The locals were as excited to see us as I was to be there. They wanted their stories to be heard. Some invited us to their folk songs. These songs are not written in any script, but on their hearts and passed on through generations.
Having spent my childhood in the vicinity of the beautiful ‘Gilsar & Khushalsar Lake’, located in the heart of Srinagar city, I have always felt a strong connection with nature. Nothing feels more enticing than the splendid beauty created by the Almighty which surrounds me. Getting away from the mundane and the artificial to find my way across mountains, green forests, gushing streams and open meadows invokes mixed feelings of excitement, bliss and gratitude.
After having toured popular destinations like Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Tangdar, Gulmarg, Drang, Tangmarg, Aharbal, Kokarnag, Preng, Daksum and others, I longed to visit Gurez. Historically, Gurez is part of Dardistan. The region stretched over northern Pakistan, Jammu & Kashmir & parts of north-eastern Afghanistan. The inhabitants of Dardistan, known as Dard people, spoke a set of Indo-Aryan languages, collectively known as Dardic language. It is recorded that Dard people were different from Kashmiris, with a glorious history of their own.
The valley of Gurez falls along the ancient silk route which connected Kashmir with Gilgat Baltistan. It served as a resting place for people travelling for trade and Haj pilgrimage. Gurez has been a popular destination for foreigners. Franklin Deleno Rosevette visited Gurez before he became the President of USA. In 1895, Sir Walter Lawrence called Gurez valley “the most beautiful scenery of Kashmir”.
After partition, when India and Pakistan were declared as independent countries, Gurez fell on the Indian side. The trade routes were sealed, the goods stopped coming in, and the people of Gurez were gradually pushed to a life of self-sustenance and isolation. People still live in wooden houses to brave the harsh winter climate. They speak Shina, Urdu and Kashmiri languages. Their traditional occupation is rearing sheep and goats. These are sold in districts of Bandipora and Srinagar.
The valley is divided into the two regions of Dawar & Tulail. The Neelam/ Kishan Ganga River flows through the valley before merging into river Jhelum, near Muzaffarabad, Pakistan. The valley has around 29 villages with a population of 35,000 – 40,000. Tarabal is the last Indian village, just 2 km from the LOC.
The main crop grown in the region is potato. Following the introduction of poly houses in Dawar & surrounding towns, vegetables like tomatoes, cucumber, bottle gourd and pumpkins are successfully harvested under protected conditions. Gurez is famous for Black Cumin, besides other medicinal plants. The spice has high market value.
Hinduism and Buddhism were the main religions practiced in the region until the arrival of Syed Ali Shah Hamadani and his devotees. Hamadani was an Iranian poet, scholar and a Sufi Muslim saint. He died in Kashmir. Seven of his devotees settled in Gurez including Baba Razaq Shah & Baba Derwis whose shrines are located in Fakir Pora.
My adventure began on a beautiful morning in the month of May in 2022. The magnificent valley of Gurez is five hours from Srinagar. A couple of hours into the journey, we arrived at the world famous Wular Lake in the district of Bandipora. The state of the lake shocked me. Ignored by locals & the Wular Development Authority, the largest fresh water lake in Asia looks like a cesspool, with sewage flowing directly into it. Willows trees are now growing where there should be clear, fresh water.
We passed by the famous Pir Baba shrine. The saint buried there is believed to have arrived from the city of Lahore. We took a stop at Razdan Top at an elevation of 11,672 feet above the sea level. Our lunch followed by a perfect cup of kahwa, amidst the cool breeze and mesmerising view, was a wonderful experience.
As we entered the valley of Gurez a few hours later, 8,000 feet above sea level, I was as excited as could be. It had everything to offer from the picturesque valley to the mist covered mountains, verdant meadows, lovely pastures and forests and the emerald green river Neelam. Some observers and writers call Gurez the Switzerland of Kashmir.
We came across a beautiful cottage, a few kilometers before Dawar. The location was breathtaking, and as luck had it, the cottage had opened for lodging the very same day. My excitement amplified when we were told that they would be happy to host us. The sun was setting in all its glory and I sat there mesmerised, trying to capture the moment. Eager to explore, we soon found ourselves by the river side, under the stars with the moon shining bright. The chill in the air was delightful.
We stayed there in utter bliss till midnight and retired to a peaceful slumber till the sun rose again. Soon we were headed to Dawar, the heart of Gurez, a town bustling with activity. But I was more curious about the Habba Khatoon peak. Named after Habba Khatoon (Zoon), the peak is a testament of her unfulfilled life. She was in an unhappy marriage and expressed her pain through poetry. Yousuf Shah Chak, the then emperor of Kashmir, impressed with her beauty and intelligence married Habba Khatoon but was soon imprisoned by Akbar. She was heartbroken and wandered over the peaks in search of her beloved. Habba Khatoon Chashma (spring) is also named after her.
The ride to Purana Tulail was a bumpy one, but often times, difficult roads lead to beautiful destinations. Tulail with its simplicity, warmth and exquisite beauty is heaven. The locals were as excited to see us as I was to be there. They wanted their stories to be heard. Some invited us to their folk songs. These songs are not written in any script, but on their hearts and passed on through generations. I wish to return someday to this charming village.
As we started our journey back, I got time to reflect on how a day spent in the wilderness, away from the noise and crowds, had enriched me as a person. I returned home with a deeper appreciation for nature and heightened sense of responsibility towards it. The fresh, crisp air, the peace and quiet, the visual delight that nature offers is nothing short of therapeutic. It detoxifies the mind and stimulates the senses.
A few years back, Gurez was declared as a tourist destination. While tourism will boost income and connect locals with rest of the world, there is the flipside. Will the pristine beauty remain preserved? Some measures will have to be strictly enacted. Among them:
1) Proper sewage disposal system should be the first priority to keep the precious water bodies clean.
2) Sewage treatment plants should be set up.
3) Deforestation must be banned.
4) Encroachment into the water bodies should be dealt with.
5) Use of polythene bags should be banned.
6) An efficient garbage disposal system should be put in place.
The next destination on my bucket list is the Valley of Bangus. Eagerly awaiting the next adventure!