Explore the culture of the Shina-speaking Dards, Gurez and Tulail (Talial) Valleys, where the Dards Live

Explore the culture of the Shina-speaking Dards, one of Kashmir’s oldest tribes

The flight from Delhi is on time and I’m soon speeding to the Tourist Reception Centre in Srinagar to collect the precious permit which will grant me access to Kashmir’s legendary Gurez Valley. Here, the likes of Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru, Indira Gandhi and Franklin D Roosevelt went riding and trekking, before the troubles closed the valley off to us mere mortals. But no longer, with tourists increasingly making their way across the Razdan Pass to remote Gurez.

Dr Alyas, Assistant Director Tourism at J&K Tourism in Gulmarg, under whose purview the now-peaceful Gurez falls, and a Gurezi himself, has helped me make all the arrangements for my trip, right from guiding me about the permit, finding a reliable driver, booking stay, and helping me plan my itinerary.

The Shina-speaking Dards are among Kashmir’s oldest tribes
The Shina-speaking Dards are among Kashmir’s oldest tribes

Gurez and Talial, in the short months they are free of snow (June-September), offer tourists an amazing journey through the Greater Himalaya, and the opportunity to explore the culture of the Shina-speaking Dards. The Dards, one of Kashmir’s oldest tribal peoples, were cut off from their compatriots in Astore, Gilgit and Chilas by the LoC. Today, the endangered Shina language is spoken exclusively in these valleys, in parts of Baltistan, Gilgit and in Drass  in Ladakh’s Kargil District.

Gurez is also an adventure tourism destination, with J&K tourism promoting trekking, camping and fishing in the Kishanganga Valley.

Tourists, however, can’t travel in this sensitive border region without a go-ahead from the Army. Which is why your Gurez permit is all-important. There are security checks along the way from Bandipore, but if your permit is in order and it’s evident you’re a tourist, they just make an entry and wave you along.

THINGS TO SEE AND DO

The road to Gurez

Leaving the mayhem of Srinagar’s HMT Crossing behind, we set off for Bandipore. It’s a cool and clear morning with blue skies offsetting the snow-crested Pir Panjal peaks. From a lookout by the roadside,Wular — Asia’s biggest freshwater lake — is a vast haze of grayish blue. We stop to stretch our legs at the Wular Vantage Park. At this hour, the picnickers have yet to arrive, making it a perfect pit stop. We won’t find too many of these on the way up the mountains.

Dawar, the main town of Gurez Valley, beside the Kishanganga River
Dawar, the main town of Gurez Valley, beside the Kishanganga River

At Bandipore, my soft-spoken driver Mushtaq shows both our permits for Gurez at the checkpost. Concertina wire marks the Army presence all the way from Bandipore, reminding you that you’re approaching a border region. Soon we are on our way, the bumpy road showing the effects of melting snow as we climb up to Tragbal with its sheltering firs and soft mountain breezes. The dhaba here offers anda toast and traditional kahwa. From here, the view of Wular against the magnificent backdrop of the Pir Panjal peaks catches your breath. To the north are ranged the jagged peaks of the Great Himalaya. Soon, we’re slowly zig-zagging up the snow-covered Himalayan flanks. In the brutal winter, tonnes of snow keeps Gurez completely cut off from the rest of the country for six months. Only the occasional helicopter sorties provide essential services.

At 11,672 ft, we’re driving between the 10 foot-high ice walls of the narrow reaches of Razdan Pass, which connects Gurez with the Vale of Kashmir. Razdan also marks a divide between the two regions as separate geographical and socio-cultural landscapes. The dargah of a Peer Baba of Lahore sits atop the pass. I almost miss sighting the holy Harmukh Peak to the right as we work our way out of the pass. From Razdan, a road veers to the northwest towards Pakistan-controlled Chilas. We take the right, to the frontier area of Gurez, which falls along the ancient Silk Route that once connected the Kashmir Valley to Gilgit and beyond, to the cities of Central Asia.

Bowling along the tight mountain road awash with snowmelt, we arrive at Kunzalwan where engineers are busy on the diversion tunnel for the waters of the Kishanganga River to the Wular Lake at Bandipore. Kunzalwan is believed, from inscriptions discovered in the valleys north of Gurez, to be the site of a Buddhist Council held between the 1st and 2nd centuries CE.

The Kishanganga River, which originates in the area around Drass in Ladakh, gathers momentum at Koubal; numerous tributaries join it on its journey through the valleys, among them the Burzil stream from across the LoC. The tumultuous confluence of the two is near the Brigade Camp, close to the Tourist Bungalow where I’ll be staying in Dawar, the ‘capital’ of Gurez. The Kishanganga itself debouches into the Neelam River, across the LoC. Before India and Pakistan firmly secured their borders, the Srinagar-Bandipora-Gurez route to the beautiful Neelam Valley was the easiest access point to climb Nanga Parbat, that magnificent mountain that marks the western end of the Great Himalayan Range.

