Extreme Skiing in Indian Kashmir
Laurie Bowles, a dreadlocked 24-year-old Englishman, clipped his boots to his snowboard and lunged from the roof of the world into a gaping couloir of ice, sugar and powder.
His 2,000-metre (6,600-foot) vertical descent to Gulmarg, a village in revolt-hit Indian-administered Kashmir, is what many ski devotees rank as among the best skiing on the planet. Just ignore the travel warnings.
From the world's highest gondola lift surrounded by some of the world's tallest peaks, there are icy steeps, acres of powder field and a maze of pine and fir trees -- with only a handful of skiers and the odd snow leopard for company.
"I've been to ski resorts all over the world, but here the lift-to-powder ratio is absolutely sublime," said Bowles, one of just a few hundred self-confessed ski bums and adventure tourists drawn to Kashmir this season.
"Anywhere else in the world you'd need to trek for hours or have loads of money for a helicopter.
"You're on top of the world here in the Himalayas. There's a freedom to break the rules and ride wherever you want. It's a place where I can be at one with the mountain."
Skiers and snowboarders have been converging on the village from all over the globe since the high-altitude lift at the state-run resort opened two years ago, looking to escape the crowds and prices of chic resorts in the West.
"I've come out with a budget of 450 dollars for three weeks. In Europe that would last just a few days," said Bowles, who, on 1,000 rupees (22 dollars) a day for food, lodging and lift passes, is "living simply but comfortably".
"It's a special place, low key and quiet. There's a uniqueness. The local people haven't had their spirits corrupted by corporate greed."
Extreme skiing, extreme tensions
But the arrival in Srinagar, Indian Kashmir's summer capital, serves as a stark reminder that all is not well in the Himalayan paradise.
Nervous Indian troops kitted out in full combat gear line the streets, fingers on the trigger. Pot shots and grenades lobbed at army convoys are a random but common danger for the bystander.
Since 1989, the idyllic Kashmir valley that Gulmarg overlooks has been wracked by a brutal battle between pro-Pakistan or pro-independence Muslim insurgents on one side and hundreds of thousands of Indian troops on the other.
Tens of thousands of people, a few foreign tourists among them, have lost their lives.
Militant attacks and grave human rights abuses by security forces continue, despite an easing of tensions between New Delhi and Islamabad in recent years.
As a result, most foreign governments say tourists should steer well clear of the entire area.
"Gulmarg used to be buzzing with tourists, but the travel advisories say don't go," said Fayaz Ahmad, general manager of the Jammu and Kashmir Tourism Development Corporation, one of the state bodies running the resort.
"But honestly, we cannot say Kashmir is any more dangerous than other Indian states. Tourists are not being targeted."
The official brushed off a recent grenade attack against Indian tourists on the road between Srinagar and Gulmarg that left several injured.
"There have only been stray incidents. Even the militants want tourists to come so that foreigners can see the situation," he said, adding that an Indian army high-altitude warfare school in Gulmarg means the resort itself is safe.
He also pointed out that the uncomfortably close Line of Control -- the heavily-militarised de facto border separating nuclear-armed India and Pakistan -- has been calm for the past few years.
"We were last hit by a (Pakistani) shell in 1999. Quite a long time ago," he said, smiling.
Conservation vs. development, free ride vs. safety
Locals in Gulmarg, which means "meadow of flowers," have high hopes that their village will one day rank alongside the world's top winter resorts.
The new gondola takes skiers to over 4,000 metres on Mount Apharwat, which overlooks Gulmarg. A clear day on the summit delivers views of five out of the 14 peaks in the world over 8,000 metres.
And there are plans to build more lifts over the next five years with a view to hosting the Commonwealth Winter Games in 2010.
At the moment, however, there is no doctor, hospital, banking facilities or Internet access -- and the officials who run the resort say they want to prevent the haphazard, runaway development that plagues other Indian getaways.
"One of the best things about Gulmarg is that nothing has been done. We don't want it mushrooming with big multi-storey constructions. It would be ruined," said tourism official Ahmad.
One of Gulmarg's few ski guides, Yasin Khan, said development needed to be limited to the absolute basics -- a few more lifts, medical facilities and better communications.
"Gulmarg cannot offer the kind of nightlife and fancy restaurants you have in Western ski resorts, but what we can offer is virgin snow, plenty of sun, no crowds and Kashmiri hospitality," said Yasin, who also runs the Kashmir Alpine Shop -- the only private ski rental facility.
The resort's managers also have the tricky task of balancing skier safety with its reputation as a top destination for big mountain 'freeride' -- or steering clear of machine-groomed slopes in a practice increasingly restricted in more developed resorts for legal and safety reasons.
February saw Gulmarg's first major accident involving a foreign tourist, when an Australian skier was killed in an avalanche below the gondola's top station.
"Essentially you're on your own up here. You have to know how to take care of yourself," said Sean McDonald, an instructor from Canada who witnessed the accident. "It's a place for someone who has done a lot of global skiing and wants to do something different."
And it is very different, McDonald said.
"The military presence is not something I'm used to. The altitude is challenging. The setting is fantastic. You have to be extra cautious -- because it's essentially lift-access off piste," said McDonald, whose company, Extremely Canadian, is one of several outfits bringing clients to Kashmir.
Olympian endorsement for the "wild west of skiing"
Steve Lee, an Australian alpine skier who has taken part in three Olympic Games and counts a World Cup gold in his trophy cabinet, said Gulmarg is a rare jewel among ski resorts.
"Gulmarg aligns itself with only a handful of resorts left around the world that offer a big mountain experience with decent lift access used by very few people and with very few rules," he told AFP.
"It offers a sense of freedom that is hard to find these days," said Lee, who skied in Kashmir last year.
What Gulmarg needs to do, he suggests, is capitalise on this image while improving basic infrastructure and mountain safety facilities, key to the booming market of ski adventure tourism.
"Its biggest shortcoming is the availability of true mountain guides" with avalanche and rescue training, added Lee, who now runs the online ski magazine Chillfactor.
"For most 'skiing tourists' as opposed to skiing adventurers, it would lack many facilities, like pubs, restaurants, dance bars, global communication and other entertainment, but if you are there to ski then it really has it all," he says.
"From my experiences while skiing all over the world, it is possibly the ultimate ski area for off-piste access. It really is the wild west of skiing."
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