GULMARG, India – There are very few ski resorts in the world where you see a soldier in uniform waiting for the gondola with a snowboard in one hand and an AK-47 in the other.
Welcome to Gulmarg, nestled in the Himalayan mountains in Indian-held Kashmir, one of the most militarized places on earth.
India and Pakistan have fought two major wars over Kashmir, which is divided between the two countries and claimed in its entirety by both. Tension flared earlier this year when the worst violence along the disputed border in a decade left half a dozen troops dead — one of them an Indian soldier who was reportedly beheaded.
The clashes hurt business in Gulmarg, according to local tour operators, but a few hundred skiers and snowboarders were on the mountain during my visit at the end of February — almost all of them foreign.
It's good to know there is a hearty breed of outdoor enthusiasts willing to brave conflict between nuclear-armed archenemies to hit the slopes — admittedly ones that rival any major ski resort in the world, are much less crowded and cost a little over $100 for a whole week.
Imagine sharing Jackson Hole resort in Wyoming with just 200 fellow skiers and snowboarders. That's what Gulmarg has to offer, complete with knee-deep powder and a wealth of off-piste terrain easily accessible from one of the highest gondolas in the world.
Did I say easily accessible? That doesn't include the experience of getting on and off the small, four-person gondola.
Many of the cars lack a place to store skis or snowboards while you ride. That leads to what feels like a Three Stooges routine every time you and your companions try to pack into the gondola carrying skis and poles and wearing bulky backpacks. It doesn't help that you only have a few seconds before the car starts moving and are already unsteady on your feet in ski boots.
The trip to the top of the gondola, at a height of nearly 4,100 meters (13,500 feet), is breathtaking and can offer views of one of the tallest mountains in the world, Nanga Parbat, in Pakistan. But there is always a hint of trepidation knowing you have to untangle yourself and do a timed tumble out of the gondola at the end of the ride.
You can forget about finding another way up, unless you want to hike. The gondola and a chairlift that starts halfway up the mountain are pretty much the only game in town. But the trip is definitely worth it, especially when there is a meter (3 feet) of fresh powder as there was during my recent visit.
One of the first things you see when you step off the gondola is a small army outpost, one of many throughout Indian-held Kashmir that house at least 500,000 troops in an area the size of Utah. It's no surprise soldiers seem to be everywhere in Gulmarg: milling around the gondola, driving convoys of trucks over twisty mountain roads and even waiting in line to use the ATM.
Until recently, the resort was using military-grade plastic explosives procured from the army to control avalanche risk on its "in-bounds" slopes, said Brian Newman, Gulmarg's snow safety officer.
Resorts around the world set off controlled blasts to trigger avalanches before they consider slopes safe for skiers, but they normally use commercial explosives from the mining industry that are more suitable. Newman, who hails from near Boulder, Colorado, began using military explosives when he first arrived six years ago because they were more readily available, but was finally able to get his hands on the commercial type this season.
Many of the visitors to Gulmarg are advanced skiers and snowboarders who have little interest in the resort's relatively small in-bounds area and have come to the resort for the off-piste terrain — and perhaps also for the readily available hashish that sends wafts of fragrant smoke over your head in the lift line and at lunch.
Given the avalanche danger, basic safety gear like a beacon, shovel and probe is vital in the backcountry, and many people sport more advanced equipment such as backpacks equipped with air bags you can trigger if you get caught in a slide and AvaLung devices to help you breathe under the snow. GoPro video cameras are also ubiquitous, sticking up from helmets in the gondola line like mini-submarine periscopes.
Perhaps the most important safety gear for heading into Gulmarg's backcountry is a local guide. We hired 31-year-old Javed Ahmed Reshi, who started skiing at the age of 10 in leather boots nailed to rickety wooden skis made by his father. Fueled by seemingly boundless energy, he guided us down wide open bowls and steep runs through evergreen trees — always mindful of the avalanche risk around us.
At one point we stopped in a dense forest, and the only sound filtering through the trees was the Muslim call to prayer from a nearby village — pure serenity.
"I like the adventure and don't like sitting at a computer in an office," said Reshi, ignoring the fact that there didn't seem to be a wealth of office jobs available in Gulmarg, minus the dozen or so hotels that cater to tourists.
Our guide also took us to one of the most unusual apres ski events you will ever find: a dance performance by a local hijra, the cross-dressing "eunuchs" common in India and Pakistan. The hijira shimmied in a red dress as foreign tourists danced along and pasted rupee notes on the performer's forehead.
For those seeking even more adventure, Gulmarg sports a heliskiing operation that can drop you on distant mountaintops and provides foreign guides to lead you down miles of untouched powder — assuming the weather is good enough for the chopper to fly, which wasn't the case during my visit.
Kashmir Heliski has also run into periodic problems with the Indian army stationed in the area, said the organization's chief guide, Tim O'Leary. The group's permit to fly was delayed for weeks this year because of the tension along the Kashmir border, said O'Leary.
One of the first flights three years ago accidentally ended up over the razor wire marking the disputed border with Pakistan, said O'Leary. The group was met by a very angry army officer when they landed, and a commander told the team "you play ski games, but we protect the border." Luckily the episode was eventually resolved amicably over whisky shots, said O'Leary.
Not everyone in Gulmarg is looking for that much adventure. Many Indian tourists make the two-hour drive from Srinagar, the main city in Indian-held Kashmir, to see snow for the first time and ride up to the gondola in ill-fitting, rented jackets to see the view. They also pay "sled wallahs" in heavy woolen robes to pull them around town. Locals in Kashmir often keep a pot with burning coals under their robes to keep them warm.
The sled wallahs can also be useful for lugging your skis back to the hotel at the end of the day.
One American couple from Boulder, Colorado, visiting Gulmarg for the first time in nearly 25 years, managed to find the same sled wallah, a man they knew as Habeeb, who ferried around their gear when they spent six weeks in the area in 1989. He also carried their 1-year-old daughter on the four-hour trek up the mountain when they skied back then, since the gondola had not yet been built. The couple, David Paine and Julia Nicholson-Paine, held a reunion filled with hugs and tears at Habeeb's rustic, mountainside home.
They also tracked down a local porter, bh
Mohammed, who carried their daughter miles to a distant hospital when she became severely ill. They showed the now 95-year-old porter a picture of him with their daughter on his back that they took many years ago. With tears streaming down his face, he kissed the picture, held it to his heart and said he would pray for their daughter.
More proof that Gulmarg is definitely not your average ski resort.
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