Gulmarg – the word evokes the visuals of a ski destination, with people jumping around in the snow managing long sticks around their feet. Ski jumps and the joy on faces of those participating in the snow is what my idea of the place was. Which was also formed by the stories I keep hearing from my father who was posted there good 40 years ago. In fact, my parents created such a Utopian image of the Kashmir valley that I knew it would come in the way of my own experience. Having said that here are some of the ‘must-do’ things in there. Jewel of the crown is, of course, the Gulmarg Gondola ride.
Must do things at Gulmarg, Kashmir
You really do not have a choice here, for there is no other way to reach Gulmarg but drive to this small town. All I can say is do not sleep during the latter half of the journey. When you start driving from Srinagar – it is like driving out of any mid-sized town in India. I was actually surprised to see continued habitation between Srinagar and this small town. It is when you start ascending that the green tall trees surround you and the narrow steep roads enchant you.
Sunshine Peak View Point
Just before you enter the town, at a sharp turn there is a viewpoint. A tourism board duly informs you of this. Stop here to soak in the valley view on one side and a snow-clad sunshine peak on the other side. I would later see this peak from my room at Khyber Himalayan Resort. But it is the first sight that fills in your memory cells the best. If you are there during the day, you can admire the golden sun merging with the silver snow and creating magic.
Take a ride on Gulmarg Gondola
You have not visited this tourist destination if you have not taken a ride on Gulmarg Gondola. If you are wondering what is a Gondola, well it is a cable car that saves you precious energy and takes you up on the mountain in a jiffy. It is the highest cable car in the world. So there is no reason for you to miss this unique ride. It has two levels. And between the two rides, they take you from a mean sea level of 8700 feet to 14000 feet. Brace yourself for the thin air and deep breathing.
Apharwat Mountain Gulmarg Gondola
The first level goes till half the height of Apharwat mountain. Here there are lots of tourist activities that you can engage in. Easiest and I assume the most enjoyable is playing with the snow. There is plenty of it available all around. You can take a sled-ride, do some joy skiing and take a pony ride. I would recommend simply walk around and observe people playing, trees emerging out of the snow and the Himalayan peaks all around.
The peak of Apharwat Mountain
Take the next cable car to almost the Peak of Apharwat Mountain. The ride is steep but the views on both the sides will make you forget everything. As the height increases, the views change drastically. At the beginning of the ride, you are viewing the mountain from the bottom. And in 10 minutes you have a top-down view. Strongly recommend that you see one side while going up and the other side while coming down. Do lookout for the Ski lifts running parallel to the Gondola cable – they look scary and adventurous at the same time.
After the second Gulmarg Gondola ride, you are on a peak surrounded by snow as expected. But if you stand on the edge and look at mountains all around, you would feel you are standing on the edge of a snow-rimmed bowl. Army camps are like pigeon holes in the hills. And no amount of imagination can make us understand the hardships they see in these harsh places. There are guides who offer to take you on a Ski ride – yes you do not have to Ski, but you tag along with a guide on the ski, for a small ride. They lure you by saying they will show you Line of Control between India and Pakistan. But I seriously doubt if tourists would be allowed there.
Video of Gulmarg Gondola
Watch my Gondola ride video in HD mode for the best view.
Bang opposite the Gondola landing point is Harmukh Parvat. That according to the local lore is the abode of Shiva hence a sacred mountain. Little to the left is Nanga Parvat that lies in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan. And is best known for the Indus River that flows from here.
On the return, near the base of Gondola, one can see the shepherd huts that are covered with snow during winters. Shepherds return every summer when there is feed for their flock.
At the Gondola point, many guides will approach you to help you with the tickets. There can be huge queues for the Gulmarg Gondola ride. So it is advisable to pick up your tickets in the morning. This would also allow you to spend substantial time on the top.
