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Skiing in Himalayas Is ‘Like a Beautiful Dream,’ Despite Conflict and Coronavirus

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GULMARG, Kashmir — As a soft snowfall blanketed everything around her, Nihad Ashraf Khan, a college student who had been cooped up for months because of the pandemic, ran up to her attic and almost frantically grabbed for her skis, poles, boots and goggles — and headed immediately for the Himalayas.

After driving 30 miles from her house in Srinagar, Kashmir’s biggest city, Ms. 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 Ms. 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 woolen cloaks — to watch them ski. We did not understand the language they spoke, 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.

Across Kashmir, streets are full of Indian soldiers, reminiscent of the 1990s, when an insurgency erupted and India crushed the rebellion. One recent afternoon, Kashmiris were forced to stand in long lines, in the heart of Srinagar city, with their hands up, waiting to be frisked by soldiers, part of a security routine that residents say is humiliating.

Growing up here, the turmoil was often so bad that we couldn’t leave our homes, and in fact, until recently, I hadn’t been back to Gulmarg.

The resort, a few miles from the Line of Control that divides India and Pakistan in Kashmir, is surrounded on all sides by Indian forces, who maintain a tight control over the region. Visitors encounter policemen before entering Gulmarg, who search cars and scan passengers.

Still, this was the ski town of my youth, with a few changes. The government rental shop, once offered just a dozen low-grade skis. Now it has a wide choice of world-class equipment. And today you can ride a gondola running along the Apharwat Mountains, one of the highest cable cars in the world at 13,800 feet.

The resort supports 20,000 local residents and 40 hotels. This year, because of the spike in demand, hotel prices have skyrocketed. A double that used to go for $50 costs $200, and many skiers are packing into them, five to a room.

There are still some angrez around — foreigners who make the town their home during the ski season, which can last into April.

Brian Newman, a lanky skier from Colorado, is the head of Gulmarg’s ski patrol. His job includes instructing crews on where to place dynamite to trigger man-made avalanches to prevent natural ones.

“It’s not a world class resort,” Mr. Newman admitted. But, he said, “it is special” because of the wide open terrain and amazing vistas.

Each day, skiers of all abilities pile out of buses and battered Indian jeeps. They take their place at the cable car station where the parka-clad crowds inch forward on their skis, ready to be transported through the clouds to a ridgeline that looks out over the Kashmir Valley.

There are four bunny ski runs for beginners and one slope running for miles, reached only by a gondola. There is also sledding, and each morning legions of young Kashmiri men trudge up the slopes tugging their long wooden sleds. Chai-wallahs stand in clumps, pouring out steaming cups of tea for skiers taking a break in the iridescent sunshine.

On a bright morning a few weeks ago, Fanny Godara, a French businesswomen who runs a restaurant in the southern Indian city of Pondicherry with her Indian husband, watched her children learn parallel turns on a beginner’s slope.

Like every parent, she said, she had been worried about the well-being of her two children during lockdown. Amid canceled holidays and before an impending move back to France, her children jumped at the chance to learn to ski.

“There is something magical about this place,” Ms. Godara said. “You want to come back, again and again.”

Ms. Khan, the skier who rushed to get here at the first sign of snow, had been restless for months, hunkered down indoors, infections surging around her, friends and relatives falling sick.

Staying inside was becoming impossible, she said, and the snowflakes falling outside her window were an irresistible invitation.

Lockdown restrictions have gradually eased in India, and much of the economy has been operating normally the past few months. In Gulmarg, crowded with skiers and snow lovers, social distancing was aspirational at best.

But Ms. Khan, 23, who is studying biosciences, said she still felt safe. As she slid off the chair lift on the 11,500 foot Merry Shoulder peak, she said she had never seen so many other people on the slopes.

Before she plunged down, she looked over her shoulder at her friend Ishani Jamwal, another college student, and yelled out: “How does it look from here?”

“Like a beautiful dream,” Ms. Jamwal yelled back. “I don’t want to blink.”

Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from New Delhi.

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Belgian artist’s ‘portable oasis’ offers COVID protection — and fresh air

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When governments around Europe told people to create a “bubble” to limit their social contacts during the COVID-19 pandemic, this was probably not what they had in mind.

Alain Verschueren, a Belgian artist and social worker, has been strolling through the capital Brussels wearing a “portable oasis” – a plexiglass mini-greenhouse which rests on his shoulders, cocooning him in a bubble of air purified by the aromatic plants inside.

