Gurez valley happened by pure chance and impulse. It was during one of the highly excitable discussions with my locals friends in Srinagar in 2008/2009, that the legendary beauty of Gurez valley in Jammu and Kashmir in India popped up. I immediately got intrigued by its hard accessibility and close proximity to the LOC (the volatile line of control/India-Pakistan border). At that time of my life, I was still restless, reckless, and felt drawn towards thrill. If it was beautiful, hard to get, and controversial/mysterious, I had to be there. So, one late autumn morning, ignoring all caution of snowfall given out by the weather office, I went off in a rental car from Srinagar to Gurez. They say that we learn from our mistakes and the Gurez trip turned out to one really tough taskmaster.
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Gurez, the gateway to the famous Silk Route to Central Asia
An isolated valley located high in the Himalayas in the northern part of Kashmir, Gurez or Gurais is about 86 kilometers from Bandipore and 123 kilometers from Srinagar. At about 8,000 feet above sea level, Gurez is surrounded by snow-capped mountains and blessed with diverse fauna and wildlife which include the Himalayan brown bear and the snow leopard. The Kishanganga or Neelum river (famous for its crystal clear blue water) flows through the valley and during that time, it was in the eye of a storm over the Kishanganga Hydel Power Project. Known as Gorai in the local Shina language, in the olden days Gurez used to be a gateway to the famous Silk Route across Central Asia and the Dard people of the valley spoke Shina language, which they derived from their ancestral connection with Gilgit valley (presently in Pakistan). In fact, the road to Gilgit runs right through Gurez and historically, it used to be a part of ancient Dardistan Because of the distinguished heritage, Gurez is also an important archaeological site and before the Partition of Kashmir, it used to be a popular destination among foreign tourists.
Franklin Roosevelt visited Gurez and so did Indira Gandhi with her father
Many famous dignitaries have spent enjoyable moments holidaying in Gurez and one of them was Franklin D Roosevelt, who visited the valley sometime before he became the US president. During the colonial rule, Gurez was quite popular with the trekkers and Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru and Indira Gandhi, accompanied by Sheikh Abdullah, were among those who visited the area in the 1940s. They were there for trout fishing at Naranag, one of the lakes in the mountains above the valley and it is a sport which is very popular in Gurez even today. After a long spell of being cut off from the public, the valley reopened again in the year 2007 and recently Gurez Festival was introduced by the Jammu and Kashmir ministry to promote tourism in that area. For those looking for intrepid Kashmir experience, away from the crowd of Gulmarg and Pahalgam. Gurez comes across as a heaven-sent option. However, approach with caution to check the accessibility, permits required for a visit and based on my personal experience, do pay attention to the weather reports before embarking on a long journey for Gurez.
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Somewhere near the Razdan Pass
My drive to Bandipore was uneventful, boring even, but that changed the moment I started going up towards the Razdan Pass. At 3300 meters, Razdan Pass proved to be a harsh terrain even for expert drivers and that day, the weather gods turned against me. It started as a cloudy moody morning with heavy snow falling on the mountain peaks all night. The beautiful Kashmiri valleys lay veiled by mists, which rolled thickly into the pine and fir forests. It was a kind of a day when most people would cuddle with kangris (warming baskets) rather than venturing out in the cold and the drive from Srinagar was a long and lonely one. Near the Razdan Pass, the road became badly broken and hardly any other vehicle was visible on the track. The weather office predicted heavy snow with the possible closure of the road and it seemed as if, everybody except me had paid attention to the warning. After struggling for a few hours when I finally reached the snow-covered Razdan Pass, it was like being in the middle of nowhere. No restaurants, restrooms, tea shops or even stray dogs could be sighted and the landscape looked cold, empty and deserted except for the shrine of Peer Baba, a highly revered Pakistani saint. Peer Baba came from Multan (Pakistan) in 1933 and lived in a cave in that area. His origin and religion still remain a mystery and he is said to have fasted for months without taking any food or water. He was hard of hearing, spoke very little, and was popularly known as “Nanga Baba”. In Feb 1940, he came down to Razdan during a heavy snowstorm and subsequently died. When the locals tried to bring his body to the nearby town of Bandipore for burial, they were attacked by a large number of honeybees, and he was buried close to Razdan Pass.
