RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:
Let's go now to Kashmir. That's a valley high in the Himalayas that's been the subject of conflict for generations just as it is now. The region is split between India and Pakistan. Separatists are fighting for independence. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers are stationed there. But most winters, when the valley fills with snow, the fighting subsides. And the area becomes a winter playground. Here's NPR's Lauren Frayer.
(SOUNDBITE OF HELICOPTER WHIRRING)
LAUERN FRAYER, BYLINE: A helicopter takes off near military barracks in one of the world's longest-running conflict zones. Artillery often rings out across these peaks.
BILLA MAJEED BAKSHI: It sounds like big blasts, and what else? (Laughter). We need to get air defense clearance.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: (Foreign language spoken).
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: OK, copy.
FRAYER: But Billa Bakshi's helicopter is not part of the conflict.
BAKSHI: My name Billa Majeed Bakshi, and I run Kashmir Heliski. We have clients from different parts of the world. We take people to 4,500 meter. And they enjoy it. And it's...
FRAYER: You heard that right. He choppers skiers more than 14,000 feet up into the Himalayas in Indian-administered Kashmir. Jimmy Hands from Toronto is snowboarding within view of Pakistani troops on the disputed border.
JIMMY HANDS: I think it's fantastic. I just wish we could get over their mountain ranges and shred with them, too. Look. Nothing brings peace like a little bit of snow. And everybody's been magical here, like, really. Like, it is magic.
FRAYER: The powder this high up may be magical, but it also avalanches a whole lot.
BRIAN NEWMAN: When I arrived here in 2007, 2008, we had none of the tools to deal with the problem.
FRAYER: Brian Newman, originally from Colorado, is the snow safety officer for Gulmarg, a Kashmiri government-run ski resort with two giant gondola lifts. He got explosives from the Indian military to blast off excess snow. He imposed rules requiring skiers to carry avalanche beacons, shovels and probes. And he learned the Kashmiri language.
How do you say, like, the conditions are epic today?
NEWMAN: (Laughter) (foreign language spoken).
FRAYER: Epic conditions draw a small but devoted group of foreign ski bums. But as India's middle class grows, domestic tourists are now coming. Nikita Kapoor is from tropical Kolkata, where it never snows.
NIKITA KAPOOR: It's almost like a different world. You're sort of like - you're cocooned in this little space between the sky and the snow. And I'm learning how to snowboard for the first time, so it's really exciting.
FRAYER: Tourism brings much-needed revenue to Kashmir, home to a decades-long separatist insurgency. There are violent protests. Authorities respond with curfews. Unemployment is triple that of the rest of India.
So what kind of jobs are there here?
ALTAF KHANDAY: Nothing. You know the guys who are going with the stones outside in the valleys? They are well-educated guys. They are busy in militancy now.
FRAYER: Because there's no other opportunities.
KHANDAY: Yeah, it's so sad.
FRAYER: That's my ski guide, Altaf Khanday. For him, becoming an expert skier was an economic decision. Working two months at Gulmarg, he can support seven members of his family all year.
Young men huddle around a wood stove in a mountain hut, listening to Indian pop music. Raja Wasim Khan was 15 when his father moved the family to the mountains.
RAJA WASIM KHAN: Actually, he was a terrorist. He fight for Kashmir. Five, six year, he went to jail. Then he start a new life, and he teach us snowboarding.
FRAYER: Raja says his father, a renowned Kashmiri militant known as the Tiger, wanted him and his brother to pour their energy into snowboarding rather than violence.
KHAN: Sometimes, if I'm so angry, I have to take my snowboard on my shoulder and go for a ride - make myself relax. Like, when you put your strips on and go for, like, powder run, it makes you like you are flying. You didn't think anything, I mean, just flying in the air.
FRAYER: Flying in the air, skimming through snow, distracted from Kashmir's conflict if only for two months a year. Lauren Frayer, NPR News in Gulmarg, Kashmir.
(SOUNDBITE OF BJOLLUKOR TONLISTARSKOLI REYKJANESBAEJAR'S "HOPPIPOLLA")