July 2004 News

Kashmir Skiing Within Range Of Artillery

20 July 2004

Gulmarg: Deep in the snow-capped, forested mountains of Kashmir, Indian and French workers are building a cable car hoping to lure skiers from around the world to sample pistes within range of Pakistani artillery. For many in the area, the ambitious project is a symbol of hope following a fragile ceasefire between India and Pakistan, which for decades have claimed what is one of the world's most beautiful regions. Once finished, the cable car system is expected to be one of the world's longest and highest. Its backers hope it will prove a major tourist draw for a Muslim-majority region once called the Switzerland of the East. 'The grass-covered, even slopes here are considered among the best in the world. But the lack of a cable way to reach the top did not allow skiers to use them fully,' said Farooq Ahmad Shah, head of the state-run Jammu and Kashmir State Cable Car Corp. 'We will attract lots of foreign skiers as it will cost a fourth of what it costs to ski in the Alps,' he said of the $8 million project, due to be completed by October - in good time for the next skiing season that opens in January. 'Last season, even before the project was completed, we had skiers from Scotland, England and Malaysia,' Shah told Reuters. His optimism is a far cry from the threat of war that hung over the region in 2002. Nuclear- armed India and Pakistan nearly fought a third war over Kashmir after an attack on India's parliament blamed on Kashmiri separatists. The neighbours have since pursued steps to improve ties and Pakistan has vowed to do all it can to stop militants crossing from its portion of Kashmir to the section controlled by India. REVOLT But India still faces a revolt against its rule in its part of Kashmir, about 45 percent of the region, where militants carry out daily attacks. Tens of thousands have died since the revolt took hold in the late 1980s, destroying Kashmir's once-booming tourism industry along with it. Shah is aware of the threat from militants but brims with enthusiasm when he points to dozens of six-seater cars rising from towering pine and coniferous forests. The cable car covers five km (three miles), reaching a height of 13,500 ft (4,000 metres). The project has been years in the making. Conceived in the mid-1980s, work on the cable car system, contracted to French firm PomaGlaski, began in 1987. The first leg was almost complete in 1989 when separatists launched their revolt against New Delhi, forcing the contractors to suspend work and return to France. They were persuaded to come back in 1998 to complete the first section. Work on the second, tougher leg began in June 2003. Gulmarg, a scenic tourist resort about 40 km (25 miles) east of Srinagar, Kashmir's summer capital, has never been targeted by the Muslim guerrillas operating in the region, said Shah. But there are plenty of reminders of the militants' threat. In the town, which is built around a 142-year-old golf course, policemen and soldiers carry semi- automatic weapons, and an anti-aircraft gun stands on the lush lawn of a military school. Locals say a Pakistan artillery shell landed in the heart of Gulmarg in the mid-1990s, the only time this had occurred. It fell in an unpopulated area and there were no casualties. India considers its part of Kashmir an integral part of its territory. Pakistan, which holds 30 percent of the region, seeks a U.N.-mandated plebiscite for Kashmiris to decide if they want to join India or Pakistan. INVESTMENT IN PEACE As the two countries make slow progress at talks to resolve the Kashmir dispute, the spin- offs are beginning to show. More tourists visited Gulmarg between April and June this year than in the entire fiscal year up to March 31, tourism authorities said. But they refused to give figures, saying it could attract the attention of militants. 'We had an unprecedented tourist season in May and June,' Chief Minister Mufti Mohammad Syed, the highest elected official of Indian Kashmir, told Reuters. 'Tourists coming here gives a livelihood to poor people who depend on the industry. And that helps people develop a stake in peace,' he said. Last month, militants killed five Indian tourists in a grenade attack on a hotel in another part of Kashmir. But a leading rebel group quickly reassured tourists they were not targets. Ghulam Ahmad Dar, a ski instructor in Gulmarg, is confident skiers will find it difficult to resist the low-cost attraction of the Himalayan slopes after the cable car is launched. 'Skiing in the Alps is very tough as it is very cold. Here you can ski in T- shirts,' Dar said. 'Moreover, you can ski for a whole day here for the cost of two cups of coffee in the Swiss Alps.'


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