My daughter announced in February, “You have deprived me of playing Holi, don’t book any holiday during the Holi weekend this year.” Fine, whatever!
And then, while enjoying a picnic with some friends, they told us how amazing the snow has been this year in Kashmir and that it’s a pity we had missed a ski trip with them earlier in January. Suddenly, we ended up signing for a 6-day ski trip to Gulmarg during the Holi weekend. And before you jump on my parenting skills, the daughter was asked whether she is ok with rolling in the snow and making a snowman (or a snowgirl) for 5 days instead of playing with colors for a couple of hours. She got on board without any fuss!
I quickly booked the flight tickets to Srinagar and that’s it, all done! We are usually not the all-inclusive holiday package sorts, so the inactivity of not researching, not comparing hotels, not making a broad itinerary left me a bit bewildered!
Friends who have been to Gulmarg earlier to learn skiing raved about the beauty of the place and the hopelessness of the ski instructors there, in the same breath.
And I was sitting smug, having signed up with MHE (that’s Mercury Himalayan Expeditions, an adventure travel company run by Akshay and Dilshad). The ski trip was being led by Akshay, an expert skier himself, and I was quite comfortable with the set of instructors he picked. A half-day spent at Decathlon with a complete packing list for skiing and we were all set for our trip.
Day 1: Road trip from Srinagar to Gulmarg
It was snowing when our flight landed, an hour late, in Srinagar. Suitcases were opened and down jackets put on before we took off for the drive to Gulmarg. We had a relaxed meal at a restaurant in Tanmarg, where we also got to know the other travelers a bit more.
On our way to Gulmarg, our jeep had to stop before a turn to give way to the oncoming traffic and then it started skidding. I was surprisingly pleased how quickly some drivers got off their vehicles, helped our driver calmly to get some traction and soon we were on our way. It continued to snow, and the beauty of the fir and pine trees, the icicles hanging from some of their roots is indescribable. It’s something to experience yourself.
We reached our hotel – a short walk from the main road where the jeep dropped us – settled in and then left for Yasin bhai’s ski rental shop for some of the gear, the kids in a jeep and the adults mostly on foot. Trying on ski boots, jackets, pants, helmets for everyone took some time, and the kids thoroughly enjoyed their first play in the snow.
Day 2: Ski lessons at the beginners’ slope
Wake up at 7 am. Breakfast at 8 am. Walk to the jeep at 9 am. Reach the beginners’ slope before 10 am. This was the schedule for the next 4 days.
This was not a vacation in the usual sense. It was sort of a boot camp and I absolutely loved it.
It was snowing the first day when we put on our boots and skis and were introduced to the 4 instructors. 2 instructors were for the 4 kids and the other 2 were for the 5 adults (one adult had altitude sickness and decided to postpone the ski lessons to the next day).
I was mentally prepared that skiing is not an easy sport to learn as an adult, and yet the loss of control I experienced when I tried to move off a gentle slope unnerved me. I kept at it for a couple of hours and finally began to get a feel of it. However, it continued to snow and by then, my daughter was thoroughly tired and had had enough of the cold. She started crying and I had to break off my lessons to drop her to the restaurant where a friend’s parents were warming themselves and awaiting our return. I quickly returned to the slopes and practiced some more.
We continued the session post a warm and heavy meal at Hilltop restaurant. In hindsight, it was clear that lunches had to be light if one were to not feel lethargic and stay focussed on the skiing lessons. I had sent my daughter back to the hotel with other kids. She needed a break!
Towards the Day 1 end, I had moved to the top of the slope and become comfortable with the snowplow. Walking up the slopes after each run though was getting increasingly tiring and annoying. However, my instructor was clear that I was not ready to balance myself on the ski lift. That had to be left for the next day.
We came back to the hotel quite exhausted and sat in the lounge with a very warm and welcoming mug of kahwa. One of the fellow travelers had got a huge set of goodies for the group. The tea cakes and brownies from his bakery in the cold evenings were magic with the warm cuppa.
Evening routine: Wash up or shower in the room. Tea / Kahwa and yummy bakery stuff in the lounge. Music and conversations and a drink (or several) to unwind. Kids creating a ruckus. Dinner and more conversation. Fall exhausted in bed, using the electric blanket in lieu of a massage.
