We traversed an abruptly undulating stretch of hard packed snow dodging spiky cones of rock poking through the ice as we went, to access one of many powder bowls that dropped off the broad shoulders of Mount Apharwat (4,124m). We were standing on the India side of the disputed Kashmir frontier. A swollen cornice over hung the edge of the bowl and we launched into its deep sherbety contents. In the distance, across the deep void of the Kashmir Valley, triangular peaks of the Himalaya protruded aloofly out of a shelf of murky haze, and below this, we could make out the brown speckled smudge that was Srinigar effervescing in the mid morning sun. Behind us was the Pakistan Line of Control.
The Foreign Office advise against all travel to Kashmir. It has done for years. But myself and my snow-savvy Canadian husband Mike, were among a throng of garish Western adventurers that ignored this advice, driven by the desire to find out for ourselves whether the rumours, of an isolated and vast back-country wilderness smothered in a billowing duvet of powder, were true.
The airport in Srinigar, Kashmir’s impoverished summer capital, is controlled and dominated by the Indian Security Forces. The city is riddled with rifle brandishing soldiers on every corner and is often subject to strict curfew. Their presence is part of Kashmir’s flawed identity, a precaution against the ever-looming threat of attack from neighbouring Pakistan, still incensed that the state is not entirely under its control since the partition in 1947.
In the tourist hub of snowy Gulmarg, less than two hours away, there are even soldiers guarding the gondola, and stationed atop the 4,000m high frozen peaks overlooking the Line of Control on one side, and skiers and snowboarders taking it in turns to stake their claim down endless fields of untracked powder gullies, on the other.
Half way through our trip in February, a teenage boy was killed in the shadow of the soaring, sparkling Himalayan crown we perched. The boy reportedly died after he was hit by a teargas shell hurled by police to curb stone pelting mobs. What ensued was days of mayhem – and more stone pelting. Civilians were in uproar at the atrocity and in their distress started street protests, which included lobbing rocks at passing jeeps. News travelled from village to village, and eventually, all the dots joined, those of us in Gulmarg hidden away snugly from the reality of Kashmiri life, were made aware of the unrest in the valley less than 40-miles below.
But Kashmiris are sick of the burden of political unrest they have been forced to stomach for decades. My first question to our Kashmiri guide Fayez, was when the last bombing or fighting was. “23-days ago,” he said. “Two men were killed in the crossfire of Pakistani insurgents that had managed to intrude into the city.” I gasped, “23-days!” That was no time. He almost laughed at my surprise. “That’s no people at all,” he retaliated. “Two years ago almost 200 people were killed. That’s a lot of people. There’s been nothing for all that time in between.”
Fayez lived with two other guides in Gulmarg. He had a wife and three children who he visited on his days off. They lived in the nearest village of Tangmarg, 30 minutes away. He, like all Kashmirirs want more than anything to be at peace, to be an independent country free from the constraints of political sovereignty. And what they also want is for tourists to come and share in the secrets of the mountains with them – the epic free-riding in winter, the hiking, the flowers and the fishing in summer. They are desperate to shake off the debilitating reputation as one of the most dangerous places on earth, because tourists will help drag them out of the trap of poverty that left us wide-eyed and heavy-hearted as we jeeped it up to the bubble of Gulmarg.
As we descended into Srinigar, sucked under a translucent precipitous swathe into the deep cleave of the Himalaya, eyes goggling at the endless frosted peaks beneath, it looked like we were entering a vast military base not a capital city – but in essence, this isn’t far from the truth. Walls chocked in barbed wire, concrete huts and look-out posts stretched as far as the eye could see.
We were two of around 20 foreign nationals who were all met with a grilling, albeit friendly, on stepping off the off the late morning flight from Delhi. Arranging a trip through a tour company is the norm for Kashmir first-timers. But no one else had booked with Australian run Ski Himalaya, so the two of us darted over to the grinning young but weathered, Kashmiri clasping a board with the company name. He was one of a large, locally sourced team whose task was to meet and greet and usher the privileged few towards a sea of white jeeps before leaping on top and binding our baggage tight to the roof for our ascent west.
