What image does your mind conjure when I say Kashmir? Fire. Riots. Militants. Indian Army. Curfew. Blood. Gore. Tear gas.
The thing about Kashmir is that the moment you express a desire to visit its untamed lands, there is always someone telling you to drop the idea for your own good.
Let’s try again. I will simply reverse engineer this and throw some words at you, tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Paradise. Mountains. Chinar. Tree lined avenues. Hospitality. Unspoiled beauty.
See where I am going with this?
“I backpacked in Kashmir for 40 days, as a solo woman and felt that it is like a mirage. Everyone wants to visit there but rarely ever finds the courage to do so. I can feel the exaggeration even as I write these words and you will read why.”
When I first told my parents about my travel plans, they concluded that my foolishness has reached an all new level. They asked me to simply google Kashmir, which I stupidly did and the first thing I saw was news about a stone pelting incident here and a curfew there. My heart skipped a beat. I am an adventurer but I calculate my risks, after all my chances of making out alive should be higher, no? But as they say, heart wants what the heart wants!
I didn’t even know about Gurez until I chanced upon it in a movie called Highway. That one short scene where Alia Bhatt is romancing her captor, Randeep Hooda, in some valley speckled with snow capped mountains, pine trees, wooden huts and sheep. I paused the movie and got online to search for its filming locations. Voila! Seconds later Wikipedia told me that the place is called Gurez and it is located in North Kashmir.
This is the closest you’ll ever be to the militants. NOT!
Have you ever been told how going to Kashmir is poorest of travel decisions? I don't even have a number anymore for the times I have been called crazy. It just makes you want to kick yourself for making the choices that elicit such strong reactions. If Srinagar made people question my sanity, Gurez drove them over the edge.
So, I am going to Gurez, I tell my friends. Where is that? They ask curiously, they like my knack for finding hidden spots. I tell them, Kashmir North Kashmir. And all hell broke loose! What business do you have in North Kashmir? But that is close to LOC? Are you mad? Militants will kidnap you for ransom. Who the fuck goes to Kashmir amid unrest and more so close to the border? Are you out of your mind? Thus began the ranting *rolls eyes*
That was 6 months ago. Today I want to tell you right here, right now that I went to Gurez, I went as close to the border as a civilian possibly can. No, I do not have a death wish and No I didn’t meet any militants (Please, for the love of god, stop asking me this). Will I recommend this to you? Hell, yea!
To The Base of Habba Khatoon
Dawar, or home to Habba Khatoon, the posthumously famous Kashmiri poetess, is a town headquarter and accessible to rest of Kashmir via shared cabs. Take one from Batmaloo in Srinagar up to Bandipora and then another one from Bandipora to Dawar. The journey is backbreaking but the views are jaw-dropping. It takes 7 hours of rickety cab ride and awkward seating positions to get there. But oh when you do, I promise (you can quote me later if you want) your pain will disappear.
“When they said that ‘tough roads lead to beautiful destinations,’ they weren’t kidding.”
Just as you enter the district, Habba Khatoon’s perfectly triangular peak emerges in the distance. You can see the old world charm locked in its quaint villages. As was with other places in Kashmir (read about my experience here), people started inviting me home for their special Kahwa or noon chai (salted tea), especially when they learned that I am traveling alone. They requested to host my stay in their humble abodes. Did you hear that? “Requested” as if offering to help a lone stranger in strangest part of the country wasn’t enough!
I promised to call them later and continued my journey into Dawar. I was recommended to stay at Dak Bungalow but I somehow mixed it up with Tourist Rest Center. As luck would have it, I reunited with another solo traveler that I met earlier in Pahalgam (my sad story of a failed trek, read it here) in the same guesthouse.
That awesome moment when you meet your kind of people on the road!
I don't know about you, but I believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence. Sometimes people meet you for a reason and this particular incident proved just that. I met this guy, a traveler from Mumbai, when I was stuck in a tight curfew and wanted to leave for Srinagar urgently. He not only figured out a way but offered me the only seat he found on a hitched ride.
Meeting him in Gurez, of all the places, was such a pleasant surprise, I still had to thank him for his kindness. When you meet travelers in offbeat places, chances are your travel preferences are going to be the same. You don't meet selfie clicking tourists this far up, no offense!
When Your Exploration Game is Strong – To Bakhtore & Beyond
My Gurez story became so much more exciting after me and Hitesh (that traveler from Mumbai) decided to explore the village. As we were walking down the road, we noticed a tiny, wobbly bus headed to some village called Bakhtore. We flagged the bus and hopped on to it.
Gurez is a conservative culture and it is unimaginable for unmarried men and women to travel jointly, let alone solo women travelers and all that urban crap! When we boarded the bus together, people automatically assumed that we are married.
“Women asked me where “my man” was and what we were doing here. Their reactions were priceless when I told them that we were just two strangers wandering in their strange lands!”
Bringing your focus back to Bakthore, the village is about 2-3 hours away from Dawar. The ride is grueling, as expected, but breathtaking, also as expected. As we reached Bakhtore, Hitesh told me that this bus goes further down towards the last village called Tarbal. Hmm, I am on, I say. The next thing we know we are inching closer to Pakistan!
