Mind. Blown. ✔ ACHIEVED
Three weeks ago I got whiff of this place called Gulmarg way up in the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalayas in Kashmir. ‘Snowboarding in India?!’ I thought, ‘F#$& yes, now this sound fierce’. A place of publicised civil and political unrest with a contrasting culture; the location of the world’s highest gondola and where I could also partake in my Winter passions… lets. get. there. I decided. Here comes the Wild West of snow locales!
I had other motivations also. I had Muslim friends as a child and have many who practise this religion, but I have never had the opportunity to visit or stay within a predominantly Muslim community. With all the misinformation, fear mongering, benightedness and prejudice floating around about this particular ideology and associated customs, I saw this a golden opportunity to be acquainted with the unfamiliar. Kashmiri are desperate for liberty- something I hold very dear and I am interested in what is happening culturally within this environment. Unusual situations come with surprising, valuable and at times confronting lessons. I appreciate my freedoms even more now than I have previously and have addressed personal and societal concepts about desire, superiority and satisfaction which have been mighty interesting. I can empathises with Kashmiri’s fight for the next step up. Greed/ desire for better, different or for extra/ materialism/ indulgence- they are really close relatives aren't they.. I am compelled to seek, experience, and learn more.. does my love of variation, new connections and circumstances come from dissatisfaction?
Gulmarg is demanding, growly and fizzing- it’s got tension here- yes there are military, yes this is publicised as a high risk travel area, and yes, this was not somewhere my government nor anyone I know recommended me to come to… but push this aside and it is vibrant, unique, super edgy in a sexy wild way and most definitely alive. It’s not everyones thing to want to explore a ‘volatile conflict area’… or this is how the media would want you to perceive it. There is froth here, but this simmering indignation; this fieriness is towards India and being marginalised- is NOT directed at the tourist. If you are a sensitive soul however, you are most definitely going to feel crackle- people are spirited, they are passionate, and it comes over in their interactions, in their business deals and in the energy of this part of Kashmir (back to what I was talking about previous post in mirror reality). BUT ya'll, Just because you are passionate and fired up does NOT mean you are dangerous.
Gulmarg is a winter honeypot; the world round these are places of hiked prices and financial exploitation; money for beauty- money for comfort- money for fun. You're gunna pay for white gold as we say. The tourist wants everything for nothing and the local is trying to make a living in an inflated and grossly disproportionate economic bubble. The environment is pimped, the local culture is peddled and captured audiences of both visitors and locals are often subjected to being corralled into activities and directions where they can be capitalised from. This being both financial and emotional. Due to the guide and union systems here, it’s a little harder than normal to dodge and manoeuvre through and out of these things- but tbh, it’s the way of life, people need to capitalise off their expertise and I took it as a learning curve to get used to.
Us NZdrs can be rather pig headed and bloody minded about wanting to do and know everything for ourselves, and as a culture we are not free with our cash- sometimes, I learnt, I need to sit back and pay others to take me for the ride. For a fixer on the initially jarring personal interaction in Gulmarg- word gets around. I am not intimidated to say no and hold my own.. A International chick stands out; it’s not a big place, and after a little while you gather some respect, a few decent buddies and approbation towards yourself after managing chunky situations; these I inevitably get myself into cos I want to do things differently, but well, earning stripes doesn’t happen sitting around twiddling ya thumbs. I’m not a package deal kinda girl- I’m in organising and feeling things out for myself at ground level and I wouldn't trade this (at times harder road) for anything- it’s where all the magic happens. A bit of patience and being genuine and fair to those around me irons out a lot of kinks.
Here’s a brief overview thanks to our friends at Wiki: Kashmir is the northernmost geographical region of South Asia. Until the mid-19th century, the term "Kashmir" denoted only the valley between the Great Himalayas and the Pir Panjal mountain range. Today, it denotes a larger area that includes the Indian-administered territory of Jammu and Kashmir (subdivided into Jammu, Kashmir, and Ladakh divisions), the Pakistani-administered territories of Azad Kashmir and Gilgit-Baltistan, and Chinese-administered territories of Aksai Chin and the Trans-Karakoram Tract.
