The "resort" of Gulmarg in Kashmir is not your average ski destination, even ignoring the fact that the region is disputed territory, a 60-year-old sore point between India and Pakistan. There's no point in comparing vertical-drop statistics to decide whether it's the place for you: your ill-informed imagination is almost certainly a more accurate guide. Yes, as of last year, Gulmarg boasts the world's highest gondola, ascending to short-breath inducing heights of 13,400ft (4,084m). But just by virtue of being in Kashmir you are already far up in the Himalayas, the highest mountain range in the world, so this should not come as a surprise.
Neither should the facilities. Or lack of. Those who have invested in Gulmarg's shaky development, the locals crying out for tourists to return and the good folk at Jammu and Kashmir Tourism might wish to believe that it comes close to Vail or Val d'Isère. The brochures might promise "India's premier ski resort" and the "finest, well-graded slopes in the world". But you are in Indian- controlled Kashmir, and even if you know next-to-nothing about the area beyond bloodshed and earthquakes, you should be able to grasp the essential: if the rest of the region is so different from the West, why should its skiing be any different?
What you get in Kashmir is almost nothing like the usual ski experience. And that is precisely what makes it so incredible. That and the terrain, the untouched powder and the lack of crowds.
Relations between India and Pakistan over Kashmir have been improving, even though the dispute threatened to take the countries to nuclear war as recently as 2002. A bus service across the divide began last spring; there are now seven flights daily into the capital, Srinagar. Yet despite the security cooperations, a solution looks unlikely any time soon, and the region remains on the no-go travel list of most Western governments.
Still, tourists are beginning to ignore the warnings. Tourism is returning to Kashmir, and to Gulmarg, with its attention-getting gondola, especially. In December and January, 2,500 foreign skiiers visited Gulmarg. From Canada, Australia and the UK; from Malaysia, Singapore and China.
The brochures say: "Gulmarg is well suited for learning skiing. It has some of the best slopes for beginners and intermediate skiers, all serviced by ski and chair lifts." Although it's true that the short, gentle slopes in the Highlands Basin are swarming with impressively able Kashmiri and Indian schoolchildren, the lifts are dodgy pomas, the grooming patchy at best, and the beginner terrain little more exciting than a snow-covered golf course.
As for the gondola - well, from the mid-station at Kangdoori is one vaguely groomed "run", essentially a rollercoaster of a cat-track that swoops and dips down through the great pine forest. A fine homerun racetrack for the competent skier or rider, it's no place for a beginner. Above Kangdoori, all is ungroomed. Bowls, chutes and tree runs spill off the magnificent Apharwhat ridge, all easily hikeable from the gondola's top station.
Mission Gulmarg is a group of volunteer ski patrollers from the West, spending January to March in the resort to train Kashmiri guides in avalanche safety and first aid. Whistler Blackcomb has donated equipment; the group dealt successfully with two accidents requiring hospitalisation in the week of our visit. But the information board at the bottom of the gondola is brutally honest: "Many hidden and unmarked obstacles exist, including barbed-wire fences, head-height cables, particularly either side of gondola and powerlines."
You don't have to be that technically skilled to ski here, particularly if you can float above the powder on a snowboard. Mellow lines from the summit are as abundant as the steeper pitches. But you do need to be competent off-piste. And understand that despite the gondola, brochures and ski patrol, you are essentially in the back-country.
A local guide is highly recommended. Top of the list are Yaseem and Hameed, cousins who have been running the ski shop in Gulmarg since 1988. Lack of funds, lack of customers and a fire have been no deterrent; it took Yaseem 15 years to save up for his first pair of skis. Now he has a steady stream of Western visitors, who return each year and pay 600 rupees (£7.75) a night for lodging in cottages, all meals and tea included.
Gulmarg is a relic from the days of the British Raj, a hill station with different areas for Kashmiri guests and Western ones. Stepping into our hotel was like walking into the Thirties, our every move shadowed by porters and houseboys. Each day began with a knock on the door, a jug of tea and the sound of a match as the bukhari (stove) was lit. Most people come here through a Kashmiri travel agent, or hook up with the handful of Western agents based in the area. Trips typically include transfers, tours and a couple of days on a houseboat in Srinagar. With the Srinagar to Gulmarg road closed between 6pm and 6am - and any other time that security forces see fit - it's not just the skiing that requires a guide with local know-how.
