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Kashmiri Extremism

Features
posted: 08/20/2003

It's 4:00 a.m., and outside the fog-shrouded windows of the kashmir Alpine Ski Shop, the Indian village of Gulmarg sleeps in the shadow of a 13,576-foot ridge that looks directly into Pakistan. The door opens and Hamid blows in with a blast of cold night air, grabbing a seat near a tiny charcoal brazier that is the shop's only source of heat. At the table is Hamid's friend and business partner, Yaseen, surrounded by a pile of gear that looks like a cross between a vintage skiswap and a United Nations garage sale: some battered Völkl Tour Extremes given to them in 1983 by a New Zealand trekker; worn Dynastar boots donated by a German climber in 1989; goggles, gloves, and gaiters left by guests from Europe, Asia, and the Middle East; and some safety straps I'll apparently be using, which Yaseen is now jury-rigging from a roll of frayed Bengali baling twine. While I woof down toast and tea, Yaseen and Hamid exchange a remark in Kashmiri, which is followed by a rueful chuckle. I ask what they're talking about.

"We are just remembering," Yaseen explains. "In the days before the fighting came to Kashmir, we used to start out all the time like this, at three or four in the morning. We are reminding each other how many foreigners used to come here from all over the world. Australia, America, Denmark, Switzerland, Brazil, Hong Kong, Sweden, Japan, France, Norway…"

"Dutch," adds Hamid, helpfully.

"Yes, Holland too."

Yaseen glances at the disused skis stacked against the table, the snowboards languishing in the shelves on the back wall. "But look around. Now there's nobody." He sighs and reaches for the nozzle of his hookah—a Turkish-style tobacco pipe sometimes used for smoking hashish. I don't know what's in the hookah this morning, but Yaseen draws a deep, satisfying inhalation that burbles flatulently through the water in the bong, then emits a string of wet, hacking coughs. "This war has made me old," he declares, casting a hard look at his watch.

Time to go. We clomp into the milky starlight, throw our skis over our shoulders, and begin a predawn, 4,592-foot climb through the snow-draped forests to the alpine heights above Gulmarg, gateway to the finest war-zone skiing on earth.

Cupped in a meadow high above the Kashmir Valley, Gulmarg is dotted with small tin-roofed homes, tiny tea stalls, and elaborately carved wooden hotels, several of which have been abandoned by their owners and are now being remodeled by the winter wind. The village is a "hill station," a mountain sanctuary where India's colonial rulers used to flee in order to escape the choking heat of the plains below. In the 19th century, British army officers and civil servants spent their summer vacations up here cavorting on the highest golf course in the world, while in winter they hired ponies to haul their wooden skis to the top of the beginners' runs (which are now served by a handful of modest lifts). More recently, Gulmarg has emerged as a honeymooners' haven, a place where besotted Indian newlyweds come to gaze at the mountains, fling snow at one another, and pay to get dragged through the slushy streets on blocky, wooden sleds pulled by underworked porters.

All this is charming, to be sure—but it's the three-mile ridgeline above Gulmarg that induced me to fly ten thousand miles to get here; that, and the fact that Himalayan snow typically falls in the form of dust-light powder. Beneath the northeast-facing ridge, the terrain consists of 35-degree rollovers that merge onto open slopes comparable to the Back Bowls at Vail. The bottom section flows through forests of widely spaced, 100-foot fir trees whose branches resound with the chatter of monkeys. The forest floor is laced with the tracks of leopard, deer, and black bear. Surrounding the village is nearly 10 square miles of skiable terrain that would rival some of the largest resorts in North America and Europe—that is, if Gulmarg actually had a lift to the top. The 10-square mile figure, hover, applies just to the ridge above Gulmarg. To the southeast lies an adjacent 15,500-foot massif called Sunrise Peak, while between Gulmarg and the valley floor, an additional 2,000 feet of vertical drops steeply through yet another forest of conifers. This more than doubles the skiable area and makes Gulmarg perhaps the greatest untapped big-mountain resort in the world. The operative word here, of course, is "untapped," because Gulmarg also happens to sit in the middle of the most intractable military standoff in Asia. Just getting here from Kashmir's capital city of Srinagar requires a two-hour drive into the mountains that runs a gauntlet of soldiers and machine-gun emplacements.