In the first half of the 1st millennium, the Kashmir region became an important centre of Hinduism and later of Buddhism; later still, in the ninth century, Kashmir Shaivism arose. In 1339, Shah Mir became the first Muslim ruler of Kashmir, inaugurating the Salatin-i-Kashmir or Swati dynasty. Kashmir was part of the Mughal Empire from 1586 to 1751, and thereafter, until 1820, of the Afghan Durrani Empire. That year, the Sikhs, under Ranjit Singh, annexed Kashmir. In 1846, after the Sikh defeat in the First Anglo-Sikh War, and upon the purchase of the region from the British under the Treaty of Amritsar, the Raja of Jammu, Gulab Singh, became the new ruler of Kashmir. The rule of his descendants, under the paramountcy (or tutelage) of the British Crown, lasted until 1947, when the former princely state of the British Indian Empire became a disputed territory, now administered by three countries: India, Pakistan, and China.
Below, Fascinating articles from independent Kashmiri magazines. click on a slide to enlarge and read. Articles are consecutive from top left.
India fought for independence from British rule, it’s not on unreasonable grounds which Kashmir sets it’s vindication. Sadly, as is the way with war, it’s the little guys who get smothered and trodden on while the ones at the top grapple over land, money and power- raping, killing and pillaging what is the true value within their kingdom- their own people.
Kashmiri culture and society is distinctly different to their southern ‘Indian’ country(wo)men. Kashmir wants emancipation from India, and I can see why- they are very different societies with quite different ways of doing things. They are fighting for the concept of freedom and but they also want the plentiful (who doesn’t play with this dichotomy in life?!); more tourists, more development, ultimately more lucre. More more more, everyone is praying for more. The Indian tourists visiting the temples, the locals for more tourists, cash, and weather; the tourists for powder, sex and hasheesh, the army for more control. Spicy huh.
As a Westerner- you represent freedom; you are the living embodiment of exactly what everyone wants, can you blame people for wanting a piece? Whatever a visitor feels ain’t nothing in comparison to what these guys are living in and they challenges they face for livelihood, identity and quality of life- and my God they work hard. Your bang for buck is going to stretch miles, isn't it cool to help out those who really, really need it in the process? I’d rather be here than a resort in Europe aaaannnyday and seriously this terrain? These conditions? This is what we snow bunnies dream of.
I love a good barter but the goal posts moving within business transactions frankly pisses me off. Arrangements that get ‘unexpected’ additions are not cool- so get uber clear about what is being traded- loop holes can be large here, get into serious details and don't be intimidated by try ons, being rushed or mark ups to buy things in advance ie: day passes. Breathe, have a giggle and walk away if necessary. Expiry dates are mysteriously 1/2 missing, ‘extra’ costs will be cracked at (NO you do NOT need to pay for the toll on the way to Gulmarg, even if there are demands for you to get out of the car and do so- it is part of your fare), actual prices expand and deflate (I just find my own fair price within this), and if the techniques of straightforward demand doesn’t work, then aggression, and attempts at intimidation can also come out. Joy of joys- well, wrong lady chaps, try all you might I’m not scared, but this could be formidable for the uninitiated.
Kashmiri mostly despise the Indian army presence, but they are also in a rock and hard place needing the Indian tourist dollar. Shitty case of biting the hand that currently feeds? That’s why I want to give you a real insight into this magnificent area with fucking awesome people and things to do- cos they need a leg up; this media bullshit spins unnecessary fear into prospective visitors. You are going to need kahunas to be here if you are a woman travelling alone- I’m not going to gloss that, if you are an inexperienced traveller who finds being assertive challenging I would consider other options- but if you are a powder hound, can handle a little wildness and want to get slapped sideways with a crazy ride of winter coolness, then keep reading.
In some ways you are safer here than anywhere else in the world- there is so much scrutiny on the situation and bad press it works in your advantage- people genuinely want to see you have a good time and prove to you that there is fun, well-being and value in this land, their resources and their relationships. Kashmiri hospitality is something else- it’s such an incredible thing. I have been treasured and cherished while here, and immensely privileged to share my time and form relationships with Kashmiri who have an unbridled fervour for life. They in turn have won a place in my heart- I admire these people and adore this land.