A peer baba‘s shrine and a blessing out of nowhere
Today it is a pit stop for all motorists passing through the treacherous pass and on that cold snowy morning, even the shrine was deserted with not a soul in sight. Only wild monkeys scampered around scouring rubbish heaps for food and they stopped to watch curiously as I passed by. The drive from Razdan Pass got tougher and somewhere on the twisting mountain road, my mobile phone battery died. Since wearing a watch is not my habit, time seemed to stretch forever and I felt suspended in boring grey eternity until when finally the legendary Kishanganga River arrived. The stunning river looked very thin and sparkling between the large looming mountains and the landscape looked absolutely desolate. Goosebumps popped on my skin as a gnawing feeling of being lost among the mountains raced through my head and the sky looked like a dirty torn rag caught between the jagged peaks. For the first time in my life, the sight of empty mountains unnerved me and they uniformly bore the bare look of late autumn. Stony, stripped of all visible human settlements and with a smattering of snow, they loomed over me from all sides. My eyes looked hungrily for any kind of life sign when thankfully a small group of sturdy tall women appeared.
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My touch and go story of Gurez
They were the local village women, who were out gathering firewood from the forests and huge bundles bent their backs. As I screeched to a stop near them, relief rushed through my body and being naturally curious, they chatted with me in broken Hindi. Two of them got into my car, to guide me towards the villages, and the comforting sound of rustic chatter filled my car. Their babble felt as sweet as honey and my spirit rose again, as we drove along the mountain road. It was a very pretty drive from there and picturesque log cabins, typical of the area smoked happily by the green-blue water of the Neelum river. Horses grazed by the water which flowed like liquid sapphire and the pine, fir-covered craggy slopes descended steeply into deep greenish-brown bowls. Even the angry-looking pyramidal peak of Habba Khatoon did not look intimidating anymore and my day seemed to have taken a better turn when the nastiest travel shock came my way. Exhausted, hungry, and excited, I finally reached the first village in the Gurez valley only to be turned back from it. The army officials declared that since I did not have the necessary travel permits to visit Gurez, I had no choice but to leave immediately. The disappointment hit like a kick on my shin and badly dejected, I started driving back towards Razdan. It seemed surreally nightmarish to immediately return to the same experience, that I just came out of and I cried loudly in my car from sheer disappointment and exhaustion. My nightmare, however, did not end there and it started snowing en route to the Razdan Pass.
Caught in a white death near Gurez
Winds became fierce and I got chilled to my bones as Razdan Pass got closer. I watched in shuddering awe as the peaks got quickly obliterated by thick clouds and the snow turned blinding in a matter of seconds. Visibility became completely zero and the broken road turned slippery with snow. Having no snow chains or snow tires, my car being a treacherous death machine and with every effort to move forward, it slid back dangerously near the precipice. Somewhere in the blinding snow, the road stopped and fell into a deep crevice and I fought to stay calm in my car, as it battled cautiously to inch forward. I ran out into the snow, stumbled around in the forest looking for rocks to stop my car from sliding and then waited inside for the storm to stop. Hungry, tired, and lost in an area infested with wild animals, I was scared of the impending winter bringing them down in search of food. I remembered my loved ones and wondered if I would ever see them again when after an agonizingly long wait, I finally heard the sound of vehicles. It was an Indian army vehicle that stopped upon seeing a stranded car on the lonely mountain road. A flashlight lit my face when they came looking inside the car and I cried out in relief, as they offered me hot tea, a warm blanket, and stern words of advice.
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Rescued from a snowstorm and airlifted back home
Apparently, the army base in Gurez sent a rescue team to search for me after the snowstorm ended because they were sure that I was lost somewhere in the mountains. They took me back to the camp, made on the spot special permission of my stay and gave me shelter until the weather cleared. Razdan Pass, however, got closed that day and Gurez got cut off from the rest of the world. I spent the next two days being cooped up in the hidden valley of Gurez, watching the villagers slaughter animals for winter food ration. Being natives of a cold place, they were experts in curing meat and hung out the carcass in their lofts for air drying. The cured meat was to be used the whole winter by slicing off in bits and I learned the process of freezing vegetables from them. It reminded me of my recent Bolivia trip, where the indigenous communities stored potatoes under frozen ground for preservation and I did a lot of remembering and writing on those two days. On the third day, I received the necessary permission to get airlifted out of Gurez valley and although my vehicle did not reach me until spring, I was glad to be back in civilization in Srinagar.
Gurez travel tips
Where to Stay and
The base for a stay in Gurez is the clean and comfortable JKTDC Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 01957-255284; Tariff: ₹500- 700) at Dawar. Book ahead with the Gulmarg Tourist Office. The bungalow has 5 rooms and 2 dorms (10 beds/18 beds) and there are several log huts. Warm bedding and hot water are available, but for your meals, head for Noorani and Sikander restaurants in the village. The very helpful Ghulam Mohammad and Sonaullah Akhoon from the tourist bungalow can help set you up in the 6- room Roads & Building Department Bungalow if the tourist bungalow is full. The food here is far simpler than in the Vale of Kashmir. Gurezi cuisine is simple and hearty. Mutton, beef and chicken curries, potatoes, rajma, and turnips are mainstays. Ask for trumba ki roti, made from a small-grained cereal, and kalari, a strong cheese made from sheep’s milk, and eaten with green chilly chutney.
