when to go
January - April
Nestled in the Indian Himalayas, Kashmir is a mystifying blend of powder and culture. Nowhere else do you take a gondola to 13,000 feet alongside soldiers who have a snowboard under one arm, and an AK-47 slung over the other. Throw in the occasional snow leopard sighting and the ever present scent of hashish, and Kashmir is a spectacularly surreal ride.
Welcome to the holy grail of powder. Clusters of shady forest dry out the snow at night, so conditions only improve with time. Pros and people in the know go to Kashmir to explore endless virgin backcountry and soak up the fascinating culture. Given the immensity of the terrain and high risk of avalanches, guides are obligatory. Not to mention, if you head down the wrong slope, you could wind up on the disputed Line of Control with Pakistan.
Today, India’s military presence is more about political posturing than security concerns. The reality is that border tensions and Kashmiri separatist activity have been relatively calm for years, but technically, Kashmir has been the subject of an ongoing border dispute since the late 1940s. Pakistan contests India’s control of the region, while Kashmir would very much like to be left alone.
Political strife aside, Kashmir has long been a popular destination for wealthy Indians, including royal families and Bollywood stars. Yet, it is by no means glitzy. You’re here for the powder and the culture, so embrace the rustic charm. Go off piste and drop into remote villages, gliding down the slope with the lovely call to prayer echoing through the mountains. Admire the locals’ handwoven wool cloaks, under which they carry a wicker basket filled with earthenware-encased hot coals to stay warm. Virgin slopes buried in waist high powder await just outside your hotel door, and the warmth of the Kashmiri people fills the vast swathes of space between peaks.
After a short flight from Delhi to Srinagar, followed by a 2-3 hour drive through rugged terrain, you arrive to Asia’s most impressive snow destination. Gulmarg, home of the world’s highest skiable gondola, has only one “pisted” run, and it is not groomed. What Arpharwat Mountain offers is an infinite array of pure gladed backcountry slopes. If that’s not enough, heli-skiing is an option.
Every night at the Highlands Park ski-in/ski-out hotel, each room’s dedicated butler ensures guests have a smooth recovery from the day’s action. This heritage property, beloved by Bollywood stars and royal families, was founded in the 1960s and is now owned and run by the founder’s granddaughter. Oozing rustic Himalayan charm, the cozy rooms have stunning views of the Arphawat Range and are heated by traditional Kashmiri wood burning stoves (bukharis).
FOOD + DRINK
Many well known Indian recipes like rogan josh and yakhni originate in Kashmir. Local dishes are based on ingredients sourced from the region’s rich valleys, and enriched with a strong dose of classic Indian spices. The heavy use of saffron is no surprise given that Kashmir is the world’s top producer.
Flavorful, slow roasted meat is the name of the culinary game. Still, this is India, so vegetarians will have plenty of options. For the full range of local cuisine, don’t miss the wazwan, a food extravaganza traditionally featuring 36 courses. A key accompaniment to the feast, and daily Kashmiri life, is kahwa, an infusion made from saffron, cardamom, and cinnamon.
In Gulmarg, head down to Hunter’s Bar for apres-ski recovery. Order a well-deserved cocktail, sink into an overstuffed leather couch, and let your cheeks get rosy by the fire.
first woman-owned cafe
Opened in February 2018 by 25 year old Mehvish Mehraj Zargar, Me n U is Kashmir’s first woman-owned cafe. Let that sink in for a moment.
When you finally tear yourself away from the slopes in Gulmarg and head back down the valley to Srinagar, a visit to this charming spot is a must. With great kahwa and cafe fare, it draws a young, vibrant crowd.
It’s a foregone conclusion that you’ll experience next level soreness after exploring the terrain around Gulmarg. Fortunately, Srinagar is a fine place to recuperate before your onward journey. At the family-owned New Jacquline Heritage Houseboats, you can relax on mountain shrouded Nageen Lake and sleep amid traditional Kashmiri design and decoration.
The town has plenty of excellent dining options, and street food lovers will be delighted by the kebab stalls at Kahayam Chowk. Juicy, charcoal grilled meat kebabs are served on traditional lavasa bread, along with a dozen different types of condiments. Chai Jaai is a gorgeous English-inspired tea house to wile away an afternoon of mountain recovery and reflection.