SOOOO much here is good! Gulmarg is extraordinarily beautiful. As I said previously, it is also the location of the world’s highest gondola at 14000ft. There are ATV rides; hooning around the white blanketed countryside past Indian military all bravado, camo and with obvious fire power gets the rebel in me extra thankful for her freedom and provenance. There is fascinating cuisine and cool little snack shops with inflated chip packets which make me giggle regardless of what’s going on. I can’t help wondering what the army would do if they simultaneously exploded… There are snowboarding trails, hiking routes, Heli rides, Hindu temples, day trips, snowmobiling, spa’s, and there are really really amazing people to meet. The calls from the mosques, the smell of the incenses and buildings, the distinctive architecture of Srinagar, the mischievous monkeys, the feel and look of the pashmina’s & cashmere, local embroidery and crafts; and the different ways of doing the basics are fascinating and illuminating (like why do we waste so much bloody toilet paper??! So many places in the world don’t even use it..)
Actually another point comes to mind of why New Zealand is not implementing a charge for foreign nationals to visit and view our wondrous land and sights and help pay for the infastructure that is required to look after them because of this increased traffic? (We came close twice if I remember correctly..?) Why should residents be on the back foot to enjoy our country footing the bill for others mess (this is not a blame it's a case of different social conditioning towards behaviour like littering), and not have top priority to the wonders within, and/or have capital to promote and invest into development within these areas and associated cultural faculties? Pretty much every other country I have visited I'm charged (often on top of this there are two quite distinctly different price brackets for traveller/ local) and I see it as a small price to pay in relation to what I can experience- I'm honoured to be there! This lack of desire towards financial remuneration mirrors a much bigger problem in the psycology of NZ- people do not value, respect or appreciate the merit and worth of beauty- whether this is our sights, our expertise, ourselves or our hard earned skill sets. It's not an icky thing to have a price to pay for respect towards a particular and unique type of energy a place or a person possesses- but this is a rather funny concept for those from NZ- money is a touchy topic. Mastery and splendour are qualities to be cherished and rewarded and this requires digging in financially- feel good warm and fuzzies are great and all, but when you really mean it- ya put your money where your mouth (or eyeballs as the case maybe) is... and are ;)
However, here’s one for your bag of tricks- as a solo woman you are going to want to be sensitive to how you are navigating the hordes of male guides. The ol’ smiles-cure-any-issue technique is not going to win a lady mega points here. Talking or interacting with other male guides in abundance (um, well, as locals go there ain’t anyone else TO interact with.. local women are not out and about as much as our international sisters) gives the impression of wanting to play the market. I had got whiff of this possible message early on, but it’s not that easy like by yourself travelling here- you are approached from all angles, all the time (try dealing with people hopping into your cab from the airport and working through 8 guides all at your door vying for your attention. Not to mention being constantly approached when you walk anywhere- get ready for lots of snaps; small price to pay for all the ones I take of where I am I believe- and it kind of tickles me pink.. as long as you don't grab/ push/ yell at me mucho gracias) and I’m not one to shy away, I’ve been conditioned to hold my own. An icier Eastern-block-reminiscent-bitchy-resting-face character from my back catalogue was rather useful especially in the first two days doing business and finding the lie of the land. Eye contact is my first line of information and if necessary, defence- and thank you, I make my own mind up on how my interaction follows from there- but well, it’s worth taking note of everything innit- she's got new rules here, ones upside down in some ways to others, but, well, if I wanted the same ones I could have stayed at home.
Ever seen a puppy encounter a hedgehog?? It’s kinda a similar situation. It used to make me giggle when my pup would bail up a hedgehog late at night in the garden- all slobbery, inquisitive and wanting to play- but just not really hitting it on the mark for the wee nocturnal mammal who’s like “whhaooh buddy! coming on strong!”. As an International woman you are going to get a lot of attention, but it’s harmless- a little freaky at times, but most peoples intentions and meanings are good- they really want you to pick them to have some attention.
