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August 20th, 2017

Re-visiting a little corner of paradise

We have just returned from 3 marvellous days in Gulmarg, celebrating the 80th birthday of one of our very dear friends, Shoki Bhatia.

No clichés here, like “80 is the new 50” because Shoki, as those who know him will agree, is in a league of his own.

Has w-a-y more energy & get-up-and-go than most of us put together, and a personality to match.

So to say we all had a brilliant time marking his birthday is an understatement, and Gulmarg, the location of his birthday bash, had a lot to do with it.

What a beautiful and totally unique place Gulmarg is.

For those of you who don’t know India too well, let me locate Gulmarg for you.

It is in Kashmir, a gorgeous, but sadly troubled part of India.

At Partition, in 1947, when Pakistan was created out of what had been one historic entity known as India, the former princely state of Kashmir was one of the tragic victims.

This stunningly beautiful region is now divided between India and Pakistan.  The two countries have fought over this land many times ever since, countless lives have been lost, and it is still a volatile flashpoint.  It makes you want to weep, because so much beauty, so much stunning natural grandeur is the incongruous backdrop for war and unrest and distrust.

We flew to Srinagar and drove up to  Gulmarg, the temperature dropping blissfully with each metre of altitude gained.  The road is heavily patrolled by the army, but as you climb up through the pine forests to Gulmarg, there is less military presence.

Gulmarg is unique.

As far as I understand it, no one lives there permanently.

There are virtually no private homes, so you have to stay in a hotel, but by and large the overnight population of the little town is minimal.  By about 10 in the morning, the day visitors start to arrive, their buses wheezing up the mountain from Srinagar, but for those precious early morning hours, the town is deserted.

I went for a long walk one morning, wandering across the famous “marg” or meadow, and met precisely 2 people in a hour and a half, and they were both on horseback.

They stopped to ask if I wanted to have a horse ride (that’s what tourists do in Gulmarg) & when I declined, they both trotted off.

No cars.

No buses.

No people.

No sound other than birds and cows and horses.  And they don’t count.

It was the sheer joy of not hearing car horns blasting away, which is a constant irritant in Delhi (where I live), the sheer blessed relief of total peace.  And, also unusually in a hectically crowded country like India, the fact that I was virtually alone.

Our birthday group was divided between the 2 classic hotels of Gulmarg, Nedou’s (where we stayed) and Highlands Park.

By and large, we were the only people staying in both hotels.

There is almost no tourism.

I did a bit of shopping, as one does, and the shopkeeper asked me to go back to my country and tell people that it is safe to come to Kashmir.  I didn’t disillusion him by telling him that my “country” is now India, but I took his point.

Everyone to whom we spoke said the same thing.  No tourism.

That’s the sadly inevitable result of the political situation.

But for those of us who were in this little corner of paradise, in glorious weather, amongst friends, partying, walking, more partying, shawl-shopping, yet more partying…Gulmarg was nothing short of spectacular.

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