- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 26, 2003

GULMARG, India In the soft winter light of the Kashmir mountains, a truck loaded with bored-looking soldiers rumbles through the streets of the old colonial vacation town.
It passes the near-empty Hotel Kingsley and the military VIP lodge, ringed by guardhouses and machine-gun nests. It speeds by the Snowview Hotel, a wood-frame wreck just a strong breeze short of complete collapse.
Beyond the century-old stone chapel, an abandoned reminder of British rule with splintering stained-glass windows and graffiti celebrating that "Nasib Loves Rukhsar," about two dozen beginners make awkward turns on a gently sloping ski hill. No one on the truck looks up.
"A Heaven On Earth," proclaims a billboard, sandwiched between two heavily fortified military checkpoints, just outside the region's main airport.
In Kashmir, that may seem hard to believe. Thirteen years of separatist violence has shattered this once-idyllic mountainous state and killed tens of thousands.
But in the picturesque, often-empty resort town of Gulmarg, a stubborn tribe of skiers, businessmen and promoters has created a Kashmiri vision of a winter sports paradise.
This Alps of the war zone is the sort of place where virgin expanses of deep, white powder clash with heavily armed soldiers, where lift lines are nonexistent but the snowboarding teacher is an explosives expert, where hotels are comfortable and cheap, but tourists can sometimes be counted on one hand.
And, as Mohammed Ashraf will tell you, it's safe at least by the standards of a combat zone.
"It's not like there's a war going on here all the time," said Mr. Ashraf, director-general of tourism for the Indian state of Jammu-Kashmir, and perhaps the most relentlessly optimistic tourism official anywhere.
But a part-time war is enough to keep most visitors away from Kashmir, where tourism, once a thriving industry, has been devastated by the years of Muslim struggle to be part of Pakistan rather than India.
All this amid the astonishing beauty of the Kashmiri mountains, with villages full of friendly people and wood-frame houses that look more medieval Europe than the rest of India. Forests of 100-foot fir trees creep into the mountains around 9,000-foot-high Gulmarg, where a good winter means snow more than 10 feet deep and skiing until April.
"I've been to Colorado, New Zealand, France, Italy, Austria. This is the best place I've ever been," said Ido Neiger, 27, the snowboarding instructor, a former member of the Israeli armed forces and de-mining expert.
In better days, Kashmir was a tourist paradise, famed in summer for its trekking, trout fishing and Dal Lake, where guests stayed in luxurious hand-carved wooden houseboats. Gulmarg, founded during British rule as a refuge from India's savage summers, was a haven for golfers.
In winter, skiers flocked here. Thousands of Kashmiris, from chambermaids to ski instructors, worked in more than a dozen hotels.
While Gulmarg remains a popular weekend destination for Kashmiris in the summer, the town all but dies when the cold comes. These days, there may not be 100 winter employees.
"We've been waiting for tourists for 13 years," said Abdul Hamid Dar, a partner in the brightly painted Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, a shack jammed with skis, boots and snowboards.
Gulmarg may often look like a ghost town, with its closed restaurants and hotels in midcollapse, but those who have stayed believe in it desperately and have remained here out of love.
"I'm not thirsty for money," said Yasin Khan, Mr. Hamid's partner in the ski shop. "Here, I'm in heaven."
The town's troubles began in 1989, when accusations of rigged elections in Kashmir, the only Muslim-majority state in this largely Hindu country, set off a downward spiral of militancy and crackdown. Much of the state now resembles an armed camp, with soldiers standing guard along nearly every major road, and government buildings ringed by rows of barbed wire and sandbagged gun placements.
While attacks on tourists are rare, they can be bloody. In 1995, Islamic militants abducted six Western tourists: One escaped, four remain missing and one corpse was found, headless.
Violence, though, has seldom reached Gulmarg. With two military bases in the town, there is always plenty of security, and the militants are not believed to have much support among the villagers, who have suffered badly from the decimation of tourism.
So by Kashmir's standards, Gulmarg is a peaceful place.
Soldiers regularly pass through, but there are few armed patrols. On a recent visit, the blizzard of weaponry on display seemingly everywhere else in Kashmir was largely limited to the posse of bodyguards surrounding the state tourism minister, who had dropped in for a visit. The serene, forested hills above town make it hard to believe that attacks are regular occurrences just a few dozen miles away.
But it's not peaceful enough to bring the tourists back, or not many of them. While promoters say tourism has gone up slightly this season, business remains desperately slow.
Many of the 30-or-so tourists in Gulmarg during a recent visit were Indians skiing and snowboarding for free, or as part of government-subsidized packages. Foreigners are rare. Mr. Hamid estimated there are perhaps a half-dozen each week.
"We've got to get people to come back here," said Mr. Ashraf, who has been pushing tourism in Kashmir for 30 years, long before the insurgency erupted. He acknowledges the state's troubles, but insists tourists are safe or safe enough in today's world.
"If you wait for some fine day when all the guns disappear, it's not going to happen," Mr. Ashraf said.
But should tourists come? Some governments, including those of Britain, Germany and the United States, have a simple recommendation to their citizens about Kashmir: Don't go. Guidebooks offer the same advice.
Even the tourists are torn.
"This is a troubled area," said Peer Asif, a Kashmir native taking a weeklong snowboarding vacation. "If a tourist trip is well-organized, if security is taken care of, it's fine. But if not, it's hell."

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