Gulmarg waters do not speak. They take side lanes, quietly dolloping down from crevices and flow silently downstream, moistening lush green undulating daisy slopes, embellished with hues and shades of wild swinging flowers in the softest breeze. The wavy hilltops are a fairyland where children would love to roll downhill and play antique games of L-O-N-D-O-N —London.
Gulmarg- ‘The meadow of flowers’, appears to open as a large cine screen after a Deodar tree-lined ribboned road enters a passage cut through the hills. I expect a thunder of drumming music to follow the opening scene. Instead, much cackle follows, unmindful of the cacophony, I feel immersed in the spectacular beauty of the vista of Gulmarg. At first it appears like Switzerland, where no condescending boundary walls rupture the beatific scenery perched at an approximate altitude of 2650 m and located merely 56 km north of Srinagar- the Capital of Jammu& Kashmir, a simple 90 minute drive.
Someone calls it ‘Heaven on Earth’ and I believe it. Just then, I step out onto the path and my foot squashes on warm horse goo! I look around for help, skidding on one leg, kicking the other to let go of the poo and looking around to wipe my shoe with an old newspaper or grass. Conversely, I see most side paths lumpy with animal excreta. I wonder if ‘poo bags’ were still to be invented or has the discovery yet to catch the political eye of the area to impose sanitized laws? I am at a loss. When I do happen to broach the subject of ‘poo-bags’ with a local horse-walla later, his kohled eyes look menacingly at me as his henna reddened beard shakes, with a whip in one hand, he threatens –“Kashmir will join Pakistan the day poo-bags enter Gulmarg!” I smilingly point towards a known India-Pakistan border close by called –Line of Control’ in the region, saying –‘Of course you can go anytime to Pakistan!’ Later, I was to thank my parents to have been born a girl, and their production being a little pretty, lest, as I was told –“If you had been a man, your comment could have led to blood-fights and you surely would have been lynched”.
My life spared, I learn to live for the rest of the days with the horse poo, pooled around and the goat or sheep dark granules naturally manuring the grassland. The slight stink mixing with crush of grass blades and the hilly flower scented air and I begin to enjoy Gulmarg. I do have to keep my vision field synchronized to admire the flowers on the slopes, a wide view of the ravishing spread of quaint huts on green ranges and avoid a stare at the dirt on the circumnutating road.
On my trekking ways, as special treat for my lungs, heart and pores, I happen to encounter many tourists in altercation with locals. The reason, I learn, the horse-wallas and taxi operators threaten outstation taxis to enter the main roads. They fight so brusquely with tourists that I join my hands in prayer that I was spared the ignominy as I was ‘staying’ and not just ‘visiting’ Gulmarg.
Asia’s highest gondola or cable car is close to the tourist huts that I have booked. The place also gives me an opportunity to peak at Khyber Resorts, the only five star hotel property, close by and a muzzly waterfall in the corner. It costs me Rs 1400 both ways to ride two phases (13, 780 ft.) of Gondola or cable car. I click, click pictures, of down below from the cable car glass, as it mounts and watch smart trekkers along the Kongdoori Mountains, dotted with Gujjar Huts, to reach the first phase of the ride.
Apharwat glacial peaks are higher, beyond Kongdoori. I hear they take skiers to the top phase considered the highest ski slopes. Gulmarg’s other asset is the highest golf course in the world. Some locals at the glacier, point out a shape that automatically takes on a look of ‘an army picket’ when it’s described so, on another peak—“That’s the LoC –the infamous Line of Control between India Pakistan border that divides Jammu and Kashmir, for which three India-Pakistan wars took place, one as recent as 1999 Kargil War,” he booms. I feet historically enriched, on seeing a prominent landmark, denoting past events.
My dependable guide gives me advice on the Apharwat glacier-“The sledge-wallas will demand Rs 1500 but you settle at Rs 800 and so also with the skier”. I make it to the glacier with a continuous barrage of bargaining that goes on for snow boots, snow jackets, sledging, skiing on rent. The bargain ends at Rs 900 for sledging and another 900 for skiing, with extra costs for boots, ski sticks, jackets. Emptied of all money, carried that day over a wonderful meal of biryani, coke, curd and parantha on Kongdoori Mountains we also see the ‘Satt dhara’ where seven streams meet with a distinct shade of water. I would have loved to go to Alpather –The frozen lake, a little trek from Apharwat glacier ,but the weather was changing swiftly in the snowy peaks and gondola timings have to be adhered.
I head to the hut and give the guide a generous tip along with the caretaker of the hut who recommended the guide. Later, my taxi driver tells me I was looted all the way. The payment for sledging, skiing, boots, and jackets was three times more than the actual. “They work well together- ‘Aak ashh ishara!’ they work with Eye signals!”
My daughter insists we go to the best place for dinner. So we head for Khyber Himalayan Resort. The Taxi guy asks for an exorbitant Rs 300 for a 150 mts ride to Khyber nearby, earlier too a taxi walla had shouted out an overpriced sum for rescuing us in the incessant rain. The fact that someone is visiting five star property automatically targets them as a sitting duck for fleecing. Instead, we settle for three horses at Rs 300 inclusive of waiting and return, and feel like royalty, riding up to the high stone-walled property, till a Posh Pajero sports SUV, honks and the Resort’s Durban brusquely asks the horse-walla to vacate the entry. Poof goes our royal ride, but unending tickles and giggles make up for it. I wonder if smart floral buggy rides to the hotel would add to the charm of Gulmarg.
Nearly 10,000 ponies strut along the roundabout road. Ponies that have been part of Gulmarg since its inception are in for heavy competition with nearly 150 PVC – the all-weather open vehicles, allowed by the government to swoosh on roads charging a princely Rs 2000 for a round. However an environmentally sound setup is of solar panels, seen all over. Sitting quaintly are also two baby penguins model Swiss huts, facing a ‘Rani temple’ complete with temple bells, perched atop a hill. The British built, St Mary’s church parked amidst a pathway of Lupins, Daisies, touch-me-nots, an exquisite white bench, amongst the picturesque surroundings, guarded by heavy fronds of oaks and Chinars, is exquisitely charming.
Fish out the ‘Gora Kabristan’ where many English nobles and sundry rest in graves marked by gravestones in an innocuous enclosure or look for a Maharaja palace that I couldn’t locate. Mughal Emperor Jahangir lover of Kashmir was known to be mystified by the charms of Gulmarg, which also gets the credit of being the place to get the first Ski Club of India in 1927 by the British.
Gulmarg where prime property of Sheikh Abdullah –‘Lion of Kashmir’ is located, especially the ‘Hotel Highland park’ with walls lined with collectibles and memorabilia, as in times past gets the lion’s share of day-time tourists to Kashmir.
I only pray, the Meadow of flowers blooms may not become prey to poo or pelf.
FIRST PUBLISHED IN TRIP ADVISOR ON OCTOBER 2, 2015