Gurez Valley captivates visitors with panoramic views of thickly wooded mountain slopes, deep gorges and rolling pastureland. Afsana Rashid chronicles the experience and says Gurez is a must-visit for those yearning for a serene and tranquil getaway
Lofty, magnificent mountain ranges, vast open meadows, the mesmerizing Wular Lake (one of Asia’s largest freshwater bodies) and the gorgeous Kishanganga River are some of the sights that greet visitors to the stunning valley of Gurez. Located at an altitude of about 8,000 feet, the border town is around 120 km north of Srinagar City. The valley, once part of the Silk Road, has huge potential to attract tourists, trekkers and local visitors. It also holds tremendous scope for fishing and nature walks.
“It is a beautiful place to explore,” says Huneef Mohammad, a tourist, while sipping tea at a hotel in Dawar, Gurez. “Gurez offers much more than meets the eye.” Quoting Walter R. Lawrence’s book, The Valley of Kashmir, where he had predicted that Gurez would become a prominent tourist destination, Mohammad says that with Gurez Valley now opening up for tourists, the day isn’t far off.
Crossing the Razdan Pass (about 11,672 ft above sea level) and then descending into Gurez Valley, tourists and trekkers find much to enjoy, including the fabulous Habba Khatoon Peak and spring, the Khandyal Top and the amazing Bagtore and Tulail Valleys. “We witnessed huge tourist footfall this summer season. All hotels here were booked and even home-stays had a good flow of guests,” says Abdul Hamid, a local employed at one of the hotels. Tourists, especially trekkers, visit the place from different parts of the country and locals throng the place especially on weekends, he adds. Lt Governor Manoj Sinha was reported as saying that tourism in Gurez Valley had risen from a few hundred to 35,000 this year (till mid-August). He had pointed out that the increased tourist influx would boost local economy and livelihood opportunities.
Gurez, also known as the Land of Dards, is inhabited by the Dard community. Historically, Gurez was part of ancient Dardistan, that connected Kashmir Valley with Gilgit-Baltistan and the Kashgar Region further away in China. TheDard Community has a distinct cultural identity and their native language is Shina. Believed to be India’s first museum for Dards, the Shina Cultural Centre inaugurated by the lieutenant governor in August this year showcases aspects of the community’s lifestyle, be it dress, food habits, housing, historical background or everyday life. The majority of the houses in the area are of the traditional type, made with huge wooden logs. The layout is also typical. “A traditional house in Gurez has space for animals on the ground floor with people living on the first and second floors. There’s a grass covering to keep the house warm,” shares local resident, Abdul Jabbar.
Farming and rearing of cattle, sheep and goats are traditionally the chief livelihoods of the people. “Except rice, everything grows here. Black cumin, potatoes and beans are the main crops,” says Abdul Rahman, a senior citizen who grows maize on his plot of land. The land-locked valley is usually cut-off from the rest of India during winters (from November-December till March-April) due to heavy snowfall. “We prefer staying indoors during winters. Some people migrate to other parts of Kashmir Valley. As the weather improves, they return for farming and other related activities,” 65-year-old Rahman adds. The people of the region are pressing for regular electricity supply and proper road connectivity via a tunnel to ease their logistics problems and pave the way for progress and prosperity. Many homes now have solar panels on the roofs.
The road to Gurez is zig-zag, with sharp curves and steep ridges; some stretches are narrow and bumpy, but it is motorable. The Razdan Pass (also known as Razdan Top) is the gateway to Gurez valley. Though steep and scary, it offers breathtaking views of densely forested mountain slopes, as well as open pastures. A little beyond the pass, tourists can take in the Peer Baba Shrine before they come to Tragbal, another spot offering breathtaking views. And in the valley, the Kishanganga River flows serenely.
Adjacent to Dawar is Khandyal Top, a point that offers a 360-degree view of nearby villages, surrounding peaks, steep slopes covered with pine trees and deep gorges. The place captivates every visitor. Dusk and dawn are the best times to enjoy the scenic beauty of the place. Equally important is the graceful pyramid-shaped rocky peak named after the famous Kashmiri poetess, Habba Khatoon, also known as the Nightingale of Kashmir. Khatoon is said to have lived near the foot of the mountain. The mountain itself is a spellbinding sight, especially when its slopes catch the rays of the setting sun. A spring there is also a favourite tourist spot.
Bagtore too presents a panoramic view that leaves every visitor enthralled. A flat plateau, Bagtore Maidan is surrounded by pines. Taarbal, the last border village on the Indian side, is where the motorable road ends. The area is also home to diverse flora and wildlife, including the Himalayan Brown Bear and Snow Leopard. The residents of Dawar, the main business centre in Gurez, say bears are often spotted late at night.
(The writer teaches at the Media Education Research Centre, University of Kashmir, Srinagar.)