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War and piste on the frontline of the battle for Kashmir - Independent, UK

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  • Zafar Khan
    War and piste on the frontline of the battle for Kashmir The Himalayan scenery and virgin snow are not the only spectacular things about Gulmarg - it s also on
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 15, 2005
      War and piste on the frontline of the battle for
      Kashmir

      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

      http://news.independent.co.uk/world/asia/story.jsp?story=610868

      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
      world.

      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
      War battlefield.

      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
      Kashmir Valley.

      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
      really changed."

      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
      experience.

      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
      attacks.

      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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