Tempting Fate In The Himalayan Outback of India
Words by Jennifer Sherowski. Photos by Eric Bergeri.
As featured in the January 2009 issue of TransWorld SNOWboarding. Don’t miss an issue… Subscribe HERE!
One of the very best things about traveling to snowboard is that you're not a normal tourist. You're not the chubby dad pointing his video camera at everything that moves. You're not part of that Japanese tour group filing off the bus to see their damn sight. Nah, you're out there tearing the place apart and meeting local riders doing the same. Because after all, experiencing a foreign land isn't really about ingesting unidentifiable food or inquiring slowly and loudly with accompanying hand gestures, "Where can I use the toilet?" No, real integration only happens when you get mixed up with the locals and accept the native attitude.
With that said, TransWorld spent two weeks exploring one of the world's oldest and greatest nations—the Republic of India. From the tip of a 14,000-foot peak on the border of Pakistan to the dirty streets of Delhi and all points in between, we were true adventurers. And although we may have fought it at first, by the end of our journey we'd for the most part accepted what it really meant to be in India. In other words, we'd faced the fact that every single question we asked— Will the gondola be open tomorrow? Does the sun ever come out here? Will the power go out again tonight? Is the fruit salad safe to eat? Does our cab driver know where he's going? Will we make it through the drive alive?— would be answered in the exact same way:
Literally translated as "if God wills," this Arabic word spans India's copious languages (Hindi, Farsi, Urdu, Kashmiri, Punjabi, et cetera) and embodies a sort of shoulder-shrugging resignation about events to come. Neither optimistic nor pessimistic, it's just a humble acceptance of the future.
Of course, as Westerners we're used to things like schedules, maps, and answers in the affirmative or negative. Yeah, we're not really inshallah kind of people. But you know, by the travel-worn end of our journey—after almost drowning in the fruits of a seemingly never-ending snowstorm, after one of us fell to acute food poisoning (me!) and the rest endured other interesting gastrointestinal dilemmas, after being constantly surrounded by dudes with AK-47s, the setting off a big meaty avalanche, and after one of the quietest most peaceful powder runs of our lives—we could do nothing more than relax, shrug our shoulders, and have some faith. Things would work out … inshallah.
Kashmir: A Backstory
There were seven of us in total—riders Chad Otterstrom, Ryan Thompson, Steve Fisher, and James Frederick, along with photographer Eric Bergeri, TWS filmer Joe Carlino, and me. We were headed to Gulmarg, a tiny town in the Northern province of Kashmir, way up high in the Himalayas. I'd be lying if I said we knew what awaited us. I'd read the U.S. State Department's warning about travel to Kashmir (the region extends into Pakistan and is just emerging from a 60-year war). However, I'd also heard that "the U.S. State Department is full of shit!" You never really know. For the most part, we tried to ignore the incendiary comments and we'd just find out when we got there.
Now, I'm pretty sure I didn't hear anything about the history of India during my Western school-system education, so I was as surprised as anyone to learn that the "India" we think of (Bengal tigers, Rajasthani princesses, Bollywood, et cetera) and "Kashmir" are two very different places. Situated along the northern cusp of India where the Himalayas erupt like a massive spinal column from the rolling Punjab plains, the "princely state of Jammu and Kashmir" (as it used to be known) is comprised of mostly Islamic mountain people who probably identify more with their fellow Muslims in Pakistan and Afghanistan than the largely Hindu population of more southerly Indian territories.
Although savagely beautiful, Kashmir is a war-torn place. My fairly inexpert understanding of the conflict is this: The year 1947 marked the end of British rule in India and the subsequent partition of all the princely states. A struggle over whether Kashmir would belong to India, Pakistan, or remain independent launched the Indo-Pakistani War—a struggle that ravaged the area for the next 50 odd years, continually demanding that Kashmiris' chief concern was simple day-to-day survival. The tension has dissipated somewhat in the last decade, with India currently occupying half of Kashmir and Pakistan controlling about a third with the rest in a gray area.
The Road To Gulmarg
Walking single file out of the airport in Srinagar (the winter capital of Kashmir) with each of us hauling two giant gear bags was a lot like being at the zoo—except in reverse. We were now in "occupied territory." A lineup of tattered soldiers or cops (or both?) fixed us with piercing stairs, especially (or so I imagined) eyeballing me—the sole female shamelessly walking around in the company of six men. A little distracted by our surroundings, I lagged behind the line in order to gawk around, until Eric waited up and whispered, "This isn't a good place to get separated." It was true. Even the dogs—skinny, scrappy, and sly—were eyeballing us.
I don't really blame people for staring, though. There was no getting around the fact that we were seven foreigners dragging odd-shaped, overstuffed duffels leaking electronics-charger cords and candy-bar wrappers. Yeah, in India (especially rural India), there's just no blend-in factor. You're either a dusky local wearing a turban or ferin (the local Kashmiri garb of a long wool robe with sleeves), or you're a foreigner. Forget "trying to not to stand out."
