Photo by Marco Joerger
THERE ARE MULTIPLE SKIING / BOARDING options in the Himalaya: Leh, Auli, Kufri, Narkanda, Gulmarg. Most of these are in either India’s Himachal Pradesh province or Jammu & Kashmir, a region contested by India and Pakistan. Even at Malam Jabba in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, the authorities have recently wrested control of the pistes from the non-skiing Taliban and are trying to transition the area from an army to commercial resort.
Most skiable slopes are also on the Indian-subcontinent side of the mountains, where the monsoon rains collide with the peaks and fall as deep powder. The Tibet side, even without the red tape of Chinese bureaucracy, is not really an option; it’s just too dry.
I decided to go up to Solang Nullah, which I’d heard about from another traveller on a night train in Rajasthan. It’s not as developed as Gulmarg but was close to Shimla, my starting point, and seemed like a good bet.
First, however, I had to get to the hill station of Manali, about 150 miles north.
- The normal northern hemisphere snow months are when to go: December to March. This is also the best time for visiting the southern regions of India and Pakistan, before the heat becomes uncomfortable in the buildup to the monsoon.
- Leh and Gulmarg are in Jammu & Kashmir — much of the region is travelable; however, localised outbursts of violence do occur, so keep up to date with the Indian or your own government’s travel advice for the area.
- Malam Jabba is in the Swat Valley in Pakistan, and at the time of writing is still officially an army training ground, though the Pakistan government repeatedly threatens to open it to the public and recently held a national competition there.
- Solang Nullah, Narkanda, and Kufri in Himachal Pradesh, and Auli in neighbouring Uttarakhand province, are politically stable and safe.
- Bus and train travel is erratic. It’s not uncommon to hear a platform announcement that your train is 15 hours late. Buses, especially smaller ones, often leave when they’re full, not at an appointed time. If you want to leave sooner, help the driver tout for passengers.
- Shimla in Himachal Pradesh, once the summer seat of the British Raj, is a good departure point for Solang Nullah, Narkanda, and Kufri. Only place I’ve ever seen monkeys in the snow. From Delhi, Shimla can be reached by smaller turboprop aircraft, the train via Kalka, and numerous buses (~15hrs).
- Leh can be reached by bus from Manali (~12hrs) or Srinagar (~12hrs) or plane from Delhi. Gulmarg can be reached from Srinagar (2-3hrs).
My bus from Shimla to Manali took about eight hours, and I arrived at 3am with snow on the ground — the first I’d seen in India. A hotelier immediately grabbed my pack as I splashed about in the slush and made with it towards his hotel as if I had a reservation. I was in no mood to argue. I collapsed under warm blankets and slept for eight hours straight.
The second morning, after a day spent exploring Manali, the sun was beaming. I walked up to a line of little Daihatsu jeeps waiting in the market square and haggled a price of 400 rupees to go the 10 miles up to the Solang Valley. This was on the same road that zigzags to Keylong and eventually on to Leh in remote Ladakh.
We climbed and climbed, and in a small village stopped at one of the few ski schools in the area, where I rented a board, boots, trousers, and gloves — all in pretty good condition. One of the instructors there was a Nepali who’d somehow won the Indian national championships.
I paid the driver and with the champion drove as far as a hamlet of shacks where the snow had blocked the road, meaning we had to walk for a beautiful last mile to the valley.
Avoiding a great swindle
This author didn’t make it to the Solang Valley on his first attempt. From where the road was snowed in, he reluctantly paid and left the driver, who told him the local men would point him in the right direction. It was pretty clear what was going to happen.
According to said locals, it wasn’t just an extra mile to the valley, but 10. Options? A horse or a snowmobile, or a walk into the woods alone. The author selected the horse as that sounded cheapest and most romantic. But of course the snow was too deep for the horse, leaving only the snowmobile. Price? Not capable of being repeated with a straight face.
It wasn’t until he refused to be extorted and walked back down the road a couple miles that the author found the ski school instructors, who confirmed it was indeed only an extra mile to the valley from the blockage, and suggested trying again with them the following day.
The ‘resort’ of Solang Nullah sits at about 6,000 feet amongst the pines of the 20,000ft Hanuman Tibba. It consists of half a dozen hotels. There’s a Tibetan restaurant selling momo, and next to it another where any young people around — local or visitors — cluster in the evenings to drink hot water and whisky and sing songs around one of the few stoves I saw in the village.
The crew for the week I was there was a mixture of Indians, Nepalese, Tibetans, Irish, Italians, British, Americans, and Australians — maybe two dozen total. But choice spot next to the stove always went to a white mutt called Jadu (“magic” in Hindi).
With a wandering Italian called Alessandro, I shared a room in a breeze-block shell that was pupating into a chalet. There was no heating. Warmth was purloined from a portable bar heater with one bar. There was no hot water. Actually, there was no water. We brushed our teeth in handfuls of snow and every other day collected a bucket of water from a drainpipe near the owner’s warmer room. Into this we put an antique heating filament he’d given us, and after half an hour had a tepid bucket to strip off and wash in.
I don’t think this was representative of all Solang Nullah’s accommodation, but it seemed to be par for the course for the stove crowd.
Tip: Yes, India gets cold.
Don’t underestimate how cold this part of India can be, even in non-mountainous areas. It’s not so much the nominal temperature, but more the fact that travellers travelling on a short and decrepit shoestring will often end up in unheated rooms.
Over time the cumulative effect can be quite draining, so splash out a few extra dollars for a warmer place if you feel yourself flagging.
Skiing on the Roof of the World
But if that was the more brutal side to the experience, each day we also put on rackets and walked from 9 to 12 up the mountain. We ate palak paneer with aloo or paratha, then shot down backcountry against the backdrop of Hanuman Tibba and the higher Himalaya, loosing off little avalanches of packed snow while trying to take long laterals through the woods to traverse as much of the mountainside as possible and prolong the drop.
The trees were well spaced for slaloming, and there were rocky outcrops where we could stop and take in the massive vista. The last part of the afternoons we spent at the slope near the resort on a jump we built.
Obviously, Solang Nullah and similar resorts in the region aren’t for everyone. There’s just no way of getting to them quickly, and most offer very limited on-piste options — there was only one button-seat ropeway on the mountain I rode.
But given time and whisky and a good set of friends, or the desire to make them, it’s difficult to replicate the uniqueness and camaraderie felt up there near the roof of the world. It’s also hard to replicate the beauty I enjoyed without the crowds or pretension of many resorts in Europe and North America.
If this is what you’re after this winter, a flight to Delhi and the sketchy trip through Shimla to Manali or further are worth looking into.
- Compared with any European or North American resort, rental costs are almost negligible. Expect to pay no more than $20 a day for all gear.
- Prices for lifts, if there are lifts, are also very cheap: a few dollars a day.
- Accommodation is in line with other places in these countries, which are some of the cheapest in the world.
- Buses and trains are typically reasonable even for long journeys, provided you stick to 2nd class (hard sleeper) on the trains.
- Shared taxis can vary enormously, and the price depends on your negotiation skills / how desperate you are.