Verschueren, 61, developed the idea 15 years ago, inspired by the lush oases in Tunisia where he had previously worked. In a city where face coverings are mandatory to curb the spread of COVID-19, his invention has gained a new lease of life.

“It was about creating a bubble in which I could lock myself in, to cut myself off a world that I found too dull, too noisy or smelly,” Verschueren said, adding that he has asthma and finds breathing within his contraption more comfortable than wearing a facemask.

Alain Verschueren grabs attention from bystanders while wearing his "Portable Oasis" in Brussels, Belgium.
Alain Verschueren grabs attention from bystanders while wearing his “Portable Oasis” in Brussels, Belgium.
REUTERS/Yves Herman

“As time went by, I noticed that people were coming up to me and talking to me. This isolation became much more a way of connecting,” he said.

Onlookers in Brussels appeared amused and confused by the man wandering between the shops – mostly closed due to COVID-19 restrictions – encased in a pod of thyme, rosemary and lavender plants.

Alain Verschueren claims he finds breathing within his "Portable Oasis"  more comfortable than wearing a facemask due to his asthma.
Alain Verschueren claims he finds breathing within his “Portable Oasis” more comfortable than wearing a facemask due to his asthma.
REUTERS/Yves Herman

“Is it a greenhouse? Is it for the bees? Is it for the plants? We don’t know, but it’s a good idea,” Charlie Elkiess, a retired jeweller, told Reuters.

Verschueren said he hoped to encourage people to take better care of the environment, to reduce the need to protect ourselves from air and noise pollution.

Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his "Portable Oasis" while walking in a street in Brussels, Belgium on April 16, 2021.
Belgian artist Alain Verschueren wears his “Portable Oasis” while walking in a street in Brussels, Belgium on April 16, 2021.

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Chad’s longtime president Idriss Déby dies after fight against rebels

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President Idriss Déby died from wounds suffered on the battlefield during a fight against rebels.

Chad President Idriss Déby — who ruled the central African country for over 30 years — died Tuesday of wounds suffered on the battlefield during a fight against rebels, the military announced.

The stunning announcement on national media came just hours after officials had declared the 68-year-old the winner of the April 11 election, paving the way for him to stay in power for six more years.

The military said Déby had taken “the heroic lead in combat operations against terrorists who had come from Libya.”

After being wounded in battle, he then was taken to the capital, Gen. Azem Bermandoa Agouma said.

“In the face of this worrying situation, the people of Chad must show their attachment to peace, to stability and to national cohesion,” Agouma said.

Chad President Idriss Deby
A supporter carries a picture of Chad President Idriss Deby during a Peace Process rally in Darfur.
REUTERS

An 18-month transitional council will be led by the late president’s 37-year-old son, Mahamat Idriss Déby Itno, the military said, as it imposed a nightly 6 p.m. curfew.

Déby, a former army commander-in-chief, first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre, who was later convicted of human rights abuses.

Chadian President Idriss Deby inspects a seized rebel technical in Adre, Chad.
Chadian President Idriss Deby inspects a seized rebel technical in Adre, Chad.
AFP via Getty Images

He had survived several armed rebellions over the years and managed to stay in power until this latest insurgency led by a group calling itself the Front for Change and Concord in Chad.

The rebels are believed to have armed and trained in Libya before crossing into Chad on April 11.

President of Chad Idriss Deby
Deby first came to power in 1990 when his rebel forces overthrew then-President Hissene Habre.
EPA

Déby was a major French ally in the fight against Islamic extremism in Africa, hosting the base for the French military Operation Barkhane and providing forces to the peacekeeping effort in Mali.

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Big rise in numbers of migrant children on Mexico-US border

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The American space agency has successfully flown a small helicopter on Mars.

The drone, called Ingenuity, was airborne for less than a minute, but Nasa is celebrating what represents the first powered, controlled flight by an aircraft on another world.

Confirmation came via a satellite at Mars which relayed the chopper’s data back to Earth.

The space agency is promising more adventurous flights in the days ahead.

Ingenuity will be commanded to fly higher and further as engineers seek to test the limits of the technology.

The rotorcraft was carried to Mars in the belly of Nasa’s Perseverance Rover, which touched down in Jezero Crater on the Red Planet in February.

Graphic

“We can now say that human beings have flown a rotorcraft on another planet,” said a delighted MiMi Aung, project manager for Ingenuity at Nasa’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California.

“We’ve been talking for so long about our ‘Wright Brothers moment’ on Mars, and here it is.”

