I still remember it was middle of December 2013 and like previous few years this year too I was itching to go to a place where I can witness live snowfall! It may sound strange but I drew blank in my earlier attempts I visited a few famous hill stations in north India. Though I had seen snow, before but experiencing live snowfall remained elusive every time. So that cold December evening we two, me and my partner, while sipping the hot coffee were searching for most probable places to watch snowfall and we concluded it had to be Jammu and Kashmir. We zeroed in Pahalgam, Sonmarg or Gulmarg in Kashmir valley. These places were locked on the basis of weather reports and previous year’s snowfall records available on the internet. I know from my previous experiences that no matter how foolproof your plan seems to be but it all depends on the mercy of nature, the weather god!
Unlike previous such attempts to different hill stations where we went at the beginning of January and missed it by a whisker this time we did our bookings for the end of January. The plan looked foolproof, on paper at least!
Fast forward to the day when we boarded our flight from Kolkata to Srinagar via New Delhi. It was a routine flight for most part but as the pilot announced about flying over Kashmir valley and would land shortly, I peeked out of the window and became awestruck for a moment. It was all white with green dots of tree tops all over below. It was like entering into another world as the plane was descending gradually for landing, the whites outside looked more and more overwhelming and amazing at the same time. We had not seen that much snow ever before.
The moment we stepped out of the plane the cold air outside appeared piercing our face at once, it felt numb. Although in-flight announcement about the prevailing cold temperature outside was made, we under estimated the chill factor prevailing outside. The warm cloths we carried with us seemed not good enough. Soon we were hurried inside the airport building by the ground staff as if they knew our plight. Though it was cold like hell but that was what we came for and signs looked encouraging.
As we were transferred to our pre-booked house boat, though the first thing I asked our driver whether it was snowing in Srinagar. The driver nodded in affirmative and told few areas received fresh snowfall last night. We felt assured. Soon we were cruising on the picturesque road overlooking still waters of Dal lake on one side and white snow covered Zabarwan mountains ranges on the other.
We had booked our stay a house boat at Nigeen lake and cars could not directly take us to our house boat. So the last few hundred meters of the journey had to be made by Shikaras. Once in the shikara, we were open to all elements of nature, by this time we became little used to the cold environs but it would have been colder had we were not provided with kangris for warmth.
Our plan was very simple; we had planned day trips from Srinagar to Pahelgam, Sonmarg and Gulmarg in that order. Total stay was for four days. First day trip was for Pahelgaum, a picturesque place very popular among tourists, though we found only a few tourists there. Winter is officially off season in Kashmir. Snow was everywhere. The Lidder river which is a popular destination for whitewater rafting and its trout fish was now partially frozen and its flow reduced to a bare minimum due to extremely cold temperatures there. Even though we enjoyed our share of playing with snow balls, making snow man etc, photographed it, played with it but the snowfall remained as elusive as before! It was cloudy throughout the day which is considered a prelude to snowfall but it did not take place though we waited a full day there. We were informed it happened in the night before. Little dejected, We returned to Srinagar without being able to see the snowfall.
Next day was meant for Sonmarg. Though the road to the point where tourists flock during the summer was closed due to heavy snowfall but we took this into our stride and did not change our plan. The plan was to go as near to Sonmarg as possible. We started at 9 am, the temperature was around minus 1 degree Celsius in Srinagar itself, the closer we moved towards Sonmarg, the colder it became. We were experiencing bitter chill even though the heater was on inside the car. Our driver informed that the day was perfect to experience snowfall and it should happen. He might have gauged our disappointment of not been able to see the snowfall till now.
As luck would have it, it started to snow and we stopped and went out of the car to feel it, but it stopped as quickly as it started! It seemed luck would finally smile on us. Soon we reached the last point where the vehicle could go. There was only a few hundred meters more where tourists could go but only by walk. It was a small village on the way to Sonmarg called Gagangir. Few sledge operators, pony operators, two or three small restaurants and a small tea shop were still operating there were catering to a few tourists like us. There was snow everywhere but no sign of snow fall. We waited there till 4 pm, over several rounds of steaming hot kahwas but the lord of snow fall still did not smiled on us.