So close that even Geotag picks up Pakistan as its location!
Tarbal was a delight. We were stopped by Army at the entrance to secure permission from CO. Few calls later, we were walking into the last village of this sector. Don't you think that the word “last” has such a poetic ring to it? Last village, last house, last person? Sucker for closure that I am, last is ever so inviting for me.
So we are walking into this fairy tale of a land where no such as thing as tourists exist. The place is so close to Pakistan border that it is common for army to deal with intruders on regular basis. The locals are almost indifferent to their skirmish and they have learnt to live their life on the edge of India. We walked deeper and deeper into Tarbal and almost always attracted curious stares from people. While being in the village was exciting, going back was dramatic!
It got really late as we finished exploring Tarbal. The beauty of North Kashmir is that their days are exceptionally longer. It was almost past 7.30 PM and still clear as day. But we knew that sun would set in a matter of 2 hours and we were long way from home! Thus began our struggle to make our return journey into Dawar. Lucky for us, army helped us hitch a ride in a cab that was headed towards the main checkpoint. We reached into the safe army haven and started considering options to reach the main town.
Indian army was very helpful as they gave us a room to sit in. As I sat there cold and hungry, an officer came and offered me a bowl full of piping hot feerni (Kashmiri rice pudding with nuts and saffron). My heart thanked him a million times as I gulped it down in one go.
“Despite the warm comforts of feerni, I was getting nervous as it got dark. We were after all in border town of Kashmir and far away from safety.”
I was almost preparing myself to sleep that night in the army shack when Hitesh came inside informing me that we found a ride! Hallelujah! I say loudly. I have always believed that where there is a will, there is a way. We sat comfortably in an ex-army officer’s car who drove like a maniac on dark, untarred mountain roads of Gurez, but got us outside our gates within 45 minutes! As was customary, he invited us over for dinner and tea. But we were too tired from the day’s adventure and were ready to call it a night.
Tulail Valley – So Hidden, it doesn’t even show on Google!
If you are an adventurer, you will know how addictive it can be. That adrenaline rush, feeling of uncertainty, fighting the fear of unknown et al. Following our exploration from previous night, we went looking for more action and Tulail Valley’s name came up. We are go-getters both of us, so the next thing we did was pack our bags and just leave.
Do you believe in cosmic signs? I may be a non-believer of a lot of things, but this I believe in. We were still thinking about our walk to the main cab stand with our heavy backpacks and swoosh came a cab going in our direction. I hailed it, even though it looked packed, and just somehow slipped myself, my bag, my companion and his backpack into the last seat of a run-down Tata Sumo. If Gurez was covered in Pine trees, Tulail Valley was a sweet transition from that greenery to a Leh-like barren landscape.
Village after village passed until we reached the one we decided to stop at. Sheikhpora looked like a place we’d like to call home for the next few days and it was such a beautiful decision. We got down from the cab and stared at the village below in disbelief. It was breathtaking.
“Tulail Valley was a strategic place on the ancient Silk Route and today it connects Drass sector to the rest of Kashmir.”
As we reached the village entrance, yet another army enquiry happened. We had to submit our national ID cards to gain access. By this time, I was getting used to the stares and questions. So when I reached the Dak Bungalow after answering a million questions and dodging a few along the way, I felt at peace. Look at all this beauty around you that people don't even know exist! Just as I was thanking my stars for coming here, in came two 14-year old boys bursting in to my room. Their curiosity was so endearing I almost laughed at it.
As we talked a bit, one of the boys, Bilal, offered to take us up to his village Juniyal. We were obviously interested and agreed to leave at 4 PM. As the time approached, the weather turned and became windy. As if this wasn’t enough, the trail leading up to his village was insane at best. I had to get on all fours to finish the last stretch. The winds were howling, almost threatening to sweep me away with it! I somehow managed to finish this section, panting my way to the top.
As soon as I entered the village, all the women, girls and kids surrounded me with excited chatter. Who the hell is she? They all encircled me and started asking questions in their Sheena language. I was confused but I loved all the humdrum I was bringing to their peaceful lives. It was raining by now and the mud was making it hard to walk. So the kids grabbed me by my hands and raced me to a spring of religious importance to the villagers. We paid our quick respects and headed back down. They all helped me wear my raincoat and walked me safely as Hitesh was slipping and falling his way through the mud. Bilal invited us over for tea, an invitation we gladly accepted as it started to pour by now.
Me and Hitesh went to the locals’ home where they brought us tea and biscuits to keep us warm. The room was filled with kids and their excitement knew no bounds with the two of us. Hitesh is a photographer so they asked him to click a picture of us in a frame. Thanks to his awesome abilities, I could seal that precious moment forever. After finishing up, it was time to go back. This time we took an easier, but longer trail down. The rain had subsided but the valley took on a golden shade! I felt blessed as I spent yet another memorable day in North Kashmir.
Now do you believe me when I say that Gurez is not only doable, but comes highly recommended? Phew! I seriously hope you are convinced. Don't hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions!
Did you like what you read? Would you be willing to travel really offbeat? Tell me in comments!