Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir

24th Jan 2018

Snowboarding in Kashmir is a unique experience

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

Yes, I am from Switzerland, and I have spent a lot of time in the mountains. But I never knew how much they mean to me until I left my own country. This, I have come to realize after living one month in Belarus, one of the flattest nations on earth. But standing on a high elevation, overlooking the landscape, gazing into the distance, is just a magical feeling. Especially if the ground is made of solid rock and formed over millions of years ago.

Most of the time, we don’t really value the soil we are standing on, nor do we understand how it came to be. I was just living half a year in India, never wasting a single thought about the Indian tectonic plate and its relationship with Asia. But when I recently stood on top of mount Apharwat at nearly 4,400 meters, ready to slide down on a thin board, I started contemplating the whole world…

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir 1/3 by Adrian Sameli
Me contemplating life in the Himalayan Mountains

Some basics about the Himalayas

The Indian sub-continent is pushing with an incredible force northwards towards Asia. I have no idea where India is taking its motivation and energy from but the result is mind-blowing. On a stretch of 2,400 kilometers, no less than 50 mountain peaks are reaching 7,000 to 8,000 meters high into the sky. And as if that is not enough, the Himalayas are still rising! In direct comparison, the European Alps look relatively small. They only extend to half the length and have no mountain above 5,000 meters above sea level.

Last year, I already visited the eastern part of the Himalayan Mountain Range, hiking in the mountains of Nepal, Bhutan, and Tibet. It was autumn, the rainy season was nearly over, and the last clouds were covering the highest peaks. I have missed the most stunning views, but I have seen Mount Everest’s tip peeking out of the clouds. Back then, I did not think about snowboarding in the Himalayas at all.

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir 2/3 by Adrian Sameli
A group of freeride skiers getting ready to ride

What is the best ski resort in India?

Until that lazy weekend in New Delhi, when I started to research ski resorts in India. All my friends told me to visit Manali and other nearby places, only a few hours away from the capital. My research, however, spit out Gulmarg in Kashmir as the one and only snowboard paradise. I did not take long to make up my mind: “I will fly to Srinagar and go snowboarding in Gulmarg.” And being an Aries, nobody could get this idea out of my head anymore, not even my concerned Indian hosts in New Delhi.

I used social media channels to get in touch with local Kashmiri. Having heard how dangerous this area can be, I wanted to get a clearer picture and understanding of the situation. I read about the region’s history and chatted with a few locals. The case seemed complicated and confused, but avalanches seemed to be the only real threat for foreigners. In the week before my trip, a Swedish guy was crushed under a pile of snow, triggered by himself only. At the same time, some civilians were shot at the border between Pakistan and India. But that did not worry me much.

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir 3/3 by Adrian Sameli
Himalaya Mountains in Kashmir from the airplane

Welcome to Kashmir, heaven on earth

Day 1

One week later, I was finally on the airplane towards Srinagar. Before landing in the Kashmir valley, we flew over a seemingly endless range of snow-covered mountains. They were clearly not as immense as the eastern peaks around Mount Everest but still, a white ocean of mountains, as far as you can see.

Srinagar airport wasn’t like anything I’ve ever seen before. In fact, it was more of a military base than a civilian airport. Instead of the usual airport ground staff, our plane was received and guided by armed soldiers. The airport itself was relatively small but heavily guarded with armed soldiers. There was only one small booth with a lonely tourism officer to welcome visitors like me. He seriously tried to convince me that all the famous Srinagar houseboats can only be booked with him, at the best rate of course ;)

Police checkpoint when leaving Srinagar Airport

Photo of Srinagar International Airport, Srinagar by Adrian Sameli

When things are getting weird at the airport

I was fine because a young Kashmiri (from Gulmarg Riders), whom I befriended a few days earlier on Facebook, promised to pick me up. Leaving the airport building, I ran into dozens of local taxi drivers and men waiting for passengers – not a single woman in sight. I just could not spot my contact, and no Indian prepaid number is working in Kashmir, so I felt a bit lost. But no worries, all those Kashmiris were very eager to help me out! Without hesitation, an officer called him, and he assured me to be there in a few minutes.

