The route to Gulmarg in Kashmir is lined with barbed wire, with armed soldiers keeping watch from their bunkers. The resort town is located just a few kilometres (miles) from the Pakistani border, the signs of conflict between India and Pakistan are everywhere, and security restrictions seem to be more stringent than ever.
And yet, Ahmed Dev, a 30-year-old local skier from Srinagar, says Gulmarg is his second home in the wintertime. Growing up during the peak years of the Kashmir conflict, Dev felt that the military's heavy presence had robbed him of enjoying the pristine mountains. Due to restrictions prompted by political unrest in 2019 and then the global pandemic, Dev was forced to stay indoors for nearly two years. As restrictions lifted, Dev turned to skiing as a way to find relief from lockdowns. He now participates in ski tournaments each year. He is eager to share his love for the sport that he credits with saving his life.
"For me skiing is a kind of therapy," Dev told DW. "As a child I always wanted to be part of the mountain slopes. These slopes were home to me and I always felt they belonged to us."
Skiing as a symbol of freedom
Other young Kashmiris are also embracing their love for skiing. Sabiya Nabi, a 24-year-old girl living in the Gulmarg village, says skiing for her means freedom.
"I faced my own set of challenges and hurdles in this male-dominated sport but my family supported me through it. Now skiing has given me independence and sense of freedom. I can't imagine and live without it anymore," she told DW. For many young women like Sabiya, skiing on snowy slopes, wearing sport clothing that does not conform to societal norms, and competing alongside boys is a liberating experience.
These Kashmiri skiers don't have the easiest of lives. Many of them have never known a time without soldiers patrolling their streets. Many struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder and other mental health issues. Some have resorted to drugs. After years of lockdowns imposed by the military and health officials, skiing has become a ray of hope.
'Things have changed' in Gulmarg
Western tourists have been skiing in Gulmarg for decades. Locals tended to watch from a distance. In recent years, however, intensive ski training programs organised by Kashmiri skiers have spurred interest among local children and youth, and they are now enthusiastically taking to the slopes.
Local ski guide Waseem Raja has been training both young Kashmiris and tourists for the last ten years. The choice of profession for Raja was not only a matter of money, but was also driven by his passion for the sport. Raja grew up watching his father as a ski guide. His father, an ex-militant, gave up arms to work as a ski guide and accompanied foreign tourists to ski destinations for many years. Now Waseem is following in his father's footsteps out of his own love for the mountains.
"Five years ago, it was only foreigners who would come to Kashmir and ski on these mountains. But now things have changed. We see young Kashmiri everywhere on these slopes and they are the ones who lead skiing in Gulmarg. Several locals have also set up adventure shops in this area," Waseem told DW.
Everyday Waseem takes new groups of skiers to the mountain slopes. After an hour of skiing, they rest in a mountain hut huddled around a wood stove. During the break, Waseem interacts with the young skiers and cautions them about potential risks, as some slopes have experienced heavy avalanches. The latest has left two Polish tourists dead.
Taking the sport beyond Kashmir
For many in the valley, Gulmarg in the winter has become the only place offering a respite from the decades-long conflict.
Kashmir's first winter Olympic Skier, Gul Mustafa Dev, wishes more young people would have joined the sport back in his day. During the 1990s, Mustafa and his friends could hardly convince anyone to take up skiing, and the athlete still remembers how tough it was to gain access to equipment and to train. He believes that the war in the valley discouraged and deprived many talented skiers from follow their passion. As things change in Gulmarg, the 59-year-old Olympian has high hopes for the next generation of athletes.
"My dream is to see more Kashmiris joining this sport and representing the Valley in Olympics," he told DW.
Edited by: Darko Janjevic