The origins of the conflict date back to 1947, when, in a process referred to as Partition, Britain divided its South Asian empire into two new nations: the Hindu-majority republic of India and the Islamic state of Pakistan. Partition's upheavals produced one of the largest migrations of refugees in history—some 10 million people—and the slaughter of nearly one million Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims. Another casualty was the princely state of Jammu & Kashmir in the mountainous north, which had a Muslim-majority population ruled by a Hindu maharaja. Two months after Partition, Pakistan invaded Kashmir. India—at Kashmir's request—then airlifted in Sikh troops to meet them. When the fighting ended 14 months later, India controlled two-thirds of the state and Pakistan ruled the rest. The de facto border was the military ceasefire line, which started near the Indian city of Jammu and cut a diagonal, northeastward swath toward China. Along the way, it skirted the edge of the ridgeline just above Gulmarg.

This border was dubbed the "Line of Control," a term that revealed wishful thinking on both sides: In 1965 and again in 1971, India and Pakistan fought two more wars in Kashmir (both of which Pakistan lost). It wasn't until the mid 1980s that Delhi and Islamabad finally began taking tentative steps to iron out their problems. The prospect of peace encouraged tourists, and by 1988, 600,000 Indians and 60,000 foreigners were pouring into Kashmir annually. This, in turn, inspired Kashmir's state government to begin building a gondola at Gulmarg in the hopes of transforming the place into a world-class ski resort. It was a heady time when people voiced serious speculation about Gulmarg making a bid to host the Asian Winter Games and, eventually, the Winter Olympics.One person who took particular interest in all this was a man named Mohmad Yaseen Khan.

Yaseen, 48, grew up in a small village just below Gulmarg that is surrounded by apple and cherry orchards. His skin is leathery, his hands are impervious to cold, and he looks a bit like Paul Newman, if you can imagine Paul Newman addicted to smoking a hookah and missing two-thirds of his teeth. Having spent the winters of his boyhood working at the resort, Yaseen had dreamed for years of owning his own ski-industry enterprise but was hampered by the fact that he had never learned to read or write. Then in the spring of 1989, he decided to partner up with Abdul Hamid Dar, 35, a friend who possessed enough education to help manage the business, and whose family owns land in Gulmarg. Hamid has a soft voice that is offset by an impressive black mustache that seems to bristle when he negotiates ski and snowboard rental fees.

Together, the two Muslim men bought a tiny studio near the center of Gulmarg and opened the resort's first privately owned rental shop and guide service. The Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop doubled as their living quarters; there was no toilet and they had to bathe at a friend's house. Their rental stock consisted of two sets of skis and two pairs of boots purchased from some cash-strapped Austrian tourists, which they leased for $5 a day. Two months after their grand opening, Kashmir's latest war broke out—a civil conflict that pitted more than 60 Islamic guerrilla groups against half a million Indian troops. In the ensuing mayhem, which consumed newspaper headlines all over the world, and which continues to this day, more than 36,000 Kashmiris have been kidnapped or killed. During the mid 1990s, the guerrillas also began targeting foreign visitors. In July 1995, six trekkers were taken hostage. One American escaped, but a 27-year-old Norwegian named Hans Christian Ostro was decapitated. The rest were never found.

High in the mountains, Gulmarg remained relatively untouched, but down in Srinagar, hotels were surrounded by barbed wire and virtually every street corner was guarded by Indian soldiers in sandbagged gun emplacements. Tourist numbers plummeted by 98 percent, Gulmarg's dozen-odd hotels were all but abandoned, and construction of the gondola, which could now transport visitors 1,320 vertical feet to a terminal halfway up the mountain, came to a halt. Then, on the night of March 17, 1999, an electrical fire started in the shop adjacent to Yaseen and Hamid's store, and in 20 minutes their entire business burned to the ground. They lost their skis, their equipment, and all their personal belongings. Not even Yaseen's socks were spared. "That was my biggest bad day," he recalls. "We had no money, and we had no resources."

A month later, about 100 miles east of Gulmarg, more than 800 Pakistan-supported militants launched a surprise attack across the Line of Control and started shelling Indian army posts. By mid summer, each country was threatening to use nuclear weapons to wipe its rival off the face of the planet, provoking Bill Clinton to declare Kashmir "the most dangerous place on earth." At the time, the comment seemed to mark the final phase of Kashmir's excruciating slide from paradise-on-earth to living hell. In fact, though, Clinton's words evoked a violent paradox that has plagued Kashmir for centuries, and that is illustrated most chillingly by an incident that took place more than 1,400 years ago in the same mountains that encircle Gulmarg.

