How this troubled corner of the Himalayas has gone from war zone to ultimate ski destination
Wow, life really can be a bummer. It's 14 January and I'm sitting on the Heathrow Express, reading in the paper that Scotland is buried under snow, its ski resorts rejoicing in the best conditions for a decade. Meanwhile, Scandinavia has epic amounts of powder, the Alps are having a superb month and there's so much of the white stuff in London that people are skiing on Hampstead Heath. And this is the year I choose to go all the way to India, to ski in the Himalayas where, for the first time in 15 years, there's no snow. Well almost none. At the airport Jon, the photographer, fills me in on the grim situation. Bizarre as it seems, the Highlands' gain seems to have been the Himalayas' loss – the same dominant northerly weather system that brought the Arctic cold to Britain has meant India's peaks have been getting dry north winds from across parched expanses of Russia and the 'Stans, instead of wet snow-packed clouds from the Arabian Sea. I succeed in being philosophical about this for about eight minutes, then drown my sorrows courtesy of Qatar Airways to such an extent that the inflight showing of Gavin & Stacey has me sobbing my eyes out.
Twenty hours later, I emerge from Srinagar airport, blinking in the bright sunshine. Even without the hangover, the scene would be surreal. Before me is a huge billboard that says "Welcome to Kashmir, Paradise on Earth" above a scene of lakes and snow-capped mountains so pretty it would have you humming jolly ditties about lonely goatherds, were it not for the fact that beneath the poster is a machine gun emplacement, from which Indian army commandos peer through camouflage netting. More soldiers are on patrol outside the arrivals hall, toting machine guns and looking on as our group, a dozen skiers in bright puffa jackets, sunglasses and luminous bobble hats, wander out and start to hoist skis onto the roofs of taxis. It's a sight the soldiers are getting increasingly used to. A couple of years ago stories about Kashmir started to spread through the ski bars of the Alps, rumours of a powder paradise, where a metre of fresh, light snow falls like clockwork every week throughout the winter. And could there be a more compelling subject for a traveller's tale? Kashmir has been romanticised by everyone from the 16th-century Mogul emperor Jahangir (who, when asked on his deathbed if he wanted anything, whispered "Kashmir, only Kashmir") to Salman Rushdie (who spoke of "the lush valleys, the lakes, the streams, the saffron meadows – the intense physical beauty and culture of enormous harmony") and Led Zepellin ("Ooh my baby, let me take you there").
Add the spice of danger, the years of violent border disputes between India and Pakistan that have kept it off limits, and you have the delicious prospect of a beautiful forbidden valley at the edge of the world's highest mountains. Compare that with the familiar, never-changing Alpine round of chalets and fondues, lift queues and après-ski, and it's little surprise that keen skiers weary of St Anton and Val d'Isère are making the long pilgrimage here. Our procession of jeeps with skis and snowboards piled on the roofs leaves the airport through multiple army checkpoints, swerving around barbed wire-encrusted barricades and then heads out through the dusty, grey, dirt-poor villages. We feel like some over-privileged colonial-era hunting party, pursuing not big game but our prized powder snow. An hour-and-a-half later we arrive at Gulmarg, India's leading ski resort, and the feeling of returning to the days of the Raj only intensifies. Sitting on a plateau at 2,600m, Gulmarg grew up as a hill station in the 19th century, when British civil servants and soldiers would come up to escape the summer heat, hunt and play golf. By the early 20th century there were three golf courses here, including one for women only, and in the middle of the fairways was St Mary's Anglican church, which still stands today.
"Here the happy fugitive from the sweltering heat of the lower regions will find a climate as glorious as the scenery – he can enjoy the best of polo and golf, picnics and scrambles on foot or on horseback, coming home to wind up the happy day with a cheery dinner and game of bridge," wrote one visitor, a Major TR Swinburne, in 1907. We are staying at the Hotel Highlands Park, opened in 1966 by retired cavalry officer and golf fanatic Major Benjie Nedou. Though it is now owned by his granddaughter and her husband, who gave up legal and banking careers in London to return to Kashmir, Benjie would still feel very much at home. In the dining room hangs the bear that he shot after it attacked someone in the village, a sign by the lounge politely asks guests to leave weapons at the door, while the wood-panelled walls are covered in watercolours of St Andrews and plaques, medals and pendants presented by his friends in various Indian and British regiments (plus, strangely, one from Oldham Rotary Club). Today, though, the lounge is filled with ski bums, not top brass. Around the fireplace there are dreadlocks, baseball caps, and big North Face down jackets. They're peering into laptops, poring over the latest weather forecasts. And no one is looking very happy.