Day 3: A Gondola ride and more ski lessons
We woke up to a bright, glorious, beautiful morning. Akshay suggested cheating a bit on the ski lessons and using the great weather to go up the Apharwat mountain to Phase I and Phase II.
So, off we went and what an incredible experience it turned out to be – taking the gondola to Phase I (about 9000 ft), then another gondola to Phase II (about 12,500 ft), back to Phase I and experiencing snowmobiles, trying them out as well.
Post lunch ski lessons, and we all ate a bit less than the earlier day. We started practicing turns, putting weight on one side to move directions and tried the ski lift to come up the slope. It is not as simple to keep the skis parallel on the ski lift as it looks.
Day 4: Ski practice at other slopes
The next morning continued to be sunny and bright. The morning session was again on the beginners’ slope, but by now, most of us had got a hang of the snowplow, taking turns and taking the ski lift with bare minimum assistance.
Just when we all relaxed, the instructors upped the ante. The adults moved to the intermediate slope just before lunch, while the kids continued at the beginners ‘slope. All the kids also had started skiing from the top of that slope.
The adults had to cross Slope 85 (intermediate slope) and then take the ski lift to the top of the Highland park slope.
Slope 85 is quite steep and even with the instructor in front of me guiding throughout, I fell on my first turn. All part of the game!
I got up and crossed it, got on the ski lift (which again is much more challenging than the one on the beginners ‘slope) and tried my first attempt at Highland park slope. Very tricky.
We went to Highland Park, one of the oldest hotels in that area for lunch. It has a beautiful lobby-cum-lounge which overlooks all the slopes and has pleasing views of the mountains as well. A lovely lunch and some rigorous practice at the Highland park slope capped the day.
We came back to the hotel on quite a high. Some of our new-found confidence was put to test when Akshay suggested that some of us were ready to try out skiing off Phase I. It would be incredible to pull that off, but were we ready? We all had a prolonged discussion and in the end, 3 adults put their hands up for this adventure. It was decided that if the adults could steer the Phase I path, some of the kids who had picked up the sport well would try it in the afternoon.
Day 5: Skiing down Phase I
The Kongdori mountain beckoned the 3 of us the next morning. Others had left for the beginners ‘and intermediate slopes to practice some more. We put on our ski boots in the hotel itself and were dropped off at the Gondola station. Within minutes, we were going up the mountain, trying to look for the ski path this time below us.
We reached the starting point for skiing down Phase I, put on our skis and took a moment to appreciate the lovely day. Exhilarated, nervous, adrenaline-pumping to go!
Akshay had assured us that most of the 3.5 km path is straight or had gentle slopes. There only 3 steep slopes, a couple of them steeper than that at Highland Park slope. We started off and came upon the first steep slope. Slowed down and took turns cautiously to come down this slope. It felt good to be able to navigate this one easily. And slowly, I got more confident and started looking around a bit. We were amongst the first ones on that path that morning, and it felt surreal to be amidst all that beauty.
We waited before the next steep slope and again were cautious in getting down. Despite my caution, I fell once coming down. Thankfully, at no awkward angles. And after 50 minutes, Akshay and another instructor had led us down this 3.5 km path. It felt great to be able to do this!
We took the gondola ride back up, but this time, we got in a restaurant, to have kahwa and rest a bit. My confidence had grown in leaps and bounds on the first trip and this time, I was ready to practice taking parallel turns, un-learn snowplow and challenge myself taking the steep slopes with a bit of speed. Five falls on the second trip and I was exhausted! Akshay was also tired of picking me up after each of my falls.
We went to Highland Park hotel, in time for lunch and shared our experience with the others. My husband and I were quite tired and decided to take the afternoon off to laze in the hotel with our daughter. So did some other friends. However, Akshay took a couple of kids up the mountain. The kids had a blast traversing the ski path. A great day to cap the awesome trip.
Day 6: Drive to Srinagar and return home
The last day was spent packing, getting back to Srinagar, stopping en route to buy kahwa leaves and spices, and finally killing time at Srinagar airport. We would definitely go back next year and the year after that.
Mary’s shoulder beckons!
For more information on J & K Tourism, check out their website.
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