Tuesday, 3 July 2012

Gulmarg – Gondolas, Glaciers and Grasslands In Kashmir

On 28th May 2012, around noon, returning from visit to Shankaracharya temple, Srinagar, we had another short break on Bouleward road for a few more snap shots of Dal lake and took to the trail to 51 km journey to Gulmarg. Around 1.30 am, hunger pangs made us take a break at Rizk hotel at Tangmarg, still a short distance of 11 km from our destination. We savored the lunch of Veg. fried rice and sweet and sour vegetable, yet not so pricey for the ambiance which the restaurant offered.
Rizk Restaurant
Around 3 pm we entered the fringes of Gulmarg town and did not find it too difficult to locate the Kingsley hotel right on main road next to the Taxi stand. The hotel lobby is approached right from the dusty road; the horse shelter being near, the horse dung powder will surely be major constituent of the dust! The man on reception took a long look at my online reservation printout for a double room for three persons. We were allotted a room on first floor with two beds, the room had windows covered with polythene sheets, so not much could be seen of the outside world. ‘We have landed yet another average hotel in this tourist season like we did in Srinagar,’ I realized. However by the time we checked out of this hotel next day, my views changed. This hotel turned out to be much below average!
Kingsley Hotel
We took to the streets at 3.15 pm and had a view of imposing pink colored Rani Temple on a hillock, a sloping stepped walkway for tourists to reach the place. A few buses were parked nearby and tourists were trundling their way up. We too decided to go up and have darshan and have a top view of the valley and town. When we were through with our temple visit, the rain which eluded so far, finally caught up with us. We took shelter under a shed near the temple. It was frustrating watching the rain accompanied by wind lashing droplets and getting us drenched. As happens in mountains the rains come and go abruptly, we had bout of sunshine in ten minutes. 
Rani Temple
With weather improving and the green meadows enticing, Sachin and Raj could not control themselves and took off by the winding road for a trek to unknown. I just observed and shot some landscapes, watching the tourists taking off on pony for rides to various short haul destinations.
Pony Rates
The horsemen with their horses and jeep stand in the foreground; the vast stretch of Bugyal (green meadows) in mid ground; the dense cluster of pine trees and the snow peaks in backdrop made Gulmarg a picture post card of a beauty.
Gulmarg Landscape
At around 6 pm, Sachin and Raj returning, we managed to call our car driver to make next day’s arrangements of taking us to Gulmarg Gondola Cable Trolley station. No response initially but later on when he came on line, he informed us that we must do online booking for Gondola ride to avoid long queue expected at the booking counters. With no cyber cafes functional around, he suggested us to try one of the shops in the market selling assorted items. Shopkeeper had a lap top and logged on to www.gulmarggondola.com  and booked three Gondola first stage tickets up to Kongdori at Rs.300/- each plus Rs. 50/- per ticket as his service charges. Although we needed morning tickets to enable us to leave Gulmarg in afternoon for Pahalgam, we were given 2 pm tickets; he assured us that we would be able to get boarding passes for morning tickets if we went to Gondola station early at 8.30 am in the morning. We had no options but to have faith in this guy and see how our Gondola ride goes.
Multi-purpose shop
We had some simple veg. food in one of the dhabas with chairs spread outside on road. Raj fed the excess rice leftover to stray dogs who are found in almost every destination in hills.

Returning to hotel, we had some argument with the manager who refused to give additional bed even though we paid additional charges as normally charged for three persons occupying double bedded room. He wanted letter from hotel booking agent Travelguru.com for providing beddings to the third person. We never had such kind of experience anywhere till now. With night approaching, we thought it wise to pay the additional charge of Rs. 300/- demanded and take up the matter with the hotel booking website. After our bitter experience, the room staff tried to make amends by attempting to start the heater of the electrically  heated mattress. One of the mattress got excess heated and the other did not work. We asked them to switch off the heaters and went to sleep.

Next morning brought some more woes for us in Kingsley hotel. The water heating arrangement in hotel bathrooms in general in Gulmarg is a huge PVC drum, filled with incoming water, heated by immersion heater dipped inside. In this hotel it was no different. Raj put on the heater switch and had his bath as usual by taking the amount of hot water needed in a bucket through the tap at bottom of the drum. Next in went Sachin. As soon as he opened the tap, boiled steaming hot water  from a fully filled drum gushed out in full force through the hole left after the tap broke off from the drum. Sachin was saved by skin of his teeth from getting a serious burn injury. The hotel staff came running having seen steaming water coming out of the drain. There was nothing they could do. We managed our bath from whatever hot water we could salvage.