Next morning I'm woken by a rustle in the bedroom. It's Ahmed and Mushtaq, who tiptoe in to leave a tray of sweet milky chai and stoke up the bukhari, the wood-burning stove in the corner of the room. The hotel is made up of several wooden cottages scattered along a ridge, each with a few rooms, and each with a couple of staff who are modelled on the army officer's batman, right down to the olive green and burgundy wool uniforms. It's a brilliant morning and monkeys are playing on the grass terraces just beyond our verandah. To the right, above the forest, the summit of Mount Apharwat is sparkling in the early sun. Even Ahmed telling us that there is usually snow up to the eaves at this time of year, and that the hotel has to keep a team of five on round-the-clock shovelling duties to keep the paths clear, can't dent our spirits. And so we're off to see Gulmarg's main claim to fame – its ski lifts. Well actually, its ski lift. Gulmarg has only one serious lift (the other three are tiny, ancient drag lifts for beginners). Building work for the main lift, the Gulmarg Gondola, began as far back as 1989, but after a major escalation in violence Gulmarg effectively shut down for almost a decade and construction was put on hold. The gondola was finally completed in 2005, taking skiers up to 3,979m, just below the summit of Apharwat, making it the world's highest ski lift. (There are two higher lifts in China but neither is in an ski resort, while higher lifts in Venezuela and Bolivia have shut down.)
The locals are, unsurprisingly, proud of this fact and around the resort are posters showing the lift with catchlines like "Gulmarg Gondola – a tryst with nature", "Gulmarg Gondola – a step closer to heaven", and "Gulmarg Gondola – a masterpiece of French engineering". The reality is a little less awe-inspiring. The gondola is French-built, made by lift company Poma, but given the 16-year construction period, it isn't what you'd call state of the art. As we queue up inside, the signs become more prosaic ("spitting or scratching inside the gondola is strictly prohibited") and a man scrambling in the machinery above our heads opens the doors of each cabin with a kick. The racks are too small for today's fatter skis, so we have to stick them half in, half out of the cabins, which means the doors can't close properly. The lift also breaks down regularly, doesn't open much before 10am, and won't run in high winds. We make a few nervous gags about it getting us a bit too close to heaven and decide not to think about it too much. On the upside, it is cheap – 150 rupees (£2) up to the mid-station, 250 rupees to the top – and as we ride up, we can see there is some snow around. Nick Parks, our British guide, explains that so far in this freakish winter there have been only two snowfalls, one in November and one on New Year's Day, dropping a total of about 90cm. This is a monumental challenge to my positive mental attitude. On one hand we are going to be able to ski, it's sunny, we're in India, I haven't got ill yet and we've seen a monkey. On the other, there is less than half the snow here than they have in the Cairngorms!
Disembarking at the top station (which seems to be made largely from corrugated iron) we see our first, fabulous Himalayan panorama. Here, above the haze that hangs in the valley, we spin around to take in the chain of peaks that stretches around the horizon, from Pakistan into India and north to China, with Nanga Parbat, the world's ninth-highest peak, dominating the view. We take a few runs, and though the snow is old and crusty rather than the fabled powder we've come searching for, we can quickly see the potential of the place. Apharwat is a big, wide, whale-backed mountain, with a dozen or so ridges coming off the front face at right angles, like the teeth of a comb. The top lift station is bang in the middle and so from it you can traverse left or right along the top, and choose to ride any of the ridges or drop into any of the bowls and gullies between them. Only a small central section is avalanche-controlled, patrolled and prepared; the rest of the mountain is off-piste. Glass half full: this is an amazing place, the perfect skiers' mountain, and in a normal year you could spend all week lapping the lift and riding every gully in a glorious frenzy of powder. Glass half empty: it's not a normal year.
Thankfully, Nick has a plan. At lunch in the Kongdori restaurant at the gondola mid-station (my first curry above 3,000m), he explains that instead of repeatedly taking the lift and skiing the front side of Apharwat, we'll head over the top and explore the back, looking for unskied routes, hunting out stashes of powder, and attaching sticky skins to our skis so we can climb up slopes and press out into the wilderness. On day two we put the plan into action. From the lift we climb for 40 minutes to the summit of Apharwat, at 4,124m, ski down into a deserted valley, then trek up to another col, first on foot, clambering up through bushes, then on skis. From the top we can make out a strange, distant line in the snow, stretching away across every mountain we can see – the barricades that mark the start of the demilitarized zone before the "line of control", India and Pakistan's disputed border. From here we begin our descent, first on open slopes, then into glades of paperbark trees, a type of pink-tinged birch. No one has been this way for at least three weeks – the snow is untouched, in places hard and icy, and in others deliciously powdery. Then the paperbarks start to blend into the forest of Himalayan pines, colossal trees shooting straight up for 30m or more. The trees are so old and tall they seem to suck up the sound as well as the light, and we dart through them shouting at each other so as not to get lost.
