We stood at the highest point of Khandyaal. With Habba Khatoon standing tall as mighty guardian in backdrop and river Kishenganga outlining the LOC, the entire valley looked breathtakingly beautiful surrounded by a thicket of poplars and pine.
Far away, on top of the farthest mountain, I could see an army check post. I couldn’t help but kept gazing in that direction. “That’s Pakistan” said Saleem, who accompanied me on my trek to a hidden waterfall that only the locals knew of.
123 kilometers north of Srinagar, lies Gurez, the ancient land of Dard-Shina tribe and, undoubtedly the most beautiful part of Kashmir Valley. I was on my maiden trip to Kashmir and, this, is my version of Kashmir.
THE JOURNEY – REACHING GUREZ
I had landed into Srinagar late evening and was scheduled to leave for Gurez the next morning. My homestay owner in Srinagar had mentioned about an encounter between the army and ultras in Bandipora (transit point between Srinagar and Gurez) two days before my arrival and that, chances of me witnessing unfortunate situations in Bandipora were over the odds. He also assured me that I would still be safe.
How I fared during my transit from Bandipora to Gurez is a story for another time. Just that, I did manage to keep my calm when deep down I was shit scared. For now, let me not digress.
The 6-hour journey from Srinagar to Gurez is two-fold. Srinagar to Bandipora (1.5hrs) and Bandipora to Gurez (4.5hrs). There are no direct cabs (shared) from Srinagar to Gurez. You get shared cabs to Bandipora from Batmaloo in Srinagar (cost- INR 120). From Bandipora, the shared cabs to Gurez (to both Dawar and Bagtore) are aplenty (cost- INR 330).
In case you are a person who is not very keen on traveling by public transport, you may hire a direct cab from Srinagar to Gurez, which would cost you around INR 4000 one way. The rates are pretty much fixed by the tourism office and hence, it leaves very little room for negotiation there.
ESSENTIALS AND PERMITS
Because of its heavily guarded status and being located on the LOC, every outsider (read tourist) has to enter his/her details at every army, BSF and JKP checkpoint soon after one crosses Razdaan pass.
For Indian nationals, there aren’t any special permits required to enter Gurez however, one needs to carry national identity cards (PAN Cards do not count) which, you need to show whenever asked for.
Foreign nationals need to acquire permits from the District Commissioner’s office in Bandipora.
Gurez, as a tehsil, stretches from Tulail in upper Gurez valley till Bagtore-Tarbal in lower Gurez valley. Gurez is the tehsil headquarters.
Whereas entering Bagtore- Tarbal is easy, every tourist needs an additional permit to enter Tulail. Getting a permit for Tulail is a no-fuss procedure. All you need to do is, carry a copy of your identity card along with the original to the local police station in Gurez. The officer-in-charge will give you a written permit and you are ready to go.
HABBA KHATOON – THE PEAK AND THE POETESS
What Taj Mahal is to Agra, the perfect pyramidal peak of Habba Khatoon is to Gurez. A formidable landmark named after the eponymous peasant-queen-poetess, who is often referred to as “Nightingale of Kashmir”.
Legend has it that her husband, Yusuf Shah Chak, the king of Kashmir was tricked and captured by Mughal emperor Akbar so that the latter could acquire and add Kashmir Valley to his growing empire. Unable to cope with the tragedy, Habba Khatoon wandered near the peak looking for her beloved husband while singing songs of lost love. She finally hid away from the outside world at a place near Jhelum and died of grief. There are quite a few versions of the legend though, as very little of the exact story is documented.
The water from the spring that gushes out from the base of Habba Khatoon peak just outside of Achoora village is said to be the sweetest besides having medicinal properties. The locals call the opening of the spring “Chashma”. “You cannot finish even one glass full of water from the spring. It is bone chilling” said Majeed bhai, who accompanied me and also showed me around.
I don’t know about taste and how intensely cold the water was, but there sure was a nip in the air while we stood by the base of Habba Khatoon, watching the sun set.
