Meadow of Flowers
By: James Frampton
Location: Gulmarg, Jammu & Kashmir – INDIA
Also featured in Issue #9 | May 2012
Gulmarg is a small ski resort sitting close to the Indian/ Pakistani border, 10km from the line of control. Iv been visiting the resort in winters for years to snowboard the powder. I became increasingly keen to see what it had to offer in summer times too. I dreamed about riding the mountain on two wheels, and in summer 2011 this became a reality.
Myself, my wife, and my Commencal Supreme traveled overland from the East, sharing the back seat of a rickety bus. The 24 hour journey consisted of twisting Himalayan roads, endless drops to one side, crumbling cliff faces on the other.
Arriving in Gulmarg I quickly realized that my plan of a 3 week research trip was rapidly turning into something way bigger than I had ever imagined. Within days of being there we found ourselves working alongside the GDA (Gulmarg Development Authority) to help design and construct a new MTB resort.
Gulmarg means ‘meadow of flowers’ and in the summer months the huge meadow is saturated with flora, giving justification to its name. The rideable terrain that descends from the resort takes you down a variety of trails, through ancient forests and fruit orchards. Tree roots fill the ride with challenging lines and steep drops. My first ride of the summer dropped in from the meadow, down. Steep lines and sick roots provided an intense, thrilling ride. After reaching the area of Baba Reshi, the trails continued a further seven km down. The track became more easy going, not so steep, but was still a great downhill ride. I was with a group of local guys, who became instantly hooked. With their help we were able to access funds from the GDA to begin to build Gulmargʼs first dedicated MTB trail, running from Mt. Apharwatʼs mid-station to the village base.
We worked as volunteers, and spent weeks researching trails. It wasnʼt an easy task as I had to obtain numerous permission letters to continue the work – from the gondola management to the Indian Military, everyone had to be convinced it could work, and that I wasnʼt a militant trying infiltrate the borders!
Mt Apharwat dominates the Gulmarg skyline. Being so close to the LOC the resort is heavy with military, more so in winter, as they practice high altitude mountain warfare. Although Kashmir has had it’s fair share of problems, the state is slowly catching up with adventure tourism, and gearing itself to becoming a fully-fledged adrenalin junkie playground. Winters are booming, and I wanted to help give summers a nudge too.
After weeks of pestering, I finally received permission to ride the peak. Having been closed to the public for over 20 years, this was an incredible feeling – taking a bike on ground that had never been ridden before. The Kongdoor gondola ascends Mt. Apharwat’s peaks, reaching it’s climax at 3990m making it the highest gondola in Asia, 2nd highest in the world. After 30 minutes of answering tourists questions, posing for photos and escaping the clutches of over-keen kids, I dropped in. From the top station I traced the ridge for three km, before being stopped in my tracks by Indian Military. My permission letters weren’t enough to carry on, seemingly unable to convince them I wasn’t a militant. I had to change my route to keep them happy, and chose a line that cut back across the mountain’s face. The Commencal did me proud, and 300m vertical later I hit my original trail. Huge boulders, fallen rocks and breath-taking Himalayan views came into my sight and I rode a further 1km vert until I reached the mid-station base. It was an epic ride, but I knew there was more to discover and could only do this with further research and permission. I was determined to experience the mountains full potential, but had get by the soldiers in order to do this.
While waiting for permission I spent my time researching trails. Both from the mountains top and mid-station, as well as runs from Gulmarg down through the forests to the traditional villages below. I woke one morning to find 20 Burmese refugees waiting outside my door, with basic tools and flip flops, ready to begin trail work. With a massive language barrier as no English was spoken we began work. We worked every day for three weeks to reach the bottom. The track has been named ‘Khilmish Trail’ after a berry shrub that surrounds it, and begins at the mountains mid-station. It flows through fertile jungle and rock gardens, passing nomadic tribal huts in the distance. There are trail filters at the start to help the locals progress, and a mix of bermed and off camber corners. The GDA have promised to build more trails next year, and for the foreseeable future ahead.
It was an incredible summer. The local authorities were so supportive. We visited to find out the possibilities, and to show our friends what mountain biking could be. A chance for a different future as well as a sport. This was only the start, who knows where it could end. Gulmarg Resort will be open to bikers May/June 2012, as soon as the snow melts. The ticket prices for the gondola on the first phase is 150rs, while the 2nd phase is 250rs for a one-way ride. Although we sometimes found ourselves battling with the gondola staff to give us access, we have been promised that bikers will have no problems using the gondola in 2012. The resort will stay open all year, but snowfall will ultimately close the resort to riders, from October/ November onwards.
Accommodation in the resort tends to be more expensive than the rest of India. You can still find a few basic, cheap rooms for around 800rs, but the majority of hotels are priced INR 3000 and up.
Gravity Assault Tours is a UK company, offering adrenalin-fueled downhill and freeride mountain bike tours in the Indian Himalayas. All tours are fully guided and include all uplifts, so minimal walking is required. As well as Gulmarg we also offer guided tours in and around the stunning region of Manali, Himachal Pradesh. Here you can sample some of India’s most spectacular terrain, with snow-capped peaks, stunning waterfalls and deep valleys as your backdrop. Our Manali tours include descending off-road down the infamous Rohtang Pass, using secret trails and ancient tracks, we will show you the best of what the Indian Himalaya has to offer. Our tours will take you down steep, rocky terrain, through traditional mountain villages, fruit-filled orchards, paddy fields and terraces. Its free-riding at its best. Raw, rugged and unique. We offer the highest professional service and safety is paramount.
Check out our website: www.gravityassault.com or contact us for more details: [email protected]