The little Indian Kashmiri town of Gulmarg is in a class of its own in the prettiness and quaintness stakes.
Nestled at 9,000 feet, accessible only by a switchback bumpy road up from the plains that takes you through miles of pine forest, you arrive in Gulmarg and enter a different world all together.
“Marg” in Hindi means meadow, and “Gul” means flower, and that is exactly what Gulmarg is – a vast circular meadow full of flowers, around which the town has grown.In the meadow horses graze amidst fields of lupins and daisies, looking too ridiculously picturesque for words.
The town was built by the British during the colonial times, so there is the inevitable golf club, a pretty little church, a tiny abandoned cemetery, walking paths, old-style hotels, and quaint tin-roofed huts, where you can stay. Sadly, the polo ground has gone, but otherwise the old Gulmarg is still very much visible, through the noise of the new Gulmarg that has cheerfully mushroomed, as Kashmir becomes once again a popular holiday destination.
Less than a decade ago, a world-class gondola was built, which takes you high up Kongdori Mountain in a scenic two-stage journey. When you come out at 12,293 feet onto the snowy slopes in the middle of the summer, it is an extraordinary sight. Rubber boots and anoraks are available for rent, because it is indeed cold up there – 12,293 feet-worth-cold. You can try your hand at skiing or sledding, or simply walk on the snow.
Don’t expect to be alone, though. The gondola trip is hugely popular, and you will see Indian auntie-jis in silk saris shrieking with laughter as they topple over in the snow, a source of wonder to most of urban India.
There are ponies everywhere in town, hundreds and hundreds of them. Grazing in the flowery meadows, trotting up and down the paths, patiently lining up waiting for clients – this is pony-land. Most people take a pony ride around town, again often with much shrieking and laughter, usually from the self-same, sari-clad auntie-jis.
Gulmarg and its environs are famous for trout fishing, and many serious anglers beat a path here to fish the streams, but if you are new to fishing, you can try out your skills in the municipal trout ponds in town. They will rent you a rod, show you the ropes, and if you land a fish, prepare it for you to take back to your hotel to have it cooked.
Gulmarg is meant for walkers, with paths taking you all the way around the marg – this is a beautiful walk, with flowers in every direction. There are also many paths heading off into the forests. Surrounded by towering pines and snow-clad mountains, there is no dearth of trails. And the views are utterly fabulous – mountains, forests, snow, flowers – just lovely.
No one actually lives in Gulmarg – there are no permanent residents. At night, only hotel residents and staff are allowed to stay, so every evening there is an exodus of day-trippers and pony-walas and sled-walas and taxi-walas, and suddenly you are in a sleepy, quiet little hill town again. The sun sets behind the mountains, and peace falls on the flowery marg – Gulmarg at its best.