Misty mountain peaks stand majestic, gently kissed by a mellow sun that is eclipsed every now and then by passing clouds. Their slopes are draped in fragrant pine, fir and deodar trees, their leaves glistening with droplets of morning dew. There is nip of chill in the air and the soft breeze rustles the leaves in the canopy of the chinar trees. Fluffy cumulus clouds dance down upon the valley as we enjoy a leisurely drive to Gulmarg, the Meadow of Flowers, snugly ensconced between the slopes of the Afarwat Hills of the Pir Panjal Range. It is transition from winter to summer when we visit Kashmir. Specks of snowflakes twirl in space and paint the landscape, an enchanting white. This poetry in motion leaves us spellbound.
No sooner do we leave the bustle of Srinagar, the twisting black ribbon of road disappears into an emerald of dense and tall cedar trees. We get glimpses of the snow kissed Harmukh mountains when there is a break in the folicaceous expanse. We halt at a few spots along the 50 km stretch to savour the scenic villages and breathe in lungfuls of fresh air, fragrant with the smell of pine needles. While roadside eateries or dhabas are far and few on this route, there are a couple of small kiosks where we stop to enjoy hot cups of Kahwa chai. The slush of spices and almonds which lend the infusion its unique aroma bowls me over and it is love at first sip!
When we stop yet again, to pick up small baskets of red, luscious cherries, we engage in a friendly banter with a couple of giggling lasses lugging bundles of wood on their heads. Long, colourful scarves wound round their necks, snake their way upward, hugging tight the jet black tresses on their crowns. It is obvious that the womenfolk in these rural areas labour to collect firewood to keep their hearths burning and their bellies sated. Adding to the allure of our journey, we get waylaid by a herd of changthangi. Yes, they are the Pashmina goats of the valley that shed their coat every spring, and from which is produced the much coveted cashmere shawls. The creatures appear to mock us gaadiwallahs as they plonk themselves in the middle of the road, stubbornly emphasizing that the right of way is theirs!
The veracity of the sentiment that the journey is as enchanting as the destination itself, can’t be truer, we realize, as we make our way to Gaurimarg. Yeah, that is how cowherds referred to the place, named for Shiva’s consort, goddess Gauri. During the 16th century, Sultan Yusuf Shah of the Chak Dynasty, who came to be known as King of Kashmir, was so captivated by Gaurimarg and its plethora of multi-hued blossoms, he changed its name to Gulmarg. This saucer-shaped verdure on grassy undulations emblazoned with flowers and fringed by pine and poplar clad hills, continued to be the haunt of royals through centuries. History records that Emperor Jahangir was so enamoured of this floral retreat that he once ended up collecting over twenty species of flowers.
Once the lure of royals and of the British imperialists, the tug of Gulmarg is as magnetic today. Vacationers from across the globe make a beeline for the pastoral town in summer as much as in winter, when skiing is its main attraction. Pine-fringed Gulmarg is the nearest India gets to a ski resort. It’s not so much a town as a twisting 4km-long loop of road ringing the undulating ‘Meadow of Flowers’ for which it’s named. The meadow is given some visual focus by the demure 1890s Anglican Church of St Mary’s sitting on a lonely hillock, accessed off the dead-end road linking historic Gulmarg Golf Club to the 1965 neo-colonial style Hotel Highlands Park. However, the main reason to come to Gulmarg is to venture up through the backing stands of mature pines towards the bald ridge of Mt Apherwat. This can be done on foot or with ponies (Rs 300 per hour) but is easiest using the two-stage gondola cable car that whisks you to 3747m for outstanding clear-day views, reputedly encompassing Nanga Parbat (the world’s ninth-highest mountain across in Pakistan). Booking online can save long queues in peak season (May and June), but service is cancelled in bad weather (or during civil unrest) and getting a refund can prove annoying. The gondola’s base-station is 1km west of the bus stand.
All the way up to Tangmarg, the winding roads are flanked by avenues of giant trees that give over to flat expanses of paddy fields dotted with picturesque hamlets. The road takes an incline that gets steeper as we begin our ascent to Gulmarg which is approximately 12 km away from Tangmarg. We skim past more snow-capped pine forests as we enter Gulmarg.
Our cabbie Azhar, a middle-aged local who doubles up as guide, is obviously a movie buff. He regales us with tinsel town gossip galore, reels out punch dialogues from several hits and talks ‘wisely’ about star attitude from ‘personal’ knowledge! Tall tales and reels indeed! However, we humour him for he is not scant on wit. Our vehicle slows down in front of Hotel Highland Park, located in the heart of Gulmarg. Azhar’s eyes sparkle, with a sense of personal triumph. “This is where hum thum ek kamre mein bandh ho – the Bobby hit – you know, with Rishi baba and Neetu memsahib - was shot” croons Azhar, his tone reflecting the pride he feels. No matter the Bollywood prattle he has been entertaining us with, throughout the drive, he wonders, if we, from the South, get to watch Hindi movies! I am amused at Azhar’s curiosity and my mind immediately races to my high school days in Delhi – times when we would devise ingenuous plans to undertake ‘mission impossible’ of bunking school, smuggling ourselves out to watch the Bollywood rage, Bobby! My reverie is broken by Azhar’s booming voice. “Room No.305, where Bobby Baba stayed during the shooting is now called Bobby Suite,” he reveals.
