Imagine skiing or snowboarding in a zone where you feel as though the slopes are your own private property as the usual crowd in much-hyped ski resorts is nowhere to be seen.
View of Dal Lake with its famous four chinar (oriental plane) trees in the lake.
One does not hear a word of Thai, something most of us try to avoid even though we may bump into people we know on our vacations across the world. Most Thais think of South Korea or Japan for ski trips, but India?
Little do they know India is one of the cheapest destinations for a ski getaway, and over the New Year’s break I had the opportunity to take a trip to what Indians call heaven on Earth – Kashmir.
Although this was my second trip to this paradise, it was my first for skiing. Since I had not skied in over two decades, it was not an easy adjustment. But the slopes and the snow just would not allow me to remain snuggled up in my hotel room, as falling flakes added to nearly two feet of powdery goodness.
As the temperature dipped below zero, I decided to seek a trainer just in case things did not go as planned, and walking to the slopes of the sleepy town yielded several. I bumped into a young gentleman named Eshfaq Majeed, a 3rd year student at university in Srinagar who was on holidays and wanted to earn some pocket money.
The fee of 2,000 rupee (around 1,000 baht) for the whole day is regulated by the government, with a tip up to the customer’s discretion. But the service-minded and friendly nature of the people of Kashmir will most likely prompt you to pay a gratuity.
ABOVE:The ski and snowboarding slopes of Gulmarg
LEFT:Amateurs practice skiing before heading to steeper slopes
RIGHT:Shikara (small boats) await customers to peddle along Dal Lake.
The slopes are open from 8am to 5pm, as there are no lights for night skiing. There are ski lifts running when the snow reaches two to three feet, usually from January to March, and equipment rental of jackets, trousers, boots and skis. Again, the prices are regulated prices so there is no haggling.
A day’s ski excursion in Gulmarg costs less than sitting at a bar in Bangkok racking up a 2,000 baht tab, prices unheard of for ski enthusiasts.
Gulmarg has some 400 hotels and motels, ranging from the Grand Mumtaz Hotel at $80 a night (Mumtaz is a chain of hotels in Kashmir with decent service) to the likes of the Khyber Himalayan Resort where one could pay over $250 a night.
Getting to Gulmarg, at 2,700 metres above sea level, is not that difficult with good connectivity from Bangkok to Delhi and cheap prices thanks to an airline price war. Tourists can find advance bookings for less than 10,000 baht, with further connections to Srinagar costing about 3,000 baht (advance booking is advised) on IndiGo, SpiceJet or Jet Airways.
LEFT:View of the snow-covered gardens at the break of dawn in Phalgam
RIGHT:Houseboats on Dal Lake where tourists can lodge for as low as $50 a night.
From Srinagar it is 64 kilometres to Gulmarg, costing about 1,500 rupees to Tangmarg and another 1,000 rupees from Tangmarg to Gulmarg. Travellers must switch vehicles at Tangmarg to one with chains on the wheels as the ice sheet would be too difficult for normal vehicles to plough through.
Gulmarg is not the only winter destination in Kashmir, as Soanmurg, Pahalgam, and the capital city of Srinagar are all worth a day or two.
Budget travellers willing to stay in decent accommodation can make the trip for $1,000 to $1,500, which is what I spent inclusive of airfare, hotels (Gulmarg and Pahalgam), a houseboat stay in Srinagar and food for nine days.
About the author
Writer: Umesh Pandey