Gulmarg- Land of Lord Ghorawalla !
“Helicopter service in Gulmarg; flying you on top of the world;
Places where we fly: Mont Apharwat, Frozen Lake, Sunshine, Tosa Maidan and Srinagar Airport.
Rs 7500/ per person.”
Much as I was elated by this small red billboard, I noticed on the way back from Gulmarg, Kashmir, owing to my senior citizen parents – not in the best of health, who could see some exotic places if they so desired, it got me thinking about the place Gulmarg –the famed ‘Meadow of flowers’.
Gulmarg waters do not speak. They take side lanes, quietly dolloping down from crevices and flow silently downstream, moistening lush undulating daisy slopes, embellished with hues and shades of wild swinging flowers in the softest breeze. Rolling hilltops are a fairyland where children would love to roll downhill and play antique games of L-O-N-D-O-N —London.
‘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 feel immersed into the spectacular beauty of the vista of Gulmarg, that 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.
However, after a day and a night stay at Gulmarg, I realized that other than the exotic flowers, Gulmarg can boast of the best talkers and fighters in the region. They are the famous Ghorawallas or Horse owners of Gulmarg, whose fame spreads throughout the Kashmir valley.
The verdant greens, sugary air and exotic flowers of the valley have done little to sweeten their moods, disposure or decency. Hence like the naturally growing pitcher plant – or insectivorous plant on Gulmarg slopes and crevices, the famed Ghorawallas of Gulmarg have learnt to trap their prey by fear, falsehood or fallacy. While the pitcher plant may remain a silent spectator to its squirming prey, this variety is highly advanced. It is loudmouthed, threatening, ready to turn anything into a big street brawl, capable of mob terror, fleecing, uses Pakistan slogans to instill fear and even resorts to violence with ‘Kashmiri’ drivers from other regions besides tourists.
One wearing pheran or loose cloak, kohled eyed and henna reddened beard and hair, possessed a rare knack of odd combinations. Seeing the Poop litter in this scenic valley, I suggested poop bags could be used for Ghoras or horses like in European countries to keep the place clean. The smarting Ghorawalla took it as a jibe–“The dayyy Poop bags will arrive in Gulmarg, Kashmir will go to Pakistan!” he declared.
Interestingly, although Government claims a stronghold on the Gondola services of Gulmarg, the Ghorawallas have the real say on plying to the Gondola site. If access to gondola and everything in-between feels so cumbersome in Gulmarg where the lords and Masters are the Ghorawallas, a shake of the grey cells should be of priority to Helicopter Service in the region, for a hassle-free, better and more lucrative business turnover. Perhaps the Heli services which has found few takers till now, and Ghorawallas should sit in a bilateral meeting to chalk out the strategies for the smooth operation, with Ghorawalla as a shareholder of the profit.
After all, the Ghorawallas in Gulmarg have united and created a solid vote-bank of the sitting Member of the Legislative Assembly (MLA) and therefore are supposedly given a free rein to loot the tourists while whispers abound that the police and bureaucracy are told to lie low and quietly collect their ‘cuts’ for being cooperative in ‘smart’ deals.
If you wish to use the circumbulation road of this scenic window of flowers – “Either you hire a a horse or Ghora or pay for a Snow Vehicle PVC,” a Ghorawalla literally barks to incoming tourists. Interestingly, like local warlords many of these Ghorawallas own both these modes of transport.
Perchance if you were able to push in a currency note as a chai-paani into the rough hands of the loudest protesting Ghorawalla, as a clearance to use your own taxi for the roundabout road, he will give you a free show of his stained toothed smile, even pull out his gruff hand to shake yours most vigorously, salute you and will assure you, there would be no Ghorawalla to stop or hassle you. The next, you know, another Ghorawalla, a short distance ahead will stop your vehicle, put his hand out for a bakshish (bribe) and dial a number on his cellphone to tell the next Ghorawalla about the welcome and protocol to be meted to you for plying your own vehicle. By the end of the route you could be lighter by a few hundred currency notes, for having indulged and navigated in a drive around.
Tourists on a day tour, a one and a half hour drive from Srinagar, are in for the best theatrics. If they decide to hire none of the above transport modes, they will be made to feel like a celebrity as the Ghorawallas will stalk them throughout their trek. They’ll urge them for a free test ride on the horse and then hold out their hand for the price.
By chance if you do settle a deal for a horse, marking out the territory of the ride, another surprise awaits you. Ghorawalla will refuse pointblank that he was a party to this deal and may ask two to five times more. If you feel strongly up for justice, and are not ready to give up without a fight, you’ll witness the speed with which tens of other Ghorawallas surround you and curse your riches for holding back payment to a poor Ghorawalla! Until you decide to call curtains.
When I requested a security man to let me pass by the barricade by paying a fee of Rs 50, as was mentioned there, because my parents could neither climb a horse nor take the PVC or snow vehicle, the police personnel asked me to make a deal, a deal with a Ghorawalla! The Lord Ghorawalla stood with his foot on a rock and picked his tooth staring at me. If there is the slightest of feelings that flits past you, that there is any rule of law here, please feign a memory lapse. The best recourse would be to equip yourself to beg or cry or whimper. These emotional froths just might work.
Two barricades in the circular road cuts a road through the stunning valley. Only if you are on night stay showing your booking on the cellphone, would you be allowed to ply your vehicle or taxi in the area. But this too has a clause and your night booking is ‘not yet’ a lucky ticket!
“You are fortunate if you booked a stay inside the barricaded area, else all those booked in hotels or huts or guest houses outside the barricade are barred from passing and treated at par with other day tourists.”
Once a Ghorawallas told me to take the horse instead of the Gondola, up the hill on the Gondola Kangoori route as I had failed to purchase an online ticket. “It is a big blunder,” He shook his head and continued-“Why didn’t you buy ticket online and now Gondola ticket counter is closed for three days, until previous bookings are cleared”. He told me he could extricate few tickets in the black. He also suggested that going on his horse was the best adventure I could have, would cost less than Gondola and the views would be breathtaking by the royal horse ride. Adding,-“Many a times the Gondola develops faults mid-air, and was hardly safe.” I decided to check and found readily available Gondola tickets not only for Phase-I but also Phase –II for one fourth the price and an assurance that breakdowns are rarest of rare cases. Ghorawalla during our conversation had also explained that I might like to fill the tummy of his animal as a sadkaa or offering to the Divine, with an extra for horse-feed as his ‘poor’ horse did not relish mountain grass on this slope.
This takes me to the red billboard for Heli services –“Are the tourists visiting Gulmarg being freely allowed access to the Helicopter service or will they have to kowtow to the Lord Ghorawalla in the land of bloom showers?
For all you know, the Ghorawalla may just find another story using his trading skills, to strike a deal with a naive tourist claiming his horse has wings! “So you don’t really need a helicopter at that cost when it flits away so quickly, you miss all the beauty na, and the views are stunning from my flying horse!” he may add.
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FIRST PUBLISHED IN RISING KASHMIR