Travel: Winter in Kashmir
The poet who talked of a winter wonderland was quite definitely talking about Gulmarg as far as I am concerned. And yet, in the seasonal twilight zone which follows the golden autumn of Kashmir and precedes the icy fingers of winter, people flee Gulmarg in a fashion not unlike rats deserting a ship that has hit an ice floe.
Tourists pack their rucksacks and buy up crates of dry fruits to take home. Shopkeepers down shutters and go down to their villages in the Srinagar valley, only to return with the moon daisies of spring. Chinars and pines throw up nude, desolate arms to the sky, vulnerable to the sharp whistling winds. The horizon turns bleak, a Turner composition in grays and blues.
Then, along comes the first snowfall, huge irregular shaped flakes that drift down softly, shrouding the dry ground with a filmy white stole. Even as the spectacular transformation wrought by the debutante snows changes the face of the landscape, the skies literally open up and it snows for a week, an unrelenting, ceaseless manna of sorts. The trees are completely covered with cotton wool clusters and a hushed silence descends, broken only by the thumps of snow falling off branches and onto the ground. Birdsong comes to a near standstill, the occasional call sounding extra loud.
The first snow is always soft, later going on to become the caramel-crisp quilt of February and the icy glaze of March. Now, however, the snow is Winter Queen, reigning in uncontested supremacy and splendour, piling up five to six feet high, pushing open doors with sheer might, sliding and falling off roofs with a sound like thunder.
Along come the snowstorms too, covering freshly cleared tracks in a trice, obliterating signposts and generally curtailing all movement till the massive orange coloured snowcutters take to the roads to do their Sisyphean job of road clearing. The unchanging view from the window is a monotonous dazzle, leaving one with the option of either cowering inside the cottages, heated by coal and oil bukharis, or summoning up the courage to go outside and tackle the white stuff.
Out in the open, the numbing cold has a sandbag effect, hitting the extremities with extra force and making the centre of the body seem that much warmer in comparison. The cold also brings about a madness — an urge to dig snow forts, make stocky, ungainly snowmen, drop brittle clumps inside people’s collars, till frozen fingers signal the danger of frost bite.
Winter in Gulmarg becomes a time of perpetually cold hands and feet, of sodden socks, of clothes that take forever to dry, besides taking on a gray tinge from drying near a bukhari. The novelty of thawing out everything from soup to shampoo soon settles into irritation.
Fresh arts are mastered. The art of eating quickly before the oil content in the food freezes to form a congealed mess. The art of boiling fresh snow for water of dubious cleanliness, after the water in the pipes freeze. The art of absorbing news many days old, from just airdropped dak bag newspapers and periodicals.
It is a time for hazardous journeys where many a vehicle, despite hefty skid chains, ends up embedded in snow banks. And woe betide those who get caught up in the snake -like convoy of army trucks which makes the proverbial pace of a snail seem like Formula One racing speeds in comparison.
The sun plays hide and seek and days take on a hue of their own. There are gray on gray mornings when the dark bordered clouds and the snow-flurried winds seem to play some dirge of their own. On other days, the truant sun gilds the ivory blanket, reflecting blindingly off convex dunes and sending pencil-slim slivers of light into pine forests.
Suddenly, the slopes become dotted with bright colour, the skiers and sledders in their vivid ski suits of red, yellow, blue making the hills ring out with their exhilarated whoops and shrieks. The few locals still around watch with amused condescension, their kangris packed with live coals placed next to their torsos, under their pherans. Winter for them, is something to survive, not to exult in.
And for one who is not quite tourist and not quite local, winters hold an unique charm. The disadvantages of living cut off from civilisation all those long months, forced to don four to five layers of thermals and outer clothing, of battling a visual and emotional claustrophobia, sometimes looms dauntingly large. Tales of people getting lost in blizzards and dying horrible deaths but only after the mind totally loses its moorings, bring home forcibly the cruel face of snow.
It was not all bliss. Yet certain images lodged in the mind’s eye stay lodged and refuse to fade. Images of sipping endless cups of hot cocoa while watching the snow fall softly through the windows of a glass gazebo; of cottage roofs glinting in starlight; of the faint gurgle of a defiant brook under its surface coating of ice; the excitement of zipping down steep slopes on skis; of nights in white satin and days of shining glory.
Then, into the mind’s eye slips a final image: one of Gulmarg ravaged by turbulence, its famed golf course overrun by weeds, ski chairs boarded up, restaurants closed, a pervading atmosphere of suspicion and acrimony.
And of snowfields stained with blood.
Difficult to fix a date on this article; I’m thinking it ran in THE TIMES OF INDIA in 1992 or so. Thankfully, Gulmarg has been restored to its original state, that of a popular ski resort.
Links to other Kashmir pieces of mine: