After 10 years, a return to kashmir
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