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International Program 2008/2009

Wombat in a War-Zone - Notes from a strange and wonderful place
- Andrew Mock

Firstly, you'll have to forgive me if this report is a little less lucid than usual (hard to comprehend, I know), but the high-speed collision that occurred this afternoon between my cerebral cortex and the inside of my skull is contriving to make coherent sentence construction even more difficult than usual. Secondly, I ask that you forgive the complete lack of cross-country skiing related content in this report - in my defence, however, cross country skiing is, with a few rare exceptions, a largely dull endeavour, unlike my adventures of the last fortnight - which I would describe as anything but dull.

To begin, some context. After a relentless three months of ski racing, culminating in my participation in no less than five separate events at the 2009 FIS World Championships in the Czech Republic, I was both physically and mentally spent. The thought of completing just one more ski race filled me with the kind of horror that Malcolm Turnbull experiences every time a South-Australian Liberal backbencher opens their mouth. Fortunately, Finn walked in just as I had finished dousing my ski bag in accelerant. As always, he was the voice of reason - "Put the matches down, Mocky...and let the attaché go. You just need a break from things. Why don't you take a holiday somewhere?". Finn was right - I did need a break, but where to go? Friends and family convinced me that somewhere warm, laid-back and tourist-friendly was what I needed. I took their advice on-board before settling on the war-ravaged Himalayan region of Indian-controlled Kashmir. 'Amazing telemark terrain', the brochure promised (further good news was contained in the next paragraph; '15 years of vicious and sustained conflict replaced by tense and highly armed military stand-off'). Incredibly, I somehow managed to convince Peter Malcolm and Cam Dickenson to join me. Unfortunately, Malcs got cold feet shortly before we were due to depart and took the extreme step of breaking his arm in order to avoid coming. So in the end it was just me, Cam and a big box of Imodium that departed Europe for New Dehli at the start of March.

I don't care what anyone says - New Dehli is a tip. People talk a lot about air pollution in the likes of LA, London and Rome. Please. Breathing the air in New Dehli (or more accurately, chewing it) actually makes you believe that you are dying. Statistically speaking, however, the air is unlikely to kill you. That's because you'll probably die in a traffic accident involving three cars, five tuk-tuks, a truck and a cow on the taxi ride from the airport. Failing that, the water will get you. Needless to say, we cleared out of Dehli quicker than Amanda Vanstone running away from a salad bar and got on a plane to Srinigar - capital of Indian-controlled Kashmir.

Our target destination was the 'ski resort' of Gulmarg (the reason for the inverted commas will soon become apparent), located on the edge of the Himalayas and only a stones throw (or grenade...) from the line of control with Pakistan. The 2-hour drive from Srinigar to Gulmarg was certainly memorable. Abject poverty, starving livestock, squalor and more Kalashnikovs than I have seen in my entire sheltered life to-date. Bit of a change from Davos (Kashmiris are much friendlier - even when armed). After finally arriving at our destination and waiting for my ears to stop ringing (Indians use their car horns to communicate everything from 'get out of my way' to 'good morning Mushtaq, how is your mother getting along?'), I surveyed my surroundings. Gulmarg is located on a large snow-covered plateau surrounded by glades of enormous conifers and silver birch, and dominated by a hulking 4000m peak rising up from behind the village. And there, making its way bang up the centre of the peak was the reason for our presence in Gulmarg - the highest gondola in the world.

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Gulmarg was a bit overwhelming for our Finnish snowboarding friends. Sure, they'd all heard about mountains, but this was the first time they'd actually seen one

We settled in to our hotel - the creatively named Pine Palace Platinum. I'd give them one out of three on that description (it was definitely made of softwood). Apparently the hotel was only 4 years old. No one contradicted this claim - making the fact that much of the interior was crumbling all the more disturbing. The wiring looked like it had been performed by a blind Labrador and as for the plumbing, well I guess you could call it plumbing... The sheets didn't fit the bed, the electricity was sporadic and the heating worked approximately 30% of the time. Towels were provided...on request. We started wondering what things would have been like if we hadn't booked the best hotel in town. Apparently, the week before our arrival, a monkey got into the room of some Russian skiers staying just down the road (never leave bananas near an open window). The monkey somehow managed to close the window behind him as he entered and subsequently did a Chuck Norris on the contents of the room in a desperate attempt to escape. So really, we were fortunate. One thing we definitely couldn't complain about was the food. Who would have thought that you could eat chicken for ten straight nights and not mind. I think the hotel staff deserve mention as well. The staff were friendly bordering on down-right relaxed. They didn't just say good morning, they pulled up a chair and joined us for breakfast...and dinner. In fact, they just wandered into our room whenever they were bored to discuss anything from regional geopolitics to the extreme differences between Indians and Kashmiris (and believe me - they are very different customers. In a nutshell - and this is based entirely on the Kashmiri perspective - Indians are Hindu, largely sedentary and bad cooks. Kashmiris are Muslim, hard-working, quick-witted and f*cking sick of Indians and Pakistanis shooting over their heads). While for the most part, the staff at our hotel were sensational, I was a little bit less than impressed when one of them borrowed my laptop on the pretence of checking exam results online and returned it (on request) 24hrs later with the browser history chock full of Sub-continental porn sites.