Villagers of the Talial Valley, along the Gurez-Drass Road
Villagers of the Talial Valley, along the Gurez-Drass Road

Exploring Gurez Valley

Forest-clad slopes set against snowy peaks hurtle past as we enter the verdant bowl of the Gurez valley, bound for Dawar. These great mountains, home to the snow leopard, hangul, musk deer and markhor, are legendary for their botanical wealth. The crystalline Kishanganga falls on the left, but my eyes are drawn to the great pyramid-shaped mountain that straddles the valley separating it from Talial — Habba Khatoon, or Zoonie, named after the legendary poetess said to have stolen the heart of Kashmiri king Yusuf Shah Chak (1580-86), eventually becoming his wife. While Yusuf Shah Chak was imprisoned by the Mughal Emperor Akbar, she roamed these parts yearning for him, and the area abounds with the legends of Habba and the king.

We forge on, past ponies fattening on the legendary grasslands of Gurez, whose horses were treasured along the length of the old trade route for their sturdiness. This region also used to be a staging post for expeditions to the British garrison at Gilgit. At Dawar, Sonaullah Akhoon, a retired school-teacher who works with the JKTDC guest house located near the Brigade Camp, receives me warmly. Up on a lofty ridge a lone soldier stands at the picket, facing across the LoC. After a late lunch, we set off again along the old Gilgit Transport Road. In 20 minutes we’re at the last village, Chorwan aka Sandyal, on the Indian side of the LoC. A soldier at the checkpost steps up, asks us our business and firmly but politely tells us we can go no further. The first village on the Pakistani side — once a part of undivided Gurez — is less than 15 minutes walk away. Standing at the checkpost, looking longingly at the road snaking off beyond towards Burzil Pass and on to Astore-Gilgit, I’m reminded that these were the playing fields of The Great Game, the tussle for supremacy between the British Empire and Tsarist Russia, a struggle for trade and territory. Later games cut this beautiful Himalayan valley in two, separating her people.

I return to Dawar, past the village where children play as their parents prepare their small fields for a new crop. I find a woman digging by the roadside, recovering the potatoes she has stored deep in the earth at the beginning of the long, hard winter. Life is tough here. Living in isolation for six months, the Gurezis need to stock up on food, fodder and fuel. They also need to clear the snow almost as fast as its falls in the lanes, on houses, on shops, lest it pile up 20 ft high.

Exploring Talial Valley

Gurez not only connects Kashmir to Gilgit, it is also another link between Kashmir and Drass in Ladakh along the Gurez-Drass Road, built less than a decade ago. The entire stretch of the road to Drass is yet to be opened to civilian traffic, but you can drive deep into the Talial Valley, also home to the Dards. The next morning finds us sweeping along this mountain road beyond Habba Khatoon into Talial. The narrow valley opens up with clusters of traditional mud-and-log Dard habitations clinging to the hillsides on either side of the river, under the shadow of the peaks set against a blue sky. We are hoping to get to Chakvali, the last village that joins the beginning of the Drass Road, which is closed to all but military vehicles. We follow the patchy mountain road past village after village with their curious but welcoming inhabitants. Barnai, Kashpat, Zedgay, Purana Talial, Danghithal, Sheikhpura, Gobaz… At the last, a smiling soldier tells us he’s homesick for Varanasi. Elsewhere a Sikh officer from Hoshiarpur offers us tea. Bihari labourers relax by the roadside, where they’re working on strengthening the river bank.

Then, Neeru with its helipad, Badugam with its secondary school, past the water mills and on toBuglunder, where we get stuck in the deep mud. We hadn’t accounted for the slush created by the snowmelt and roadwork. And so, the giggling children, the lady carrying a plank of wood and the men, all push and puff and get us out! We head to Gundugul Sheikh, where a tourist officer on leave offers us lunch at his home. We tuck into Dard-style chicken washed down with strong tea and gulab jamun.

We don’t have enough time to make it to Chakvali before darkness descends, so we head back to Dawar. We’ll be back again. After all, the journey is the destination, and Gurez and Talial reveal that beyond clichés.

WHERE TO STAY AND EAT

The base for stay in Gurez is the clean and comfortable JKTDC Tourist Bungalow (Tel: 01957-255284; Tariff: ₹500- 700) at Dawar. Book ahead with the Gulmarg Tourist Office. The bungalow has 5 rooms and 2 dorms (10 beds/18 beds) and there are several log huts. Warm bedding and hot water are available, but for your meals, head for Noorani and Sikander restaurants in the village. The very helpful Ghulam Mohammad and Sonaullah Akhoon from the tourist bungalow can help set you up in the 6- room Roads & Building Department Bungalow if the tourist bungalow is full. Food here is far simpler than in the Vale of Kashmir. Gurezi cuisine is simple and hearty. Mutton, beef and chicken curries, potatoes, rajma and turnips are mainstays. Ask for trumba ki roti, made from a small grained cereal, and kalari, a strong cheese made from sheep’s milk, and eaten with a green chilly chutney.

