Riding Kashmir: Snowboarding in Big Mountain Nirvana, Gulmarg
Jet-lagged and bleary-eyed from two days of travel, coupled with some weird looks in Delhi airport where I had to explain my oversized snowboard bag a million times, I finally touched down in Srinagar.
The flight into Srinagar was breathtakingly beautiful. Below us were the rugged peaks of the Himalayas covered in a blanket of snow. I thought of all the people before me who have been lucky enough to visit them; now it was my turn. The plane landed pretty much at the door and our bags were placed directly onto the tarmac.
Once in the terminal, I was surprised at how many armed soldiers were about! It felt and looked more like a military base than an airport. The foreign office for the UK has advised against all travel to the state of Jammu and Kashmir since 2014…but here I was!
After signing a form declaring my identity and what my plans were in the district, I left the airport and took my first deep breath of the trip on Kashmir land. In front of me stood a crowd of locals, some holding signs waiting to pick up guests and others shouting and waving for attention, suggesting taxi rides to Gulmarg.
Luckily, my boyfriend, with seasons of visiting here under his belt, ushered me through the chaos. We load the taxi with our board bags tied to the roof and after an all-important beer run, we started heading towards the mountain town of Gulmarg.
The ride in
Car horns, foreign smells and strange looks through the window - the journey well and truly begun. The road crossed several shanty towns and small villages. The houses looked almost medieval. I noticed that all the men were wearing the same, if not similar, overcoats which I later discovered is a traditional winter coat called a Pheran.
And then I caught a glimpse of what was in store; the snow clad Mount Affarwat loomed ahead. That’s when the butterflies kicked in; I was going to learn to snowboard there!
Tangmarg was the last village before we reached the resort. So many taxis were queued up by the side of the road and the noise from the hustle and bustle from the townsmen was very much present. There was so much to see in such a short stretch of road. I saw army officers waving down taxis insisting drivers to use chains for the road ahead, street dogs roaming around eating anything they could find, monkeys jumping from roof to roof and of course, the daily shoppers bargaining for fruit in the market square.
I don’t come from a very outdoorsy family. We were brought up by the sea in the City of Edinburgh so I was never taught how to ski or snowboard. I had no idea what I was in for. Experienced, even professional, skiers and boarders from all over the world come to Gulmarg for the endless opportunities exploring the backcountry terrain. Will I ever belong here, will I ever fit in?
Well, I was about to find out as we promptly arrived in Gulmarg...
The love affair with Gulmarg begins…
Gulmarg lies in a cup-shaped valley in the Pir Panjal range of the Himalayas at an altitude of 2,650 metres, 56 kilometres from Srinagar. The natural meadows of Gulmarg, which are covered with snow in winter, allows the growth of wildflowers such as daisies, forget-me-nots and buttercups during spring and summer. Winter sports in Gulmarg are carried out on the slopes of Apharwat Peak at a height of 4,267 metres. Many points on Apharwat Peak and Khilanmarg offer a panoramic view of Nanga Parbat and Harmukh mountains. It really is quite something when you're up there!
I headed to the beginner slope. There were about three snowboarders there. The rest of the group were young locals on skis and some army officers practising their skills on the downhill. I didn’t see any other women.
My progression from the bunny slope to lapping Phase 1 took a few weeks. Initially, I had so many tumbles and falls and being a snowboarder, I wasn’t allowed to use the poma to help me back up the beginner slope. The fatigue from constantly falling over and having to hike back up, as well as the disappointment and embarrassment, definitely took its toll. However, I adopted the mantra, 'Relax, Enjoy and Have Fun' and slowly but surely, everything came together. As my skills grew, so did my self-confidence. I was catching edges less and less and within a month of riding, I was strapping in for the chairlift with ease. I even got to experience the white room from time to time! That wasn’t as much fun though. By the end of the season, I had done my first backcountry run over a few bowls with the company of ski patrol.
Gulmarg is such a welcoming place. People here want to see you happy and progressing on the slopes. I got so much support and encouragement from the locals. I left that season in awe of my achievements and knew I’d be back the following winter to perfect my riding some more. I was well and truly hooked with snowboarding. And I was in love with this ski town.
Fast forward a number of years and season 5 has not long ended and what a season it was! I’ve discovered the wonders of split boarding and 8-hour days in the backcountry. I’ve ridden steeper terrain and achieved my level 1 in avalanche awareness. I’ve shredded so fast in some of the best powder ever and I even got first gondy a few times! Life is sweet when I'm in Kashmir.
International Women’s Day in Kashmir
The way that seasons fall, means I'm forever spending International Women’s Day in this country. There are a few fellow female riders on the mountain but it's the women in the villages that always capture my heart that day. They are the most hospitable people I have ever met. They are very friendly and generous when it comes to serving food to friends, family and even more so, strangers. You can feel their warmth in their wide open smiles.
These women are incredible artists; many sit all day weaving, sewing and hand-combing scarfs and pashminas. It’s a lovely way to spend a down day watching these women create such delights.
All my trips to Gulmarg have been with my other half. He has been heading out there for over 9 years and is involved with a company, Di5 Adventures, who organise such adventures. If you want to come hang in the Himalaya ,then check them out. The only thing better than an awesome experience is being able to share it with others, which I'm truly grateful for.
Hailing from Edinburgh, Scotland, Laura loves hiking, bouldering, yoga and snowboarding. She is currently studying her Forest School Leadership qualification with the goal to move to the Highlands after!
Follow Laura adventures on Instagram at @1biglady