For those of you who loved watching yesteryears’ heart-throb Dimple Kapadia swinging to the tune of Hum Tum Ek Kamre Mein Bandh Ho with Rishi Kapoor in the ’70s blockbuster Bobby or loved Rajesh Khanna and Mumtaz coquettishly dancing to RD Burman’s magical tunes of Jai Jai Shiv Shankar, Kanta Lage Na Kankar in Aap Ki Kasam or crooning another beautiful number from the same movie, Karvate Badalte Rahe Sari Raat Hum, its impossible not to fall in love with the charm of these locales at Gulmarg.

The locale is a winter-lover’s delight, a wonderland covered in a thick duvet of snow these days. As freezing cold waves sweep across northern India forcing people to remain indoors, the bone-chilling cold has failed to deter revellers who throng to Gulmarg, a skiing resort in the Kashmir Valley and one of the most popular tourist destinations in Asia. A few weeks back when the world ushered in another year, Gulmarg witnessed hundreds of tourists participating in the New Year bash at the famed ski resort and winter destination.

Gulmarg meaning “Meadow of Flowers”, is a situated some 52 km from Srinagar in the border district of Baramulla in north Kashmir close to the Line of Control, the tension-filled border between India and Pakistan. Originally known as Gaurimarg after Goddess Parvati or Gauri, the spouse of Lord Shiva, the place finds mention even in the mythological script, Shivpuran. It has an ancient temple known as Rani Mandir dedicated to the goddess. It was a favourite resort of Kashmir’s Hindu kings. The original name was later changed to Gulmarg by Muslim king Yousuf Shah Chak.

Gulmarg gets some of the heaviest snowfall in the Himalayas and has become very popular among tourists, earning the distinction of being the best ski resort in the Himalayas. In fact, this place is also famous for being the first in India to be introduced as a ski resort in 1927 with the setting up of the Ski Club, three years after the first World Winter Olympics was held in Chamonix in France.

The Ski Club at Gulmarg was constructed by two British officers, Major Metcarb and Major Hedoo, for the benefit of British army officers at a time when skiing was becoming quite popular in Europe. The club imported ski equipment from Norway and secured affiliation with the Ski Club of England. Famous Central Asian explorer Sir Marc Aurel Stein (1862-1943) made his home in Gulmarg in the early part of the 20th century.

Over the past few years, Gulmarg has become a favourite destination among skiers from all over the world. The breathtaking slopes have been included in the top 10 ski destinations in Asia. Appi Kogen in Tohoku, Japan, stands at the top of Asia’s best ski resorts followed by the Niseko and Rusitsu Ski Resorts in Hokkaido, Japan; Alpensia, Yongpyong, Gangwon-do and Jisan Forest Resorts in Icheon, South Korea; Alshan Alpine in Mongolia, Yabuli Ski Resort and Nanshan Ski Village in China. Gulmarg is number seven on the list.

The resort’s claim to fame is the Gulmarg Gandola, the highest ski lift in the world, at a dizzying 3,979 metres, which takes skiers up to the slopes of the Aparwat Hills — one of the longest and highest ski slopes in Asia. Following its new found fame of being among the top 10 skiing destinations in Asia, successive governments in Jammu and Kashmir have been trying to sell Gulmarg further to tourists the world over and are planning to devise a permanent winter calendar to attract more domestic as well as overseas visitors to the resort which is perfect for skiing, snowboarding, sledging and snowman-building.

Mohammad Ashraf, former director general, tourism, Jammu and Kashmir government, has nostalgic memories of Gulmarg. He remembers how it used to be the favourite destination for Bollywood producers. Be it magical winters or sunny summers, producers loved it all. "Probably, the Indian film units would have continued to come to Gulmarg and other parts of Kashmir but for the violence in the region which scared them away. We tried our best to motivate them to come back after 2003 but they didn’t feel confident enough. Now the tourism department has been trying again and is meeting good success," says Ashraf. In recent years, the efforts have paid off and many films like Rockstar, Jab Tak Hai Jaan, Yeh Jawaani Hai Deewani, Highway, Haider, etc, were shot there.

"This year also, we ushered the New Year in with ‘Jashn-e-Chillai-Kalan’ (a festival of the severest and harshest period of 40 days of winter in Kashmir) at Gulmarg," says Talat Pervez, director, Tourism Kashmir. This is an annual feature in Gulmarg.

The place also houses the Indian Institute of Skiing and Mountaineering which was set up by the department of tourism, government of India, in 1969, aimed at encouraging adventure sports among the youth and to promote the tourism industry. The institute imparts technical training and conducts various courses in skiing from mid-December to early April. The institute has qualified ski instructors, most of whom have had advance training abroad.

Tourists coming to Gulmarg are offered  a 30 per cent discount by the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation-run hotels and huts. Besides "Jashn-e-Chillai Kalaan", more festivals and winter sports-related events are on the cards throughout January, depending on the amount of snowfall received.

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