War and piste on the frontline of the battle for Kashmir - Independent, UK
- War and piste on the frontline of the battle for
The Himalayan scenery and virgin snow are not the only
spectacular things about Gulmarg - it's also on the
front line of the battle for Kashmir. Justin Huggler
reports on the ultimate in extreme skiing
14 February 2005
From the ridge above Gulmarg there stretches beneath
you one of the most remarkable ski-runs in the world,
almost 7,000ft of uninterrupted skiing, on virgin
powder snow. On a clear day, you can see the Himalayas
towering all around, with Nanga Parbat, the
ninth-highest mountain in the world, high above them
in the distance. More untouched ski-runs lead off in
various directions. They are not for beginners, but
this is an piste habitué's paradise. And not another
skier in sight. You can have it all to yourself. If
you have the nerve.
Because the mountains are not the only thing you can
see from the ridge above Gulmarg. You are standing
just three miles from one of the most heavily
militarised front lines in the world: the Line of
Control that divides Kashmir. On either side, hundreds
of thousands of Indian and Pakistani soldiers face
each other on the front line that just three years ago
brought the world closer to nuclear war than at any
time since the Cuban missile crisis of 1962. This is
the most dangerous ski resort in the world.
Gulmarg looks a peaceful place, just a few wooden
hotels clustered in a snowy meadow beneath the ridge.
In summer, when the meadow blazes with flowers, they
film the romantic musical numbers for Bollywood movies
here. But Gulmarg is within range of the Pakistani
artillery. In the mid-1990s, two shells fell on the
ski resort. One landed close to the cable car that
carries skiers to the ridge.
But this is not stopping India from trying to woo back
visitors to the place one skiing magazine called
"perhaps the greatest untapped big-mountain resort in
the world". In just two to three weeks, the second
phase of the cable car is to open, carrying skiers
almost to the top of the ridge, at 13,284ft, making it
one of the highest and longest cable cars in the
No longer will the few adventurous travellers who make
it to Gulmarg have to face a 5,000ft trek up by foot.
For a £3 ticket, valid all day, you will be able to
ride up to the top in comfort and ski back down.
People here like to say you can ski here for less than
it costs to buy two cups of coffee in the Swiss Alps.
It costs just £4.50 to hire skis and boots, and you
can hire your own experienced guide for off-piste
skiing for just £6 a day.
Gulmarg should have it all. It enjoys snowfall many
European resorts would envy. The average snowfall at
this time of year is 30in, but this year a record 11ft
has fallen, burying the ground floors of the hotels
and covering the souvenir stands.
And for exoticism, Europe cannot come close. In
Gulmarg, the residents ski in traditional long, grey,
woollen ponchos, clutching pots of burning embers
underneath to keep warm. The cable car is operated by
a Sikh poet, P N Singh, known to everyone in the
mountains by his pen name Pawan, who will happily sit
and discuss his poetry with you over a cup of tea.
But it is going to be difficult to woo the tourists
back. The journey to Gulmarg tells its own story. As
the road up from Srinagar passes through wintry
fields, bare trees black and skeletal against the
leaden sky, you could believe you are in a First World
The Kashmiris are dressed in those grey ponchos. Every
few miles along the road, Indian soldiers in helmets
loom out of the mist. Often they are solitary figures,
standing in the middle of an empty field of frozen
mud, streaked with dirty snow, looking for all the
world as if they are defending a tiny patch of scrubby
land. They are there because India has so many
soldiers in Kashmir - more than 200,000 in all - that
they almost line the road.
Higher up, the soldiers appear suddenly out of the
falling snow, often on skis. They look like tourists
till you see the assault rifles on their backs. Other
soldiers man checkpoints on the road, weapons at the
ready. They stop the car and peer in suspiciously. A
couple of weeks ago, a local civilian was shot dead at
a checkpoint in daylight. The soldiers ordered the car
to stop, but the Kashmiris inside had been drinking.
Maybe they did not realise they were being flagged
down. Maybe they were just being reckless. Either way,
they failed to stop. The soldiers opened fire. This is
the road to India's premier ski resort.
Running checkpoints is not all you have to worry
about. In 1995, long before the gruesome tactic
appeared in Iraq, a Norwegian tourist called Hans
Christian Ostro was kidnapped and beheaded by
militants in Kashmir. He was in a party of six,
including two Britons, who were trekking in the
mountains south of here when they were abducted at
gunpoint by the militants. One, an American, managed
to escape. No one knows what happened to the rest.
That was 10 years ago, and the line from the
authorities, and from everyone involved in the tourism
industry in Kashmir, is that things have changed.
Peace talks are continuing between India and Pakistan
and there is a ceasefire along the Line of Control.
Only last week, the Indian side enthused that things
were going extraordinarily well. The Indian
authorities believe now is the time to get the
tourists back to Kashmir. In Gulmarg, they certainly
hope so. The only five-star hotel in Gulmarg stands
half-finished, an empty timber shell with snow piling
up around it. When the Kashmir conflict reignited 15
years ago, the owners abandoned the project.
