Gurez- The Forlorn Paradise on Earth
Journeys across the beautiful Hamlets amidst lofty mountains
By: Dr Zulfikar Siddiqui
Gurez, a forlorn valley having astounding beauty, lies towards north of Bandi-Pora, the town which remained famous in ancient times for being the main stoppage for the Trading Carvans coming from the northern areas, Central Asia and China on their way to Kashmir Valley and Hindustan. Gurez is 85 kilometres away from Bandipora. Bandipora is further 60 kilometres away from Srinagar and lies towards north of Srinagar, the summer capital of Jammu & Kashmir. Bandipora is also famous for the Asia’s largest fresh water lake ‘Wullar’.
Till recent past people used to go on foot to the mountainous Valley of Gurez while crossing from Sunar-wani and Sri-Bal hamlets of Bandipora. It will take 5 to 6 hours for them to reach their first resting place, the beautiful meadow called Trag-Bal where a rest house existed for the travellers. Before the construction of the present road, Trag-Bal was a beautiful place where the shepherds would come to tend their cattle and sheep and would provide milk to the travellers.
It is also said that during the Tribal raids in 1948 one Mirza Hassan Khan came along with other raiders under his command upto this place but had to retreat because the Indian Army had reached Bandipora by that time.
Gurez remained nearly cut off till 1980 from rest of the world, including Kashmir valley, when the vehicular mobility began on this road ferrying people to and fro to Gurez- a great delight for the people. But Gurez continues to remain cut off even in this 21st century from other parts of the country for nearly seven months owing to heavy snow accumulation on Razdan pass. Undoubtedly the Valley is simply beautiful as it has remained safe from the human vandalising and one need’s to go and explore the beauty of this Valley and see the nature in its pristine glory in the small hamlets within and mighty mountains surrounding this Gurez.
The main journey starts from Bandipora when you start climbing a serpentine road after crossing the Sunar-wani village. The journeys from here to Dawar, the head quarter hamlet of Gurez valley tests the patience of the traveller. The vehicle needs to be doubly checked before undertaking the journey for its fitness as the road is narrow and unimaginably rough which passes through the rugged mountains. Pray for the fair weather otherwise there are chances that you will be stuck anywhere during the course of the journey. Make sure that you have to reach your destination travelling uninterruptedly because if anything happens which halts your journey you got shall remain unattended, without any aid for hours and sometimes for days together.
Despite all odds, one enjoys the mesmerising beauty along the route. It is a pride for someone travelling on this route to cross the Razdan Pass, the highest place of the whole road length, and witness the unforgettable panoramic view. One could also see some historically important places as well including the Pir Baba, Trag-Bal, Kanzilwan etc. The world famous peaks like Nanga Parbat and Harmukh are also seen from here.
The journey is troublesome as you have to face the Indian Army check points every now and then enroute to Gurez. Being close to the actual line of control (ALoC) between Pakistan and India, Gurez has the highest military presence and the Jawans of Indian Army can be seen roaming the roads and streets of every hamlet in Gurez Valley. In fact their presence is inseparable while imagining the area’s population and they have successfully crafted a friendly atmosphere given the reason that it is the Army alone which helps the local inhabitants during the harsh winter season in maintaining the day today affairs.
The Beautiful Hamlets of Gurez:
There are some beautiful places one sees on way to Gurez. Trag-Bal at 9000 feet above sea level is one such spot that mesmerizes all by its bewitching beauty and its marvellous topography. Pir Baba site has been developed as a spiritual spot just before Razdan Pass where one can enjoy the panoramic view of the whole Bandipora forest ranges and the small hamlets which seem to be locked within the gorges of these mountains. The place is close to the Razdan Pass which divides the Gurez valley and the Bandipora.
The spiritual aura one feels here at the Pir Baba Dargah is worth experiencing. There is a small temple constructed by the Army besides the Dargah and this adds to the spiritual essence to the place giving it a pluralistic colour as well.
At the top of the Razdan Pass which is 12000 feet above mean sea level, it is very thrilling to see the unending mountain ridges which seem touching the sky and never ending. You can see from here some important peaks like Nangga-Parbat and Harmukh towering above the rest of the mountain peaks around. The mountain range on the left side (While facing Gurez) being the divider between Pakistan Administered Kashmir (PaK) and this part of Kashmir. One sees, very clearly, the army posts sparsely positioned to guard the LoC. This can be seen all along the route till you reach Dawar. Crossing Razdan Pass it is a descent drive till you reach the first hamlet of Gurez Valley called Korg-Bal- a small hamlet with a cluster of Kacha (temporary) houses. This hamlet was an important stoppage for the Trading Carvans coming from the northern areas and Central Asia before crossing Razdan Pass.
The next hamlet is Kanzil-Wan where local police, besides Army, have their check-posts assigned the job of frisking and verification of the travellers. The road here divides into two, one towards left which goes to Neelum Valley having Baktoor and Tar-Bal the last hamlets very close to LoC. There is a small hamlet before Baktoor called Nai-Basti situated on the left bank of river Kishan Ganga which has been inhabited by some families who have migrated from Kanzil-Wan after 1992 floods. There is a beautiful place called ‘Iiz Marg’ which reminds the traveller of the meadows of Gulmarg. The beauty of Baktoor and Tar-Bal is mesmerising where the natural beauty is worth enjoying. The cattle herds around and the bee-keepers add to the charm of the places.