One hour and several calls later, he was still not in sight. Then, suddenly another guy came running and introduced himself as his friend. He immediately left again to fetch his car and drive me out of the airport. Only there, I realized why my friend never turned up. The airport security was ramped up to a ridiculous level, and only drivers or guests with a valid ticket were allowed to approach the airport. Finally united, we became immediate friends, Fayaz, his cousin brother Umar and I.

Amazing Kashmiri hospitality, Fayaz and Umar (in the back)

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

Feeling the Kashmiri hospitality and lifestyle

These two were the most hospitable guys I have ever met; they treated me like their own brother. This is the pure opposite of how you would be treated in the Swiss mountains. What they lacked in clear communication (such as the reason why they could not pick me up inside the airport), they made up with friendliness. First, they brought me to the Dal Lake, where all the famous house-boats float silently. They picked a tour-boat for me and helped me negotiate a good price for a short, guided trip.

The captain was also like family to me, giving me lots of insights into the Kashmiri traditions. We cruised through dozens of house-boats and a floating market. In the middle of the lake, we stopped at a restaurant boat, where he introduced me to the unique saffron tea, the Kashmiri Kahwa. Coming from New Delhi, I was now in a totally different world. Everything was moving slower, more gracefully and more enjoyable. After this relaxing boat ride, my two hosts drove me up some windy roads to Gulmarg. One village before, in Tangmarg, we stopped for lunch. My friends invited me to a yummy Chicken Biryani at their family’s shop.

Unique restaurant boat on the Dal Lake

Photo of Dal Lake, Srinagar by Adrian Sameli

Not so different from Switzerland after all

Gulmarg itself reminded me a lot of small Swiss mountain villages, a few wooden houses tucked along a curvy road, surrounded by a forest. In the center, there was not a market square nor houses, but a vast plain, where people were riding snowmobiles or tried standing on skis. I wonder if there once was a crystal-clear mountain lake?

I did not find an answer to that but instead received all my snowboard equipment. The brothers drove me to their friend’s shop, to equip me with all necessities: snowboard, boots, ski dress, gloves, goggles, helmet, shovel and a beeper. Within a few minutes, I was ready to hit the slopes – or rather the uncombed backcountry, as I learned the next day. I was stunned by the efficiency and professionality of this little shop – and more than happy about the low price he made me, he gave me a substantial friendship discount.

Ski and Snowboard rental shop

Photo of Gulmarg by Adrian Sameli

Freezing in the comparably expensive Hotel

Knowing how cold nights can get in the mountains and how quickly I am freezing, I was prepared for the worst. Minus 15 degrees Celsius is not an exception in Kashmir. Coming from a rather cold country myself does not mean, I am well adapted to those temperatures. I am used to all-year-round comfortable indoor temperatures thanks to central heating systems and insulations. This was exactly the reason, why I decided to pay a little extra for a better hotel.

The Grand Mumtaz Resort looked nice from the outside but turned out to be quite a disappointment. The large rooms were too cold and the overly late breakfast buffet minimalistic. Because of Kashmir’s electricity situation, they could only operate the central heating or have hot water – but not both at the same time. The tiny electrical room heater they gave me, did not help me much. So, I spent a lot of time in the comfortable and warm bed, a welcome change from my normal restless travels. Next time, I get a cheaper hotel.

My cold room at the Grand Mumtaz Hotel

Photo of Grand Mumtaz Resorts, Gulmarg, Jammu and Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

Gulmarg Gondola and Ski lift, a French import

Day 2

After a good night sleep, I finally hit the mountains! Fayaz, my new buddy, helped me to get a ticket, and together we embarked the gondola. Trusting this masterpiece of new French technology, I could fully enjoy the ride. Not a single cloud covered the mountains, and I had a stunning view over the Kashmir valley, surrounded by mountains as far as you can see. Halfway up, we disembarked and walked to the ski lift. It was already past 10 am, and to my astonishment, he was still motionless. As we slowly approached the booth, they turned on the engines – for their very first guests of the day!