This is a reference to Wilbur and Orville Wright who conducted the first powered, controlled aircraft flight here on Earth in 1903.

Ingenuity even carries a small swatch of fabric from one of the wings of Flyer 1, the aircraft that made that historic flight at Kitty Hawk, North Carolina, more than 117 years ago.

Shadowimage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH
image captionThe chopper saw its own shadow in its navigation images
Navigation photoimage copyrightNASA/JPL-CALTECH
image captionThis navigation image was acquired with the chopper’s feet just off the surface

There were cheers in the JPL control centre as the first photos of the flight arrived back on Earth. In the background, MiMi Aung could be heard saying: “It’s real!”

To claps from her colleagues, she tore up the contingency speech to have been used in the event of failure.

media captionMoment Nasa reacts to successful Ingenuity flight

The demonstration saw the Mars-copter rise to just over 3m, hover, swivel 96 degrees, hover some more, and then set down. In all, it managed almost 40 seconds of flight, from take-off to landing.

Getting airborne on the Red Planet is not easy. The atmosphere is very thin, just 1% of the density here at Earth. This gives the blades on a rotorcraft very little to bite into to gain lift.

There’s help from the lower gravity at Mars, but still – it takes a lot of work to get up off the ground.

media captionHow this Nasa helicopter made history on Mars

Ingenuity was therefore made extremely light and given the power (a peak power of 350 watts) to turn those blades extremely fast – at over 2,500 revolutions per minute for this particular flight.

Control was autonomous. The distance to Mars – currently just under 300 million km – means radio signals take minutes to traverse the intervening space. Flying by joystick is simply out of the question.

Asked whether she was surprised the flight had worked, MiMi Aung said: “No, I’m not. We really had nailed the equations, the models and the verification here on Earth in our laboratory tests. So, it then became a question of: have we chosen the right materials to build Ingenuity, to survive the space environment, to survive the Mars environment?

“We’ve gone from ‘theory says you can’ to really now having done it. It’s a major first for the human race,” she told BBC News.

Ingenuity has two cameras onboard. A black-and-white camera that points down to the ground, which is used for navigation, and a high-resolution colour camera that looks out to the horizon.

Sample navigation images sent back to Earth revealed the helicopter’s shadow on the floor of the crater as it came back in to land.

The Perseverance rover was watching and snapping away from a distance of 65m. Its full-sequence video can be seen at the top of this page.

Selfie of helicopter and roverimage copyrightNasa
image captionA selfie of the Ingenuity helicopter and the Perseverance rover

Nasa has announced that the “airstrip” in Jezero where Perseverance dropped off Ingenuity for its demonstration will henceforth be known as the “Wright Brothers Field”.

The International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO) – the United Nations’ civil aviation agency – has also presented Nasa and the US Federal Aviation Administration with an official ICAO designator: IGY.

“India Golf Yankee, with the call sign ‘Ingenuity’, and those details will be officially included in the next edition of ICAO’s designators for aircraft, operating agencies, aeronautical authorities and services,” explained Håvard Grip, the Mars helicopter’s chief pilot at JPL.

Monday’s successful maiden outing means that a further four flights will be attempted over the coming days, with the first of these occurring as early as Thursday. Each succeeding flight will build on what has gone before.

“What we’re talking about here is going higher, going further, going faster, stretching the capabilities of the helicopter in those ways,” Dr Grip explained.

“We’re putting the pedal down and going for it,” added Dr Thomas Zurbuchen, the head of science at Nasa.

Wright Brothers
image captionThe Wright Brothers’ first successful flight lasted 12 seconds

The hope is this initial demonstration could eventually transform how we explore some distant worlds.

Drones might be used to scout ahead for future rovers, and even astronauts once they eventually get to Mars.

Michael Watkins, JPL director, said: “What the Ingenuity team has done is given us the third dimension; they’ve freed us from the surface now forever in planetary exploration, so that we can now make a combination of driving on the surface and sampling the surface, doing reconnaissance, and even scientific experimentation on inaccessible places for a rover. This is exactly the way we build the future.”

Bob Balaram, Ingenuity’s chief engineer, said ideas for larger helicopters were already being discussed.

“We are thinking of things in the 25-30kg class of vehicles, and those vehicles would carry maybe about 4kg of science instruments,” he told reporters.

Nasa has already approved a helicopter mission to Titan, the big moon of Saturn. Dragonfly, as the mission is known, should arrive at Titan in the mid-2030s. It will be easier to fly on this moon given its very thick atmosphere.

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