The romantic tryst between tinsel town and Gulmarg continued for decades, as did the film industry’s love affair with the rest of Kashmir. In fact, its iconic Shiv Mandir, with its red conical roof, bang in the town centre is where we take our next break. Who can forget the inimitable superstar of the 70s, “Kaka” Khanna, with his titillating trademark head tilt, tipsy as he belted Jai Jai Shiv Shankar from Aap ki Kasam. The hit number was shot right here, outside the temple, more popularly known as The Maharani Temple. Also known as Mohineshwar Shivalaya, the small, nondescript shrine, made famous by Bollywood, was built in 1915 by Mohinibai Sisidhia, the wife of the Dogra king, Hari Singh, Kashmir’s last king. It was again in the precincts of this very temple that a young Rishi Kapoor pledged undying love to Poonam Dhillon only to express the same sentiments later to Tina Munim in the 1982 flick Yeh Vaada Raha.
Trouble in the valley led to Bollywood abandoning Kashmir for years but now, everyone from Salman Khan to Shahrukh Khan are back to shooting here, with many films in recent years giving much-needed good publicity to this paradise on earth.
The air is redolent with the aroma of the valley’s trademark spices as we walk its streets – clove, cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and the nose-tickling pungent hing or asafoetida. My mind hovers on all kinds of edibles and I can barely wait to indulge my senses in a gustatory odyssey. The spread for us vegetarians, though limited – as we observe in most hotels in Kashmir – is rich enough to tantalize our salivating taste buds. We particularly warm to the flavourful Methi chaman, Zafrani aloo, Kashmiri pulao, etc. at their authentic best. We enjoy our fare with gusto, accompanied by non-veg tourists chomping and lip-smacking at their huge feast called wazwan, a multi-course meal served in Kashmiri homes or usually at weddings, the preparation of which is considered an art and a point of pride in Kashmiri Muslim culture. Most of the dishes use lamb, mutton or chicken. It is now being served at major restaurants. First the big tray arrives, heaped with rice, quartered by lahabi and moachi kababs, pieces of methi korma (chicken or mutton flavored with a spice mixture containing dried fenugreek or methi leaves), tabak maaz (twice-cooked lamb ribs, initially braised with ground spices and milk, then browned in butter), safed kokur (chicken with white sauce), zafran kokur (chicken with saffron sauce), etc. Mint yogurt and radish and walnut chutney are served separately in small earthen pots. Other dishes which are a must on these occasions are rista (meatballs in a red, paprika-saffron-fennel spice gravy colored with alkanna tinctoria), daniwal korma (lamb roasted with yoghurt, spices and onion puree, topped with cilantro leaves), rogan josh, aab gosh (lamb chunks in a fennel-based spice mixture, cardamom and partially evaporated milk), marchhwangan korma (chicken legs in a spicy browned-onion sauce), Yakh’n (spicy yogurt curry), Ruwangan Chhaman (paneer in tomato gravy) and gushtaba (meatballs in yoghurt gravy). Desserts like phirni are milk-based. Often, more than 40 dishes are served!
This land of cherry blossoms and snow peaks wears several epaulettes – it has the world’s highest gondola that reaches an altitude just shy of 14,000 feet. It receives, perhaps, the highest amount of snowfall for any Himalayan place at the same altitude. The town also boasts the world’s highest golf course, 8,500 feet above sea level. The famed 18-hole golf course, we learn, is almost as old as its ski slopes, both having their inception in the Colonial days – well before the Second World War.
And no trip to Gulmarg would ever be complete without riding the gondola, through twin levels of elevation. So we head toward the gondola terminus, to the strains of old Bollywood numbers that blare from stalls vending snacks and drinks. The pungent odour of horse dung is overpowering as we approach the station. As young and old line up to ride them, the equines humour their ungainly perches, with canters, trots and mock gallops, calmly weaving their way amidst honking cars and ambling visitors.
The gondola base is dotted with locals wooing visitors to the thrills of sledge-riding and snowboarding. Hawkers busy themselves dishing out scoops of cherry-topped ice creams, cold drinks and fried goodies, to be washed down with a steaming kahwa cuppa or espresso coffee. The queue at the cable car station is fairly long and excitement runs high as passengers impatiently await their turn. We learn that the ropeway, built by Pomagalski, a French company, has been operating since 2005 and during peak season, it ferries around 600 passengers per hour, up to the highest point. We opt to ride to the highest elevation, past Kongdori, to reach out to the skies and merge with the waltzing clouds at Apharwat, 13,780 feet above sea level. The view from the top is ravishingly beautiful and tranquil. Cloud and mist entwine themselves to swirl across enigmatic mountains that are all around us. Serene nature, a rhapsody in white and green, ever so gently caresses our souls.
Even as we stand entranced, soaking in the majesty of massive massifs that pierce the sky, dense clouds spread like a sheet across the horizon, blanking out the sun from our view. So hopes of viewing Nanga Parbat and the icy summit of K2 are dashed! Gulmarg is bathed in the purple glow of dusk and the temperature dips to a reasonable chill that has us hugging our woolens. We promise ourselves to return to this haven in every season to enjoy all its hues and flavors. We bid adieu to Azhar, leaving him to dream of the tinseltown he has never visited.