After my morning tea, I had another go at the Rani temple for a view from top. The snow peaks seemed to have received some fresh snowfall and were in its white pristine glory. The pine trees looked a huge green mass covering part of the distant mountains. The green meadows were alluring as ever.
Gulmarg Landscape
At 8 am, we started our walk for the Gondola station for our early morning tickets. On reaching we found people already queued up in all the counters. The online booking counter for online booked tickets had the least crowd. The driver’s tip regarding advance online booking certainly helped. As Raj stood in queue, I tried Kawa Chai costing Rs. 25/- per cup and did some photo shooting. 
Gondola Ticket Counter, Gulmarg
The counter opened around 9 am. One Sardarji with online receipt for 40 persons was bypassed by the booking clerk and Raj shoved in our three person’s ticket copy. On obtaining our boarding passes, we went to the Gondola Station for another queue, where Sachin stood. It seems most of the people queued up there did not have the boarding passes and were standing to get an advance entry as soon as they got the passes from their representatives. Some planning that!
Gondola Station, Gulmarg
Armed with boarding passes, we were allowed to jump the queue by the security and were soon inside the Gondola station where the trolleys were coming one after another, taking six passengers each and taking off for Kongdori. We got three front seats to have a clear view of whatever the journey had to offer. I had my Handycam going but was not expecting good footages because of somewhat dusty transparent front. We passed through villages drenched in early morning sun, a lot of villagers were trekking up, the pine trees on both sides were right upto the end.
Kongdori Gondola Station
Coming down the steps of Kongdori station, we reached the ticket booking office for Second stage which will take us to Afarwat at 4200 m. Not having facility for online booking of this ticket, was a disadvantage. Raj was behind some 10 people in the queue but there was no sign of ticket windows opening. After a wait of some half an hour, a guy ambled up and opened the enclosure and at 10 am ticket counter opened. Then what happened was not to our liking. The travel agents, the pony-wallas, the ski-wallas, were allowed to jump the queue and provided with tickets. There was a lot of shouting by one of the genuine tourist against this practice but the security person seemed not to notice; he made a token show of semblance of maintaining order. We were losing precious time as we were to leave for Pahalgam a good 200 km away for our next destination by noon. As Raj patiently bore with the ordeal, Sachin and myself made use of the time for shooting still and videos of Kongdori. There were a lot of ponywallas looking for customers for taking them to Khilanmarg a few km through the meadows. 
Snow-view from Kongdori
Finally we got hold of our second stage tickets which cost us Rs. 500/- each. The vista from cable trolley this time was all white snow all the way up. Some 15 minutes later we reached the cable trolley station of Afarwat at 4200 m, a lone edifice in ocean of snow. As we got down the stairs, we directly stepped on snow, which was somewhat dirty with tourists trampling all over it.

Afarwat Activities
At least 50 tourists were on the snow; some shooting pictures, some doing skiing, some sledging and some just walking on it  like penguins in slow measured gaits. We just watched all that and after 15 minutes, returned to trolley station for return journey. The tickets for both the stagers are valid for three hours from time of issue. 
Return Journey view from Gondola
After reaching Kongdori we changed over to stage 1 return journey. The trolleys, mercifully, there are too many of them, kept coming and departing at a high frequency, so reducing our wait to minimum. The sheer volume of tourists taking cable trolley at Gulmarg at Rs.800/- for both stages, make a decent income for JK Tourism, in spite of some bad management at stage 2 ticket counter at Kongdori.

At 11.15 am we reached Gulmarg. What we observed took us by surprise. The place was teeming with tourists, a few thousand of them. How many ultimately secured tickets is any body’s guess. As we made our short walk back to hotel for check out, the entire road leading to Gondola cable trolley station was filled with tourists, some in overcoats and gumboots hired at Rs. 50/- fully geared for high altitude of Afarwat. Some were riding ponies even for this small walk. As we entered the hotel lobby, I was ruminating, ‘what an exciting stay at Gulmarg, including the travails at hotel and gondola station!’

Checking out with one more cold stare at the manager, we boarded the car for our onward journey to Pahalgam.

* Readers of this blog will surely enjoy some video footages of Gulmarg captured by author as per the following captioned link:

1) Gulmarg At A Glance 
2) Rani Temple 
3) Kongdori - Gulmarg Gondola Stage 1 
4) Afarwat - Gulmarg Gondola Stage 2 
5) Gulmarg Gondola Cable Trolley Ride - Stage 1 & 2  

21 comments:

  1. You have rightly documented all the experiences at Gulmarg!

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  2. Dear Sir,
    I am The same guy from star online services Gulmarg where u have purchased the gondola tickets i would like to say thank you for remembering me in your track storey i feel very happy when i see the blogspot with my photograph

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. This comment has been removed by the author.

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    2. Hello Mudashir Alam, it is interesting to know that you stumbled on my blog. You may also see my video on Gulmarg and other destinations of Kashmir by copy pasting the following: http://youtube.com/alumnitrek

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