Then suddenly we pop out, back into the sunlight on an open slope which Nick calls Snow Leopard Couloir because of the animal's tracks he's seen in the snow there. (We never manage to spot one, but we do encounter its more common relative, the Himalayan Leopard – two of them skinned on the walls of the Highlands Park, one alive, seen by some of our group in the lights of a taxi at night.) The snow in the couloir is a delight, turned sugary because it has sat untouched on the hill for so long, and we whoop as we ski down it, stopping occasionally to take photos, before we eventually reach a snow-covered road in a forgotten side valley. It's a military track off-limits to the public, used by soldiers heading for their border look-out posts. As we take off our skis to begin the hour-long walk back to town, there's a distant rumbling and a khaki truck lumbers around the corner, the three soldiers in the cab looking bemused at the skiers standing in the road before them. It's as if a wormhole has opened up between the frivolous slopes of Courchevel and this troubled corner of Asia, which Bill Clinton once dubbed "the most dangerous place in the world". I'm not sure whether we should ignore them, run away or just smile, but Imtiyaz, a local who's come with us for the day, flags them down with a winning smile and pleads for a lift. The driver looks unsure, but then, with a wobble of the head, breaks into a huge smile, and we run round the back and clamber inside. We have done only one run in the whole day, but it's been more memorable than any day's skiing I've ever had.
"There's no polish here, this is a wild mountain," says Yaseen Khan, 54, owner of the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, a 12ft-square Aladdin's Cave that is the de facto hub of the resort. Inside it's dark but the walls are lined with ski gear, some ancient and battered hand-me-downs, others surprisingly new. In the back, Yaseen's son is repairing my skis by melting plastic onto them with a candle, while his father discusses how the resort's prospects have ebbed and flowed according to the intensity of India's border disputes with Pakistan and China, and the activity of Kashmir's insurgents and terrorists. Now, after four years of relative calm, some are daring to dream about a new golden era for the resort. Plans for a second gondola are advanced, and a group of New Zealanders are planning to start a heli-skiing operation here next winter, catapulting Gulmarg into a new league, where the super-rich will pay more than €6,000 a week to avoid the temperamental gondola and the skinning uphill.
Yaseen is not keen. "If heliskiing comes it will be hell – far too much noise. People come here because it is so natural, so wild, and it should stay like that." So is it safe? The Foreign Office says no, warning against travel to "rural areas" of Kashmir, and its website lists numerous clashes in Srinagar between protestors, insurgents and the police. Of course, everywhere "feels" safe until you get into trouble, but it's hard to imagine much harm coming to a tourist in Gulmarg, high up on its secluded plateau. In fact, it is one of the most relaxed, convivial places I've ever been in India. There are no beggars, hawkers, or hassle. Indian and Western tourists mix, and the ski patrol and avalanche forecast team is a happy international blend of Canadians, Kiwis and Indians. Even the soldiers from the big army base on the edge of the village look like they are having fun, as they have their first faltering goes on the nursery slopes.
And so the week continues, in some ways like a normal ski holiday, in others totally different. The sunset stroll is accompanied by the call to prayer, we eat curry, not raclette, every night, we spot bear and leopard tracks in the snow, ski past monkeys and watch huge birds of prey circling. One afternoon, we ski down to find the village full of Indian tourists from Gujarat coming up to see snow for the first time. Dressed in rented fur coats, they sledge along the paths, screaming with glee, then make each of us pose with them for photographs. But the biggest difference, the strangest thing of all, is the sense of space, the lack of people. On this vast mountain, there are perhaps 50 skiers per day, and as we push out into distant corners of the range, we only ever catch glimpses of them. "This is the worst year I have ever seen here, but, you know, it makes you change your rythym, adapt," says John Falkiner, a guide from Verbier who first came here in 1989. "Places like Chamonix and Verbier are getting ridiculous these days. There are so many people you just feel like another number. "Here you get to know everyone else on the mountain – you'll probably play backgammon with them in the bar. It reminds me of growing up in Australia and going to the local ski club. It's not about ripping up as much powder as possible – the skiing is just the vehicle that lets us experience this exotic place."
And so we convince ourselves to stop yearning for snow, to forget about the long runs down to the valley-bottom villages of Drang and Babareshi that are impossible because of the snow drought, and we start to relish the trip. The group bonds, we relax, we take après-ski tea with Yaseen, chat with Ahmed and Mushtaq, and have the most interesting, unusual, fabulous ski trip. Perhaps the glass really is half full after all. And then, literally as we get into the taxi to start the long journey back to Srinagar, Delhi and London, it starts to snow. Big, heavy, Himalayan snow flakes. Positive thinking flies out the window. Life really can be a bummer.