Gulmarg - Kashmir's Premier Ski Resort 25/2/09 India conjures up instantly recognisable images in the minds eye. The magnificent Taj Mahal, Rajasthani warriors with colourful turbans, bathing Sadhu's in the Ganges at Varanasi, impregnable Forts and tea. These themes are more dust caked than snow flaked but the ski resort town of Gulmarg in the disputed territory of Kashmir is one place to go for a different Indian experience. Arriving into the freezing Kashmiri capital, Srinagar, was a shock after being in a warm Delhi spring only an hour before. The flight stopped for a passenger change at Jammu and it was an interesting precursor to see the predominately Punjabi travellers were replaced by the striking Kashmiri's who look more Afghan than Indian; all green eyed and chiselled. Setting off from the heavily fortified airport in a pre paid taxi (INR 1200/ $AUD37 1 1/2 hours) the scenery was reminiscent of a wintry Eastern Europe with denuded trees and half constructed houses lining the mud caked roads. It was about now I began to question the wisdom of this weekend getaway. Arriving in Tangmarg, a shanty town about 15km from our destination we were waved off the road by a long military convoy with soldiers dressed in white manning weapons on the rooves of trucks layered with snow reminding us of the precarious security situation. A cup of chai and a chapatti at a roadside Dharba lifted the mood and soon, like walking through the looking glass, we were in a winter wonderland. Snow covered fields and trees surrounded us as we drove on. The signs for India's premier ski resort began appearing re-whetting the appetite for adventure. Not that we could see much as the taxi had no heating and the windscreen wipers lay broken on the dashboard, but our driver was focused and there were chains on the wheels. Arriving into Gulmarg (which means Meadow of Flowers) we were instantly surrounded by sled wallahs keen to pack our gear and us onto sleds which they would then drag by rope to wherever we wanted to go in the village. Not exactly the Swiss Alps but definitely unique to this part of the world where manpower often wins over machine. Foregoing the sleds, porters lugged our gear to the Hotel Highlands Park, a comfortable and cosy chalet style lodge with a magnificent sunken lounge replete with carved wooden roof and and boasting a staff right out of a Marx Brothers movie. After settling in head comedian Dian, soon had us in stitches with his broken English routines, while bringing steaming mugs of Kashmiri tea while we relaxed around the pot belly heater spooning platefuls of vegetable biryani and watched the snow come down. Hiring ski gear at the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop introduced us to Yassin Khan who over the following days we found was the godfather of Gulmarg. He wasn't too keen to serve us when we arrived initially en masse, well all four of us anyway, claiming the shop would be closed for an hour and he had nothing left to hire. But as we made our way back individually he gave us an audience and we left loaded with gear and tips on the area . An unusual scenario in a country where being escorted from the footpath to the shop is the regular sales pitch. Being the first guide in the area in the 1970's when a bed and lodging cost a princely 60 Rupees ($AUD2), Yassin has seen the resort area grow from birth and has stories by the bagful of the early days of tourism in the area. He also appears to run a benevolent dictatorship over the guides who all seem to answer to him. Our guide wasn't even aware how much the going rate was - only what Yassin paid him, although he had no complaints. His gear hire was of a slightly better quality than that of the government shops and located close to our Hotel, which was a much better option for us. Heading off from Yassin's shop, the two groomed bunny run poma's are only a short walk away and are the area's only beginner runs, although snowboards are not allowed on the poma's that cover the runs on Gulmarg Golf Course - one of the area's major summer attractions and apparently the worlds highest course. Gulmarg has the Northern Hemisphere's highest Gondola and even though the second phase to the top of Mt Apherwat remained closed, apparently due to the Indian Army not supplying explosives to clear avalanches. The skiing was picturesque. Using the lower phase one of the gondola reaches are trails through forested runs and past goat herders cottages abandoned for the winter. Despite there being quite a good number of tourists to the area ranging from Kiwi snow bunnies to older European and Japanese package visitors the sense of being in an uncrowded environment was overwhelming, a welcome relief from the usual hordes jostling for space on Australian and European resorts. I managed three runs on day one from the phase one Kongdori gondola mid-station (INR 150 one way/300 return for non skiers) before the altitude and fatigue took over but my friends , good skiers all, got in eight trips up the mountain and appeared untroubled as we trudged across the snow back to the Hotel for dinner and a cold beer. This forced me to once again to promise myself a fitness program of some substance. Bringing an I-pod and a mini set of speakers for entertainment in the lounge was a master stroke, keeping the vibe nicely relaxed. We even had the lounge staff dancing a jig when the soundtrack to Slumdog Millionaire came on although I don't know that the Rolling Stones was quite up their alley. By day two when we arrived at Kongdori gondola mid-station the sky was clear and the views to the top of Mt. Apherwat were stunning. Still no word on the second stage opening anytime soon and the restaurant located under the gondola station was packed with snowboarders and skiers waiting patiently, hopefully, for news of an opening time on Gulmarg's prime attraction. The cable car ascends an eye watering 1330 vertical metres from Kongdori to a height of nearly 4200m at its peak and I could only imagine the views across the Himalayas up there much less the thrill of racing down the open valley - even in the knowledge that large chunks of the run would be spent face down in the snow owing to my lack of snowboarding prowess. Sadly for the waiting adventurers phase two stayed resolutely shut. After a big day of boarding the forest trails and endless cups of chai in between, retiring to the comforts of the Hotel and Dians' gentle humour was most appealing and it seemed most of the apres ski life , or what passes for it, is centred around the Highland Park's lounge making for a hilarious night of tall tales with folks from across the globe, before crashing into the pre warmed bed with a pot bellied heater burning away in the corner. Our early morning departure was hassle free with our taxi picking us up right on time. We had us a leisurely couple of hours in Srinagar to take in a drive around the massive Lake Dal checking out the elaborate houseboats and wandering in Srinagar's fascinating old Town where once again I was reminded that looking is free when it comes to carpet shops and their gregarious owners. The advice to arrive early at the airport proved helpful but despite stringent security it was a relatively painless (and safe) process with Srinagar's new airport is soon to open up to International flights initially from Dubai bringing in greater numbers of visitors Even after tipping the staff - house keepers, lounge staff, porters, taxi driver, old man sitting in the snow - it was still a pleasantly budget friendly trip especially compared with Europe or North America and the sort of adventure that makes coming to the sub-continent such a wild ride.