We drove through crumbling streets, past tattered dogs nuzzling steaming piles of refuse peeping through the snow, past emaciated cattle picking through the dust and rubble and garbage, and overtook bony mules being whipped to pull their heavy traps, faster, faster. I saw a mule trotting purposelessly along the road with twisted hooves and a manky coat. We drove past the old canals, now only a trickle of black stagnant slime, and more garbage. And I caught a glimpse of a ragged patchwork tent and a makeshift tarpaulin shelter, protecting an old woman from the sleet.
But pretty soon, we were racing through pastureland and rice fields blanketed in white, and started a winding climb through village after dilapidated village. Heads turned, but no one seemed surprised to see the entourage of jeeps filled with white faces, fluorescent jackets and skis, zooming past. Our attire was in stark contrast to the traditional Kashmiri dress – the pheran, drab over-garments hiding kangaris, wicker gripped terracotta pots filled with hot coals. Women, in their head scarves, an odd splash of colour against a grey-brown backdrop, were sparse. Kashmir is Muslim and Hindu, but the headscarf is a cultural symbol worn by all women.
We stopped for sweet milky tea in Tangmarg, the last village before Gulmarg, before the final stretch of steepest, iciest road, where evergreens started to stretch and the air was fresh. The frosty chill was starting to bite as we waited for a single snow chain to be fitted to one of the rear wheels, which didn’t stop the jeep lurching as the other tyres slid on the ice rink underneath us.
At the end of the road was Heaven on Earth, so dubbed by Delhi’s wealthy who venture the 590-miles north to evade the heat of the plains every once in a while. Everywhere white, only a trace of where the road wound. No paths, no snow ploughing, the landscape left just as nature demanded. At the gated, armed entrance of the village there is a hotel, a couple of small, open-fronted kiosks selling candy, crisps and newspapers, and sledges lined up obediently, ready for the next lazy holidaymaker to be pulled up the road. At the end of this invisible trail was a sprawling scattering of buildings, a mixture of brand new hotels, half built hotels and the gondola station.
These hotels, all in different stages of working progress, pop up randomly out of the snow. Towering evergreens protrude up between these structures where monkeys swing before scavenging in piles of fermenting garbage, sifting through glass and plastic bottles for morsels of rotting leftovers. The silence was only broken by muffled steps or the raised chatter of a skier or snowboarder on the ski-out.
Word is, if you ski/snowboard for half your time in Gulmarg, you’re doing alright. This was an unpalatable prospect – our intention was to rinse every moment in these sacred peaks and ride from first to last lift as usual. But due to a combination of altitude, injury and unpredictable weather, we became part of this not-said-without-good-reason statistic.
There is one gondola in Gulmarg. From mid-station down, it’s gladed, and the technicalities this brings makes up for its mellow gradient. At the top of the gondola (3980m), riders drop off the four-kilometre long ridge of Apharwat, into a lucky dip of fields, bowls, gullies, ridges, and awesome views. The only in-bounds area that is professionally avalanche controlled (the equivalent standard of anywhere in Europe or North America), is the bowl skiers left of the gondola. Everywhere else, you hike to, traverse to, and sometimes hike and traverse out of. Endless lines, and when there’s been a dump – and the snow’s settled and safe – endless powder, and very few others to get angsty at because they stole your line.
We had Fayez to ourselves. It had dumped a few days before we arrived and our first day was a blue bird. We went straight to the top of the gondola and whooped unrestrained as we surfed down the deserted diamante sheet. Every few turns I stopped to catch my breath – the air was thin at almost 4,000m. The hike up to the summit on our next run, which should have taken 30 minutes, took us an hour. Every 10 paces my body forced me to halt and re-catch my breath. But this infuriatingly, painstaking adjustment to the altitude was worth it. No one had followed us, the bowl and all its light fluffy contents was ours.
