Sleigh bells ring on Kashmir slopes

"Sleigh bells ring, are you listening

In the lane, Snow is glistening

A beautiful sight, We're happy tonight

Walking in a winter wonderland."

It is the holiday season and every time I hear the lyrics of the Christmas song Winter Wonderland, I'm reminded of the time I first tried sleighing in Kashmir, India.

Just 55km north of Srinagar, the capital of Kashmir, India, is Gulmarg. During the winter months of January to early March, this is also the place to go sleighing or tobogganing, with a difference. Sleighs and toboggans in the past have been used to transport both people and items across terrain like snow or ice. They are also used in sports events. But the sleighs in Gulmarg are not pulled by horses or huskies (or reindeer!), but strong men!

Before we arrived in Gulmarg by a four-wheel-drive vehicle, it had been snowing in Kashmir, and the ground was covered in a carpet of white.

I was rather startled to see that the sleighs were pulled by men, and in our case, just one man! I felt guilty and almost got out of the sleigh and telling him that I could easily walk instead. But before I could say anything, off we went on our journey across the countryside.

The air was chilly and to be honest, it was a rather bumpy ride. But we were mesmerised by the unspoilt beauty and snow-covered trees and houses. I realised that there were actually jingling bells tied to the sleigh. How amusing!

The terrain was mainly flat but with a few mildly undulating slopes. Every time we got to a slope, the sleigh puller seemed to be huffing and puffing. Yet stoically, he trudged on at a steady pace. He said he was used to doing this and it was his livelihood. Each day, he tried to pull as many visitors as possible across the countryside on his sleigh. We were impressed by his determination and sense of pride in an honest day's work. Our guide had earlier informed us that even though there were many poor people in the country, unlike many other third world countries, they would neither beg nor steal, but would work or trade for a living.

When we arrived at a huge slope, we offered to get down and walk but he carried on pulling the sleigh. There was a generous slope on the other side. Here, he paused and asked if we wanted to try downhill sleighing.

Pushing us off from the top of the hill, we whizzed down, first slowly and then we picked up speed. Thankfully, our woollen hats and scarfs protected us from the chilly wind and sub-zero temperatures.

The sleigh puller was walking alongside us as we went downhill and reached the bottom of the slope soon after we did. He then continued to pull us across the rest of the wintry countryside. It was an hour by the time we returned to our starting point where we went to a nearby coffee shop for a cup of hot Kashmiri tea with fragrant cardamom and cinnamon.