We had heard of Gulmarg much before we ever saw it. The name suggested “meadows of flowers”. A visit to it was, therefore, obligatory. As it was only about 30 miles away it could be done in a day. The bus took us only up to Tangmarg (meaning a place of pears), then a small town and now a revenue sub-division. Though known for its pears the place has now strongly come in to grow strawberries. It is from here the climb for Gulmarg commences. The road to Gulmarg was not till then motor-able, not even jeep-able. Hence, one had to make it on ponies or horses. Horses were organized for our parents and we, two brothers, decided to trek it up to Gulmarg. It was only around 6 or 7 miles away but at an elevation of more than 9000 ft. We, however, took the short cut and went up the steep slopes on the tracks that were used by pedestrians – mostly locals.
Although it was supposed to make the distance shorter (I do not have any idea by how much) it was tough negotiating it. The track ran up the steep hill through thick pine forests and, using as we did ordinary leather footwear with leather soles, the fallen pine needles made it tough for us for climbing. Pine needles are highly slippery and we had to make that extra effort to get traction on those steep slopes.
Occasionally the track opened up on to the road as it came winding up the hill where we would also meet on the road others who too were legging it up. But what stood out were the fantastically beautiful landscapes that met us every time we came out of the deep woods. There were young Westerners who would hang on for minutes to take in Nature at its best and murmur to themselves “lovely country”. We would take the road for some distance and again get back to the track when we found it to be able to reach Gulmarg more or less around the time our parents reached it on horseback.
Huffing and puffing we kept pushing ourselves up and up and a while later we hit what seemed like an opening in the woods, And, lo and behold, at a little lower elevation than ours was an incredibly beautiful sight. Huge expanses of rolling greens on which a few horses happened to be grazing and all around there seemed to be thick forests of pines. It was an amazingly pastoral sight that was so fetching. There were hardly any structures around; it was unqualified Nature, uncluttered by human interference barring a few what looked like gravel paths, some low wooden fences and a few tiny wooden bridges. Up in the distance was the majestic range of Pir Panjaal, its whites glistening in the sun a magnificent sight, in fact idyllic, that is etched in my mind till this day even after more than fifty years! That is why when I visited Gulmarg again in 2011 I was terribly disappointed. With the road becoming motor-able, the place was chockablock with hotels, SUVs and thousands of tourists and, worse, the greens that had since become patchy. Unrestricted tourism has played havoc with the place.
Soon we were down on the greens and met up with the parents who were taken by the men who hired out the horses to a hotel. If my memory serves me right, it was Neadous, a branch of the one in Srinagar. It was till then a small outfit given the small number of tourists who would stay overnight at Gulmarg. We all had tea and then went out for a stroll on the pathways between expanses of beautiful green. Very few people were around, some of them being Westerners who were camping in the huts that were unobtrusive and away from the greens and, perhaps, were built before independence. One elderly English lady struck up a conversation with my father. She was delighted to know that he was a teacher, a professor teaching English. As was the wont of English people, she, apparently, was going to be there for some time in nature’s lap, perhaps reminding her of home. It was she who told us that we would be able to see Nanga Parbat if we were lucky. We were not lucky as it was shrouded in clouds.
We could not attempt a trip to Khilanmarg either. It is at more than 11000 ft and we just did not have time as we had to catch the bus back home. On our way back we stuck to the road, giving a wide berth to the foot tracks infested with those infernal pine needles.