The announcement on the plane shortly before landing in Srinagar was something like this, “please be aware that it is strictly forbidden to take photos from any aircraft or at the airport in Srinagar.” Bummer actually – I was just getting ready to pull out my camera to get a great arrival shot of the Himalaya range. Once on the ground, entering the hectic slew of haphazard bureaucratic processes, accosted by would-be porters and surrounded by heavily armed soldiers, we had enough to think about even without the camera.
Eventually we got all our luggage – including skis – found our group and were hustled into a waiting vehicle to begin the 3 hour drive to Pahalgam, a sleepy village at the foot of the Himalaya and our Heli-base for the week. It occurred to me several times during the drive, as we rushed head-on towards an oncoming truck or bus as all drivers conspire in pretending there is a passing lane when there is definitely NOT – that I may already be experiencing the most dangerous part of this endeavor.
We passed through a number of villages, one specializing on stone herb crushers, the next on cricket bats (big signs above the garage-like store that read “Sports Unlimited” or the like – and were lined with hundreds of cricket bats. Nothing else, but the marketing leaves plenty of room for expansion.) Finally arriving in Pahalgam, we received a warm welcome from virtually the entire community, as the people walking up and down the street through town all converged to see the new strange arrivals. People with intriguing sports equipment, wearing bright colors of synthetic and functional fibers, and on top of all that – one of them a blond woman with long open hair, sans head cover.
Over our welcome drink of Kashmiri tea – Chawla, a wonderful brew of cinnamon, cardamom, saffron and almonds – we chatted with the guides and discovered that being in the fourth year of operation, our group heralds 100 skiers in Pahalgam. In all of history. We pondered that a bit (that would be about the number of skiers boarding a chairlift every second in Ischgl) and began to anticipate this adventure even more.
And an adventure it was: culturally, gastronomically, landscape-wise, accommodation experience, and of course the skiing itself. The upsides (which were all very awesome), a few key points:
Powder up to my armpits. Seriously. I have done a lot of great skiing, and on the best day of the best snow in the Aru Valley, I experienced the ultimate in powder skiing. First tracks down a slope, with snow spraying out at every turn, thighs burning from the deep bend needed to stay on top (despite my 110cm underfoot rockers), blue sky and sun surrounding me: I was at a loss to contain an enormous cry of “yeeee hawwwww.” Pure joy. Pure beauty. Nothing beats it.
Beautiful unadulterated landscape. The craggy Himalaya is a beautiful range, and this section of it gets no visitors in winter. Except us. 12 skiers, one helicopter, and the rest of the world far, far away.
Indian and Kashmiri cuisine. If you’ve ever eaten good Indian food, there is no further explanation required – you know what I mean. If you haven’t, then you really should. Otherwise even with hundreds of words, I wouldn’t do it justice. Of course, after a week, I was craving a fresh salad. But guess that’s normal with any major break from old habits.
Cool people. Friendly guides who manage to strike the right balance between focus on security and staying relaxed & fun – thanks Jossi, Flory and Bernie! Friendly hotel staff who rushed to grab my skis and carry them in at the end of the day, joyfully delivered Chawla at 7:00am to ease us into the day, and at every occasion asked about the “sikking” (their wonderful pronunciation of our sport). Ie: “how was the sikking today?” “You go sikking tomorrow?”
The cultural experience. We were at first confused and later amused by the people wandering aimlessly up and down the streets. Quite simply, in winter, they don’t have much to do. There is nothing to be farmed, no (or almost no) tourists to host, and no entertainment infrastructure (that I could see). So out into the streets it was, just to see what’s going on. The men holding Kangi (a terracotta pot filled with hot coals and cradled in a basket) underneath long Kaftans to stay warm. Kids playing cricket in the street, some wearing sandals in the snow. Horses and cows occasionally meandering past. A group lighting a small fire under a brightly painted and dilapidated bus, assumedly to melt the frozen diesel. Mountain villagers treating us like visitors from another planet, happy to have such strange creatures to provide something out of the ordinary. Quite
simply – we were the entertainment. And with the friendly smiles, kids running after us and trying to stand on our skis for a ride; it was fun.
The Lama heli and our pilot Philippe. My first glance at this helicopter did not leave me relaxed. It suspiciously resembles a remote-control toy that my son received for Christmas. Just a bit bigger. And our French pilot carried on great conversation with everyone he met – about cheese, travels, wine… But could he fly? The answer quickly became clear as we careened through canyons and soared up to heights of 4600m in this bare-bones machine, Philippe never so much as getting excited. We, on the other hand, were very excited – what a ride!
With such a listing, you might be wondering it if was all fun and games. In the interest of honest reporting – it was not. There were a few elements we could have lived without:
It was cold. I don’t mean in the mountains – it was actually less cold there than expected. Being quite close to the equator (just a few kilometers up), the coldest we got was at 4600m on day 5, when the needle moved down to -9 C. Most of the time is was around 0 C: quite comfortable for skiing. It’s the rest that was cold – our room, the hang-out lounge, the walkways between room and restaurant. We asked the hotel several times about the limited functioning of the heating, hosted teams of mechanics in our room to investigate the situation – to no avail – and then finally received a small electric heater. Which meant that with that on, 2-3 layers of clothes and in the bed under 3 blankets, we were warm. The bathroom resembled a walk-in meat cooler. And while we did have running hot water, it was at a pressure resembling a light rainfall. When we asked the staff about THAT, the guy looked at it and said, “it’s enough water.” And probably he’s right; after all, things are always a matter of perspective – and he might not HAVE running hot water at home.
Patience is required. If a group of horses, a car being pushed, or even just a bus heading the other way meets the transfer van on the way to the helicopter – you just might end up waiting. For quite a while. Or if an aviation inspector decides to show up on day 3, announced at 10:00pm the night before. Or it suddenly snows heavily and the trip to Srinagar becomes an ordeal as the local drivers decide that it could be treacherous to pass cars waiting on the side of the road; or to continue moving if an oncoming bus is spotted (half a kilometer away, on a 2-lane road). Go figure.
And finally, I found it strange that the guide who skied with us all week suddenly accompanied part of the group leaving a day early back to Srinagar, without bothering to bid us adieu. He just disappeared a day early and that was that- except for the reminder with a co-guide to collect money from us for the extra hour of flying time.
Overall though, the trip was good and recommendable – the many fantastic experiences and skiing far outweighing the minor annoyances. Maybe not my best heli-ski trip ever, but it was one I’m glad I didn’t miss. And there is something imperatively appealing to know you’re going where few have gone before…