Af­ter 10 years, a re­turn to kash­mir

Weekend Argus (Saturday Edition) - - TRA VEL -

IN 1895, British au­thor Sir Wal­ter Lawrence called the Gurez Val­ley “one of the most beau­ti­ful scenes in all of Kash­mir”, where the tour­ma­line wa­ters of the Kishen­ganga River are framed by “moun­tain scarps of in­de­scrib­able grandeur”. He pre­dicted that Gurez would soon be­come one of Kash­mir’s most pop­u­lar Hi­malayan tourist des­ti­na­tions. For rea­sons he never could have fore­seen, 120 years later, Gurez is still wait­ing.

Af­ter the Par­ti­tion of In­dia in 1947, Pak­istan and In­dia fought over the pos­ses­sion of Kash­mir. When a cease­fire went into ef­fect in 1949, Kash­mir was pro­vi­sion­ally di­vided be­tween the two coun­tries, and Gurez fell, just barely, on the In­dian side of the bor­der. To­day, the de facto bound­ary is called the Line of Con­trol. One of the most mil­i­tarised fron­tiers on Earth, it runs a few miles north of Gurez, nearly par­al­lel to it.

In 1947, the val­ley was de­clared off-lim­its to out­siders. The ban would last for 60 years.

I first read about Gurez in 2007, when In­dian news­pa­pers re­ported that the val­ley, once a spur of the

Silk Road, was open­ing to tourists. I de­cided to go as soon as I could.

Since the one road into Gurez closes for six months of the year be­cause of heavy snow­fall, I had to wait. In June 2008, my friend, Red Miller walked for nearly three weeks, cov­er­ing about 80km on a dirt road that fol­lowed the Kishen­ganga up­river, deep into the sec­tion of the basin known as Tu­lail, then trekking into the moun­tains.

It might have been Shangri-La: Water­falls tum­bled down fluted slopes that were dusted with emer­ald grasses and capped by rocky crags. Snowy sum­mits tow­ered in the dis­tance. Hand-tended fields cov­ered the flood­plain, fringed by daz­zling wild­flow­ers. Wooden vil­lages dot­ted the land­scape, cre­at­ing the im­pres­sion that the val­ley had been plucked in­tact from a folk­tale.

But we were con­stantly re­minded of where we re­ally were. Ra­zor-wire fences traced the course of the river. Army camps and check posts were po­si­tioned along the road.

Ev­ery­one I asked was ex­cited that the val­ley was open­ing up. I won­dered how an in­flux of tourists would change Gurez. I de­cided to re­turn 10 years later to find out.

This past June, with my friend Sarah Neusy, I did just that. Af­ter hours in a shared taxi, switch­back­ing up a rut­ted road, cross­ing the 11 672foot Raz­dan Pass, we de­scended deep into the Gurez Val­ley. Along the way, the only ma­jor change I no­ticed had noth­ing to do with tourism – it was the Kishen­ganga Dam. The vil­lage of Bad­wan, where I spent a day a decade ear­lier, had been evac­u­ated to make way for the new reservoir.

In the val­ley’s ad­min­is­tra­tive cen­tre, Dawar, a small bazaar is sur­rounded by houses and fields.

Low clouds hung like a shawl over the shoul­ders of Habba Kha­toon — the, 13 000-foot, pyra­mid-shaped peak that rises over the town.

We were dropped at Kaka Palace Guest House, which had opened about two months ear­lier. Its ea­ger owner, Mo­hammed You­nis, proudly led us to one of his six rooms, which go for 2 500 ru­pees per night, or $36.

In June, news from Kash­mir was filled with killings of civil­ians, mil­i­tants and sol­diers; the state gov­ern­ment had col­lapsed the day be­fore we ar­rived. But Gurez was peace­ful. It’s the rare nook of Kash­mir where the In­dian army is on good terms with the lo­cals.

Re­trac­ing the route I’d walked in 2008, we never knew where we would find our­selves each night. We of­ten stayed with fam­i­lies whom we en­coun­tered by chance, as I had done 10 years ear­lier. Many more homes now had in­door plumb­ing, and every vil­lage had a gen­er­a­tor.

Groups of chil­dren of­ten fol­lowed us around. Once a mob of small chil­dren sur­rounded us and be­gan chant­ing fiercely, as though pre­par­ing to top­ple a dic­ta­tor: “One sel-fie! One sel-fie! One sel-fie!”

About half of the res­i­dents of Gurez and Tu­lail now live else­where for half of the year, mi­grat­ing to other Kash­miri towns for work and school when the weather turns cold.

Af­ter a few days hik­ing in the hills around Dawar and vis­it­ing nearby vil­lages, the time had come to re­turn to Sri­na­gar. Leav­ing Gurez at sun­set, I won­dered what would change there over the next decade. We fol­lowed the light as it re­treated up the val­ley’s walls and over the Raz­dan Pass. The 17 days we spent there al­ready felt like a dream.

A Dard Shin girl tends to her fam­ily’s sheep in Jur­nial vil­lage in the Tu­lail Val­ley, In­dia, in the state of Kash­mir. Once a spur of the Silk Road, the re­mote, con­flicted re­gion is still rel­a­tively new to tourism. | The New York Times

The vil­lage of Pu­rana Tu­lail.| The New York Times

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