High in the Himalayas above the hectic heat of the Indian streets lies the Kashmiri resort of Gulmarg. Last year, Caja Schöpf and Lena Stoffel braved machine gun checkpoints to ski its remote faces, suck in its breathtaking beauty – and write about it for our August/September issue last year
Photography by Roman Lachner
I’m soaked, right down to my underpants. For a minute I feel like I’m on a surf trip.
Not just because of my exotic surroundings and the almost too friendly people you normally only meet in holiday postcard destinations, but thanks to the super-wet and heavy snow I’m almost drowning in, rather than ploughing right through on my skis. But a quick glance at the poles in my hands and the tips that surface lazily in front of me stop my glassy wave daydreams and bring me back to my Indian reality.
While India naturally invokes summery images and phantom feelings of heat and sweatiness, Kashmir is a true heaven on earth for snow lovers with powder en masse, ungroomed slopes, and not a single backcountry freak in sight to fight you for it. And that’s without mentioning the breathtaking Himalayan backdrop or the stunning terrain.
Sadly this region has gained notoriety for nightmarish tales of war and death. Since 1948 the states of India and Pakistan have been fighting over Kashmir and its independence, or rather affiliation to one of these nations, resulting in a cruel war for the people on all sides and borders of this conflict. More than half a century later, the situation is still as precarious as ever. We’re greeted with machine guns at the various military posts, which we have to pass on an adventurous route from Delhi to Gulmarg, the ski resort we’re aiming for in the middle of the Kashmir valley.
With soldiers armed to their teeth on the one hand, the contrast to the friendly and lively locals we meet on the other couldn’t be starker. We are welcomed with enthusiasm and treated like princesses (even though we protest against it!) with Kashmiris half the size of our luggage shuffling it off to our rooms within the blink of an eye. And as is fitting for princesses, the next morning we scored a seriously royal trip with a day’s of heli-skiing! Something neither of us had ever tried before. We were almost too nervous for breakfast but the clouds were too heavy for the sun to break through, so we had to endure a bit of a wait until we were off into the sky.
As we got further and deeper into the Himalayas, our nerves and impatience faded and we weren’t remotely fazed by the sight of machine guns at the Pakistani border patrol in the middle of the icy mountain range.
And then, there they were, our first Indian powder lines. But epic as they were, we were down at the bottom in what seemed like no more than a heartbeat and we were already regret having picked an easy warm up line.
Especially when we learnt that the heli had to go all the way back to get permission for another run before we head up again. Which of course was a bit of wait. In fact the wait lasted so long that the light had gone flat by the time it finally came back.
Waiting is something you should get used to in India sooner rather than later anyway, and chaos too, while you’re at it. During the next couple of days, when it snowed more than in the most enchanted of winter fairy tales, no one could tell us if “Phase 2”, the upper part of the Gulmarg Gondola, would open at all and if so, when. Or why they only sell “One Way Tickets” instead of day passes, for that matter. But once we got in the nostalgic yellow cabins of the Gulmarg Gondola, which meant we’d get at least half way up the hill, the smiles were slowly returning to our faces again, as we remembered things do work slightly differently in the more remote parts of the world.
And so the next day, we decided to opt for the local “taxi mode” instead of the gondola, a service you probably won’t find in any other ski resort – at least not in this form. On skis through the untouched powder between the open fields of the local “papertrees” down to the pass route and back in a cab. If stuff isn’t there, you get creative and make it yourself. One of the first lessons we learnt from the locals, such as our cab driver, who fashioned his own snow chains out of string. Followed swiftly by lesson number two, be patient, the 40 minutes return trip taking 2 hours instead… Shanti, shanti, don’t stress.
Fortunately our patience was rewarded almost straight away and the next morning we got all the way to the top of the Gulmarg ski resort for the first time since we’d arrived. And true to its name, the top of “Phase 2” didn’t just present us with picture perfect ungroomed slopes as far as the eye could see, but also blazing sunshine and perfect bluebird, hopefully heralding a “second phase” for our trip after all the bad luck and flat light.
But while the good weather didn’t stay with us for too long, at least the gondola did, sporting the best opportunity for a last little adventure to top things off at the end. A small hike from the top station over a ridge brought us to a little military base, to which we were still not even beginning to get used to in the middle of white nowhere. At least these soldiers were friendly and for once unarmed. From there our favourite guide Mustags led us through more papertrees, over ridges and through gullies to the small village of Trang, where we were greeted by a whole crowd of excited kids, asking for chocolate from the fair-haired girls.
Although we reached the end of our ski trip to Kashmir, the Indian adventure wasn’t quite over yet. On the way back to Delhi we passed the picturesque Dal Lake, beautifully nestled between the majestic mountains. And like true Maharanis ourselves, we were escorted to our houseboat in a throne like Shikaria, where we enjoyed the best meal of the whole trip.
After the remote solitude and idyllic peacefulness of the Kashmiri mountains, Delhi was waiting for us with a proper culture clash to finish us off – sharp market yells in the air, steaming food stalls on every corner and more children, animals or people than we could have ever imagined seeing in one place at one time. Our newly acquired patience was put to the test during a little sightseeing tour with what seemed like half of the city in tow.
In the end all you have to do is let go, embrace this mysterious country, stick with the locals and be ready to switch your plan for something more suitable at any time.
And first and foremost, be patient, you’ll be rewarded in a royal fashion, don’t worry. Shanti, shanti.
Wanna see more? Watch the video from the trip!