Kashmir’s resurgence as a mainstream travel destination has been much heralded but, on the day I arrive, the scene doesn’t look especially welcoming.
It is a chilly spring morning and we plan to visit Gulmarg, the north Indian state’s main mountain resort, which now boasts a newly opened luxury hotel to complement its adventurous Himalayan skiing. But even getting out of the airport in the capital Srinagar proves something of a challenge, as our car weaves through barbed-wire barriers and out on to streets lined with camouflaged soldiers wielding automatic weapons.
A generation ago, Indian and international visitors alike flocked to this region, attracted by its soaring mountains, lush flower-dotted valleys and the chance to relax in the wooden houseboats along the edge of Srinagar’s Dal lake. But in the late 1980s, local frustrations over rigged elections, economic stagnation and generally shabby treatment by India’s government began to boil over. A two-decade Islamic insurgency followed, marked by violent terrorist attacks and many thousands of deaths.
The conflict is complex, dating back – at least – to India’s founding in 1947. Kashmir’s princely ruler dithered during partition before taking his overwhelmingly Muslim population into India, rather than Pakistan. After an inconclusive war the state was cleaved in two, the Indian portion of which is now known as Jammu and Kashmir.
Today the threat of violence remains: the military presence we observe as we begin our two-hour drive to the mountains is partly a response to mass protests the week before against the execution of a Kashmiri man convicted of involvement in a 2001 terrorist attack.
Yet there are reasons for optimism. An unsteady peace process has prevailed of late, with a fall in the number of militant attacks. The economy is growing. Investment in roads and infrastructure has increased. And visitors have begun to return.
Last year was one of Kashmir’s best for tourism, with chief minister Omar Abdullah heralding the arrival of more than 1m visitors. Just a small fraction were foreign but that number is rising too, helped by the British and Japanese governments removing travel warnings to their citizens.
The state government’s hopes are high that this year will prove better still, an expectation bolstered by Abdullah’s attendance at the official opening of Gulmarg’s Khyber Himalayan Resort & Spa last December – the first five-star hotel outside the capital, and only the third in the region.
The resort sits in the Pir Panjal mountain range, a section of the Himalayas renowned for heavy snowfall, and it is the sheer quantity of the stuff that strikes you as you arrive. At least a couple of feet have fallen the previous night, forcing us to swap our car for a rugged 4x4.
The village itself is encircled by snow-encrusted pine trees, while its few low wooden buildings lie half-buried in a deep, unbroken white carpet. A single road snakes through the drifts, populated mostly by local men in heavy cloth ponchos straining to pull tourists behind them on sledges.
Mammoth snowfalls make hotel-building problematic too, hence the Khyber took five years to complete. In truth the place still isn’t finished – the pool and spa open in the autumn – but even so, as we enter the teak-panelled atrium the result is impressive and cups of almond-flavoured Kashmiri kahwa tea banish the cold outside.
The 85-room property is the brainchild of Umar Tramboo, son of a prominent Kashmiri industrial family, who conceived it as a homage to his homeland with architectural flourishes borrowed from traditional homes and temples. The rooms are decorated with colourful local handicrafts and papier-mâché murals, alongside elegant double-sized sunken bathtubs fit for weary walkers and skiers.
The owners now plan similar properties to entice a high-end clientele. Most will visit in summer, when Gulmarg offers mountain meadow hikes and a chance to play one of the world’s highest golf courses; but they come in winter too: the Porsche SUV parked outside (complete with snow chains) suggests the upscale push is beginning to work.
Luxurious surroundings aside, Gulmarg isn’t a place for the faint of heart. We experience a feeling of rising intimidation that begins as we commandeer one of the Khyber’s 4x4s the next morning and career down the icy driveway to rent ski equipment.
Almost none of the mountain area is groomed and there is a sufficiently serious avalanche risk to necessitate the hiring of transceivers, shovels and probes as well as extra-wide powder skis. The resort also lies just a few miles from the “line of control” that separates India and Pakistan, meaning a heavy military presence. Uniformed soldiers are occasionally to be seen cutting ahead in the lift line.
Just a few dozen people stand, blowing into their gloves, eager to cram into the resort’s four-person main lift, which rises to 3,979m. A sign at the middle station tells expectant skiers that they are about to climb into “The Highest Gondola in the World”. (This isn’t strictly true – there are higher ones elsewhere – but it can claim the record for being the highest ski lift.)
Most of those waiting are young, adventurous ski bum types, with cameras attached to their helmets and an assortment of European, Russian and New Zealand accents. A smattering of chain-smoking Kashmiri ski guides stand alongside, an essential addition to any trip outside the region’s main avalanche-controlled bowl.
On our first day thick cloud sees the mountain’s upper level closed off, leaving our group to navigate the tree-lined lower sections – a challenge given the metre-deep powder and limited visibility. The next morning, however, the gondola’s second stage opens and the ride up to the middle station whisks us above the cloud line, revealing clear skies and distant mountains.
Those in the lift queue for the final ride up hoot in anticipation, and with perhaps only 100 others for company, we set off to enjoy run after run of largely untouched fluffy powder, all set against views of the Himalayas.
We rest from time to time at the middle station, to recharge on chocolate sold by enterprising hawkers and watch the Indian tourists emerging from the gondola building, dressed in formal full-length coats and Wellington boots. One elderly couple stop me at the end of a run and ask to take a picture. They have come from the eastern city of Pune, they explain, as we stand posing together – not to ski, just to enjoy the view, walk in the snow and head back down on the lift.
It is almost certainly the best day of skiing I’ve had in more than two decades on the slopes but, having returned in celebratory mood, we discover that the hotel doesn’t serve alcohol – necessitating an icy evening scamper across town to the Highland Park, whose bar provides a meeting point for thirsty foreign visitors.
Outside, an exuberant troop of snow monkeys dash about in search of scraps of food. Inside, it is warm and lively, with heat pouring from two rickety metal wood-burning stoves. We run into Tim O’Leary, an amiable New Zealander with a deep tan, who is the lead guide at Gulmarg’s only heli-skiing company. Gulmarg Heliski launched in 2010, another sign of the growing numbers of wealthier visitors. O’Leary hopes that the trend will be accelerated by the Khyber hotel.
“It’s going to make a massive difference having accommodation of this quality,” he tells me. “If it means Gulmarg now gets just a tiny slice of the market for really rich, adventurous Russian skiers, it will totally change this place, and our business as well.”
Back in Srinagar, where we spend our final night in a five-room houseboat on the lake, a similar transformation in Kashmir as a whole seems less likely. A lasting political solution remains elusive, while the threat of violence endures – as demonstrated by a suicide bombing in the city in March.
Yet such things seem far away as we gaze out towards the mountains on the far shore of the lake. Our cheerful host throws more logs on the fire and I think back to my long final run in Gulmarg, carving through deep snow in blissful sunshine. Kashmir might be a destination for the more adventurous but it seems likely that many more will want to come and try it, too.
James Crabtree is the FT’s Mumbai correspondent
James Crabtree was a guest of Ampersand Travel, the Khyber Himalayan Resort and Gurkha Houseboats. Ampersand offer a week’s skiing in Gulmarg, staying at the Khyber and on a houseboat, from £3,540 per person including domestic flights from Delhi or Mumbai, or £4,190 including flights from London