The story is about an elephant belonging to a Hun warlord whose army was invading Kashmir via a pass high in the Pir Panjal range. Somewhere in the middle of the pass, the elephant lost its footing, stumbled off the path, and trumpeted in plaintive horror as it plunged to its death. Finding himself stimulated by the otherworldly shriek, the warlord immediately ordered that a second, then a third, and eventually 100 elephants be pushed over the precipice, so that he might savor the exquisite sound of their terror. The point of this story is that in Kashmir, beauty is gratuitous—but so, too, are cruelty and pain.

In the spring of 1999, the weight of this truth bore down crushingly on the owners of the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop as they confronted bankruptcy and ruin. It was at this point, however, with a few dozen foreign skiers showing up over the course of a season and the lifts running only intermittently, that fate decided to cut these two beleaguered Muslim ski guides a break and dispatched an unusual emissary to lend them a hand. He arrived in the winter of 2000, a hash-smoking ex-commando from Israel, whose apparent mission was to become the Jewish snowboarding messiah of Kashmir.

Ido Neiger was raised just south of the Sea of Galilee and learned to snowboard at Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Israel, where a tiny ski resort looks into Syria and the slopes are occasionally shelled by Hezbollah. In 1994, Ido (pronounced EE-doe) was drafted into the Israeli Army, earning a spot in an elite commando squad which ran demolition operations that included blowing up the homes and buildings of suspected Islamic terrorists in southern Lebanon.For the past six years, Ido, 28, has traveled almost constantly, earning money working for land-mine-defusing projects run by the United Nations, and snowboarding in New Zealand, Slovenia, the Dolomites, and Breckenridge. When he's not riding his Air Burton or unscrewing the detonators on tank-busting land mines withn Indian troops. In the ensuing mayhem, which consumed newspaper headlines all over the world, and which continues to this day, more than 36,000 Kashmiris have been kidnapped or killed. During the mid 1990s, the guerrillas also began targeting foreign visitors. In July 1995, six trekkers were taken hostage. One American escaped, but a 27-year-old Norwegian named Hans Christian Ostro was decapitated. The rest were never found.

High in the mountains, Gulmarg remained relatively untouched, but down in Srinagar, hotels were surrounded by barbed wire and virtually every street corner was guarded by Indian soldiers in sandbagged gun emplacements. Tourist numbers plummeted by 98 percent, Gulmarg's dozen-odd hotels were all but abandoned, and construction of the gondola, which could now transport visitors 1,320 vertical feet to a terminal halfway up the mountain, came to a halt. Then, on the night of March 17, 1999, an electrical fire started in the shop adjacent to Yaseen and Hamid's store, and in 20 minutes their entire business burned to the ground. They lost their skis, their equipment, and all their personal belongings. Not even Yaseen's socks were spared. "That was my biggest bad day," he recalls. "We had no money, and we had no resources."

A month later, about 100 miles east of Gulmarg, more than 800 Pakistan-supported militants launched a surprise attack across the Line of Control and started shelling Indian army posts. By mid summer, each country was threatening to use nuclear weapons to wipe its rival off the face of the planet, provoking Bill Clinton to declare Kashmir "the most dangerous place on earth." At the time, the comment seemed to mark the final phase of Kashmir's excruciating slide from paradise-on-earth to living hell. In fact, though, Clinton's words evoked a violent paradox that has plagued Kashmir for centuries, and that is illustrated most chillingly by an incident that took place more than 1,400 years ago in the same mountains that encircle Gulmarg.

The story is about an elephant belonging to a Hun warlord whose army was invading Kashmir via a pass high in the Pir Panjal range. Somewhere in the middle of the pass, the elephant lost its footing, stumbled off the path, and trumpeted in plaintive horror as it plunged to its death. Finding himself stimulated by the otherworldly shriek, the warlord immediately ordered that a second, then a third, and eventually 100 elephants be pushed over the precipice, so that he might savor the exquisite sound of their terror. The point of this story is that in Kashmir, beauty is gratuitous—but so, too, are cruelty and pain.

In the spring of 1999, the weight of this truth bore down crushingly on the owners of the Kashmir Alpine Ski Shop as they confronted bankruptcy and ruin. It was at this point, however, with a few dozen foreign skiers showing up over the course of a season and the lifts running only intermittently, that fate decided to cut these two beleaguered Muslim ski guides a break and dispatched an unusual emissary to lend them a hand. He arrived in the winter of 2000, a hash-smoking ex-commando from Israel, whose apparent mission was to become the Jewish snowboarding messiah of Kashmir.

