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Ski respite for war weary Kashmiris

Skiier at Gulmarg
Skiing has become hugely popular in Indian-administered Kashmir

By Zahid Rafiq, Gulmarg, Indian-administered Kashmir

This winter, the attraction of the sun-washed snow slopes of Gulmarg in Indian-administered Kashmir has led many middle class people into shedding their pherans (traditional woollen gowns) and kangri (earthen fire pot hand warmers) for the thrill of winter sports.

On a wooden ramp inside the dimly lit ski shop in Gulmarg, Sabiha Nabi, 14, stomps the heels of her boots into her skis.

Her father, Ghulam Nabi, makes sure they fit properly.

"Papa, it is fine," she whispers looking over her shoulder. Sabiha is now ready to go.

Sabiha is not the only person preparing to descend.

There is a crowd outside the ski shop in Gulmarg where young girls and boys accompanied by their parents are all dressed for slaloming down the slopes.

SIXTY YEARS OF CONFLICT
Indian soldier in Srinagar
1947: India and Pakistan gain independence - fighting breaks out in Kashmir
1949: A ceasefire line agreed dividing Kashmir between India and Pakistan
1965: India and Pakistan fight a second war over Kashmir
1989: Anti-India separatist insurgency erupts in Kashmir
1999: India and Pakistan fight an undeclared war in mountains overlooking Kashmir
2008: State elections in Kashmir - after biggest anti-India protests for a decade
2009: New coalition state government faces stiff challenges in delivering better governance

For the first time, local Kashmiris outnumber foreign adventure tourists here. All are enjoying a welcome respite from the years of bloodshed that have meant recreational activities such as this have not been possible.

As Sabiha takes position for her first downhill run, she looks back, her eyes glinting.

"I want to represent Kashmir in the Olympics one day." Her father flaunts a proud smile. "She will make me and Kashmir proud one day," he says.

From five-year-old Samia Gul to 42-year-old Siraj Ahmad, everyone whizzes down the snow. It is an activity that is becoming increasingly popular - the slopes of Gulmarg have seldom been so busy.

"I came here last winter as well but I felt a bit shy to ski. Actually I was afraid that I would fall and everyone would laugh," says Irfan Shafi, a college student from Srinagar.

"But then I tried it this year. Of course I fell but no-one laughed at me. In fact, another skier pulled me up and I saw everyone giving tips to each other and I have learnt some basic controls in two days only. Skiing feels great now."

Ski courses

In Gulmarg, everything is painted with snow - its dazzling whiteness lines the streets, the pine branches, the wooden roofs and the mountains.

It's good to see that Kashmiri boys and girls have started to come here
Sara Abdullah

Gulmarg - 58 km (36 miles) from Srinagar - is not far from the Line of Control that separates Indian- and Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Several ski courses are being conducted by the state youth services and sports department.

Foreign skiers are holding free ski courses for local Kashmiri children.

"We usually enrol 60 students in a course but this year we have been forced to take 90 because of the huge number of applicants," says Nisar Wani, an instructor.

"We have rejected more applications than we have accepted this year. We were not expecting so many Kashmiri children to come forward."

The ski instructors now bemoan the lack of equipment and accommodation facilities for the increasing number of enthusiasts.

"There are not enough skis or slopes for the number of people who have started to come here," Nisar Wani says.

Momentum

It is hoped that the new chief minister of Indian-administered Kashmir, Omar Abdullah, may provide a lifeline.

"Omar learnt skiing here with us and he is a very good skier today. We are sure that he will make Gulmarg a place for professional skiing and provide more facilities to skiers," says Abdul Quyoom, another instructor.

Skier in Kashmir
Some of the slopes are for top skiers only

A few steps away, Mr Abdullah's sister, Sara, gets in position to tackle the slope.

"I love skiing and more so in Gulmarg. I come here often and it is good to see that Kashmiri boys and girls have started to come here," she says.

Ms Abdullah begins to ski. At first she is slow but soon she gains momentum, cutting arcs to the bottom of the slope where she finally joins other skiers, wearing colourful jackets, all waiting in the queue for their turn at the ski-lift.

There are famous slopes in Gulmarg - Shark Fins, G-4, Beta, Gujjar Hut and Sunshine Peak. They are definitely not for the faint hearted - only top skiers dare tackle them.

Even in the evening, when the ski shop and ski lift close, skiers continue their sport. As they clamber up the sharp slopes they chat to each other and form new friendships.

Around evening, it starts to snow again. "It is going to be beautiful to ski over the soft snow. I can't wait till tomorrow," Irfan says to a foreign skier walking beside him.

It's not often over the past few years that a Kashmiri has been able to say that with such confidence.

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