Gulmarg is a two-hour drive from Srinagar and the road crosses several shanty towns and small villages along the way. An hour or so into the drive, we’re crossing a town with small shops on either side. Banners of Iran’s ex-Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khomeini, and its current president are hung across the street lights.
“This here, sir, is Magham. It’s one of the few Shia-inhabited areas in Kashmir. The Shias comprise no more than 2-3 per cent of Kashmiri population,” Shakeel informs me.
We’ve reached an intersection. A couple of army trucks block our path. A soldier motions for us to wait while the trucks reverse. Shakeel grumbles a few words in his tongue and starts drumming the steering wheel impatiently.
“That road on the left leads to Tosamadani. It’s a beautiful place, sir. Earlier, the army folk had occupied it to build a training facility. But the locals started demonstrating and they had to vacate the grounds. Now it’s open for tourists.”
Left Out in the Cold
We’re approaching Tangmarg, the only area with an ATM ahead of Gulmarg. A fellow on the road accosts our car, jumps in without a word, exchanges greetings with Shakeel and hellos with me. On the way he introduces himself.
“I’m Abdul. I work as a guide in Gulmarg. Pity you’re coming at this time. The lack of snow has really let us down.”
“Abdul is the best guide in the business,” Shakeel claims, “He’ll give you the best sightseeing at dirt-cheap rates. You’ll see…”
Abdul interrupts. After a hurried conversation, Shakeel turns back to me.