Visiting Gulmarg was the pièce de résistance for us. After visiting Sonamarg, we were told that Gulmarg held more promises – beautiful mountains that is aptly called as the Switzerland of India. Our interest was not as much in the skiing as we can’t even play the sport, but more due to its proximity to the neighbouring country, and the cable cars, which are aptly called the Gondolas. Gulmarg boasts of Asia’s highest and longest cable car project, the Gulmarg Gondola. The two-stage rope way ferries about 600 people per hour to and from Kongdoori Mountain, a shoulder of nearby Afarwat Peak (4,200 m (13,780 ft)). The idea of going up to 13,780 feet by rope way was a very exciting thought for us.
Therefore armed with a one night hotel booking at the famous Khyber Himalayan Resort and Spa, we reached Gulmarg around 11 in the morning. It took us approximately 2.5 hours from Srinagar. The road was beautiful, the weather was pleasant thought we needed to wear woolens, as Gulmarg is situated at approximately 9000 feet up.
Originally named Gaurimarg (“the fair one”) by shepherds in honor of the Hindu goddess Parvati, the resort was renamed Gulmarg (“meadow of flowers”) by Sultan Yusuf Shah of the Chak Dynasty who frequented the place with his mistress Habba khatoon in the 16th century. Wild flowers of 21 different varieties were collected by the Mughal emperor Jahangir for his gardens in Gulmarg. In the 19th century, British civil servants started using Gulmarg as a retreat to escape summers in North Indian plains. Hunting and golfing were their favorite pastime and three golf courses were established in Gulmarg including one exclusively for women. One of the three golf courses established survives to the present day and at an altitude of 2,650 metres (8,690 ft) and is the world’s highest golf course. In 1927, British established a ski club in Gulmarg and two annual ski events were hosted one each during Christmas and Easter.
When we reached the Gandola office had not opened yet and some tourists had already queued up. It would be important to mention here that unless you have booked the Gandola tickets online at least a month in advance, you would have to depend upon the local guides (you have no other option) to get the tickets or stand in the queue for a long time. This arrangement is not official but everyone turns a blind eye to it as the entire region is completely tourist dependent and income, thus, is seasonal.
While we loitered around for the ticket office to open (actually our guide Salmanbhai did, but we had to hang around anyway) we looked around the ticketing centre and discovered to our dismay that only Phase I of the ride was open for the next fourteen days as they were repairing the second phase. which meant that we could not go to the Afarwat Peak. Salmanbhai offered us an option, i.e. take ponies and ride to the peak, which according to him should not take us more than two hours and coming down would be an hour. He also assured us that the roads to the peak were not as steep as Sonamarg and we could ride for a while and walk for a while. He seemed very confident which in turn gave us some confidence and assurance (soon we were to realize the mistake that we made) …. but that is for later 🙂
At Kongdoori – the mountain looks fabulous
The mountain range looked splendid and magnificent. We were a little apprehensive to go up by pony but we decided to take a chance. Salman and the ponnywalla kept reassuring us that it would be a smooth ride 🙂
we were to journey to the Frozen Lake or the Alpather Lake. Salman said so many nice things about the lake that made us a little more adventurous as it seemed we would lose something special if we missed it (and perhaps it was true as well). The lake is actually at the foot of Apharwat peak reaching a height of 14,799 feet and the journey to the lake is usually a one day trek from Gulmarg via Khilanmarg. It is also possible to go there Gandola Phase II by a 1.5 km walk from the top of Aparwat Mountain. Please note we were completely unaware of all these while we decided to carry on. However, for some reason, we thought we would first go upto Khilanmarg which was not very far and if we felt that we could manage, we would go up further. However, we did not realise that our guide had decided that we should go up to the frozen lake at one go, as we had started rather late, at about 11.30 am, whereas the route was actually for a day trek. We were happily unaware of all these when we started. The mountain path looked fabulous and indeed at the beginning the path that the horses were taking were rather nice and kind of flat.
