Until recently, Gulmarg was considered a one-day destination by most tourists. The scene is now slowly, but steadily, changing for the better...
With the abatement of militancy, Jammu & Kashmir has become relatively safe for tourists. However, on a recent tour to the north Indian state, I found that the hangover is still palpable. Upon deboarding the plane at Srinagar, the capital city, I was greeted not just by the icy winds that are so characteristic to the region, but also a forest of heavily-armed soldiers manning every nook and corner of the airport.
The streets outside were by no means different. They were still lined with gun-toting soldiers with sandbag bunkers and razor wires ‘guarding’ the important buildings. I noticed hundreds of large, ‘western-style’ vacation homes, which, I was told, were built long before the armed conflict began to cast a shadow over the region. Sadly, they were now mostly confined to being used as barracks for soldiers.
Most people visit the state during the summer months when temperatures are pleasant and flowers and apple trees are in full bloom. But I decided to check out the region on a chilly January weekend. The reason was snow—the magical experience that draws enthusiasts by the hordes either to fulfill a childhood dream, find a new challenge in life or simply undertake a holiday with friends or family. For me, it was a combination of all of the above.
My obvious choice was Gulmarg. Until recently, Gulmarg was considered a one-day destination for most tourists, save a few skiing and trekking enthusiasts who would at best extend their stay by a day or two. There was a shortage of accommodation available and none that offered international standards, let alone luxury. As per some estimate, the popular hill station in Jammu & Kashmir has just about 800 rooms across 40 hotels ranging from budget accommodation in private huts to hotels that are of a similar standard to a western bed-and-breakfast.
The scene is slowly, but steadily, changing for the better. In the winter of 2012-13, The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa, part of the elite group of ‘Small Luxury Hotels of the World’, opened its doors to the public. For me, it was the ideal location to spend the next few days—enjoying the legendary beauty of the valley without compromising on comfort and luxury.
With the opening of the hotel, Sujith Herbert, its general manager, told me that tourists to the tiny hill hamlet were introduced to a new era in comfort and luxury, hitherto unknown to the region. Without wasting time, I checked out the property—it had a spa and an all-weather swimming pool, and offered rooms that oozed ‘world-class’. Some of them, including the one I stayed in, had views of the majestic Afarwat peaks in the backdrop. That it has already won several awards during its just over two years of existence speaks volumes about the quality of the hotel.
With the abatement of militancy in the area, Gulmarg is once again becoming one of the state’s most visited destinations. The past few years have been particularly eventful. In 2010, the town was mooted as a possible host for the Commonwealth Winter Games that year. However, last year’s floods in Srinagar, the gateway city to Gulmarg, cast a shadow on tourist activities and led to massive cancellations. “The state witnessed around 90% drop in arrivals, in both domestic and international tourists, due to the floods. The losses suffered in terms of business have been immense,” said Herbert of The Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa. “However, the tourist numbers are picking up now and we hope to ramp up our booking levels to the same level as prior to the floods. We are looking forward to a busy ski season, which lasts till April,” he added.
The thing that works in favour of Gulmarg’s appeal is its year-round acceptance. Offering a plethora of activities, from skiing in winter to trekking and golfing in summer, it attracts tourists from across India and the world. In addition to skiing, other popular winter activities include snowboarding, sledding and horse-drawn sleigh rides. “During spring and summer, Gulmarg valley is blanketed with more than 20 varieties of wildflowers, earning it the sobriquet ‘meadow of flowers’,” explained Herbert.
For the time being, I decided to go with a session of snowmobiles. Starting at a fee of R800 for a short 10-minute ride, it’s a pleasant experience no doubt. Having tried my hand at skiing elsewhere in the country before, I skipped that and went for the ‘gondola’ ride instead. The Gulmarg gondola is considered to be one of the highest cable car systems in the world, reaching 3,979 m. The two-stage ropeway ferries about 600 people per hour to and from the gondola main station in Gulmarg to a shoulder of nearby Afarwat summit at 4,200 m.
“As the destination itself is still undeveloped, skiers and riders never have to suffer the long queues that are so prevalent in other international snow destinations,” said Nasseer, a local tourist guide. Indeed, one could see people getting up to 10 runs from the top of the gondola and still be carving fresh lines in untracked snow for the best part of a day.
At an average elevation of 2,690 m—more, if you were to consider the gondola rides—it is not uncommon to acquire altitude sickness. The symptoms can range from shortness of breath and sleeplessness to an increased heart rate. So here’s a word of caution: upon arrival at Gulmarg, relax and try to acclimatise at least for a day or two. One can also take medicines like Diamox, which can come in handy, besides keeping oneself hydrated at all times.