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Humbled by the Himalayas

by Archives February 26, 2008

We were a couple of teachers in Taiwan looking forward to Chinese New Year and a vacation. Instead of going to Bali or Thailand like all of our sane friends, we decided to try something different; downhill skiing in the Himalayan mountains for two weeks seemed like a fantastic idea. Gulmarg, in northern India near the Pakistani border, sounded about as different as it got and knowing very little about the country or how things worked there, we bought our plane tickets, got our single entry visas and boldly went where very few had gone before. Adventure! Excitement! Snow! Oh my!
Our first mistake was assuming Gulmarg was going to be a resort town like Whistler or Banff. Our second was thinking traveler’s checks would be accepted there. Our third was deciding to book a one-way rather than a return ticket from New Delhi to Srinigar. We wanted to decide how long we would stay once we got there. One could never mistake us for forward thinkers.
Being the seasoned travelers we thought we were, Google searches were the extent of our research into Gulmarg or India for that matter. The hour-long drive up the beaten mountain road from Srinigar to Gulmarg reminded us only that soon we would be seeing snow for the first time in two years, not that we might be approaching something out of our comfort zone.
Gulmarg sits in a bowl mid-way up the Pir Pajal mountain range. All you can see in any direction are mountain peaks and sky. It’s breathtakingly beautiful and serenely peaceful. There is only one road in and out, and rides to and from the base of the mountain are few and far between. Weather changes in a matter of seconds; storms settle in without notice and tend to last for days at a time. There is a small outdoor market for buying basic groceries and a few items of clothing, two restaurants, and a few scattered hotels with no major sources of heat or running water. Wood fireplaces heat individual rooms and when electricity is working, hot water is available from a tank. The staff spends all their time chopping wood for the fires, drinking homemade Chai tea and smoking copious amounts of hash.
The mountain has a single gondola that goes to the top of one of the peaks. Die-hard skiers and snowboarders from around the world go to Gulmarg for the untouched hills and often spend an entire day in snowshoes climbing to the top of a remote peak just to get one run down. There are no groomed trails and the snow is waist deep and heavy. Dodging fallen trees and barbed wire fences is standard practice. Seeing the occasional Indian soldier with a rifle strapped to his back ski pass you while waving cheerfully isn’t all that uncommon.
My friends and I are fairly advanced skiers and snowboarders, but on that first day the mountain humbled us in the worst possible way. Our one run down went something like this: ski, turn, fall, get up, fall, roll, scream in pain, get up, turn, fall, fall, roll, cry, get up, ski, turn, fall, fall, fall, fall. It felt as though the mountain was testing us, mocking us for our naivete saying: “Really? Seriously? You think you can best me? You think you can ski me? I laugh in the face of your poor talent! Ha!”
Twisted knees, aching muscles and numerous bruises quickly became part of our daily routine. A storm arrived on our third day and within 48 hours; Gulmarg went from having one foot of snow to seven. We tackled those mountains as often as we had the strength to, which usually meant only once or twice every other day.
It kept on snowing. We hiked up the trails, got lost on the mountain and were rescued by the local shop owners. Still it snowed. The power went out on of the fourth day and we had no hot water. The snow continued. The road was shut down. The snow kept on coming. I could sense the mountain pointing and laughing at us.
By the end of two weeks together in a confined area, we had all suffered varying bouts of lashing out and self-pity, not to mention upset stomachs and other types of bowel problems. We had no money, no access to an ATM and no ride out. Driving down to the base was impossible as an avalanche kept the road closed, but a friend we had made from Israel offered to guide us down himself. By walking. Down the mountain. With our heavy packs. His name was Edo and he assured us it had been done before.
In Edo we trusted and sure enough, after several long hours we reached the bottom all in one piece, though several pounds lighter.
From there, getting to Srinigar wasn’t a problem, but getting out was another story. Avalanches throughout the area closed every major road out of the city and flights were booked solid. In order to get a flight for the next day we needed cash. No traveler’s cheques and no credit cards. Banks were closed, ATMs were not operating and travel agents were not working. Why? Because it also happened to be a holiday.
So there we sat. Nowhere to go, no one to call and at a complete loss for what to do next. Cue the laughter. Edo, as it turned out, was a seasoned visitor to India, Gulmarg and Srinigar in particular. He somehow managed to get us a place to stay on his friend’s houseboat for the night, a ride there and another ride to a travel agent’s office the next morning to cash our checks. He also stayed with us overnight on the houseboat, went with us to the travel agent and back to the airport where we finally had plane tickets to New Delhi in our hands.
I can honestly say I’ve never loved a man so much in my life. In that moment marriage would not have been out of the question.
We left India on schedule, but unfortunately the avalanche and following extra night in Srinigar kept us from making a trip to Agra to see the Taj Mahal. Maybe next time.
Sitting on the floor in an airport in Srinigar with no options should have been scary. It should have been horrible. But it wasn’t. When someone asks me now if I would go back, I don’t even hesitate. Absolutely.

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