If learning to ski is on your bucket list, and St Moritz and Gstaad are not a possibility, the quaint, snow-bound town on the outskirts of Srinagar is the right place to start. As the 2021 skiing season ends later this month, this list is for you to prepare for next year
Gulmarg is one of the world’s highest places (8,690 feet) where you can hit the slopes. Sure, there are venues higher you could go to, but they won’t have groomed slopes or a proper gondola or chair car to bring you up there. I recently came back from Gulmarg, and, like all things in India, there is much clutter before you can hit the slopes in peace. So I decided to make a list of 10 things to help everyone else who would venture there for the first time.
- Flights: The easiest way to get there is to fly into Srinagar, and then take a taxi to Gulmarg, which takes about two hours tops to get you there. Unless you are Ten Steps To Skiing In Gulmarg unlucky like me and are delayed due to army convoys or VIP movement, you can look at almost three or more hours to get there. This is why it’s a good idea to not fly on the same day as you exit Gulmarg; spend a night in Srinagar instead.
- Stay: Khyber is a beautiful, no-expensespared luxury property, a place where you can take 24-hour central heating for granted and with enough angles and niches to keep your social media stories, reels, and posts well-supplied. The downside — it’s so cosy you may never want to get out, and that it’s a bit of an isolated bubble in the sense that it takes away from the feeling of being in Gulmarg. Other properties are not remotely as luxurious, but are closer to the slopes and the gondola and, while comfortable, are nothing fancy. Highlands Park, Shaw Inn, Kolahoi Green Heights, Rose Wood, and Khaleel Palace are what I managed to see, and they are all good in descending order of price and comfort. One significant lack is proper toilets when skiing. The ones available are filthy, under-stocked for supplies, or accident-prone slippery (when you are in your ski boots).
- Getting set for skiing: You will need two things: the equipment and a good trainer. There are schools aplenty, and most trainers are locals and are qualified (and mostly certified) enough to teach you the basics and get you skiing. Some speak English fluently, and many don’t. Then there are specialist skiing schools. I used Ski Gulmarg. They combine the trainer, rental gear, and stay (with meals), and pick up and drop — all into one neat package, so it worked well in not having headaches of settling and negotiating each aspect separately. Kashmir Ski and Snowboard School is another good one. Of course, there is the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering. In some of these, you learn in groups, and the course is a minimum of two weeks (but check the site for other options), and since it’s very competitively priced, they sell out quickly.
- Renting gear: Rental gear for the basic (bunny) slopes may not be in top condition, but it’s always safe to use; just ask them to wax your skis because that is the most annoying thing once you are up there and suddenly find your ski jamming.
- Best option: If you were going up to Phase 1, chair car or phase 2, then the gear is significantly better, but it’s also more than basic-level (intermediate), so don’t ask for that right up front because it is harder to learn on and consequently, can lead to severe injuries. I would advise taking your own ski pants, jacket, caps, gloves (and sunglasses) if you can, and a simple visit to Decathlon will sort it all out at a great price. Columbia is good too. And that would leave only the boots, poles, and skis, which is fine to hire. For eyewear, it’s only Oakley for me because it’s always important to look cool no matter how many tumbles you take.
- Food: This is one aspect that Gulmarg falls short in. You will either get greasy north Indian fare or Maggi instant noodles. I began to hate Maggi during my week there. However, the local market has two great joints: the Northwind cafe for amazing pizzas, rolls, and burgers and the Black Bear Brew for desserts and a proper (espresso) coffee. But again, if you are after a fullblown Wazwan affair, Gulmarg may not be the best place to find it.
- Medical and other supplies: Carry all your medicines, especially anti-inflammatory medicines and painkillers. It would be best if you also had with you any other important thing to your general well-being, like heat packs, crepe bandages, belts, braces, and supports. Don’t expect to shop there, and remember that the market is too far from most hotels. And there are no local handy taxi services, so you have to do much walking which, after a heavy day on the ice, the body doesn’t always feel up for. Carry protein/energy bars for in-between sorties on the slopes, and maybe an energy drink or tablets. It would help if you carried an insulated water bottle with you at all times, along with a small waterproof backpack to store everything when you are coming down slaloming, and carving up the ice.
- Hire porters: The slopes are some distance from most hotels, so it isn’t uncommon to hire a porter to bring your gear (or even you) there on a sledge. It sounds feudal, but it’s not. Also, if the line for the ski lift is long, then many people hire the porter to take their skis up the slope as they walk up. Ski boots make everything challenging, so having this little helping hand helps conserve some energy. And in case you don’t feel like skiing, well, then there are doughnuts, sledges, snow scooters, snowmobiles — all forms of rides at all price points which you can indulge in.
- Helpful locals: The locals are amiable and helpful, and above all, sincere, so you won’t feel cheated or fleeced no matter the transaction. Some things might seem expensive, but remember that these guys have to work really hard to make some of these things possible in a location as remote as Gulmarg with no proper infrastructure in place.
- Master the baby slope: Lastly, don’t rush the baby slopes. Sure, it’s frustrating to repeatedly ski a single slope and then wait for the lift back up but focus on perfecting your technique, even if it takes 3-4 days. Once you hit Phase 1, it is not very easy. Some stretches will require deft handling of your skis. Injuries happen, and can be severe. So, before you wish to brag about just how high or fast you went, remember that gravity will bring everyone down the slopes, but it is essential that you are in control the entire ride. And for that to happen, the baby slopes are crucial to master first.