People in India have only one thing to tell me when I tell them that I am from Kashmir. They exclaim, “Oh, Paradise on earth”.
For many of us who were born and brought up in Kashmir, our place presents many different stories through diverse perspectives.
I have been enchanted by the beauty of the Dal with Shikaras rowing through it; Gulmarg has been a darling as it is close to my home and thanks to my love for winter sports; the valleys of Pahalgam with incredible views from Adu and Baisaran is a perfect place for any summer traveller and the azure waters of Sonmarg reflecting the blue skies running through the thick meadows present a perfect location for an adventure traveler. Every place in Kashmir is unique in its own way and every place thronged by the tourists is different from the rest. It would not be an exaggeration to say that Gurez is a complete package encompassing the beauty of all the above places into one. I would take it a step further and say that if there is a paradise in Kashmir, it is Gurez.
The initial stretch on the semi metalled 86 Kms long road from Bandipora to Gurez overlooks the majestic Walur Lake and the adjacent villages on the banks of it. The scenic view of the Jehlum entering into the Walur, tracing its own path flowing silently through the still waters of the Walur is a rare scene to observe. The vastness of the lake standing among the mountains and the hillocks keep the shutterbugs busy and imagination at its epitome.
The road leading to Gurez is not for amateur drivers. The twists and turns though amusing can prove to be fatal as the road has been carved out of steep mountains and the road maintenance is poor. Cars with low ground clearance don’t suit the road and it is preferable to drive in an SUV. As one ascends towards the Razdan pass, which remains open for only about five months (May to September), one experiences the awe of traversing the Himalayas. The road gives you feelings of joy and fear simultaneously and the changing views of mountains through the dance of the clouds exhilarate you. Reaching the Razdan pass standing at an elevation of 11,672 feet marks the completion of the first leg of the journey. A cup of tea with bread omelet and biscuits not only tastes better than the gourmet food of five star hotels but it also brings with itself a rare joy in having traversed the difficult mountainous tracks. There are only a few kiosks that sell limited food items at Razdan pass and not many restaurants can be found en-route. So it is advisable to stop here and refresh oneself.
The descent from Razdan pass towards the main town of Gurez called Dawar cannot be written but only experienced. The pyramid shaped Habba Khatoon peak can be seen as one descends from the Razdan pass and it appears that the peak draws a traveler towards it. It’s said that when the beloved husband of Habba Khatoon – Sultan Yosuf Shah Chak was imprisoned by King Akbar, Habba Khatoon would wander near the peak remembering her beloved. Kashmir can take pride in Habba Khatoon’s love for her beloved similar to Shah Jahan’s for Mumtaz.
Gurez is thinly populated. Statistics put the population of the region close to 30,000 spread across its fifteen villages. The people called as “Dard Shins” speak “Shina” language here although many of them speak broken Kashmiri. Due to their constant touch with the people of the valley, they understand Kashmiri almost completely. The people of Gurez are religious, honest and hospitable. We were invited for tea at many places by unknown people, which is unlikely in the modern era at other places. The shopkeepers don’t fleece you and the rates are genuine unlike other places. It is said that the erstwhile president of the United States of America FD Roosevelt visited this place much before partition and before he became the president. Those days Gurez was a famed tourist resort for domestic and foreign tourists. Even Indira Gandhi and Nehru visited the place before the partition to catch the rare trout fish found in this region.
The road from Razdan pass to the main town of Dawar presents views very similar to Pahalgam and Sonmarg. The biggest worry for the people of the region is the Kishanganga power project which is being constructed on the river Kishanganga a few Kms north of Bandipora. The project will divert water from the Kishenganga and drain it into the Walur lake through a tunnel which is about 24 Kms long. The flora and fauna of the region is at risk due to this project besides the chances of submergence of the surrounding villages. The trip to Gurez is hence advised before the completion of the project as it may not only lead to large scale migration of the people but may also severely affect the ecology of the region.
The houses in Gurez are mostly made up of Burza trees. These trees are also used in villages of Kashmir as roof tops. These wooden houses are insulators against the sub zero temperatures that the region experiences for more than 7 months. The areas close to central town of Dawar have concrete houses as well. Dawar is a small town with modern facilities like internet, ATM, a degree college, a well equipped hospital and many other facilities like the other towns of the valley. The construction of Tourist Reception Centre (TRC) at Dawar has given a big boost to tourism in the area. The Dawar TRC has all the modern facilities and has a very good ambience. Dak Banglow of Dawar is also open to tourists and the rooms here are excellent like TRC. There are a few restaurants in Dawar serving good quality food but the ambience is unlike the posh restaurants found at other places of the valley. The restaurants house plastic chairs and ordinary wooden tables but the people are honest and the rates are cheap. Dawar is the central town which acts as the base camp for visiting any place in Gurez. The mornings at Dawar are a special attraction. As the sun kisses the mighty Pir Panjal mountains, the changing colours of the landscape due to sun’s rays present breathtaking views. The formation of rainbows over the Neelum is a common occurrence and delights the visitors.
Further north of Dawar about 22 Kms lie the villages of Tulail and then Sheikhpora. Beautiful hillocks among the mighty Himalayas are a rare occurrence. The mounds of Tulail are unique in their form having typical semi circular shapes lying adjacent to one another. The mounds are covered with green grass with little tree cover unlike the ones in their background with thick forest cover. Sheikhpora too has a modest government guest house with a couple of rooms for the tourists.
Gurez is still not connected with the central grid of Kashmir. The electricity is generated from diesel generators and the electricity is supplied for only a few hours each day. The entire area is covered with thick concertina wires which have been laden with no proper planning. The wires have divided fields and townships besides harming the cattle.
(Hakim Iqbal Abdulla is a blogger based in Mumbai and works in power industry. Feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org)