By Michael Benanav
In 1895, the 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.” In the book he wrote after traveling throughout the princely state, Lawrence 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.
Following the Partition of India in 1947, Pakistan and India fought over the possession of Kashmir, initiating what remains one of the world’s most intractable conflicts. When a cease-fire 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 militarized frontiers on earth, it runs just a few miles north of Gurez, nearly parallel to it.
For security reasons, beginning in 1947, the valley was declared off-limits to outsiders — meaning virtually everyone other than local tribespeople, the army or government workers. 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.
As a writer and photographer, I gravitate toward stories about little-known, often endangered cultures: how they maintain their traditional ways of life and try to adapt to the challenges of a rapidly changing world. For my first book, “Men Of Salt,” I traveled for 1,000 miles through the Sahara with one of the last working camel caravans on earth; for my most recent book, “Himalaya Bound,” I embedded myself with a tribe of nomadic water buffalo herders in north India, documenting one family’s troubled annual migration into the Himalayas. Other projects have taken me into Bedouin communities in Egypt, Jordan and Israel; to the spiritual heartland of the Alevi Kurds in eastern Turkey; and many more. The people I work with want their stories told — to be heard, understood and not forgotten.
Since the one road into Gurez closes for about six months of the year because of heavy snowfall, I had to wait to go until the following year. In June 2008, local officials and residents said that my friend, Red Miller, and I were the first Westerners they had ever seen there. Knowing that the best way to see the valley and meet its people would be to travel on foot, we walked for nearly three weeks, covering about 50 miles on a dirt road that followed the Kishenganga upriver, deep into the section of the basin known as Tulail, then trekking into the mountains beyond it. 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 of potatoes and maize covered the floodplain, fringed by dazzling wildflowers. Crooked wooden villages dotted the landscape, creating the impression that the valley had been plucked intact from a folktale — or we had been magically transported into one.
But we were constantly reminded of where we really were. Razor-wire fences traced the course of the river for its entire length. Army camps and check posts were positioned along the road and on strategic hilltops, deterring militants who might infiltrate from Pakistani territory.
In the villages, Red and I were met with amazement and warmth. Local people were happily stunned to see foreigners, often gathering in crowds to greet — and inspect — us. Invitations to have tea, eat and spend the night quickly followed, which was good because there was nothing resembling a hotel in the entire valley, aside from two decrepit rest houses where government workers occasionally stayed. Everywhere we went, we were welcomed into log houses where wall-to-wall carpeting and fat pillows served as furniture, and tea was served. Everyone I asked was excited that the valley was opening up, imagining the riches that tourism might bring to it and keen for more contact with the rest of the world. Some dreamed of golf resorts being built there, while others hoped to see helicopter tours flying sightseers in from Srinagar. I wondered how an influx of tourists would change Gurez, for better and for worse and for just plain different. It could introduce a much-needed source of income to a poor and isolated area, but it might also erode the tradition of hospitality that seemed like such an essential characteristic of the place. It’s one thing to welcome the rare stranger into one’s home, but can that spirit survive a steady flow of visitors — especially when hosting travelers could become a business?
Then and there, I decided to return 10 years later to find out.
This past June, my friend Sarah Neusy and I took a shared taxi north from Srinagar — the summer capital of the state of Jammu and Kashmir — to Bandipora, where we stopped at the District Commissioner’s office to get the permit that foreigners need to visit Gurez.
We continued for four more hours in another shared taxi, switchbacking up a rutted road, crossing the 11,672-foot Razdan Pass, and descending deep into the Gurez Valley. Along the way, the only major change I noticed had nothing to do with tourism — it was the controversial Kishenganga Dam, which had been recently inaugurated. The pretty village of Badwan, where I spent a day a decade earlier, had been evacuated and dismantled as water from the new reservoir consumed it.
A light rain was falling when we reached the valley’s administrative center, Dawar, where a small bazaar — with dry goods shops, produce sellers and a few “hair saloons” — is surrounded by houses and fields. Low clouds hung like a shawl over the shoulders of Habba Khatoon — the graceful, 13,000-foot, pyramid-shaped peak that rises over the town and is named for the 16th-century poet known as the Nightingale of Kashmir, who is said to have lived near the mountain’s base as a young woman.