Each day we headed to the line of 10 huts steaming and smoking with fresh ingredients and devoured generous helpings of the most delicious assortment of curry – saag parthia, tomato, pea and paneer curry, curried kidney bean stew and coconut chicken – for a pittance.
And each day was a quest of exploration, transceivers always on. Fayez told us about the run to the village of Drang that would take several hours. Once there he would call ahead to one of the Ski Himalaya team who would jeep down from Gulmarg and pick us up. The journey started with the familiar icy traverse skiers right. We were heading to a ridge where a small group of pro-snowboarders from Western Canada were waiting for a moment of clarity to film the next stage of their exotic trip. We descended a mellow slope which took us to a grassy ridge at the top of the bowl we were going to shred. But as Mike slid out onto the powder we stopped dead. In the silence we heard a sound that made our hearts pound and heads whirl. Whoomph…whoomph.
A slab of snow was collapsing. We got the hell off, unstrapped and hiked back onto the ridge. This was going to be the epic run of the trip, maybe ever – but we could have been buried alive in the process. A group of about nine Russians and their Kashmiri guide had come into view and we waved at them in warning. Our now swollen party continued down the ridge, dropping into and taking a scoop out of the creamy powder every now and again. We came across an isolated shepherd’s hut, and stopped to share snacks and snoop around the sometime abode where nomadic herdsmen take time out from their flocks to cook and rest. The next section was gladed with steep sections which narrowed into a trail that wound like cotton thread round the mountainside through the trees and then opened up into a steep field of stumps and boulders. The snow became thin and rocks more exposed and by the stream we found leopard tracks.
The hike out took half an hour. The final leg took us stomping up a road near to where a hydro-electric dam and houses were under construction, and finally into Drang to feast on hot curry and slurp Kashmiri Khawa at a small cafe.
Our last night before flying back to Delhi was spent on a houseboat on Dal Lake in Srinigar. It had been snowing for two days in the hills which meant an incessant drizzle in the valley. Srinigar was grey and saturated and the snowstorm in the sky had been so severe, flights to Delhi had been cancelled and there was no knowing whether ours would be running the next day. Instead of road-tripping round Rajasthan, we’d been forced to bring our flights forward because Mike had contracted campylobacter food poisoning. So if we missed our flight to Delhi, we’d miss our flight home.
A row of houseboats are permanently moored in the middle of the lake, which despite being pelted with giant droplets of rain emanated an aura of calm. Mr Pakhtoon, the owner of The Queen Elizabeth, had come to greet us at the lake’s edge and as we floated across the pristine liquid on a shikara (water taxi) he told us not to worry about our flight because the storm had eased. But the rain continued to fall hard and the sky remained starkly opaque.
Houseboats boast elaborate interiors, and ours was garnished with ornately carved cedar wood and warmed by a crackling wood-stove. Mr Pakhtoon chatted with us while we slurped refreshing spiced tea and I stuffed my face with chunks of ginger cake and macaroons. That evening our host, Rashid, cooked us a delicious meal only I ate, and he told us how his wife and children lived hours away in the next valley who he would visit every three months. Our conversations were only interrupted by the visits of floating tradesmen from whom we purchased photographs and jewellery.
The morning heralded more drizzle and Mike now hadn’t eaten for three days. But the storm had eased and our flight back to England left on time. As we soared across the Himalaya once again, my mind wandered to something two young Kashmiris had told us during a pit-stop on our descent from Gulmarg. They too described the village as heaven, and said they wanted more tourists like us, to visit. And when I asked them if they were Muslim or Hindu, curious at what stance they may have on the conflict, one simply said, “It does not matter, I am a human being. There is only one God who looks after us all.” I wondered if this simply philosophy would suffice as a cure to this fascinating land’s longstanding turmoil.