A Gasping Gulmarg

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By Khursheed Wani

Gulmarg’s tryst with travelers is historic. From the British officers of the Rawalpindi and Quetta garrisons to the Nawabs of undivided Punjab and emerging elite of Kashmir, the meadow of flowers was the most cherished summer destination. For decades, it remained inaccessible during the harshest winters when heavy snowfall draped it in thick white blanket.

A picture of August 10, 1951 when most of the weak tourists would be taken to Gulmarg in palanquins which Dhandis would take on their shoulders. This practice exists on Baltal Amarnath track.

The advent of winter sports and the strategic location of Kashmir in the post-partition era changed Gulmarg for all times to come. Most of the merrymakers do not know that Gulmarg is pretty closer to the Line of Control (LoC) dividing Kashmir since 1947. This may be the reason why army is holding vast swathes of land in Gulmarg, even without proper acquisition. The unique location even encouraged it to set up high altitude warfare school to train the troops with techniques of warfare in inhospitable terrains and conditions. In the garrisoned Kashmir with arguably the highest military presence in the world, this meadow has the large footfall of soldiers despite being a tourist destination. Within the lush green meadows and plateaus adorned with varieties of wild flowers, the demarcation of places with barbed wire is a despicable reality.

This may sound an ominous attribute but the fact is that Gulmarg has been the most peaceful place in Kashmir even when the tranquillity eluded the Valley for most of the past three decades. One reason is that everybody seen in Gulmarg lives in suitcase. It has no local permanent population and the winter has historically discouraged enduring settlements.

The ‘golden era’ of India cinema in the 1970s saw Gulmarg as one of the favourite destinations of the Bollywood filmmakers. Late Sunil Dutt once told me that during shooting of Junglee, he lost his way in the seven spring’s area and wandered throughout the night in wilderness until guided by a group of nomads back to the camp. The room where Hum Tum Ek Kamray Mein Band Hein song was shot on dazzling Dimple Kapadia in Nedoes hotel is still known as bobby room. A cursory look at Gulmarg club’s award rolls is enough to take you through the memory lane of the bewitching place.

This may sound an ominous attribute but the fact is that Gulmarg has been the most peaceful place in Kashmir even when the tranquillity eluded the Valley for most of the past three decades

Gulmarg kept the tourism shikara afloat in Kashmir during the toughest time in recent years and it retained the place of pride in the troika of Kashmir destinations including Pahalgam and Sonamarg. Many ambitious businessmen invested hugely to come up with an infrastructure befitting the present demands, history and grandeur of the place.

But there is a mismatch. The clamour of developing Gulmarg has been going on for years. Even comparisons with Davos were in circulation for a while. On the ground, however, Gulmarg offers a sordid state of affairs. It appears as if it has lost its sheen. The changing Kashmir situation has affected the tourist arrivals and many hotels have seen minimum occupancy. The attack on Amarnath pilgrims in South Kashmir proved to be a death knell, a hotelier told me. The local picnickers have also dwindled in numbers.

During a recent overnight stay at Gulmarg, I was baffled to witness a ‘curfewed morning’. During my two hour brisk walk on the road girdling the famed green bowl, I did not see a single walker. Two horsemen watching the animals graze, a milkman shouldering a can of fresh milk and a woman meditating on a slope, were the only Homo sapiens I could glance at. How could the people staying overnight at the mesmerizing place, miss the morning breeze, the question haunted me throughout the trip.

It seems Gulmarg is on an auto-pilot mode. Everyone does whatever he wants. The most un-reined and unruly are the horsemen and their steeds. One wonders how the managers of the so-called world-famous destination are not able to manage the tons of horse droppings. The faecal piles of over 1700 horses and the resultant stench have become a big negative to Gulmarg. Kindly install an incinerator before talking about Davos, an agitated tour operator says tersely.

It seems Gulmarg is on an auto-pilot mode. Everyone does whatever he wants. The most un-reined and unruly are the horsemen and their steeds.

The other ominous incident occurred on June 25, when seven persons including four members of a visitor family, perished in an unprecedented accident at Gandola cable car. A conifer uprooted in the cable car corridor and smashed it to the ground. The cable car, one of the biggest attractions and revenue generating projects, came to a grinding halt after the accident. For around a month, the gondola base, otherwise filled with people, is deserted. While an inquiry is going on to find out the cause of the accident, the cable car corporation is unwilling to restart the operations. There are around 300 trees, shaken or dislodged by the early spring snowfall, standing in the corridor. They are deemed vulnerable to cause another tragedy. The experts say 50 meters on either side of the corridor must be shorn of all conifers. This is a tricky situation. The Supreme Court doesn’t allow felling of trees and cable car won’t restart until the trees are chopped off. Who would explore a middle ground?

 

 

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