing pond.
Although partially covered by snow, we managed to climb the steps of the church and the temple.
Done with our Gulmarg visit, we returned to Srinagar late in the evening. Next morning, we travelled to Yusmarg, an upcoming tourist destination south of Srinagar and is located at a distance of about 47 kms. It is in the western part of Kashmir Valley.
Yusmarg means ‘the meadow of Jesus’ as it is believed to have been visited by family members of the Jesus Christ. The road passes through apple orchards, pine forests, army camps and the holy shrine of Charari Sharief.
There we took a horse ride to see Doodganga, a tributary of Jhelum River. The ride on the narrow snow covered pathway was quite tricky, as at times it becomes tough to balance yourself. On the way we came across tiny picturesque bridge, houses and hotels, all in the shade of green and while that offers a mesmerising sight.
As the sun bid adieu, we returned to the comfort of our hotel in Srinagar, looking forward to a city tour the next day.
(Debapriya Bhattacharjee is an assistant editor at Newsmen. To read her previous articles click here All photographs by author.)