Our mountain guide was a proud Kashmiri of 18 years skiing experience called Shabir. Basically, he flogged us relentlessly for a week. Picture this - Shabir had spent the previous 3 months skiing run after run on a mountain that he could navigate blindfolded. Dicko and myself meanwhile, had not carved a turn in anger since August. We were also 3000m above our preferred altitude, jet-lagged and in my case, attempting to telemark. We spent most of our time skiing the second phase of the gondola, which starts at 3000m and tops out a touch below 4000m. I can say from personal experience (and Dicko will back me up on this one), that by the time you are half-way back down, your quads are so full of lactic acid that it actually starts seeping through your skin and dissolving your pants. And Shabir showed no mercy. No sooner had you pulled up beside him, face contorted in pain, he would reappear 200m below you...and accelerating. In the end - and I'm not proud of this - I was forced to fake epileptic fits simply to get a few minutes of glorious rest.

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Things got a bit crowded on the mountain at times. We learned to be accommodating

It's also worth making note of the resort infrastructure. A gondola. That's it. But it's a freakin' big one. There are two phases. The first goes from the village at 2600m up through a heavily wooded slope to the edge of the tree-line at 3000m. This was built c.20yrs ago. The jewel in the crown is the second phase which opens up an enormous amount of terrain by virtue of its 4000m top-station. The second phase gondola was also purchased around 20yrs ago and then sat in a storage shed for the next 16yrs as the Indian and Pakistani armies shot at each other (there is a manned Indian army station 300m from the top gondola station - you only mistake that building for a café once). It was finally constructed in 2005. The gondola is operated by the Indian government, and like most things operated by the Indian government, it's a highly inefficient operation. An order mandates that phase 2 should open at 8:30am. In nearly 2 weeks, the earliest we saw it open was 9:45am. Tickets are sold out of a briefcase by a guy who usually turns up, at some point. The gondola closes regularly due to the kind of 'poor weather' that most Mt. Hotham skiers can only dream of. When weather doesn't shut it down, electrical faults and avalanches do. Gulmarg will either teach you extreme patience or send you on a homicidal killing spree (fortunately for the gondola operators, I couldn't get my gun through airport security).

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Somewhat worryingly, my avalanche knowledge was based entirely on an episode of MacGyver that I saw once

But ultimately, none of the above matters one iota. Why? Because the skiing in Gulmarg is unlike anywhere else on this earth. It's like heli-skiing without the helicopter. There were seven other skiers on the mountain today - that worked out to about 2 gullies each. If you're willing to work hard, you can ski 1000 metres of vert every half hour - and still have butter chicken and warm Pepsi for lunch. And did I mention that a day ticket costs less than A$40? Then there's the backcountry potential. Yesterday we skied from 4000m down an endless ridge, past the tree-line and into the valley below, across a river, through the native forest and into the town of Drunk (named, we suspect, after the town planner) - elevation 2000m. Then we piled into the waiting taxi (a frightening vehicle with bald tires, no clutch and a door that keep flying open) and headed into Tangmarg for a cup of sweet Kashmiri tea and a bag of lovely biscuits that cost me all of 20 cents. Try doing that at Mt. Hotham. If you love big mountains, fresh tracks and a bit of adventure - do yourself a favour and get over here now, before the Aussies ruin it for everyone.

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I'm going to take my bindings back to the shop - the bloody things kept coming loose at the heel

10 reasons why Gulmarg isn't like Mt. Hotham

1. There's only one lift, and when you arrive at the top, you'll wish you packed oxygen

2. Signs in the bottom gondola station declare that the lift opens at 8:30am, with smoking strictly prohibited in the gondola cars. In reality, the lift opens around 10am (or whenever the operator turns up) and smoking is actively encouraged in the gondola cars...and everywhere else, for that matter

3. We arranged to meet Shabir, our Kashmiri ski guide at 9:30am. He turned up at 1pm, completely unapologetic, and then informed us that he was going home

4. As we were preparing to ski down to the gondola one morning, Nisar (our helpful hotel host) informed us that it would be wise to ski 'very quickly, and without stopping' as there was a pack of wild dogs waiting for us on the access track

5. Gulmarg's 'night-life' consists of a single tin shed masquerading as a restaurant. Apparently their hashish is top-notch, though

6. The back-country skiing potential from the top gondola station is limitless. Or almost limitless - if you accidentally ski across the border into Pakistan (which is less than 1km from the lift station, and unmarked) you will immediately be shot

7. Kashmiris are disarmingly laid-back and friendly. After ordering some tea from room service one afternoon while watching the cricket, the hotel porter that delivered it did not leave until the final ball of the session had been bowled

8. Ski area dangers and obstacles include, but are not limited to; avalanches, altitude sickness, extreme weather, limited visibility, partially buried mud huts, trees, on-target Pakistani artillery, off-target Indian artillery, over-zealous chocolate bar vendors, snow leopards, black bears, wild dogs, monkeys

9. On-mountain lunch options are cheap and plentiful. Popular offerings include butter chicken, vegetable biryani and quality Kashmiri hashish

10. Grooming machines, snowmobiles, marked runs, medical facilities, ski instructors, beginner and intermediate terrain - afraid not. 1500 vertical metres of untracked Himalayan powder - check.

- Andrew Mock

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If this doesn't get your pulse racing, you're probably a tax accountant


[Note - here you can find the earlier Mock reports from 2002, 2003, 2005, 2006, Sapporo 2006, Sapporo 2007, 2008, Australia 2008, and 2009 ]

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