For the last major leg of my India journey I ventured back to the north, catching an early morning flight from the very southern Kerala region, transferring in Delhi, and onward to the northernmost tip of India known as Kasmir. Why Kasmir? It’s home to some of India’s greatest natural beauty, as well as India’s premier ski resort: Gulmarg. Who could pass up the chance to snowboard the Himalayas? The Kasmir region also has a long history of unrest due to its proximity to Pakistan, and the fact its a heavily mountainous Himalayan region where ‘official’ borders can get a bit fuzzy. But I’ll come back to all that in a second as I have a fun little story to tell about my last day in Kerala.
After a few gorgeous days relaxing in the backwaters, slowly being push-poled around in our little wooden boat, my buddy Trevor and I parted ways as he was heading back to China and I still had a few days left on my trip. I hopped a bus down to Trivandrum, the southern capital of the Kerala region where I was flying out of early the next morning. Thus far in our trip, we’d done quite well getting around without any reservations or fixed travel dates, so I wrongly assumed that my next destination wouldn’t be any exception to that rule. After I got off the 6 hour (should have been 4 hour) bus ride, I was naturally greeted almost immediately by a local taxi driver wanting to take me to my hotel. When I said I didn’t have one, he saw the opportunity to make a little extra commission and find one for me. I agreed, thinking I’d probably get ripped off a bit, but it was already nearly 11pm, I had just gotten off an exhaust filled bus, and was quite eager to pay whatever he asked to get 5 hours of sleep before heading to the airport at 5am. He took me to all the hotels he knew….all of them were full. Then he had the brilliant idea (it was brilliant at the time) to take me out to the airport so I could stay at one of the airport hotels. “Perfect, then I can just get up, walk across the street to the airport, and have no worries about getting there in the morning,” I thought. We found no less than 7 places within spitting distance of the airport, that all claimed to be full. After getting frustrated and prying a bit, I came to find out that none of the hotels possessed the certificate that allowed foreigners to stay there. Without exception, they all refused me, even when I offered extra money. This took me by surprise, as it was the middle of the night, no one was around, I had an early flight, why can’t I just pay a few extra rupees and get a few hours of shut-eye? It seemed every other person I’d met in India would have jumped at the chance. At this point the driver suggested I pay him extra to take me back to the city to find another hotel. It was midnight at this point, so I politely refused…..actually it may not have been very polite. He then told me I could stay in the airport as my check-in time was now only about 5 hours away. I really didn’t want to but was out of options, and out of patience with the driver. In the back of my mind I knew I was going to get screwed somehow, but he reassured me I could just go and sleep in the airport. I finally agreed, he dropped me off, and sped off like a bandit as soon as I paid up. And a minute later I knew why, the guards at the airport gate, who are extremely intense and armed up to the gills, told me the airport won’t open until 6am. I should have seen it coming, but there was nothing I could do now but find a spot on the sidewalk and sleep on the new blanket I purchased in Goa. I slept a few winks, but mostly stayed awake as I was so paranoid about someone stealing my gear. The morning came, I got on my flight, literally made the transfer in Delhi with under 60 seconds to spare, and finally arrived in Srinigar, the base hub for exploring the beautiful Kasmir region of northern India.
OK back to Kasmir and all things Kasmiri. The people there ethnically are nothing like traditional Indian people I had met in Delhi or the south part of India. Almost a caucasian appearance, mixed with a middle eastern look. Imagine seeing a blue-eyed, white skinned, middle eastern facial featured man….not uncommon there. After I went through the 4 security checks at the Srinigar airport (this place is guarded like Fort Knox), I was finally able to exit where I was greeted by my house boat host. He drove me to the house boat I would spend the cold night in, and the whole time was blabbing about how he thought I was coming yesterday and waited 4 hours at the airport the day before. I felt bad, but what could I do if he read the itinerary wrong? We finally got to the lake which was dotted with thousands of houseboats that are used exclusively as hotels, and got situated. After a tour of the lake, seeing the local life and the alleys between all the boats, I decided to catch up on some rest. This proved near impossible as my host kept inviting vendors in to put the ‘hard sell’ on me, mostly cheap junk dubbed as ‘local art’ or ‘handicrafts.’ He even let them come into my room while I was trying to sleep! Frustrated, I finally got some rest, even though I was quite excited about the next days adventure: snowboarding in India.
I woke up the next morning, packed my things, and we made our way into town where I hopped into a ‘share Jeep.’ These are SUV’s that, once full of customers, drive up the mountain to various mountain villages, and eventually Gulmarg. The higher we went, the more snow came down, and more excited I got. When we finally got to Gulmarg, it was absolutely dumping snow. I rushed to the rental shop to get my setup, and checked into my guesthouse as fast as I could, thinking I could still get a full afternoon of riding in.
Now, to provide a bit of context, Gulmarg is situated in an extremely ideal location for skiing/snowboarding. Endless acres of back-country, including 5 sq km of in bounds terrain, runs up to 7km long, 400-500 inches annual snowfall, and a vertical of over 3500 ft (village to top gondola), all overlooking the Pakistani/Indian Himalayan mountain range. Sound sweet? It could be….assuming its developed……or developed well I should say. This place has all the makings of a snowboarders dream, but those can be quickly shot down after arrival.
I suited up and was ready to roll around noon. I went to the Gondola which is 2 phases. Phase 1 takes you up to the top of the treeline, and phase 2 up to the peak. With the snow coming down so plentifully, I was quite disappointed to learn that the gondolas were closed for the day. Why? Too windy, even though a single howl could not be heard. Then I heard the mother of all excuses: “Too much snow.” What kind of place was this? The Twilight Zone? As I tried to fathom this paradox, I eventually had to accept the fact I wasn’t getting on either Gondola today. I decided to hit the bunny hill which featured a T-bar for getting to the top. The moment I grabbed hold of the T-bar, the whole system shut down. Come to find out, for safety reasons, it’s “illegal” for snowboarders to use T-bars. Who knew India was so big on snowboarder control? After hiking up a few times, becoming more and more frustrated with the fact I’m on one of the most epic mountains in the world with one of the most epic snows of the year that I can’t touch, I decided to cut my losses, relax for the evening and try tomorrow. Day 1 = epic fail, and only 2 days left. The next 2 days made for some great powder riding….I would venture to say there was too much powder, as I was frequently getting stuck if the terrain wasn’t steep enough. I never got to go on the phase 2 part of the gondola however, all any of us could do was stand on top of phase 1, look up, and drool over the powder oasis above that awaited a more patient rider than myself. On my last day they were blasting on the peak, doing some avalanche prevention, but they didn’t finish in time for me to make a run up there. The final morning, I headed back to Srinigar for one more night on a house boat, a bit disappointed in Gulmarg, but thankful for the experience and the amazingly friendly people I had met there.
Finally, I flew back to Delhi for a few days before returning to China….O ya, and while I was there I cruised down to see the Taj Mahal, one of those must-see things you just gotta do if in India. Here is the pic to prove it!
Although quite impressive, the Taj Mahal is quite overrated in my eyes. I think all the hype is built up around the sole fact this place is just one giant tomb that a king had built out of the grief he felt after losing his wife. A nice gesture no doubt, but there are many more things in India that will really wow you, so I suggest you get off the beaten path!