Ski Gulmarg Kashmir: Picture Story
Snowboarding in Gulmarg, Kashmir, was a ski trip unlike any the SnowSphere team had ever been on before. With monkeys, machine guns, soldiers and sandbags, plus some of the best powder terrain ever and nobody to share it with made this journey an all time favourite with the crew.
Monkeys are native to this region of the Himalaya and can been seen in the forests all around Gulmarg. Their natural diet consists of the bark of pine branches, which they break off and then strip with their teeth, before discarding the branch on the ground. A group of monkeys near the Pine Palace Platinum hotel also supplement their diet with food scraps discarded by the locals.
Though skiing in Gulmarg is well established, snowboarding still seems to be a relatively new phenomenon. These soldiers were keen to give it a try and we were happy to let them. After all, they were the ones with the guns.
Gulmarg's gondola, which is the highest in the world, is split into two phases. The upper phase allows access to the really good terrain, and this lone ticket office is the gate keeper to that Himalayan powder. The upper phase often didn't open until midday (for no particular reason), but when it did, it offers access to perhaps the finest lift-accessed powder slopes in the world.
High on Mount Apharwat's slopes, a military base watches over the Line of Control - the border between Indian Kashmir and Pakistan. Skiers and snowboarders make their turns on pristine terrain, but barbed wire and bunkers are ever present.
This is why people come to Kashmir. When the upper gondola is running, the terrain and snow quality is as good as any heli-drop. SnowSphere editor Sam Baldwin throws up a spray.
There is a strong military presence in and around Gulmarg. Here the Jammu and Kashmir police keep an eye on proceedings in the village of Tangmarg, gateway to Gulmarg.
Local Kashmiris have no qualms about hitching a ride on the roof of the buses that trundle up to Gulmarg along the snowy road.
Getting fresh lines is rarely a problem in Gulmarg. Here, SnowSphere team member 'Giffy' explodes through the Himalayan powder.
Yassin Khan is somewhat of a Gulmarg Godfather. The Kashmir Alpine shop, founded in 1988 which he owns, is the only ski rental shop in Gulmarg, and is stocked with various hand-me-down skis and snowboards which have been donated by visitors passing through. Yassin employs 15 guides who take skiers, snowboarders and hikers all around the Kashmir Valley, and he continues to work as a guide himself as well as running various other ventures.
Rustic stone and wood barns are a common sight around Gulmarg. In summer these house sheep and goats that come to graze in Gulmarg's lush meadows.
Skiers and snowboarders wait for Phase 2 of the gondola to open. At its busiest, we counted around 200 people waiting. That may sound like a lot, but for a ski area the size of Mount Apharwat, it translates as almost empty slopes.
From the top of the lift, many people make a short hike to access one of the many valleys parallel to the gondola. Here you can see huge Himalayan peaks in the distance, many of which are over 7000m high. The village of Gulmarg can been seen as the white bowl in the valley.
We stayed at the Pine Palace Platinum. Despite frequent power cuts and inconsistent hot water, the staff were great and the food was truly superb, with delicious curries every night.
The city of Srinagar, Kahsmir's summer capital, was a mix of chaos, colour, noise, filth, rubble, soldiers and sandbags - utterly compelling.
They say Kashmir is heaven on earth - and during our visit to Dal Lake in Srinagar, we certainly felt like it was. With a backdrop of Himalayan peaks and underwater gardens to enjoy, this was the perfect way to end our trip to Kashmir.
To get to our houseboat we took these colourful and comfortable water taxis called shikaras. The lake is fairly shallow, and swaying underwater gardens can be seen growing up from the lake bed whilst large eagles dived for small fish.
The houseboats are large flat-bottomed vessels, with very elaborately decorated interiors, that would look quite at home in an English stately home. In the foreground, a shikara boat transports an unusual cargo of snowboards across the crystal waters.
Enjoying Kashmiri Khawa - a sweet local tea, similar to chai, on the deck of our houseboat.
Relaxing in the lounge of the Pakhtoon houseboat. A wood burning stove heated the ornate interior. Our host Rashid was a great cook and helped to explain some of Kashmir's troubled past.
The impressive Mosque in Srinagar holds thousands of Muslims during prayer time.
Gulmarg's powder snow was probably the best we'd ever ridden. Dave Watson, an experienced ski-mountaineer who is training local guides this season agreed:
"In Alaska, you'd be paying $250 for runs like these because you'd need a chopper to get to them; here in Gulmarg the same runs cost just 250 Rupees ($6/£3) a pop, and you just have to jump on the gondola."
To view more of Ben Capewell's photography view Benito's Picture Lounge.
We travelled to Gulmarg, Kashmir with Ski Himalaya.
Sam Baldwin is the author of For Fukui's Sake: Two years in rural Japan