Beyond the Razdan Pass in North Kashmir’s Bandipora district, the mountain peaks alternately placed one after the other (of different heights) station forces from India and Pakistan. These mountains are tens in number and there is no visible Line of Actual Control at the peaks. Cradled amid these peaks is Gurez, a valley of silence in otherwise volatile borders of Jammu and Kashmir.
Although there is a First Line of Defence (FLOD) placed way below the peaks on the Indian side, soldiers are in position at the top. The peaks are so high that these army posts literally disappear into the clouds. Since these mountains are almost inaccessible in winters, the concertina wires forming FLOD often called “LOC” by locals serve as blockades to possible infiltration from the Pakistani side.
“There is calmness now. Earlier groups of tens of militants would infiltrate through gaps in these mountains. Many would get killed. This was even more beautiful than how it looks today. There were springs all around here. The firing of artillery devastated most of the beauty,” said a local Akhter Khan.
Nestled in very high peaks, Gurez is surrounded by Pakistan almost on three sides. The only open side faces central Kashmir, from where it takes 5 hours by car to reach Gurez. The area remains largely cut off from the rest of the world for almost 4 months given the winter. It is usually the first or the second snowfall of the winter that leads to the complete closure of the road to Gurez.
“The army facilitates most of the things here. This is a terrain. Even apart from winters, to reach here is a crisis, given the tumultuous road. Since the army has their stocks to ferry and convoy too, it is made sure that road is repaired soon,” a local Tanveer Ahmed said.
Tanveer along with another local Yasir Ahmed are college pass-outs and in absence of government jobs, they have set up tourist camping sites like much other youth of Gurez. As there are very less hotels to stay in, they say, this is a very efficient model which involves less investment and negligible damage to the environment with good returns.
“The tourism department allots us a piece of land but we cannot construct anything on it. Even we cannot put a boundary wall. The only thing allowed is putting tents on this place,” Tanveer said. He has rented land of almost one Kanal where he has stationed 10 six-person tents, charging 500 for each tent for a night.
“We also keep the place we rented clean,” he said adding he had to 25000 rupees for a year as rent for this land. These camping sites are a refuge for almost all the locals coming to Gurez. However, there is a fear associated with it. There are brown bears all around the place as Gurez is a forest block. “It is highly advised for independent camping groups to set up bonfires through the night,” said a local wildlife official adding this avoids bear attacks.
He also said that there are well-established trails for these bears who walk down the forests at the night to drink water and eat fish from the Kishan Ganga River. The tents, therefore, are advised to be kept away from these trails. The Kishen Ganga river originating from the Kishansar river flows down to Pakistan-Occupied Kashmir and is called the Neelum river over there.
Unlike most Kashmir, the army lives hand in glove with the locals. In fact, one of the best cafes in the whole of Gurez valley, the Loghut café is run by the army itself. From waiters to chefs, the army has its own employees in the café.
Beyond Gurez is the Tulail valley, some 35 kilometres away, and ahead of that lies Checkwali and Kabaoli Gali, the next locations have a similar landscape to that of Dawar but see very less crowd given the absence of a concrete road leading there.
There is a school in Tulail as well with 52 students but there is no college. For those wishing to pursue graduation, they have to visit Gurez. There as well only a Bachelor of Arts Degree is available. For those wishing to pursue a graduation in science or any other stream, they have to travel to Srinagar or Bandipora colleges.
“No one really visits here. The media comes to us only when there is a war. The administration comes when they have to hold any function over here,” says a teacher posted at one of the government schools near Tulail. He said under the Gurez zone, more than a hundred schools teaching these tribal students are functioning but there is no private school.
“Apart from government schools in Dawar, there is just one army goodwill school,” he said adding it gets very difficult for students to commute as winter approaches. The valley of Gurez, especially the village Dawar is bisected by the Kishanganga river and has camping areas on both sides of it. There is also a hilltop named Habba Khatoon.
Khatoon was a poetess, who initially hailed from Chandhara town of the Pampore area in South Kashmir. Called Zoon (Moon) due to her beauty, she was married to a peasant who apparently would mistreat her. The marriage culminated in divorce in just a few years.
Reportedly, there was a tribal fighter Yusuf Shah Chak from Gurez who later became the ruler of Kashmir and fell in love with Khatoon. Khatoon who would jot her misery into poems used to sing under a giant maple tree in her village, Chandhara.
It is said that Chak would often go hunting there and once hearing the singing of Khatoon, he was lured to her and got married. Later ruling Kashmir till 1589 AD, Chaks lost Kashmir to the Mughals but would give a tough fight to them. It was Akbar who annexed Kashmir from Chak after Himayun and Babur failed to.
But still, there were intermittent skirmishes, and irritated by this, Akbar called Chak to Delhi for a resolutory pact. With Khatoon in Gurez when Chak was to leave for Delhi, she had objected to him saying it must be a ‘trap’. But with no choice left in front of Akbar’s longstanding army, Chak went to Delhi and was later jailed in Bihar.
It is also said that once Chak was imprisoned, Khatoon would sit near this Habba Khatoon mountain and call upon her imprisoned love. This mountain overlooking the town of Dawar also looks different than the rest. It sits away, a bit alone from a line of green mountains in Gurez, and really has no life on it. Shaped like a pyramid, it is a big strong rock, mostly covered by clouds.
The whole mountain range there in Gurez is called the Harmukh and Khatoon has written about it after Chak was imprisoned.
“Harmukh bar tal praraey madano, Yee dapham tee lagyoo (My love, I will wait at the gates of Harmukh for you. Whatever you ask me, my love, I am ready to offer you that)” she wrote.