Ghulam Rasool Mir, a greying man in his forties with a
neatly clipped moustache and a weather-beaten face,
has been a tourist guide here since he was 17. "We
used to get so many tourists in the old days," he
says. "They came from all over the world. Now we are
praying, really it is our prayer, that there will be
peace and the tourists will return."
Pawan, the Sikh poet agrees. "It used to be much
better," he says. He is one of the Kashmir Sikhs who
have stayed through the violence. Some were targeted
by the militants as non-Muslims, and many fled from
the land they grew up in.
When the only road to Gulmarg is cut off by the
unusually heavy snowfalls, Mr Mir still treks up to
keep his appointment with us, digging the
four-wheel-drive through the snowdrifts, and
eventually walking two miles uphill on foot up through
a blizzard when the car cannot make it.
Gulmarg is desperate for tourists. Only a few weeks
ago, a party of Indian tourists was killed when a
taxi-driver from Srinagar attempted to negotiate the
icy road without snow chains. He skidded off and the
taxi plunged 1,500ft.
Last week, with Kashmir facing record snowfalls that
caused avalanches and blocked a major highway,
stranding 3,000 motorists for five days, the tiny
access road to Gulmarg should have been closed. But
with a smattering of tourists arriving, the residents
tried to keep it open. As we were travelling down the
road, one taxi carrying tourists got caught and buried
in an avalanche. People rushed to the rescue and
managed to dig it out in time.
But the question that hangs over Gulmarg is whether
now is really a sensible time to be completing a major
cable car project. "It is the media who have done this
to us," Mr Mir says. "They have not been fair to us.
They only print negative things about Kashmir."
It is a refrain you hear from everyone in Gulmarg. And
to listen to the recent official pronouncements from
the Indian and Pakistani governments, you would think
peace is breaking out all over Kashmir.
But the official casualty figures make sobering
reading. Since 1 January this year, with the ceasefire
in place on the Line of Control and the peace talks
going well, 118 people have been killed in continuing
violence in Indian-administered Kashmir. And that is
just the official figure. Journalists in Srinagar say
the real figures are probably far higher. Based on
conversations with police, they believe that, on
average, 12 people die a day from the violence in the
Muzamil Jalel, the highly respected Srinagar bureau
chief for The Indian Express says: "The ceasefire has
really only improved things along the Line of Control.
That means things are better for the army, because
that's where they are. But in the valley, not much has
The streets of Srinagar are deserted after 8pm. There
is no official curfew, but with people afraid to
venture out on to the streets for fear of the military
checkpoints, there is a de facto curfew. Walking back
to your hotel alone through the streets is a nervous
Suicide bombings are not as frequent in Srinagar as
they used to be, but they still happen. Last month, 50
people were trapped in a government building in
Srinagar when militants attacked and set fire to it.
Four died. And it is not just militants that Kashmiris
have to worry about. Local human rights groups say the
Indian military and police have arrested thousands of
innocent civilians, and many have been tortured.
Innocent bystanders are often rounded up after
And the peace process is not all rosy, either. A few
weeks ago, India and Pakistan were accusing each other
of breaking the ceasefire and shelling across the Line
of Control. Now everything seems to have calmed down
again, but it was a reminder of how fragile the
ceasfire is. So why is India building a hugely
expensive cable car project in the midst of all this,
when tempting all but the most adventurous of skiers
back to Gulmarg is going to be difficult.
The answer may lie in the fact that, though India
likes to keep quiet about it, the cable car is not
really only about tourism. In fact, it has a dual
purpose. It's also for carrying soldiers up to the
Line of Control, high on the ridge over Gulmarg.
Gulmarg used to be one of the favourite crossing
points for militants slipping across from the
Pakistani side. Now the Indians have beefed up their
military presence, effectively closing off the route.
Part of how they have succeeded is another thing about
Gulmarg India does not make much noise about. It is
not only the country's best skiing resort, it is also
home to the Indian army's private ski school, an
advanced training centre for combat skiing. On both
sides of the Line of Control, the extreme weather
conditions have made soldiers on skis part of the
conflict. Gulmarg is caught in the middle, a ski
resort in a war zone.
That offers little comfort to Mr Mir and the people,
trying to eke a living from the handful of tourists
who pass through what should be a world-famous ski
resort. In many ways, that is the story of Kashmir. It
has the potential to be among the world's most popular
tourist resorts, but the famous houseboats of
Srinagar's Dal Lake are all empty.
So Pawan, the Sikh poet who also operates the cable
car at Gulmarg, is left to lament what has become of
his beloved Kashmir:
"High guns are also cast in their design
They both are high flyers with low profiles Misleading
the common simple man ...
I am left neither with an idea
Nor emotion to promote.
I am sailor of the cracked boat
Any time that can drown I do not know where I go
Then I feel Paradise Lost."
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