Although we were not that complaining as the sceneries we were experiencing was also unique. It is not daily that you witness a frozen water reservoir, a rivulet whose flow was restricted to bear minimum by snow from the sides, the snow laden trees etc, the list is big. Locals informed that it snowed in the morning, just hours before we reached the place. Well some other time, may be! I consoled my partner and packed up for the day.
We were running out of time. Just one and half days more were with us, the last day could be utilized only half as we had booked the evening flight. If we were to see live snowfall than it had to be the last day. Gulmarg was our last real chance to see snowfall in the trip.
That day our morning started with a good note. Srinagar received sporadic snowfall during the night, we saw some snow deposited right outside our houseboat. The caretaker informed us of occurrence of medium to heavy snowfall in the upper reaches of the valley, including Gulmarg. This was probably the best piece of information in all these days.
It took us nearly 3 hours from Srinagar to Gulmarg. The amount of snow on road sides kept increasing with every passing kilometer once we left Srinagar city limits. Excitement levels were picking up. And as we neared the base of the hill which was also the last point private cars could go we were welcomed by this rain like thing. Yes, it was snowing heavily. We could not believe our eyes but it was finally happening and we were in the middle of it, standing owe struck and still, like statues. Finally, we were experiencing the first real snowfall of our lives. But very soon we realized the severity of intermittent snowing and were advised to take some shelter. Very soon we realized that our warm clothes were no match for that kind of snowing. The powdery snow that was falling into our shoulders was sipping inside our cloths, making it wet though we were wearing three layers of mostly warm cloths. Our driver advised us to take some water proof cloths on rent from a nearby shop in order to prevent the snow from sipping inside our cloths. He was a happy man today since he could fulfill the most important wish of his passengers.
There was no let up in snowfall as we boarded the rented shared vehicles mostly the rugged Tata Sumos to the top near Gulmarg Gondola ride centre. The wheels were chained so as to prevent it from slipping from the road. Soon we were traveling through the narrow road with heaps of snow deposits on both sides. The road was barely navigable for two vehicles, one from each side. Forget overtaking, drivers of these vehicles were barely able to manage to keep the vehicle moving on a straight line. It was full of adventure but at the same time scary too. This journey took some 30 minutes to reach the bus stand at the top. There was no sign of buses, none could come though. There were very few tourists loitering around and most among them were skiers came from different parts of world.
By that time the intensity of snowfall also decreased a bit but not stopped. We had to cover the remaining distance till Gondola ride centre by walk. We were feeling little breathlessness due to height and extreme cold conditions. The walk was very slow. By the time we reached for Gondola ride, it was closed for the day due to even heavier snowfall at upper reaches. The skiers were also hurrying back to the bus stop area where at least some shelter and a few eateries were still catering tourists. We could not resist steaming hot omelets with kahwa, Kashmiri tea from a nearby restaurant. We spend a few hours checking out the place but most of them were inaccessible due to heavy snowfall. We were also advised not to wait for long as anytime roads may get blocked. We could not risk any road blocks as our return flight was booked for the next day. So we decided to return soon after.
Though Gulmarg is best enjoyed during the summer months when one can access every corner of this beautiful place. But the half day that we spend there amid snowfall and cold was unforgettable for both of us. It is not daily that you witness world’s highest golf course covered with a good 8 feet thick snow, barely seen sign boards and off course the brave drivers and ever helpful locals who were smiling even in the extreme weather conditions.
We wish we could spend some more time there but we could not afford any delay due to unavoidable reasons. In winter the roads are prone to frequent closures, though administration especially Indian Army is there to take care of such road blocks but no one has any control over bad weather. We also had to encounter some scary traffic blockages on our way back to the base of the hill. But as the saying goes all is well if it ends well. Even though late but we reached safely back to the place where we started, fully content, thanks to the brave drivers. We got what we wished for.
Even though we have witnessed snowfall several times after this but the memories of the first experience is still fresh in our mind. Even though comparatively short but we still cherish every bit of time spend there.