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 about $36. “Some tourists are coming here now,” he told us. “Mostly Indians, but also a few foreigners.” He described his vision for the hotel, showing us where he planned to build a restaurant among rose bushes and apple trees. When I asked how long it would take to earn back his investment, he said, “At least 10 years. Probably longer.”
In June, news from Kashmir was filled with killings of civilians, militants and soldiers on an almost daily basis; the state government had collapsed the day before Sarah and I arrived; and a noted journalist, Shujaat Bukhari, had been murdered outside of his Srinagar office just a few days before that.
But Gurez was completely peaceful. It’s the rare nook of Kashmir where the Indian Army is on good terms with the local population, providing much-needed assistance with medical and other emergencies, especially in winter.
“There is no tension!” we were told by people throughout the valley, who usually placed a drawn-out, heartfelt emphasis on the “No.”
“No tension,” we learned, can also be synonymous with “no worries,” suggesting that any given situation is going to work out just fine, and Sarah and I were quickly able to adopt the sentiment.
Loosely retracing the route I’d walked in 2008, we never knew quite where we would find ourselves each night. Though the state government has begun building a number of tourist rest houses throughout the valley, most were not yet completed, so we often stayed with families whom we encountered by chance, just as I had done 10 years earlier. I noticed that many more homes had indoor plumbing — and toilets — than during my first visit, and every village now had electricity for four or five hours each night, powered by a community diesel generator.
People were still surprised to see travelers appear in their villages, as most tourists to Gurez base themselves in Dawar and stay only a few days, perhaps taking a scenic drive up the valley, seeing it mainly through their car windows. Adults were genuinely curious about us, and my Hindi proved good enough to understand and answer most of their questions, which were asked in Urdu, a very similar language.
They were typically dressed in woolen cloaks; most of the men were bearded; and many of the older women wore the traditional local headdress, or an embroidered felt skullcap, called a khoi. Younger women simply wore a head scarf.
Some remembered me, and were thrilled when I gave them 4-by-6 prints of photos of themselves and their family members when they were 10 years younger.
Groups of children often followed us around, fascinated. Sometimes they would ask to be photographed — then run away half-laughing, half-screaming as soon as I reached for my camera. Just as often, they would thrust themselves in front of the lens, including the time when 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!” Though nearly everyone we talked to viewed tourism as a good way to bring money into the valley, most of the families who hosted us refused to take any of ours, graciously saying, “It is our duty” and “Guest is God.” Usually, someone who spoke English would appear and take us on a tour of their village.
In Buglandar, Mohammed Yasin Sheikh led us among the wooden homes, through the razor fence to the wildflower fields by the Kishenganga, then to the floodplain of a side creek, where local men were engaged in a fierce game of volleyball. “It is my fortune that you came today,” he said, since he wanted to practice his American accent.
As we’d heard throughout the valley, he explained that the people of Gurez and Tulail are not truly Kashmiri, but from the Dard Shin tribe, and that their mother tongue is Shina. Most of the region known as Dardistan — the homeland of the Dardic people — is in Pakistan-administered Kashmir, with the Kishenganga Valley their only enclave on the Indian side of the Line of Control.
For centuries, life in the area has been based on subsistence farming and shepherding goats, sheep and cows. Ghulam Qadir Khan, a 92-year-old elder in Achoora village, told us that when he was young, physical strength was the most desirable quality in a wife. “Women had to be able to carry firewood and haul water and tend the fields. Today, he added, “education is more important.”
Manual labor, however, remains the cornerstone of daily life. Throughout the valley we saw women — and the occasional man — hard at work, doing everything that Ghulam Qadir Khan had described. Outside of Achoora, after visiting a spring that legend says first gushed from the ground when the poet Habba Khatoon dropped a clay pot of water on the spot, we passed a clearing covered with heaps of wood the size of haystacks, gathered in preparation for winter. I asked one of the young men who had accompanied us to the spring how the logs had been brought down from the forest, and he replied, “Woman power.”