Anyway, the Srinagar airport doubles as the city's army base and consists of a camouflaged airstrip surrounded by camouflaged hangars and bunkers next to a parking lot that was, incidentally, the only thing within miles not camouflaged. The Srinagar runway doesn't have lights (that'd be a dead giveaway), so flights can only take off and land during daylight hours and in good weather.
Loaded into jeeps with our bags lashed sketchball style to the roof, we passed by men and boys on donkeys and bikes, colorful jalopy buses, and armed soldiers on guard every twenty yards or so. The guards squinted into the raw winter afternoon—no gloves and generally no hat or much other protection against the biting wind other than an army-issue canvas jacket and machine gun. Their presence near the airport made sense to us, but the firepower never really diminished throughout our two-hour drive, and eventually we realized that the entire Kashmiri region is being guarded by the bored, tired, and shivering ranks of the Indian Army.
Obviously, we weren't used to being around semi-automatic weaponry on a daily basis, and those guns made us nervous. What was the purpose of all that firepower? The short answer is that it's for show. An occupying army's job is, after all, to simply hang around and intimidate. And it was working … on us.
However, you couldn't help feeling a little bad for these guys—the soldiers, I mean. The ones who weren't bored out of their brains patrolling some shack in the middle of nowhere were making a sad attempt at winter overland training. Picture a line of knock-kneed, spindly fellows skating cross-country like it's maybe their second or third time on skis, ever—machine guns strapped haphazardly to their backs. Man, my maternal instincts kind of kicked in here. I wanted to tell them to just put the guns down—'cause if you think running with scissors is dangerous, try learning to cross-country ski with a firearm on your back.
Gulmarg sits on the side of Mt. Apharwat, a 14,000-foot Himalayan peak a few short miles from the Indian/Pakistani border and just 75 miles from Rawalpindi, the city where Pakistani opposition leader Benazir Bhutto was gunned down a couple weeks before we showed up. But all of our anxieties about violence and political unrest flew out on the savage wind as we exited the gondola onto Apharwat's rocky ridgeline and took in the view from the top of the world. The jagged Himalayas spread out before us like rows of sharks teeth and off in the distance loomed a shadowy purple figure—Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world.
The terrain dropping away from us was all powder-loaded bowls in between wind-scoured ridges funneling into rolling deciduous-tree glades, which eventually gave way to luscious fir-tree lines rife with natural kickers and hips. If this resort were in North America, it'd be an expansive place serviced by an army of high-speed lifts dumping you into every nook and cranny. But this was India, so a sole second-hand gondola (plaques inside the cars read "Grenoble, France") took you straight to the top—where, cowboy-style, you could hike, traverse, or hooligan into whatever dangerous terrain awaited.
I know what you're thinking. With terrain like that, Gulmarg's gotta be the next Whistler or St. Moritz, right? Well, that kind of development probably will happen … but not anytime soon. Nothing's very organized. I mean, the Kashmiri people have just endured a war, so their mind-set isn't organization and thinking ahead—it's all about day-to-day survival. Also, there's no uninterrupted power source to the town, meaning the power goes out at least a couple times a day—the gondola shuts down and all the hotel lights and heaters turn off. Can you imagine the fur-coat set dealing with that? Nah.
However, Gulmarg is definitely on the come-up. This season marked the beginning of a legitimate explosives program for avalanche control using C-40 bought directly from the Indian army. Also, Ski Himalaya—a tour company owned by Australian businessman Peter Robinson—and the place that facilitated our trip to Gulmarg—has done tons to help the local infrastructure. Instead of bringing in their own non-Indian drivers, guides, and other employees to service their international traveler clientele, Ski Himalaya has become the largest employer of local Kashmiris in the area and is all about empowering them to lay their own foundation. The place also brought over American Dave Watson (two-time Everest summiter and our trusty guide for the trip) to train its team of Kashmiri ski and snowboard guides.
Anyway, a giant storm was forecasted for Gulmarg the day we arrived, and sure enough, the next morning we awoke to a thick curtain of flakes falling slowly and steadily. The upper mountain was closed—visibility up there was nil. "Awesome, snow!" we foolishly exclaimed. Be careful what you ask for. The storm stalled out over Gulmarg and dumped on us for the next five days. We watched the hotel snowbanks go from shoulder high to head high to way overhead. It snowed five feet in about as many days, and we wallowed around on the lower part of the mountain in literally shoulder-deep powder, waiting anxiously for the sky to clear enough for avalanche control and our chance at riding the real stuff up top.
