Well, no rest for the wicked! I was only back in Denver for 11 days (after 1 month in Japan) and now I am back in India for 3 weeks. I'd only just gotten over the jet-lag too, so time to get groggy again! This trip report is going to be a little different, I'm not guiding a regular group, I have a film crew coming out from the US, so the story is going to be a little more about their adventure, hopefully. I have 4 days in Gulmarg before the crew gets here, so will make the most of my time to get a feeling for the snow conditions. Hope you enjoy the reports!
Day 1 – Sunday 14th Feb
Travel Day/s – Absolutely no dramas this time, no delays, all my bags turned up, all went very well. I flew United from Denver to Newark and then the long flight from Newark to Delhi. I have to say I was impressed by the Newark International Terminal; it’s pretty good now. There are a ton of eateries and casual bars. They all have the same I-pad payment and ordering system which is pretty slick. In a way it’s a little sad, with I-pads out on all the tables, everyone just sits there tapping away. Whilst I appreciate the connectivity, I’m just not a fan of people having their heads down in their phones and I-pads the whole time. Each to their own I guess; it’s just a sad reflection of how society is heading, but who am I to complain, I was one of those zombies too……
Anyway, rant over! Made it to Delhi fine just after 9pm on Monday (local time), was pretty tired but ready to soldier on. I had a new visa that I had applied for and was a little anxious/nervous to try it. When I got to immigration there were plenty of signs pointing in the direction of the e-tourist visa counters and when I got there, there were only a few people ahead of me. I’m always a little nervous trying out something as important as a new visa system (all I had was a piece of paper with a confirmation number on it, no physical visa had been stamped onto my passport yet) and my nerves weren’t helped by a gentleman in front of me not having the correct confirmation documentation in front of me and him being told that he wouldn’t be allowed into the country. How that happened is beyond me, I personally had my visa confirmation checked twice (once in Denver and once in Newark), so I don’t know how he got this far?
My anxiousness proved unwarranted and after having my bio-metrics taken (finger prints and photo), my passport was stamped and I was in, no problems at all. I walked past the regular passport lines and the queues were huge, I sailed right passed them and felt a little smug that the e-tourist visa got me through so quickly. I liked the fact that it had only cost $60 too, much cheaper than the old 6 month multiple entry visa that requires you to send the passport away. This is a much better system and I can definitely recommend it if you are just in India for a month or less.
All my bags turned up (always a huge relief, I’ve had bags not make it before if you’ve read my previous blogs and it’s a major hassle, so I’m always really happy when all the bags turn up in India) and I found my driver to take me to the Red Fox Hotel. I’ve come to really like the Red Fox; it’s really close to the airport, the rooms are clean with Wi-Fi and great hot water and it’s inexpensive, the service is good and the staff are friendly. It’s always a nice start to the trip but by the time I check in, it’s straight to bed and then up early for breakfast and then the flight to Srinagar. I must also applaud the Red Fox and the Lemontree ownership group for being a hotel that employees people with disabilities; I think that is awesome and really forward thinking. I consider that a huge positive and another reason they will get my business in the future.
Day 2 – Tuesday 16th Feb
So, Monday was all a bit of a blur and I think I may have time travelled a little bit, but I made it to Terminal 3 without a hitch. I was flying Jet Airways, the check in was relatively quiet but again I got pinged for excess baggage (they only have a 1 bag, 15 kgs allowance) and I was flying in with 2 bags. Oh well, it couldn’t be avoided and I knew it was coming. Unfortunately I couldn’t get a window seat on the right side of the plane (flight was full), but I was able to sneak a quick peak now and again and the Himalayas were looking majestic as always.
We landed without a hitch and again, both my bags turned up and I went out to arrivals and my good friend and driver Mustaq was there to meet me. It was a beautiful day in Srinagar, definitely not feeling like winter. The sun was out, it was warm and everything was looking pretty green. Srinagar can look pretty drab when it’s overcast, but today was nice. The drive to Gulmarg was pretty quick, without much snow on the road the drive was fast and Mushtaq didn’t even have to chain up. It was ironic though, without all the snow on the road (and the subsequent challenge of not driving in any of the slippery ruts!), you got to see how pot-holed the road is, so if you are not sliding around in the ruts, then you are ducking and weaving around all the holes. You can’t win either way! Still, Mustaq is one of the best drivers in Gulmarg and he has the racing line pretty dialed, snow or no snow, I definitely trust him to get me up to the mountain in one piece! Thanks Mustaq!
