Originally appeared in the Oct. 2016 issue of SNOWBOARDER Magazine.
Words: Dillon Crosilla
Photos: Jerome Tanon
"I usually write that I'm an artist," said Jérôme to Niels as they signed in at the Srinagar airport. "They usually give you less problems than if you write that you're a photographer or journalist," Jérôme offered as explanation to his choice of profession on the forms that we were obliged to fill out. Due to the often disputed and generally unstable Kashmiri borders, tourists are required to sign-in with the local authorities upon their arrival in the region. Srinagar, the summer capital of the princely state of Jammu and Kashmir, is located 100 miles east of the Pakistan border in a valley surrounded by the Himalayas on all sides. The city, famous for the picturesque Dal Lake, was our first pit-stop on the long road to Gulmarg.
"It feels safe but looks like a war zone," I thought to myself as I looked through the backseat window at the buildings scarred with bullet wounds dating back to the Indo-Pakistani war. There were camouflage painted army trucks with sandbags and barbed wire fences stationed at the intersections and military personnel patrolling the sidewalks of the downtown streets. Our driver serenely wove through these military stops and various other items littering the road. The Jeep would avoid cars, trucks, cyclists, cows and big carts hauled by oxen, to pull out into oncoming traffic so Alex could grab footage of Niels hanging out the back of his Jeep. Then he would slam his brakes and swerve back into our lane at the last second barely missing whatever was coming in the other direction.
I couldn't help but feel like I was inside a new, crazy Kashmiri-themed Mario Kart circuit with the laid-back Niels Schack and the wildman, professional-as-they-come snowboard photographer Jérôme Tanon in one mini go-kart and me along with the British boy wonder Sparrow Knox and the affable Alex Weir following in a close second place. Louis-Felix Paradis was also joining us on this trip but would be arriving a few days later and would be sharing the ride with a group of Quebecers coming to shred the Himalayas. We came to an abrupt stop in the town of Tangmarg that pulled me from my Mario Kart daydream.
We were in the type of traffic jam that one can only find in India. Through the maze of vehicles in front of us, the military had set up a checkpoint to make sure that cars venturing further up the Pirpanjal mountain were equipped with chains around their tires. Without a snowflake in sight, our guide reassured us that this checkpoint was worth all the hype that the traffic jam had built up and that in Gulmarg—nestled up in the valley at an altitude of 8,694 feet—there were piles of fresh white snow waiting for us.
Gulmarg is a lot like any other ski town around the world. There are 4-star hotels, backpacker hostels with Australian dudes searching for fresh pow, overpriced fast food and skiers in brightly-colored throwback one-piece snow suits. The thing that sets Gulmarg apart from the rest of the little towns sitting at the bottom of the mountains is its lawless vibe. This isn't to say there aren't any law enforcement personnel around. On the contrary, actually, as there are the Jammu and Kashmir policemen who walk around with big smiles and AK-47s strapped to their shoulders, and then there is the military base with more guys and more guns. Sentimentally, the local Kashmiris dislike the Indian military presence referring to the soldiers as "Indian dogs."
Despite the abundance of guns around, Gulmarg still feels lawless. There are no traffic rules and everyone, including foreigners [read: us], can hold onto the sides of cars, Jeeps and snowmobiles to hitch rides around the rutted, icy streets. Skitching became the fastest way around town and was attempted at every occasion. Although alcohol cannot be bought in Gulmarg, you can walk into pretty much any restaurant or "bar" with your own case of beer or bottle of rum that you purchased down in Srinagar. Cigarette smoking is up to your discretion, meaning that if you feel like smoking inside no one will really tell you to stop. Hash or weed are very easy find and relatively inexpensive and can be smoked pretty much everywhere. Last but not least—and most important to our endeavors—the locals let us snowboard however and wherever we wanted as long as we asked politely.
Unlike in most countries that the crew has traveled to in their careers, every spot we saw and wanted to hit gathered a crowd of people who, instead of calling the police or getting security, would pull out their cell phones to film the trick. This disregard for "protecting public or private property" even goes for the police station! After very little convincing by Niels and Louif, the police chief let us ride on top of not one but two of the police station's roofs and even provided us with water to harden the enormous kicker we built next to the building. Predictably, all the policemen, AKs slung over their shoulders, hung out and filmed with us for a whole afternoon.
Another interesting facet to this hidden town near the Pakistani border is India's staggering wealth gap that is so blatantly on display. Wealthy Indians, primarily from the large cities, come visit Gulmarg for a weekend to take in the beautiful landscapes of the "Switzerland of India." These Indians are very easy to spot with their rented winter jackets and boots, sunglasses and Nikon cameras strapped around their necks. These local tourists also have no qualms about hiring a Kasmiri to pull them on little wooden sled instead of walking. This backbreaking effort is difficult to watch and evokes a time when individuals of lower castes would literally carry people on their backs in a makeshift backpack chair.