Ido Neiger was raised just south of the Sea of Galilee and learned to snowboard at Mount Hermon, the highest peak in Israel, where a tiny ski resort looks into Syria and the slopes are occasionally shelled by Hezbollah. In 1994, Ido (pronounced EE-doe) was drafted into the Israeli Army, earning a spot in an elite commando squad which ran demolition operations that included blowing up the homes and buildings of suspected Islamic terrorists in southern Lebanon.For the past six years, Ido, 28, has traveled almost constantly, earning money working for land-mine-defusing projects run by the United Nations, and snowboarding in New Zealand, Slovenia, the Dolomites, and Breckenridge. When he's not riding his Air Burton or unscrewing the detonators on tank-busting land mines with his Leatherman, he can often be found attending full-moon backpacker raves in places like Australia or Thailand, where he dances to trance music and consumes prodigious amounts of psychotropic drugs.

In February 2000, Ido's quest for untracked powder took him to Gulmarg, where he met Yaseen and Hamid and decided to stay for the winter, bunking down in the attic above their rebuilt ski shop. He was maddened by Gulmarg's many problems, which included a lack of well-maintained slopes (Gulmarg does not even publish a trail map) and the fact that the gondola—which, thanks to rampant Indian nepotism, has 150 people working for it—can't manage to open up at the same time every morning. Ido also understood, though, that such glitches were, in a backhanded way, part of the charm of a place where a one-day lift ticket costs five dollars. "Because there are virtually no skiers here, you feel like you have your own private resort," he said. "It doesn't even matter what time you wake up in the morning—you will always have the first run, and you will always have the fresh snow. Plus it costs only 15 dollars a day to ski, survive, and smoke the best hash on earth. Tell me where else you can get away with that?"

When he left in March, 2001, promising to return, Yaseen and Hamid weren't sure they'd ever see Ido again—a suspicion that grew stronger when they didn't hear from the guy for nearly two years. Unbeknownst to them, however, Ido was working on a bold plan.

First, he got a lucrative mine-defusing job in Croatia that enabled him to save more than $5,000. With the extra cash, he started buying up used snowboarding gear, eventually amassing 14 boards, 17 pairs of boots, and 16 pairs of bindings, as well as a formidable stash of wax, goggles, gloves, and P-tex, plus an old laundry iron. He assembled everything in Tel Aviv, bundled it into a 500-pound package, then sweet-talked Royal Jordanian Airlines into flying the whole thing to India for free. After landing in Delhi early last January, he rammed the shipment through customs with the aid of a few bribes, rented a jeep, and hauled the gear 600 miles up to Gulmarg. He appeared at the door of the ski shop with no warning, dumped his gift at the feet of a flabbergasted Yaseen and Hamid, and told them that it was time to get down to some serious business.

Meanwhile, the government of Kashmir, apparently infected with the same viral strain of rabid optimism that is driving the Kashmiri Alpine Ski Shop, decided to restart construction of the final phase of the lift. When the cableway is complete—supposedly in November—Gulmarg will boast the third-highest gondola (12,990 feet) in the world.

The fact that this is all taking place in an active combat zone, and would thus seem to qualify as the most asinine business venture in the history of industrialized snow sports, doesn't appear to have had the slightest effect on anyone. I spent four days in gulmarg, and never quite managed to escape the feeling that I'd blundered into a place that has been cruelly—and perhaps irrevocably—screwed up. The war is now in its 14th year, which means that the resort long ago slipped off the radar of the international adventure-travel set. Yet nearly everyone connected with Gulmarg clings ferociously to an irrational mixture of hope and denial. "The government is not giving proper information to foreign tourists," groused Hamid one afternoon as we walked down the road. "Here there are no guns. Here there is no danger." He seemed oblivious to the fact that he was making these remarks within direct sight of a heavily armed Indian military convoy. "See our mountains—so much potential!" Yaseen exclaimed during a backcountry climb the next day. "You can ski anywhere you like." Fifteen minutes later, we were kicked off our traverse by a platoon from India's High Altitude Warfare School, which was training for winter combat along the Line of Control.

On my final day, as I was preparing to write Yaseen, Hamid,

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