Gorge Kashmiri Wazwan
Wazwan is the elaborate Kashmiri meal that is served in a common dish from which everyone eats. Nowadays, the hospitality industry is aware of individual preferences so they serve you in a Wazwan like the small dish but let you eat on your own plate. Wazwan is primarily non-vegetarian. I would be able to talk about the vegetarian version served by the Chef at Khyber Himalayan resort.
To begin with, there was amazing Walnut Chutney that I used to like a dip and true to its name we licked it. Then there was Nadru Yakhni i.e a dish made with lotus stems, which is quite popular in Kashmir and was quite tasty and not so heavy. I would later have Nadru chips in honey sauce and they were simply yummy. There was an essential paneer dish that I simply skipped. Take this as a hint not to serve Paneer to vegetarians all the time. My Wazwan was not really heavy but those who had the real Wazwan were full.
When you feel too full just ask for some Kahwah to settle it down.
Maharani Shiv Ji Temple
Shree Mohinishwara Shivalay is the official name of this small temple. Perched on top of a small hillock in the middle of the bowl of Gulmarg. Queen Mohini Bai Sisodia who was the daughter of Maharana Mohan Dev. And the wife of the king of Kashmir Hari Singh built it exactly 100 years ago in 1915. Title Maharana for her father indicates that she came from the house of Mewar. Popularly it is known as Maharani Mandir or the Rani Ji Mandir. This reminded me of Ramappa temple in Telangana. That is also named after the architect rather than the deity it is devoted to.
You need to take a flight of steps to reach this rather simple temple. The temple is locked yet open for the darshan. You can see a simple Shivalinga covered with a slanted red roof with an Om and a Swastik mark on the front. View from the temple Parikrama is stunning. Behind the temple you see a strip of snow-covered peak and as you move you see the bowl of this place with its famous golf course in the middle and small green buildings most of which are hotels.
The simplicity of the temple, even when it is built by a royal tells a lot of the simple lifestyle of the people of Kashmir as it would have been or was it the weather that forced the temple to be simple?
You can see this temple in the famous Bollywood song ‘Jai Jai Shiv Shankar’
St Mary’s Church
From the Maharani temple just skirt around the golf course and you reach the quaint gate of St Mary’s Church. It’s a 150-year-old church, I assume from the colonial times when the British would have found respite here from the heat of Indian plains. The day I was there, the church was closed so we could just walk to it, go around it and walk back. However, this little walk was the most enjoyable part of our early morning excursion.
The church is also as simple as the Rani temple but a bit larger than the temple. When you look around the church you see a lot of small lakes that are a part of the Golf course. All of us loved the image of a barren tree against the white snow.
While driving to the St Mary’s church you will pass by the iconic hotel – Hotel Highlands Park where the famous song ‘Hum Tum Ik Kamre mein band ho’ in the film Bobby was shot.
Hari Singh’s Palace
A small but lovely wooden palace of the last King of Kashmir, Hari Singh exists on a hill overlooking this place. When I visited it in Nov 2015, it was being rebuilt. Apparently, after the family left the place, it underwent decay both due to climatic conditions and due to a political condition in the state. This hexagonal palace is being re-built and hopefully would be available to tourists by next season. My father tells me about a unique carpet that used to be in this palace – one that was woven inside the room so that it is the exact size and shape of the room. The officers working on the site told me that whatever was left of the artifacts in the palace have been shifted to the state museum at Srinagar.
Take a Walk in the town
More than any landmarks and monuments, it is the mountains, the trees, and the landscapes that they create together with the sky and the clouds that are the key attraction of a hill station. So, go out take a walk and admire the painting that the natural elements would have created only on that day and at that moment for you. Be a part of it and feel special.
Remember this hill station like every other hilly area is different in different seasons. I saw it in November. Photographs tell me that it is far greener in summers and far more white in winters which start sometime in the mid-December here. Having said that do check the weather there before you plan your trip and pack accordingly.
Recommend you read my following travel blog posts on Himalayan Trips.