Gulmarg has a local market where you can buy everything a tourist could need…except for alcohol, of course. There are secondhand clothing shops, locally made socks, gloves, hats, et cetera, lots of restaurants, a small convenience store, fresh fruit and vegetable stands and even a place to buy SIM cards for your phone. This is a good place to visit first because WiFi is non-existent in Gulmarg. Everyone uses the fancy new 3G network, which is often dodgy but still a nice upgrade because until recently, internet connection altogether was non-existent. If you are too lazy to walk to the market there are kids milling about everywhere with metal trays selling chocolate, biscuits and cigarettes. When filming in town these kids would come over and sell us all we needed then hangout for a while to watch and cheer us on.
All of these people come together to make Gulmarg by far the most interesting ski town I have ever visited. I would come back here in a heartbeat, despite the constant threat of avalanches lurking in my head during each descent.
The "luxurious" Fallak Hut, as it was called, was located about an hour walk from the Gulmarg market and was anything but luxurious. Until Imtiaz—the reserved, young house caretaker—had built up a hot fire inside the Bukhari, the traditional wood burning stove in the shape of a narrow cylinder located in the center of each room, the luxurious cabin in the woods was a freezing wooden box with no insulation and plastic sheets covering the windows to hold in the meager heat. One night after smoking some hash with our most recent additional member of the crew, Merrick— an aging Australian hippie who had been working in India for a year— someone made the half-assed joke of calling the Bukhari a "Bukaki." Imtiaz, who had been silently tending to the fire after joining us in the hash smoking, burst out laughing. Although he rarely joined our conversations and we wondered how much English he understood, he definitely got that joke. Each bedroom had its own smaller Bukhari that required us to wake up periodically to add wood to keep the fire alive all night.
Dinner each night consisted of the same monkey balls (eggs), dal soup, lamb, paneer, raw carrots and cucumbers, and came served with an enormous mound of rice. While initially excited at the thought of eating homemade Indian food every night, the novelty wore off quickly and many of our dinnertime discussions revolved around what our first meal would be after Kashmir. The portions of rice were so drastically big that one night Sparrow literally counted every grain of rice in his plate in an attempt to calculate how many grains of rice we ate over the entire 24 days in Gulmarg. I don't remember the exact number he estimated but it was nearly a million grains of rice.
The remoteness and uncomfortable living situation of the Fallak Hut was a blessing in disguise. Most of our time was spent sitting around the Bukhari in the main room playing cards, telling stories, trying to decipher Jérôme's insane code he wrote and genuinely connecting as people. No internet or cell phones helped us disconnect from the outside world and really immerse ourselves into the filming of the movie. Over the weeks, a real bond with the crew developed and it was a chance to get away from the ordinary snowboard trip vibe. A secluded atmosphere, merged with the Indian patterns printed on the curtains, dank carpets and the smell of the Bukhari mixed with rancid boots and curry, all culminated to make the Fallak Hut a special place that I will not soon forget. This was definitely the cabin in the Kashmir mountains that we were hoping for.
The Jeep pulled up exactly on schedule to take us down the mountain to the religious temples and the small village of Baba Reshi. Legend has it that this spiritual settlement, named after the Sufi saint Baba Payam Uddin Resh, is also home to a snow leopard that makes monthly visits to the shrine. We weren't lucky enough to see the rare and endangered cat but there were a bunch of kids who were super eager to try out our snowboards. For about an hour they shredded a little patch of snow that Louif tirelessly shaped in order to get the kids to be able to ride farther and faster. The spiritual vibes of Baba Reshi inspired Niels and Sparrow, who both managed to bang out insane wallride tricks. Sparrow sped down a zigzagged in-run crowded with people into a kicker that launched him onto the side of a large abandoned building with a huge gap to landing. Meanwhile, on the other side of Baba Reshi, Niels, without a winch to get speed, had to enlist Louif's help to pull him in by a shovel if he was going to make it over the gap into the barbed wire covered wall of the shrine. Not all the onlookers were too happy about Niels riding the shrine wall or that he was jumping so close to the only power line that fed power to the entire village. The kids loved it, though.
On our last night, as everyone was packing their board bags, the local police barged into our cabin yelling and brandishing their AK47s. Everyone ran for cover but quickly resurfaced when they burst out into laughter and said they were coming by for a cup of chai and to say goodbye. As a tourist, I've never been so frightened as I was when I heard the cocking sound of their guns as they came into the cabin, but I'll never forget the smiles and genuine happiness that these guys embodied as I took a mental picture of them joking around and carelessly playing with their guns while huddled around our Bukaki.