DAWAR – THE CITY CENTRE
As my cab took the right turn from Kanzalwan to enter Gurez, I breathed a sigh of relief for having left Bandipora way back. My fellow passengers in the cab were native Gurezis, who, like many others, had shifted their base to either Bandipora or other Kashmiri towns in search of better lives. They kept sharing anecdotes about each and every place we passed by.
The perfect teal blue water of Kishanganga, the old world charm of quaint villages and warmth of Gurezis (as the locals of Gurez are referred) would simply sweep your heart away. Most of the action happens around Dawar, which is the city center in entire Gurez. In rest of the surrounding villages, it is business as usual for their residents.
CRICKET IS GOD – HERE TOO!
My visit to Gurez coincided with time while the 2018 Asia Cup was being played. People wrapped up their work early and assembled in small restaurants in Dawar to watch teams play. The cricket fervor managed to grip everyone here too. You can see people’s loyalties divided between India and Pakistan when respective teams of the arch-rival nations are out to play each other on the field.
Only that, the TV screens remain intact by the end of the game and everyone moves on with their mundane lives without giving much weight to a game over human relationships.
LINE OF CONTROL – UP AND CLOSE
How close can you imagine getting close to Pakistan Occupied Kashmir (POK)? Well, so close that you can even see people on the other side of the border carrying out their regular chores.
Even after being the most heavily militarized zone of the world, Gurez has an assured certainty and calmness in its demeanor compared to most parts of Kashmir that are rather conflict-ridden. The LOC that runs through this sector of Kashmir retains peace throughout, except for a rarest of a rare case of an infiltration attempt. Chorwan in Gurez, Tarbal in lower Gurez valley and Chakwali in upper Gurez valley which is also known as Tulail valley are last villages in respective zones that form the Line of Actual Control (LAC). None of the civilians are allowed to step beyond these villages.
17 kilometers beyond Chakwali is the famous Kabul Gali, the road that led to ancient silk route in Gilgit- Baltistan, which, in the present day, is a part of Pakistan Occupied Kashmir or Azad Kashmir, as they call it.
I wasn’t allowed to go towards Tarbal the day I had been to Bagtore due to some search operations being carried out by the army and BSF. The camp at Chorwan was peaceful in comparison to Tarbal. The army officials are very helpful so, do not hesitate to talk to them should there be any need.
OH FISH! – THE TROUT
The 150 km long Kishnganga river that runs through Gurez is famous for world-class trout. Especially, rainbow trout. I visited the only fishery of Gurez just outside Khandyal village. They had trouts of every size and it was an amazing thing to watch them.
You can buy trout from here and request the cook at your guest house to get it cooked.
TULAIL – BEAUTY BEYOND WORDS AND PICTURES
“Aap Tulail zaroor jaana. Aapka waha se waapas aane ka mann nahi karega” (You have to go to Tulail. You won’t feel like returning back from there) were the suggestions from all fellow travelers in the cab to Gurez.
As they say, the best has to be kept for the last. What you see with your naked eyes is far more mesmerizing than what’s captured through camera lenses.
Tulail valley is, in the literal sense the lost land. It doesn’t even show up on Google map. I was bowled over by the beautiful landscape and villages with log houses that line the river. The residents of Tulail have managed to retain their ancient Dard culture and traditions. Almost everyone still speaks in native Shina language which, is not much spoken in Gurez. Whereas Gurez and Bagtore have greener pastures, Tulail, on the other hand, is about barren peaks and few green pastures, pretty much similar to Ladakh.
You should extend your Tulail trip till Chakwali, the last village near LOC. I kept looking vacantly at the razor wire fence that marked the line of control while my cab continued switchbacking on the rugged roads from Tulail to Gurez. How the Dards and army help one another in their survivals sets a perfect example of a sustainable symbiotic relationship.
What seems intriguing for visitors like us, is business as usual for the residents, who live on the edge of uncertainties. And, yes! I sincerely did not feel like coming back from Tulail.
Also, I ended up staying in Gurez for 8 days instead of 4 days that I had planned earlier. More about life in Gurez Valley coming up in next post.