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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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Brussels Police Disperse April Fool’s Music Festival Crowd

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The police used water cannons and pepper spray to disperse a crowd of hundreds that had gathered in a park for a hoax April Fool’s Day music festival on Thursday, defying Covid-19 restrictions.

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Amber is a sports enthusiast who loves indulging in occasional football matches. She is a passionate journalist who flaunts a perfect hold over the English language. She currently caters his skills for the sports section of PoliticSay.



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Alabama to Open Vaccination to People 16 and Older

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“I ask, I plead with you, don’t give up the progress we have all fought so hard to achieve,” Mr. Biden said at the White House.

Alabama’s current set of restrictions, including a requirement to wear masks in public, expires on April 9, adding tension to a continuing battle between governors anxious to get their states open again, and the C.D.C. and Biden administration who continue to ask for patience. Several states have already dropped mask mandates.

“Please, this is not politics — reinstate the mandate,” Mr. Biden said Monday about the easing of restrictions nationwide, adding, “The failure to take this virus seriously is precisely what got us into this mess in the first place.”

Almost three million people are being vaccinated across the country per day, according to the seven-day average released by the C.D.C. on Friday. But only about 25 percent of Alabama’s total population has received one shot of a vaccine, below the national average of 31 percent, according to the agency.

Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi are tied as the states with the smallest percentage of people who have received at least one shot.



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As U.S. Shots Near 3 Million Daily, Experts Warn of Complacency

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As President Biden enters the homestretch of his first 100 days in office, the general declines in new virus cases, deaths and hospitalizations since January offer signs of hope for a weary nation.

But the average number of new cases has risen 19 percent over the past two weeks, and federal health officials say that complacency about the coronavirus could bring on another severe wave of infections.

“We have so much to look forward to, so much promise and potential of where we are, and so much reason for hope,” Dr. Rochelle Walensky, the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, said in an emotional plea to Americans this week. “But right now I’m scared.”

On the positive side, nearly a third of the people in the United States have received at least one dose of a coronavirus vaccine. As of early Saturday morning, nearly three million people on average were receiving a shot every day, up from about two million in early March.

The rising vaccination rate has prompted some state officials to accelerate their rollout schedules. This week, Gov. Ned Lamont of Connecticut expanded access to people 16 and older, several days ahead of schedule. And Gov. Jared Polis of Colorado opened universal eligibility about two weeks earlier than planned.

“No more having to sort out if you’re in or if you’re out,” said Julie Willems Van Dijk, the deputy secretary of the Department of Health Services in Wisconsin, where anyone 16 or older will be eligible for a vaccine as of Monday. “It’s time to just move forward and get everybody with a shot in their arm.”

In another promising development, federal health officials said on Friday that Americans who are fully vaccinated against the coronavirus can travel “at low risk to themselves” within the United States and abroad.

But these days, most signs of hope are offset by peril.

Over the past week, there has been an average of 64,730 cases per day, an increase of 19 percent from two weeks earlier, according to a New York Times database. New deaths on average have declined, but they are still hovering around 900 a day. More than 960 were reported on Friday alone.

The C.D.C. predicted this week that the number of new Covid-19 cases per week in the United States would “remain stable or have an uncertain trend” over the next four weeks, and that weekly case numbers could be as high as about 700,000 even in late April.

Cases are already increasing significantly in many states, particularly in the Midwest and Northeast, as variants spread and some governors relax mask mandates and other restrictions. Dr. Walensky said this week that if states and cities continued to loosen public health restrictions, the nation could face a potential fourth wave.

Michigan, one of the worst-hit states, is reporting nearly 6,000 cases a day — up from about 1,000 a day in late February — even though half of its residents over 65 are now fully vaccinated.

And in Ohio, Gov. Mike DeWine said that new variants were aggravating the state’s caseload, even as vaccinations picked up.

“We have to understand that we are in a battle,” he said.

As if to underscore how fragile the nation’s recovery is, a quintessential American ritual — the start of the baseball season — has already faced a virus-related delay.

Major League Baseball officials said on Friday that the league had found only five positive cases in more than 14,000 tests of league personnel. But because four of those people were Washington Nationals players, the team’s Opening Day game against the New York Mets was postponed, and then the team’s full three-game weekend series.

“It’s one of those things that brings it to light that we’re not through it yet,” Brian Snitker, the Atlanta Braves manager, told The Associated Press. “We’re still fighting this.”

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