After driving 30 miles from her house in Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, Khan reached a scrappy ski town tucked deep into the folds of the world’s highest mountain chain. And she was hardly alone: A steady stream of skiers, music blasting from their cars, were racing to make it to the slopes while the snow was still fresh. It felt like arriving at a carnival in the middle of a forest, she said.
“I wanted to throw away my mask and wear my skis,” said Khan, an avid downhill skier. “There was only one place on my mind: Gulmarg.”
Every year, Gulmarg, one of Asia’s largest and highest ski resorts, attracts thousands of skiers, drawn by perfect powder, cheap hotels, breathtaking views and the feeling of an island of peace inside an often restive territory.
The more experienced skiers prefer the resort’s wilder slopes, running miles through sunlit cedar trees. The luckiest skiers or the unluckiest ones, depending on how you feel about wildlife may run into a snow leopard or a brown bear on the way down. While other ski slopes around the world have suffered because of the coronavirus, Gulmarg is having one of its busiest seasons ever. By mid-March, the resort had already drawn 160,000 people, nearly 10 times more than last year and far more than any other season for at least three decades.
I was born a few miles north of Gulmarg and during my childhood in the early 1990s, I would trek miles with friends through knee-deep snow in long, black gumboots to watch foreign skiers, the vast majority of the visitors then, spill down slopes and race through the cedar trees. Back then, Gulmarg was both a glittering winter playground and a window to another, wider world. Every foreign tourist was known as an Angrez, an Urdu word often used for foreigners and we would line up in our pherans, heavy woollen cloaks, to watch them ski. We did not understand the language, but we liked watching them.
Eventually we pulled on skis of our own and chased each other through the milky white backdrops of the landscape.
These days, with India not accepting foreign tourists yet, more skiers are local. Among them are some of India’s wealthy whose winter escapes to Thailand or Dubai have also been thwarted by international travel restrictions.
But what is perhaps most striking about Gulmarg’s appeal now is that it lies squarely in Kashmir, a territory disputed by India and Pakistan and haunted by a long history of conflict. Separatist militants have long fought to break the territory away from India and either join Pakistan or become an independent state. But India isn’t letting go. It has deployed hundreds of thousands of troops, and in 2019, the Indian government stripped the Kashmir region of its autonomy, a move that left even those siding with India feeling betrayed, disillusioned and disenfranchised. -NYT