Now: about the soldiers. It doesn't take long to grasp that, despite local protestations, the FCO knows what it is talking about. Srinagar airport is only a year from gaining international status, but it still feels like landing at a military base, because that's what most of it is. From the moment that you step off the plane, you're never further than a few hundred metres from an Indian soldier.
This is not an exaggeration. On any road, in Srinagar, in the countryside, in Gulmarg: soldiers. With guns. Lurking by the verge, rattling along in trucks: soldiers. Hanging out, watching the kids, at the bottom, the middle, and the top of the gondola: soldiers. And on the drive up through the forests to Gulmarg: soldiers. Stopping the 4x4 every once in a while, checking that we were just another group of weird Westerners, and not political insurgents.
In our hotel, next to one carefully typed sign with dining hours and another noting that the Management Requests no Picnic Lunches, Dogs nor Children in the Bar, is another: "Notice: Hotel Residents/Non-Residents Are Not Allowed To Enter The Public Rooms With The Weapons."
No Western tourists in Kashmir have been affected by "the turmoil", as locals call it, since the infamous kidnapping of six hikers in 1995, though the FCO posts a list of recent militant attacks involving civilians. Separatist outfits such as the Jammu and Kashmir Liberation Front have stated that tourists are both welcome and necessary, for local economics and to raise awareness of the "plight" of Kashmiris. There appears to be a growing consensus that tourism can do more to stabilise a region than international diplomacy.
And Gulmarg is quietly removed from the troubles. There's no place for militants to hide, even if they weren't put off by the sandbags and barbed wire. Do the Westerners here feel unsafe? The answer is a unanimous no. Uneasy, perhaps, at times - but more out of sympathy for the Kashmiris.
I want to go back to Gulmarg for selfish reasons: for the powder, for the starry Himalayan skies, for the sensation of skiing close to the top of the world. But I mostly want to go back to Gulmarg to drink spiced kahwa tea with Yaseem and his snowboarding son Raja, because their passion for the mountains shines dazzlingly bright. And because it's not often that as a tourist you have the opportunity to make a positive impact out of a purely hedonistic motive. It certainly doesn't happen in Val d'Isère.
The writer travelled with Indus Tours (020-8901 7320; www.industours.co.uk), Travelcare (00 91 194 231 3008; www.travelcarekashmir.com) and the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Department (00 91 194 247 9548; www.jktourism.org). Indus organises similar trips from £995, including return flights from London to Srinagar via Delhi, five nights' full-board at Highlands Park Hotel, Gulmarg, and one night's B&B in Delhi and transfers. Equipment not included.
There are no direct flights between the UK and Srinagar; the best route is via Delhi, served by BA (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com), Virgin Atlantic (08705 747747; www.virgin-atlantic.com), Air India (020-8560 9996; www.airindia.com), Jet Airways (020-8970 1500; www.jetairways.com) and Air Sahara (00 91 11 2335 9801; www.airsahara.net), from Heathrow. Qatar Airways (020-896 3636; www.qatarairways.com) flies from Heathrow and Manchester via Doha. From Delhi, Srinagar can be reached on Indian Airlines (00 91 79 255 05109; www.indian-airlines.nic.in) and Jet Airways.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" from Climate Care (01865 207 000; www.climatecare.org). The environmental cost of a return flight from London to Delhi is £14. The money is used to fund sustainable energy projects.
Hotel Highlands Park, Gulmarg (00 91 1954 254430). Doubles from 3,500 Rupees (£45), full board.
Grand Mumtaz, Srinagar (00 91 1942 450281). Doubles from 3,500 Rupees (£45), room only.
A day pass on the gondola is 1,000Rp (£13).
RED TAPE & MORE INFORMATION
Britons require a visa to visit India. Contact the High Commission of India in London (0906 844 4544, calls 60p/min; www.hcilondon.net) or the consulate general in Birmingham ( www.cgibirmingham.org) or Edinburgh ( www.cgiedinburgh.org).
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office (0845 850 2829; www.fco.gov.uk) states: "We advise against all travel to or through rural areas of Jammu and Kashmir (other than Ladakh) and all but essential travel by air to Srinagar."Reuse content