Imagine riding on an aerial cable car that provides panoramic views of snow-covered valleys, forests and mountains and goes up to 12,959 feet (or 3950 metres) to the top of the mountain. Once you reach the peak, you can then admire and take pictures of the snow-capped mountains and also ski along its slopes and if you have time, build a snowman (bring your own accessories though e.g. carrot for the snowman’s nose).
You might think that the above description is about a trip to Switzerland’s Mount Titlis with its revolving Rotair overseeing the Swiss Alps but no, you can actually do this in India! More specifically at Gulmarg with the Gulmarg Gondola (locally, they call it Gandola) which ascends up Mount Aparwath (Afarwat) to the peak at 3950 metres (and more – you can take a chairlift to go even higher). The best part is that this journey will only cost you about S$22 (Singapore dollars).
Gulmarg is a city in the Indian state of Jammu and Kashmir which is at 2,653 meters above sea level and is well-known for its 18 hole golf course & Gondola Ride – both of which are the highest in the world. The literal translation of Gulmarg is “Meadow of Flowers” – due to its beautiful saucer-shaped valley girdled with poplars with trails leading out of here in several directions and are popular with tourists enjoying pony-rides.
The Kashmir conflict between India and Pakistan had affected the region for the past decades especially since Gulmarg is within the Himalayas and is within miles of the Line of Control between India and Pakistan. With the abatement of militancy in the area, Gulmarg has quickly become one of the state’s most visited destinations. The slopes of Afarwat Hills of the Pir Panjal Range of the Himalaya Chain boast one of the longest and highest ski slopes in Asia.
You can see the snow-capped Mount Aparwath (Afarwat) in the background of the picture below. The journey to Gulmarg begins with a 2-hour car ride from Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir. Most of the houseboats in Srinagar offer tours to Gulmarg and Sonmarg (2 of the most common day trips from Srinagar) – we also arranged our Gulmarg tour through our houseboat – Bostan-Gulistan Deluxe Houseboat.
Don’t be surprised if you have to change guides upon arrival at Gulmarg after the 2-hour drive from Srinagar – it is a good thing although you will have to pay a little bit extra to the Gulmarg guide. This is because the Gulmarg guide will be able to help you secure your tickets and boarding passes for the Gulmarg Gondola faster and can help you to skip the long queue to take the ride. What I understood is that this is due to an informal partnership between the local tour guide unions and the Gulmarg Gondola company – which i assume is to support the Gulmarg locals.
No cars are allowed on Gulmarg Road (the path that leads towards the Gulmarg Gondola) so we walked along Gulmarg Road (see the map below) for about 15-20 minutes. Along the way, you will be pressurised by ponywallas (local pony boy) to hire a pony to take you to the Gondola and they will say all sorts of things to convince you to use their services e.g. you will need to walk uphill for 45 minutes. Ignore them and walk along Gulmarg Road (where most visitors are walking along) – it is on a flat terrain and you get there in 15-20 minutes. When you hire a pony, you will most definitely have to bargain down the high quotes from the ponywallas and you will be riding the pony for at most 10 minutes before you have to get down and walk a bit to the Gondola.
Gulmarg can be quite cold all year round so ensure that you have brought along or wore warm clothings e.g. jacket, parkas, gloves and you are as well-protected as the little girl in the picture below. :-) especially if you are planning to take the gondola ride all the way to the peak of Mount Aparwath (Afarwat) when temperature can sometimes go to the low 10 degree celsius and even below zero – depending on season.
While I recommend you bring along your own coldwear, you can still buy some of your coldwear e.g. gloves, shawls around the Gulmarg Gondola area where touts and hawkers will be walking around selling their wares. Do bargain hard to get a good price. Besides coldwear, food are also on sale here – avoid the “fresh”/”cooked” food here if you are concerned about hygiene (in general, avoid street food in India). Packed and sealed snacks e.g. potato chips and cookies, are also on sale – they are ok if you can take the spiciness e.g. Lays Masala Potato Chips.
3 Phases for Gondola Ride up Mount Aparwath
There are three phases for visitors riding on the Gulmarg Gondola to ascend up Mount Aparwath and you will need to purchase different tickets to get to the next phase.
- Phase 1 : Gulmarg to Kungdoor (400 Indian rupees – price for adult; child age 3 years old and above)
- Phase 2 : Kungdoor to Aparwath (600 Indian rupees)
- Phase 3 : Kungdoor to Mary’s shoulder by chair lift (300 Indian rupees)
The gondola ride is free for children below 3 years old. Children below 10 years old are not allowed on the Phase 3 chair lift. Most visitors stop at Phase 1 Kungdoor and then take the gondola back down towards Gulmarg; do note that the gondola operation is subject to weather conditions and the rides may be cancelled under adverse weather conditions or due to mechanical faults.