The river, Kishan Ganga, flows along these hamlets before entering into PaK where it is named Neelam. Before entering Baktoor one has to face a crucial identification check carried by the Indian Army. Baktoor and Tar-Bal hamlets fall nearly on LoC (at Tar-Bal, we were shown the distant Pakistani Army post on a hill top where we could spot some Jawans). There is a well defined but deserted track leading to next hamlet now with PaK from Tar-Bal. We were told by the people of Tar-Bal that sometimes their cattle go across the Line of Control while grazing in the forests.
The other road leads straight to a beautiful hamlet named Nyle, a small hamlet on way to Dawar. Before Nyle, one can see the tunnel site of the Kishen-Ganga Hydel Power project which will carry the water from here to Sunar-wani hamlet in Bandipora for generation of electricity. Khofri is the next hamlet on this very road which leads to Dawar. The hamlet is comparatively well settled having fairly good houses nestled on the mountain as well as on both sides of the road. After crossing this hamlet it was the hamlet of Budwan on the right side lying below the road and on the left bank of the downstream Kishen-Ganga River. But because of its turning into the Dam site for the Hydel project, the village is supposed to submerge hence the people shifted to Wanpora, another small hamlet having almost newly constructed houses (on the date of our visit to Budwan, the Dam was being impounded therefore, the area was yet visible though partially).
The houses constructed here in Wanpora are modern in their design and construction, leaving behind the legacy of indigenous style of architecture which by all means was plausible with the local weather conditions. Wanpora hamlet is situated on the left bank downstream of Kishan-Ganga and presents a look of a newly settled village. All around constructions going on and constructional material loaded vehicles moving unabated. It looks that there is no controlling authority as far as the design and development of a certain village is concerned. The constructions are unregulated and haphazard. It would have been better to preserve the local culture which, by all means, is indigenous and beneficial given the weather conditions of the area.
The only degree college in the whole Gurez Valley has been established here in Wanpora. The college building was under construction but the classes had been started in the nearby building. It was unfortunate that our team could not meet the students in the college as they were on the vacations and college was closed for academic work. However, talking to some students on individual level the picture they gave about the availability of facilities was by no means satisfactory. Modern facilities like internet is a distant dream for the youngsters of this Valley even the area sans the mobile network.
Fakir Gogri or Fakir Pora is a small hamlet near Wanpora, and has the shrine of Hazrat Baba Dervesh; RA (a descendent of Hazraat Sadaat who had come to this place in early fifteenth century for the propagation of Islam). It is also believed that the whole hamlet is inhibited by the descendents of Baba Dervesh. The shrine of Baba Dervesh is highly respected by the Army besides the locals and their veneration is visible by the construction and other developments around the shrine undertaken by them.
Dawar, the headquarter of Gurez valley is very close to Wanpora and by all means qualifies to be the head quarter of this beautiful Valley. There is a fairly established bazaar having old type of structures, most of them wooden depicting the indigenous culture that has survived here. Shops selling different goods including tea stalls are lined on both sides of the main road as well as the interior road. The goods sold here are not of any luxurious type and ranging from low to moderate price category which the people of this Valley can afford. There are small food courts as well which offer lunch and dinner to the people coming from distant villages and few of them function as motels as well with moderate rooms.
The office of Sub Divisional Magistrate, the highest officer in the Valley, is situated here besides the offices of Tehsildar, Forest, a special Engineering Division concerning Roads and Buildings, Public Health Engineering, Irrigation sub-divisions and Zonal Education Officer. A well built rest house and a Dak Banglow is also here. A Sub District Hospital having fairly basic facilities available in terms of specialities is also established here. However, in the event of serious ailments the patients are referred to Srinagar. A higher Secondary School is also established here. There is a Madrasa which traces back its history to a couple of decades adjacent to the Jamia Masjid of Dawar. Army as usual can be seen here as well.
The road after travelling a small distance from Dawar again bifurcates into two- the left diversion leading to Achoora and the last hamlet of this side called Chorwan and the right one going to Tulail Valley. However, there is another village called Khandiyal which falls on the right side of the Tulail road. Markoot and Mastan are the other two villages of Gurez Valley. Achoora has a big Army camp and the road goes through this camp only. It is because of the fact that the Chorwan hamlet falls very close to the LoC. There is the last Indian Army post called Sikander Post at the bottom of the ridge of a massive mountain. The Pakistani Army also has its post very close but hidden behind a mountain ridge so that their movement is not traced easily. The river Neelam from Pakistan administered Kashmir passes through two mountain ridges to enter into Indian controlled Kashmir and takes is called as Kishan Ganga on this side.
There is a beautiful hill top named ‘Haba Khatoon hill’ and one can see fresh milky waters gushes from the foot of this hill which joins river Kishen Ganga. It is said that Habba Khatoon along with her husband, the famous king of Kashmir- Yousuf Shah Chek- visited this area for hunting purposes besides its mesmerizing beauty. The spot, however, needs to be developed as it has great tourist potential and locals already love to come here occasionally for picnics.
(The author is an environmentalist & a reputed traveller and mountaineer. He can be mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org)