There is a darker side to some of this though also: In a nutshell, emotional blackmail is a psychological-emotional ransom note that says, “if you don't do what I want then I will make you hurt”. This and ‘FOG’; terms coined by psychotherapist Susan Forward, are terminology about controlling people in relationships, and the theory that fear, obligation and guilt (‘FOG’) are the transactional dynamics at play between the controller and the person being controlled. In order for emotional blackmail to occur there must be four things present - a demand, a threat, a blackmailer and a victim. I encountered this at times subversively and at others blatantly (not of physical threat, but emotional)- there’s a lot of this type of thang in serious bartering, yet there is also another simmer here. Kashmiri seem to have this type of pressure from many angles. Emotional warfare comes hand in hand with it’s fraternal twin physical conflict… can you blame people for trying out the less overt tactic on each other and using it as a strategy to get what they want?
This all sounds rather heavy dunnit! It does get easier but being in the middle of a political shit storm with a heavy military presence and social unrest doesn’t have ‘easy relaxed living’ associated with it does it… once I got myself locked and loaded with the basics I was on a roll into quite possibly THE MOST rewarding, incredible, fan-fucking-tastic, extraordinary winter wonderland bag full of epic-ness I’ve had the fortune to experience. Sure, I could have made this easier and gone into a packaged box that had been prefabricated for me, but well, you don't end up going up Kongdoori mountain at night by snowmobile to a bonfire and wazwan feast with your new friends by going the ordinary route do ya?!
Here are some people of special mention that I would like to introduce- I’ve done the vetting, the legwork and I trust these guys. You can call on Tanveer and Mubashir to look after you, show you an incredible time and get you into and around all the hidden secret spots; they’ll circumnavigate the tourist shite for you too if you so direct BOOM. They are genuine and kind and adore what they do. Mubashir knows the Kongdoori mountain like the back of his hand and it is a joy to share their energy and enthusiasm for their culture and passions. Being with them is totally infectious thrilling fun.
LOGISTICS- If you can, bring your gear, if not your board or skis, bring your boots at least. I was lucky as it was Spring to get a board, but wore boots two sizes too big due to lack of supply- manageable for big sweeping runs, but tiring on on the lower cat traps. Get a decent wad of cash from the ATM just outside Srinagar airport exit and for the ladies, you want to bring your monthly products with you girls ;) Altitude sickness? No not reeeeally, but it does take getting used to. Gulmarg township is almost the equivalent of the summit of Ruapehu. I got tired, I got puffed and I found after day three I was feeling more on my game. Just getting up here from Srinagar is an adventure in itself! I had to giggle when I read this on powderhounds.com on the way here… I couldn’t write it better myself lol: ‘Travelling from Srinagar airport to Gulmarg, chaos reigns and road rules seem absent as your transport dodges all manner of obstacles including (but not limited to) oncoming vehicles, pedestrians, military and police checkpoints, herds of goats, wandering cows, packs of dogs, piles of sheep entrails, street stalls, markets, brightly decorated buses with passengers on the roof, diesel belching over-laden trucks, convoys of armoured army vehicles, three legged sheep, random debris, rubbish of every description, flocks of scavenging ravens and hawks, armed soldiers on foot patrol, auto rickshaws, horse drawn carts, human drawn carts and abandoned remains of carts.' Getting the picture?’… hehe… it’s baptism by fire baby- welcome to India waggle waggle, if you have not visited before- trust me, this is only the beginning ;)
If you are prepared for challenges but ones that come with serious rewards, then Gulmarg and Kashmir will pull our all the stops. But then the psychology of us snow lovers is hardy- we don't give up, we’re made from tough stock and take being beaten around a bit on the nose; we’re not going to let impositions impede our plans, and we hang in for the long haul- India, you are fighting with the strong-willed and proud. Yet these two thoughts come back to me time, and time again- both here and in South India. In life, we don't always get what we want on our terms all the time; there are things called compromise, graciousness, patience and compassion that pay mighty dividends and, is it not valuable to appreciate and care for what we currently have before wanting more?.. funnily enough it’s then we realise we always have more than we need.
There's something insanely addictive about this place, it can be so extreme, it can push you right to your limits on every level, but each morning I reset, and the fresh day brings new smiles, contrast and magnificent things to love and cherish. I will come back, late January I have got you eyeballed for another round- but in the meantime, I hope the summer months are peaceful, prosperous and rewarding for my friends from this fair land.
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