We rode on for about 120 minutes and then realised that we had come up higher than Khilanmarg, which laid like a little tabletop down below. Salman advised us to rest for a while as the ponies had a rough road ahead and they needed rest. Lo and behold, no one else, no other human being, or other ponies were in sight for as far as our eyes could see. The pony wallah said as if in encouragement: “see, not every one has the heart and courage to come up to this”. These were not very comforting words. The pony-wallah looked rather old and frail, while Salman was young but completely unaware of the path that we were taking. All three of us were dependent on the “ponies” and their caregiver. To make matters even more “interesting”, the pony-wallah kept telling us that the ponies also fear for their own lives, so not to worry, they would take us to the right path. As if in agreement, one of the ponies kept changing path while on ascent and both Salman and the pony-wallah had a tough time controlling them. As if this was not enough, whenever I would feel scared, the pony-wallah would scold me saying: “keep your faith in Allah, only he would take care of us, no matter what happens” 🙂 🙂 🙂
Meanwhile about 90 minutes had passed and the ponies needed rest and and so did we for about ten minutes before starting again. Slowly the path that ponies took became steeper, and was full of loose rocks! Every step was fraught with apprehensions about the pony losing its balance and us rolling down thousands of feet below. It was torturous and scary. I don’t think I have ever been that scared in my life.
at this point, Salman said we needed to to the mountain with a bit of ice on top – the farthest one in this photo and I was like, “what”? “that would take us the whole day”? and he was like “no, no, only 30 minutes”!!
Despite my fears, nervousness and physical discomfort, I could not help but note that the mountain was magnificent, both in its beauty and its sheer dangerous slopes, lofty heights and the absolute silence. The wind was sharp and cold, and the height was increasing. There was no sound anywhere, it was almost eerie. I tried to image what the Pandavas would have felt on their last journey. They probably would have gone through some roads like this.
we continued onto the path nonetheless, as there was very little else we could have done. However, I started having a bit of breathing problem when we went closer to the frozen lake. At that point of time, I decided that no matter what, I was not going to go forward. It was 2.30 p.m and we had not even reached the lake. The Gandola closing time was 5 p.m and we needed to get down and get back to Kongdoori to get back to Gulmarg. Much to the chagrin of Salman and the pony-wallah, I decided to stop and get down. I could sense their disappointment, apart from the money, they also wanted us to see and enjoy this beautiful scenery that they were so very proud of.
The mountain was so beautiful and so quiet that it did seem as though we were in a different world. No one and nothing mattered for those moments except to feel small and humble in the presence of the mighty and majestic Himalayas.
Just at this point of time the pony wallah decided to add that Pakistan laid just on the other side of us, and yes, sometimes, the infiltrators do come through these routes. Wah!, what timing!
It was getting late and the temperature was dropping really fast. We decided to go down as soon as possible. It took us about 2.5 hours to go down and it was painful. For the uninitiated, pony ride in the mountains at this height is quite rough and risky; especially if you are physically unfit (like I was), or have heart or blood pressure problems. However, fortunately we could come back on time and get the last Gandola back to Gulmarg. The best part was that after we came down to Kongdoori, our guide and the pony-wallah told us that they did not imagine that two old people like us would actually go up to that height and that they were actually very scared. 😦 I did not know whether to laugh or cry. But the credit goes to them that they took us there and brought us down and because of them, one could be in the presence of such magnificence as what you see on the picture above.
We came to the hotel and the next day was for a day tour of Gulmarg town and then to Pahalgam, the valley of the shepherds.
In my next post I will tell you more about Gulmarg and its other attractions. And of course, how could my travelogue about Kashmir be finished without stories and pictures from the Valley of Shepherds or Pahalgam? That too, is on its way!!
Please do let me know how are you finding the stories? Do you have some to share about Gulmarg?