The sheer magnitude of the avalanche which I was looking at validated my earlier fears. Four days earlier I had been skiing where this behemoth had cut its swath of destruction. It’s proportions were epic. It appeared to me that the northern 1/3 of the Pir Panjal range had slid.
I had arrived in Gulmarg 12 days earlier. I had been ensnared into booking a ski trip to Kashmir by the tag line “Where decent snowfall means it is measured in meters”. The Gulmarg gondola also boasts being the world’s highest gondola and the world’s longest continuous vertical rise. All seemed like good reasons to do something unique.
The Kashmir region of India has only recently seen a return of tourist traffic. Violence has ebbed significantly since a cease-fire in 2003. My impression is that it has come a long way since, in 1999, Bill Clinton called Kashmir the most dangerous place on earth. The resentment of the Kashmiri people towards the occupying Indian army became apparent to me when my guide, Shabeer, corrected an Aussie snowboarder as he issued the customary Kashmiri greeting to some army troops. Shabeer told him “No, no it’s namaste…namaste(a Hindi greeting)”. There are many competing agendas in the region but currently peace prevails and many of the people I spoke to seem to concur that every tourist rupee spent is a vote for peace.
The airport in Srinagar reminded me of landing at King Fahd airport in Saudi Arabia at the start of Desert Shield. It was definitely a military airfield, commercial air traffic is the lowest priority. Security checks departing from Delhi were exhaustive. I found it peculiar that the more security I face, the less secure I feel. In New Zealand, for example, one hasn’t got to take off their shoes to clear security. The outward appearance is almost lackadaisical compared to that in the U.S. But flying in New Zealand I feel unthreatened. From Delhi to Srinagar, however, the checks, searches, re-checks, frisking and hand-searching left me ill at ease.
On the ground in Kashmir, the first thing I noticed were guns and troops. Guns are everywhere. I was overjoyed when a young Kashmiri man greeted me by name and helped me through the bureaucracy of departing the airport and got me to the vehicle that would whisk me the 60Km to Gulmarg. As the vehicle departed the airport a light rain was falling. Further up the road, in Tangmarg, the rain surrendered to the lower temperature and higher altitude and became snow.