But things are changing. According to locals, about half of the residents of Gurez and Tulail now reside elsewhere for half of the year or more, migrating to other Kashmiri towns for work and school when the weather turns cold. “The winter here is too hard — we can get 15 feet of snow on the ground,” said Mahraj Ahmad Lone, who was on break from his studies at Kashmir University in Srinagar, where he is earning a master’s degree in history. “There are too few jobs here,” he said, “and no mobile connection,” he added, while fiddling in vain with his phone. Still, people return in summer to grow crops and enjoy the profound peacefulness of their isolated ancestral home. “Our hearts are here,” explained Afroza Bhat, 24, who herself spends most of the year in Srinagar, studying psychology. She, her sister Tahira, and sister-in-law Razia had waved to Sarah and me, beckoning us into their home. As we sipped tea on their living floor, we found they were fluent in English. “Our father believes strongly that all of his children should be well-educated,” Afroza said.
They struck us as perhaps the most outgoing of all the women we met in the entire valley, and we talked about the environmental impact of the Kishenganga Dam, what it’s like to live near the Line of Control, as well as more mundane subjects, such as how their family hires someone to watch over their few head of livestock while they winter in Srinagar.
Upon reaching the village of Badoab, near the upper end of Tulail, Sarah and I were directed to Afzal Khan, a school administrator, and his wife, Houri Begum, who were building a private guesthouse. Since it was only half-finished, they rented us a room in their home for 1,500 rupees a night, including food, tea and hot water for bucket showers.
This was clearly a new endeavor for the family. When we first arrived, groups of people — often, but not always, children — would burst into the room unannounced, sit on the day bed, and stare at their unusual guests, who sat (and slept) on the carpeted floor. Stretching the limits of my Hindi, we got to know each other better every day, and soon family members were showing up for medical consultations, having learned that Sarah is a doctor.
We’d hoped to trek from Badoab over the mountains for four or five days, to the Kashmiri resort town of Sonamarg. This gorgeous Himalayan route links the summer camps of nomadic Gujjar goat herders, and I wanted to bring photos to those with whom I had stayed on my earlier visit — but military permission is required to enter this area.
The officers in charge of the army base at Badoab — Col. B.P. Singh and Major Waknis — welcomed us into their headquarters with tea and snacks, no less hospitable than local families. They made phone calls to help us get the go-ahead for our trek, but it took a few days to reach the right commander, by which time severe storms had settled over the mountains, making conditions prohibitively dangerous.
We hitchhiked back to Dawar in the rain.
Seeking to learn more about the area, we met with a 31-year-old assistant professor of English language and literature at Dawar College. Raqeeb Ahmad Lone had grown up in Tulail — and loves Walt Whitman’s poetry and “Lord of the Flies.” After talking with him for a couple of hours about Dard Shin folk tales and traditional life in Gurez, he offered to ask a local cultural group to perform for us. “They usually play just once or twice a year, on special occasions,” he said, “but let’s see.”
The following night, the Habba Khatoon Dramatic Club gathered at Dawar’s Tourist Reception Center, singing Shina ballads and dancing, accompanied by drums and a harmonium. Each song, Raqeeb explained, was an appeal from a lover, filled with unrequited longing and rich descriptions of the beauty of the beloved. By the time the 45-minute show was over, the room had filled with local men who had come to watch.
The troupe declined to be paid. It was their duty, the lead singer said, and they were happy to do it. (When I asked Raqeeb why no women had come, he thought maybe it was because of the spontaneity of the event, but didn’t know for sure. He said it would have been perfectly appropriate for men and women to socialize there, as at many events, including weddings, “you will find men and women singing and dancing together.”)
After a few sunny and satisfying days spent hiking in the hills around Dawar and visiting nearby villages, the time had come to return to Srinagar. We were advised to travel in the evening, when it would be safer, as it happened to be the second anniversary of the killing of the revered Kashmiri militant, Burhan Wani. Mass demonstrations against Indian rule were anticipated in Srinagar, Bandipora and the surrounding towns, and throngs of stone throwers were expected to be on the roads during the day. Meanwhile, near Dawar, we met families who were out picking wild cumin.
Leaving Gurez as the sun began to set, I wondered what would change there over the next decade. We followed the golden 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.
Michael Benanav is the author of “Himalaya Bound: One Family’s Quest to Save Their Animals — and an Ancient Way of Life.” The article was published in New York Times.