At some point throughout this endless parade of blizzardry, I fell prey to serious food poisoning. I won't go into too much detail, but suffice it to say that I spent about 24 hours on what I considered my deathbed and lost several pounds in food-weight and fluid. This marked a major turning point in the trip, because suddenly nobody's stomach was happy. Ravenous hunger from hiking all day at high attitude was replaced with grumbling indigestion and diarrhea. Nothing at the hotel buffet sounded good to anyone anymore, and Ryan (a notorious germaphobe) was consuming nothing but PowerBars he'd brought from home. When I could finally eat again, I played it safe with white bread and Kit Kats. Our strength and morale were faltering.
There's nothing like a little sunshine to perk up even the most stricken traveler, though. Our final day in Gulmarg dawned clear, and so we rallied green-faced and weak up the gondola to the very top of the mountain. And what can I say? It was amazing. Himalayan powder is some of the best on the earth—light and dry, yet with a milky quality that renders it totally bottomless. The boys sent it off cornices and cliffs, and many a rooster tail was discharged into the sunshine. Our last run, we hiked to the very summit of Mt. Apharwat (a couple hundred feet above the gondola's top) and figure-eighted down thousands of feet of untracked vertical straight to our hotel. Silent, peaceful, and hip deep in powder—that was the way we ended the day.
Adventures In Delhi
Back in Dehli, we were starved, sweaty, and submitting more fully than ever to culture shock. Upon stepping out of the New Delhi airport, we were swarmed by the homeless and destitute trying to carry our bags, tuck in our shirts, show us the way to the parking lot, give us complements—anything for a tip. Because most of us were Americans—making us cheap as hell and also fierce guardians of our personal space—we zigged and zagged through the crowds in full escape mode whilst desperately looking for the vehicles that would transport us to our hotel. What we found, however, was not vehicles, but a vehicle—as in one vehicle arranged for seven people and all of our accompanying film/shred/travel gear. It was an interesting ride—all elbows in the ribs, armpits in the face, and knees jabbing into sensitive spots.
The city of Delhi is a magnificent, amazingly dirty metropolis filled with vibrant colors, potent smells, and the immense beauty of an intensely alive place. It's also a center of serious poverty. We never, ever got used to starving toddlers pulling at our pant legs and armless, toothless men begging in the traffic lineup.
We saw so much in the few short days we were in Delhi. Ruins, mosques, markets—it was all a blur. Uniformed schoolboys called out to us as we whizzed by in rickshaws and people took our picture from bus windows. Once, after taking a snapshot of Jama Masjid, Delhi's most famous mosque, I turned around and—snap! Two teenage boys had nabbed a picture of me! Apparently a blond Western chick was more of a photo op in India than a seventeenth century mosque. In fact, me getting photographed happened frequently all around town and (as you can imagine) got old really, really fast.
Pathetically and completely shamefully, we ate at Pizza Hut twice on our last day in Delhi—and it wasn't even good! Its only real redeeming quality was that it didn't make us violently ill. We were so ready for home we could taste it. This is not meant to be a judgment call about India at all, but our "adventure mode" had given way to "get us on a f—king plane mode." We'd gone into the trip fully down to taste and test everything the country had to offer, but now it seemed too intense for our travel-worn souls. Yes, the food was pungent, spicy, and delicious—but our stomachs couldn't handle it. And yes, the air was soft, breezy, and balmy—but it made our snot black and potentially fostered malaria-carrying mosquitoes.
You see, India harbors a rare richness of culture, history, and environmental beauty. It's nothing less than extraordinary—but you don't go there without courage and the taste for adventure. But hey, if you're traveling without those things, then something's really wrong with you anyway.
Did You Know?
Kashmir For Dummies (That Was Us)
Tipping: India operates on the tipping system, so get ready to shell out. Luckily, when we exchanged our money we were given an almost comically large stack of tattered bills. Even though the hundreds of 250-rupee bills we had of were the equivalent of two dollars (an amount that would probably feed an entire family for a couple days), we had a hard time just giving them away. "I don't know," somebody would inevitably say. "It's 250—that sounds like a lot!"
Booze: Kashmir is a mostly Muslim territory. Muslims don't drink alcohol. However, the Indian soldiers (mostly Hindu) are issued alcohol rations, and they supplement their income by selling this hooch on the sly. We became hip to this phenomenon a few days in and bought some beer from the back door of a restaurant—it was crap malt liquor and nearly undrinkable. Once we got hold of a bottle of "whiskey"—a vile, amber-colored chemical concoction that smelled of bug spray and tasted of grain alcohol. If that's what Muslims think booze tastes like, no wonder they don't drink.
Natural predators: Before traveling to Gulmarg, we had to sign a Ski Himalaya release saying that the company was not responsible in the event of an attack by snow leopards or monkeys. Yep, the ultra-rare snow leopard flourishes in the Gulmarg area and has been known to maul unsuspecting folks by jumping down from tree limbs and attacking. We didn't see any, of course, but we did see monkeys—which, while cute from afar, were revealed to be gross, rodent-esque trash scavengers with soul-piercing stares.