I dropped in at the Khyber and the Hotel Highlands, just to say hello to some folks, then Mustaq took me to Nedous Hotel. Nedous is a new hotel for me, I had never even set foot in it before, but I had become friends with the owner, Aqil Nedou over Facebook and he was really keen to host me and my group, so I thought I’d try somewhere new. Most of the other hotels I deal with management, not the owners and let’s just say that business practices in India and Kashmir can sometimes be a little different. I was keen to be able to negotiate and liaise directly with the owners and cut out the middle men.
Well, I’m happy to say that I’m glad I made that choice, meeting Aqil was really good. He’s a younger guy, but still very experienced. His family has been running hotels in India for more than 180 years so they understand hospitality. It’s pretty crazy, I have my own personal butler who looks after me, something I’ve never experienced before, we’ll see how that goes (when I didn’t come to dinner I had 3 phonecalls to see if I was ok, I was just snoozing on the bed as the jet-lag had kicked in and I was stuffed from lunch, so wasn’t up for any dinner). Kashmiris in general really want to look after you. Take for example the late lunch I had. I ordered some curry and they brought it out in individual pots, one for the curry (mutton rogan josh) and one for the rice. They put it out on the plate for you and then you eat as much as you can, then they load you up again! The process repeats itself and you finish up really stuffed. Now, if they see an empty plate, to them that means that you are still hungry, so that’s why the keep loading you up. There are 2 ways around this, you either eat all the food they bring or you leave your plate with food on it still…… crazy, but just the way it is over here.
Aqil had very kindly upgraded my room to a suite for 2 nights; it’s the biggest hotel room I have ever stayed in. I have a living room with couches, a big bedroom with king-size bed, a dressing room and then a big bathroom. It’s pretty impressive, I’m slum it here for 2 nights and then I’ll be back to a regular room. Just having my own room on this trip is more than enough for me.
So, tomorrow morning (well actually today as it’s 4am and I’m up working as I can’t sleep), I will meet Jeelani and Dawood (my local guiding team) and maybe some other locals and we have 4 days on snow to do some training (dialing beacon skills first and then tons of pit digging and stability testing), before the crew gets in. Now, this trip is going to be a little bit different than normal seasons; I’m actually hosting and guiding a group of pro-skiers and crew from Level 1 Productions. They are coming out to Gulmarg for 2 weeks of filming for next season’s film, then I’ll take them to Delhi for 2 nights with a stop in Agra to see the Taj Mahal (can’t wait for that as it’s spectacular, I did it last year for the first time and I can’t wait to go back!).
I’ve guided film crews in Gulmarg before (2013 with Soulryders) and the guiding work is definitely different, I definitely don’t ski as much, I’m (with Jeelani as well) there to take the crew around so they can access the best snow possible and then provide protection/security as they ski their lines. So, I’m often hanging out at the back as the athletes do their job, I focus on the safety side of things. The quality of my turns is irrelevant, I still ski but it’s not about that as much as with a regular guided group, that’s a lot more focused on the skiing and not so much on getting the shot. What I really do enjoy about working with athletes and film crews is watching them work and shred lines, that’s pretty cool, but most of all, it’s sharing the stoke of being in an amazing place and with amazing people, that’s the part I really love. That happens with the regular groups too, but in this situation, that stoke is being documented in front of your eyes, it’s pretty powerful stuff.
Anyway, I have to respect the privacy of the crew and when I meet them in Srinagar on the 21st I’ll have to discuss with the owner what I can and can’t document myself on this blog. Hopefully I’ll be able to post full reports, but we’ll have to see. You will at least get that for the next 4 days. Hope you enjoy the ride…. I still have to finish Japan as well…… so much to do!!