We did not went up to Phase 2 – the peak of Aparwath as the gondola suffered from mechanical faults for the ride to Phase 2.
While the scenery is of Swiss Alps standard, do note that the ticketing service and the queue is not of such high standards. The following picture depicts a typical scene at the Gulmarg Gondola ticketing office – long queues, lots of shouting and people pushing around to get their tickets – basically a huge mess and this is early in the morning at around 9am!
Here are some tips I gathered online on how you can better manage your gondola ticketing situation if you are travelling independently (not with any tour groups or guides):
- Book your Gulmarg Gondola tickets online (http://www.gulmarggondola.com/) as queue to buy the tickets at the counter can be very long especially during summer holidays.
- When booking online, buy tickets for all 3 phases or up to the phase you want to go to. There is an element of risk there as you will have to forfeit your tickets in the event that the gondola ride for any of the phases is cancelled.
- If you have not booked your tickets online, proceed to the counter that only accepts credit card payments. The queue in this counter is typically shorter.
- Upon reaching the Gulmarg Gondola ticketing office, collect your boarding pass immediately and join the boarding queue. Most of the time, it is the queues to get your boarding passes and also to buy the boarding passes that are the longest. That’s where the local Gulmarg guides come in as they will typically get their tickets first (I don’t know exactly how they do it)
To summarise, buy your tickets online and get your boarding passes as soon as possible upon arrival and then join the boarding queue. Because the queue to board will get very very very long around 11am – noon as the people who had queued to buy their tickets will have shifted to the boarding queue. That’s why you need to reach Gulmarg early – most visitors are here on day trips from Srinagar so start early to beat the crowds.
For us, the local Gulmarg guide collected our boarding passes and helped us to skip the long boarding queue so we were able to get to the Gondola ride quickly. Each gondola car (see picture below) can carry six passengers – it can be quite stressful to board the gondola (or cable car) as you have a very short window to board it; we almost had to jump in to fit all 6 of us in time! It takes approximately 9 minutes to reach the 1st stage (Gulmarg to Kungdoor) and 12 minutes for the 2nd stage (Kungdoor to Aparwath).
The view at Kungdoor (the Phase 1 ride from Gulmarg) is beautiful – just like a scene of the Swiss Alps
The map below shows the satellite image of Phase 1 Gondola station at Kungdoor.
A preview of what the Gondola ride up to Phase 2 – Kungdoor to Aparwath, looks like. You will be going up to the snow-capped mountain peaks!
Tips for Visitors to Phase 2 (Kungdoor to Aparwath)
- Once you reach Kungdoor, do not stop there (you still have to alight from the Phase 1 gondola but don’t step out of the cable car station); proceed to collect your boarding pass for Phase 2 and board the Phase 2 gondola. You can enjoy Kungdoor on your way back. There are restaurants at Kungdoor and you may want to eat on your way back.
- Gondola tickets will indicate timeslots for the gondola ride – 3-4 hour duration. Ignore them. Just take your time to ski and enjoy the scenery (but do take note of the time of the last gondola ride downhill at each of the phases). The gondola operators don’t usually check the timeslots.
- At an altitude of 3950 metres, some people might experience shortness of breath so Phase 2 (at the peak of Mount Aparwath) might not be suitable for everyone. Thus, if you have experience with altitude sickness and have not acclimatised to the high altitude or if you have certain medical conditions that might render you unsuitable to go up this high (consult your doctor), you might want to skip the Phase 2 ride.
- Use a sunscreen with SPF 15 or more. As snow reflects more than 90% of sunlight, it is very easy to get sunburnt even with the cold temperature up at at the peak of Mount Aparwath.
- Wear sunglasses to prevent snow blindness where snow reflects back most of the sun’s glare.
- Bring snacks and water for the journey as you can expect vendors selling food and water to charge very high prices (typically twice to thrice the normal prices).
- Bargain hard if you intend to rent skis or ride on the snowmobile at Phase 2. You can typically bargain 8-10 times lower the quoted pricing!
The map below shows the satellite image of Phase 2 Gondola station at Aparwath. As you can imagine, the scenery will be breathtaking (literally!) and beautiful with the snow-capped mountains. You are also only a few kilometres from the Pakistan-India border – the disputed Line of Control and you wouldn’t be able to imagine them fighting battles at so high up an altitude!
Jet Airways flies to Srinagar from New Delhi twice a day. If you want to experience deluxe houseboat living along Dal Lake, I strongly recommend the Bostan-Gulistan group of houseboats owned by Mr Ashraf Guru as your houseboat of choice during your stay at Srinagar because of the friendly and efficient service of Ashraf and Abdul as well as delicious home-cooked breakfast and dinner.