The Permit Process
Everyone, Indians, and foreigners alike need a permit to visit the Gurez and Talial valleys. Getting one involves complicated procedures. First, write to the Superintendent of Police or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC Srinagar (Tel: 0194- 2477224) at least a month ahead of your visit for a copy of the permit application form. Hopefully, these will be available online soon. Fill in the form and attach two photographs and a copy of ID proof (foreigners must attach copies of their passports too). You must also attach a no-objection certificate from the SHO of your local police station, for which you will need a further copy of ID proof and 2 photos. This step may be dropped soon, but for now, this police verification is a must. Follow up with the SHO to ensure it gets done. Courier all these original papers at least 15 days before your date of travel to The Superintendent of Police or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC, Srinagar. Follow up with the courier service as Srinagar is notorious for delays. Fortunately, you have an angel to the rescue in the form of Assistant Director Faheem (Tel: 01954-254439/87; Email: email@example.com, firstname.lastname@example.org) at the Gulmarg Tourist Office. You can simultaneously email him copies of your application and documents, to ensure that they are processed. Then personally collect the permit from the Tourism Enforcement Counter at the TRC in Srinagar. The TRC can also arrange a taxi and the driver’s papers for travel in Gurez. With a permit in hand, you are free to travel, but you will need to show the permit at Bandipore Checkpost and further along the way. Travel in Gurez has to be completed within the 15 days stipulated in the permit.
When to go – June to September are the only months when the Gurez and Talial valleys are free of snow. The 2-day Gurez Festival is held in mid-August
Tourist Offices – J&K Tourism, Director General, TRC, Srinagar, Tel: 0194-2479548, 2472449, Website: jktourism.org
J&K Tourism, Assistant Director, Gulmarg, Tel: 01954-254487, 254439, Mobile: 09419708180
JKTDC, TRC, Srinagar; Tel: 2472644, 2457930, Website: jktdc.co.in
Superintendent of Police, or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC Srinagar; Tel: 2477224, STD Code 01952
GETTING THERE – The Gurez Valley is spread over a height of 8,500 ft in Bandipore District’s Kishanganga Valley below the Great Himalayan Range, along the border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) near Gilgit. The Line of Control (LoC) cuts through the valley. Gurez Valley’s main town is Dawar, the old capital of Dardistan and an important archaeological site. The Habba Khatoon Mountain separates the Gurez Valley from the Talial Valley, which leads to Drass in Ladakh’s Kargil District
Distances – Dawar is 70 km N of Bandipore and 128 km N of Srinagar (JOURNEY TIME 6 hrs from Srinagar by road)
Route from Srinagar Srinagar-Bandipore state highway to Bandipore via Shadipora, Sumbal and Wular Vantage Park; Bandipore-Gurez Road to Dawar via Mantrigam, Tragbal, Razdan Pass and Kunzalwan
Nearest airport – Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar (Tel: 0194-2303000/31, 2303635), connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu by Air India, SpiceJet, Indigo and Go Air. A taxi to the TRC Srinagar costs ₹500. Collect your permit for Gurez here before proceeding on the 128 km/6 hr drive to Gurez
Nearest railhead – Jammu Tawi Station (426 km/15 hrs). From Jammu, travel to Srinagar (9 hrs; taxi ₹4,500, shared taxi ₹600, JKSRTC deluxe bus ₹500). You must collect your permit for Gurez from the TRC in Srinagar before proceeding on the 128-km mountainous drive to Gurez (6 hrs), hence it’s best to make a night halt at Srinagar and start off early next morning
By Road – Book a high ground clearance vehicle (Sumo/ Tavera) in advance from Taxi Stand No 1 (Tel: 0194-2452527) near the TRC, as you will be driving through a mountainous area once you leave Bandipore. It costs approx ₹3,500- 4,000 per day. The drive from Srinagar follows the Bandipore Road north from HMT Crossing, on to Shadipora, Sumbal, along the western edge of Manasbal Lake and past Wular Lake to Bandipore. A short distance into Bandipore is Kharpora Chowk; turn right here onto the Gurez Road. Ahead of Mantrigam, 5 km away, the 58-km climb up the hills begins, going over the Razdan Pass topped by the shrine of Peer Baba, before descending into the Kishanganga Valley at Kunzalwan, where the road turns right to Dawar.
TIP – Coordinate with the TRC Srinagar to ensure you have clearances for the taxi driver to enter Gurez and Talial.
Follow the rest of the Kashmir series
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