The Permit Process

Everyone, Indians and foreigners alike, needs a permit to visit the Gurez and Talial valleys. Getting one involves complicated procedures. First, write to the Superintendent of Police or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC Srinagar (Tel: 0194- 2477224) at least a month ahead of your visit for a copy of the permit application form. Hopefully these will be available online soon.

Fill in the form and attach two photographs and copy of ID proof (foreigners must attach copies of their passports too). You must also attach a no-objection certificate from the SHO of your local police station, for which you will need a further copy of ID proof and 2 photos. This step may be dropped soon, but for now, this police verification is a must. Follow up with the SHO to ensure it gets done. Courier all these original papers at least 15 days before your date of travel to The Superintendent of Police or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC, Srinagar. Follow up with the courier service as Srinagar is notorious for delays. Fortunately, you have an angel to the rescue in the form of Assistant Director Faheem (Tel: 01954-254439/87; Email: adtfaheem[at]gmail.com, gulmargtourism[at]gmail.com) at the Gulmarg Tourist Office. You can simultaneously email him copies of your application and documents, as I did, to ensure that they are processed. Then personally collect the permit from the Tourism Enforcement Counter at the TRC in Srinagar. The TRC can also arrange a taxi and the driver’s papers for travel in Gurez.

With permit in hand, you are free to travel, but you will need to show the permit at Bandipore Checkpost and further along the way. Travel in Gurez has to be completed within the 15 days stipulated in the permit.

FAST FACTS

When to go June to September are the only months when the Gurez and Talial valleys are free of snow. The 2-day Gurez Festival is held in mid-August

Tourist Offices

J&K Tourism, Director General, TRC, Srinagar, Tel: 0194-2479548, 2472449, Website: jktourism.org

J&K Tourism, Assistant Director, Gulmarg,Tel: 01954-254487, 254439, Mobile: 09419708180

JKTDC, TRC, Srinagar; Tel: 2472644, 2457930, Website: jktdc.co.in

Permits

Superintendent of Police, or Deputy Director Tourism, Tourism Enforcement Counter, TRC Srinagar; Tel: 2477224, STD Code 01952 

GETTING THERE

Location The Gurez Valley is spread over a height of 8,500 ft in Bandipore District’s Kishanganga Valley below the Great Himalayan Range, along the border with Pakistan-occupied Kashmir (PoK) near Gilgit. The Line of Control (LoC) cuts through the valley. Gurez Valley’s main town is Dawar, the old capital of Dardistan and an important archaeological site. The Habba Khatoon Mountain separates the Gurez Valley from the Talial Valley, which leads to Drass in Ladakh’s Kargil District

Distances Dawar is 70 km N of Bandipore and 128 km N of Srinagar JOURNEY TIME By road 6 hrs from Srinagar

Route from Srinagar Srinagar-Bandipore state highway to Bandipore via Shadipora, Sumbal and Wular Vantage Park; Bandipore-Gurez Road to Dawar via Mantrigam, Tragbal, Razdan Pass and Kunzalwan

Air Nearest airport: Sheikh-ul-Alam Airport, Srinagar (Tel: 0194-2303000/31, 2303635), connected to Delhi, Mumbai, Leh and Jammu by Air India, SpiceJet, Indigo and Go Air. A taxi to the TRC Srinagar costs ₹500. Collect your permit for Gurez here before proceeding on the 128 km/6 hr drive to Gurez

Rail Nearest railhead: Jammu Tawi Station (426 km/15 hrs). From Jammu, travel to Srinagar (9 hrs; taxi ₹4,500, shared taxi ₹600, JKSRTC deluxe bus ₹500). You must collect your permit for Gurez from the TRC in Srinagar before proceeding on the 128-km mountainous drive to Gurez (6 hrs), hence it’s best to make a night halt at Srinagar and start off early next morning

Road Book a high ground clearance vehicle (Sumo/ Tavera) in advance from Taxi Stand No 1 (Tel: 0194-2452527) near the TRC, as you will be driving through mountainous area once you leave Bandipore. It costs approx ₹3,500- 4,000 per day. The drive from Srinagar follows the Bandipore Road north from HMT Crossing, on to Shadipora, Sumbal, along the western edge of Manasbal Lake and past Wular Lake to Bandipore. A short distance into Bandipore is Kharpora Chowk; turn right here onto the Gurez Road. Ahead of Mantrigam, 5 km away, the 58-km climb up the hills begins, going over the Razdan Pass topped by the shrine of Peer Baba, before descending into the Kishanganga Valley at Kunzalwan, where the road turns right to Dawar

For Booking / More Information
Please Visit 
www.JKLTravels.com / www.KashmirTravels.in / www.MountainValleyKashmir.com