Older part of the Gondola in Gulmarg

Photo of Gulmarg Gondola, Gulmarg by Adrian Sameli

I was excited to hit some untouched slopes in Gulmarg. Unfortunately, there was no snowfall since over a week, and the little snow left was slowly disappearing. Snowboarding in Gulmarg was an exceptional experience for me but far from what it could be. When those mountains are hit by heavy snowfall, it must be a dream for backcountry skiing and freeride snowboarding. Endless uncombed tracks are running down from the top at 4,400 meters to the village nearly 2 kilometers below. With heavy snowfall, you have to be seriously concerned about your safety, staying away from avalanches. A danger I had not to fear.

Me and Fayaz climbing Mount Apharwat

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

Climbing the peak of Mount Apharwat

Day 3

The next day, I convinced Fayaz to check out the second level of the Gondola. First and foremost, I wanted to enjoy the panoramic view from Mount Apharwat Peak, not thinking about the snowboard yet. And it was even better than anticipated! Only the freezing temperatures and strong wind kept me on the hard ground of reality. Otherwise, it felt like hovering in the sky, high above the valley and lower hills. After half an hour of indulging in the scenery, we finally jumped on our boards.

Me below the Gondola of Gulmarg

Photo of Apharwat, Gulmarg by Adrian Sameli

Again, it was not that beloved feeling on fresh powder snow – but it still felt heavenly to ride here. I managed to hit a few untouched spots and caught a glimpse of fresh snow. Everything else was already riddled with other rider’s tracks and the snow hardened by the wind. Snowboarding in those conditions is a bit rough and strenuous, as you can easily jam into hard edges and lose your balance. Nevertheless, I’ve had a terrific time with Fayaz! To my pleasure, he also enjoyed riding with me a lot. He was fond of the area but being a bit more experienced; I could teach him some tricks. These two days on the board were really exhausting and tiresome for both of us. So, I had a good night sleep in my cold hotel room.

Umar and Fayaz at the bonfire

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

Becoming one with nature in Kashmir

Day 4

Despite being cold and exhausted, I was mesmerized by Kashmir. I had one more day before returning to the dusty and polluted air of New Delhi. My last day, I spent together with both of my new friends. In an old, rumbling car, Fayaz and Umar chauffeured me around, took me to roaring Ningli Nalah Waterfall and the Jammia Mosque. No Kashmir experience is complete without trying local specialties. For lunch, we ate snacks out of newspaper: fried lotus stems called “Nader Monje” that tasted a bit like spicy fries and the local parantha (flatbread) called “Tobruk Halwe-Porath”.

In the afternoon, we went to the lower hills where all the local boys played cricket. I felt really connected to those people and the land, as I silently observed them running around and enjoying the nature, instead of consuming TV or social media. Shortly before the sunset, Fayaz and Umar collected dry wood and lightened a bonfire. There we stood for an hour, in a tight circle around the natural fireplace, warming our bodies and soul. For my last night, they invited me to stay and eat at their home, together with the entire family.

Kashmiri cuisine: Nader Monje and Tobruk Halwe-Porath

Photo of Tangmarg Market, Srinagar - Gulmarg Road, Tangmarg by Adrian Sameli

Back to reality of the political order

Early morning, when it was still dark, we got up and drove back to the airport. On the stretch of about 50 kilometers, we passed by more than ten Indian military patrols. Three of them stopped and checked us, not daring to touch me, the foreigner. They only checked my friend’s documents, probably looking for disguised Pakistani. One of the Indian officers tried to have a conversation with me but struggled to find English words. I felt sorry for the soldiers, having to patrol all night through the cold air, and also felt sorry for the local population, who have nothing to do with politics. Ordinary people have no heart feelings but just want to live in peace.

Dreaming in the airplane when leaving Kashmir

Photo of Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir by Adrian Sameli

I will always remember Kashmir

Day 6

Other than that, my last drive was smooth and eventless – and I arrived way ahead of time at the airport. Due to the raised security levels, the check-in procedure took a little longer, having to declare and identify my luggage multiple times. I didn’t bother much; I was not in a hurry to leave this heavenly place. In my mind, I was still high up in the mountains, feeling the fresh air in my lungs. Lost in beautiful memories, I waited for the delayed flight back to New Delhi. Kashmir will always be in my heart.