Hemmed in by the high Himalayas and dappled with wooded villages and meadows, Gurez looks straight out of a picture book of folktales set in the bucolic countryside. Crisscrossed with gurgling mountain brooks and verdant fields, this sublime valley is marked by a beauty that is, at once, humbling and awe-inspiring. Notwithstanding its tranquillity, however, Gurez Valley evokes a disturbing sense of the futility of war in the perceptive visitor owing to the unnatural division of its natural heritage.
A part of ancient Dardistan, the picturesque Gurez Valley in North Kashmir is a world in itself.
While the Valley of Kashmir’s snow-covered peaks, lush meadows, and aquamarine lakes and rivers have beckoned travellers for decades, there are still certain places that remain conspicuously absent from the regular tourist’s itinerary. One of these is the picturesque Gurez Valley in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district. Located about 2,400 metres above sea level, the Gurez, Gurais Valley or Guráai is one of the remotest outposts in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir, heavily guarded by the Indian Army due to its proximity to the Line of Control (LOC).
A Sliver of Ancient Dardistan
A six-hour drive from Srinagar via the Razdan Pass takes one to this alpine paradise that remains out of bounds for nearly six months a year on account of a long snowy winter. Located along the ancient Silk Route, Gurez Valley is part of Dardistan, a region that today covers parts of northern Pakistan, eastern Afghanistan and Kashmir. The land of Dardistan, or homeland of the Dards, was first referenced by Herodotus, the ancient Greek historian. It also finds a mention in the Mahabharata and the 12th century chronicle Rajatarangini by Kalhana.
Originally home to the Dardic people who speak Shina, Gurez has an interesting anecdote behind its name. According to local inhabitants, owing to its rolling meadows and salubrious climate, the British in the late 19th and early 20th century were fond of playing polo in this area. Local Kashmiris who came to work as porters with the British begun associating the place with the sport which they ostensibly didn’t follow or know the name of. Since polo looked like some kind of race, they started calling it the place of Gur race (horse race) which got distorted into Gurez or Gurais with the passage of time. On the other hand, for the native Dardic people, this was the place used for grazing their livestock and, accordingly, they called it Guraai (Gu – animal; Raai – meadow) in the Shina language.
Gurez, the Wonderland
Both on the account of its remote location as well as its proximity to the de facto border with Pakistan, Gurez has remained largely untouched by the ills of commercial tourism. This isn’t so bad since large-scale tourism can quickly turn virgin landscapes into carnival grounds, teeming with people unwittingly decimating the last bits of pristine nature. Gurez only has a handful of hotels and guest-houses that quickly get filled during the summer months. Hemmed in by the high Himalayas and dappled with wooded villages and meadows, Gurez looks straight out of a picture book of folktales set in the bucolic countryside. The gleaming turquoise waters of the river Kishenganga/Neelum add to the iridescence of emerald pastures and violet wildflowers that speckle the landscape.
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Towering over Dawar, the central town of Gurez, is the pyramid-shaped majestic-looking Habba Khatoon Mountain, named after the medieval queen-poetess of Kashmir believed to have roamed the valleys singing love ballads in memory of her lover and husband, King Yusuf Shah Chak.
Located about 70 kilometres from Gurez is the picturesque Tulail Valley, one of the most isolated spots in the Union Territory of Jammu & Kashmir. Crisscrossed with gurgling mountain brooks and verdant fields, this sublime valley is marked by a beauty that is, at once, humbling and awe-inspiring.
One can see modernity juxtaposed with tradition in the villages of Achoora, Markote, and Mastan, where dank shops selling soft drinks and chips packets stand cheek by jowl with traditional log homes. Another conspicuous symbol of modernity in the valley is the Kishenganga hydroelectric project, inaugurated by Prime Minister Modi in 2018.
Concertina Wire & Conflict in the Valley of Peace
Like everywhere else in the Valley of Kashmir, army men outnumber civilians in Gurez. The frequent army checkpoints, barracks, and concertina wire fences that run through the wilderness and all along the Kishenganga are a stark reminder of this sylvan idyll’s troubled past and present, of it being part of a contested territory vulnerable to infiltration from the enemy nation.
But unlike in the rest of Kashmir, the Army here is on amicable terms with the local population and has become an important part of local life, running schools, securing winter supplies, and evacuating snowbound civilians. However, according to many locals, the heavy military presence since 1947 has significantly impacted the culture of the Dard Shin people as it has led to a steady influx of alien foods, modern sartorial habits, and film music that are eroding the traditional way of life. Given that this is the only region in the country that cocoons the vanishing world of the Dard Shin tribe, the collective anxiety of the people is but natural. Unfortunately, large-scale tourism, while bringing opportunities and wealth, will also trigger such changes in the years to come, perhaps irreversibly transforming this enchanting vestige of nature.
During the Indo-Pakistan war of 1947-48, Gurez was captured by the Indian Army following “Operation Eraze”. However, a substantial chunk of Gurez Valley continues to be in Pakistan Administered Kashmir. Notwithstanding its tranquillity, Gurez Valley evokes a disturbing sense of the futility of war in the perceptive visitor owing to the unnatural division of its natural heritage. The fact that every bit of the Gurez one savours – the mountains, the Kishenganga/Neelum River, the pastures, and even the star-spangled night sky – is tied up and portioned out between the two belligerent neighbours is a thought that is both amusing and depressing.
The Unforgettable Grandeur of Gurez
Ever since official permits have been done away with, Gurez has been slowly opening up, beckoning more and more tourists seeking immersive, secluded experiences. And indeed, like a memory relished over time, the delightful vistas of Gurez keep coming back, floating before the mind’s eye long after you leave and descend to the relative clutter and chaos of Srinagar.
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There is not a kernel of doubt that Gurez is one of the Kashmir Valley’s best-kept secrets. And as charmed visitors will wish, it must remain so for a long time to come.
The author visited Gurez Valley in North Kashmir in the first week of October 2020.
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