Author, coach, leadership development facilitator, traveler, seeker, and the co-founder of GLOW, Nirupama Subramanian shares her Gondola ride experience in Gulmarg, Kashmir.

I had been to Kashmir as a child, more than 25 years ago. The memories were blurred- a houseboat, cold water from a spring, poplar tree-lined streets, and an abundance of flowers. I had not seen snow either. After several years of unrest and militancy, I didn’t know what to expect. We were greeted at Srinagar airport by our driver for the trip. Mehraj was an affable local Kashmiri, a young man in jeans and a jacket who would have been at home in a Gurgaon mall. He proved to be an expert on all the Bollywood movies that had ever been filmed in Srinagar. He had driven the actor Ranbir Kapoor around, just a few weeks ago during a film shoot. We were headed for Gulmarg, a little more than an hour away from Srinagar.  This part of Srinagar looked like any other Indian city. The same clutter of vehicles on the roads, bleak shops selling hardware and auto parts, mounds of dirt, and a busy air of people going about their daily chores. Apart from an occasional armed soldier, it seemed remarkably normal. 

A few minutes later, we had left Srinagar for a winding road in the hills. Tall deodar and fir trees fringed the roads, the air felt lighter and cooler. Gulmarg emerged like a dream. Gulmarg means ‘a meadow of flowers’ but now the meadow was covered with snow. The snow was still fresh, it lay everywhere, cloaking the landscape in white. We checked into our hotel, the Heevan  Resort. It was a cozy, pleasant place with hospitable staff.  We went for a walk to stretch our legs. It was still evening and a pale sun glistened on the mountain tops. We passed a large stretch of snow-covered ground.  Some people were in rough wooden sledges dragged around by sturdy men wearing phirans, the traditional Kashmiri shirt. The local market was only a clump of shops. Most of them were renting out winter coats, gloves, and boots. There were a couple of ubiquitous Kashmiri handicraft stores. A light smattering of snow began to fall, landing with a soft, sharp tingle on my face. The locals do not live in Gulmarg—where do they go?. By late evening, they head back to their villages, near Tangmarg, the most important town nearby. At night, Gulmarg is a desolate town. Only tourists and employees at the hotel remain. I snuggled under the electric blanket in my hotel bedroom as the skies darkened and the temperature dipped a few degrees.

Our driver had fixed up a guide for us the next day. Anwar, a veteran of those parts, would get us tickets to the Gondola, help us beat the queue, and stay with us till we returned. The Gondola here is nothing like its Venetian counterpart. It is nevertheless a tourist attraction that ‘ferries’ people from one point to another. The string of cable cars is one of the highest and longest ropeways in Asia. For Rs 800, one can travel 5 km in a small glass cubicle at an altitude of 13,000 ft. The queues at the Gondola ride indicated that there were several hundred people willing to do just that. 

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Before we went up to the mountain, our guide suggested we get suitably clad for the ride. (Is this mandatory?)A nearby shop rented out boots and heavy winter gear. I bundled myself into a large shapeless and colorless jacket and tottered about in black rubber boots a size too large for me. The adventure was about to begin.

Luckily the weather was just right- no rain and a hint of sun, when we reached the boarding point at about 10.30 a.m in the morning. We got into the Gondola for the first half of the ride. Phase 1 of the Gondola ride goes from the resort to a height of 8000 ft at the Kongdoori mountain. In a few seconds, we were up in the air. We could have been anywhere in the world. The Himalayas surrounded us, great peaks that seemed to pierce the sky and scatter clouds. Below us lay the snow-covered valley with a few shepherds’ huts and a thick covering of snow that looked like iced cakes. We disembarked and were ushered by our guide to the next phase. “ We should go now, “he said, “ Later the weather could get worse.” Anwar himself was from Gulmarg and an expert skier. At 13000 ft, the Gondola ride into the white beyond was eerie. The snow here was dense and there was hardly any vegetation.  As a light blizzard churned up the air, turning it a cloudy grey, we could barely see ahead. My daughter had got more snow than she had bargained for. We got out of the Gondola and trudged around on the snow. There were fewer people at phase 2 and little to do. We attempted a snowman but the old snow was too deep and hard and the freshly fallen snow dissolved into a fluffy white nothing in our hands. 

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We headed back to the Phase 1 stop which was now a hive of activity. Gulmarg is the best destination in India for skiers. It ranks 7th in Asia. It has the highest ski lift in the world. The Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering is located here. They offer courses both during winters. Anwar informed us that several international skiers descend onto the Gulmarg slopes in winter. March is the fag end of the ski season, so there were no professional skiers around. A host of Bengali tourists were attempting to ski. An enterprising lady in a sari was attempting to get strapped into ski boots and two small children were whizzing around on long skis. My daughter was game. I initially demurred. I didn’t think skiing was a sport I could take to. The salesperson at the ski rental shop was persuasive. “ When will ever get a chance like this?” he asked. “ In Switzerland, you have to pay 300 euro for one ski lesson. Here we are charging nothing at all. Come, Madam; see, your daughter is doing so well.” I succumbed. There is still a thrill in trying something new. I remembered a line from some advertisement – “When did you last try something for the first time.”

Skiing looks deceptively easy. In fact, the skiers don’t seem to do anything as they whiz down the mountain tops. But as I strapped on the ski boots and wedged them into the skis, I realised that even taking a single step in them required a certain skill. I knew I was about to make a fool of myself. “‘Bend your knees, spread your heels, tuck your arms.” I barely heard the instructions as I attempted to move. I headed for a gentle slope. I moved, I felt out of control, I lost balance, I fell. This sequence was repeated in a nested loop till I realised that an hour was not enough to be become a skier. My daughter had also given up her skis, my husband had acquired enough pictures of snow. We headed down. 

“ Come in summer,” said Anwar as we bid goodbye. The meadows will be green and full of flowers.”  Maybe in winter this time, I thought. I would probably spend the time and really learn to ski. The adrenalin rush I had experienced even for a few minutes on the skis would bring me back to Gulmarg. That and the unforgettable sight of a snow-covered landscape straight out of a fairy tale.

Photo credit: Rajesh Ramakrishnan

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