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Gurez valley: The hidden jewel of Kashmir

Gurez Valley in Jammu and Kashmir is becoming a prime tourist destination post-ceasefire. Once isolated, the region now promotes eco-friendly tourism to protect its environment and heritage

By Ground report
New Update
gurez valley kashmir

No one ever had any doubt that if there is heaven on earth, it is in Jammu and Kashmir. There are many places in Jammu and Kashmir where you can visit and have a lot of fun. Gurez Valley is one of the most beautiful places in Jammu and Kashmir. In the northernmost part of Kashmir, between snow-capped Himalayan peaks and lush valleys, lies a place that time nearly forgot. The Gurez Valley, once a stopover on the Silk Road, is emerging from isolation to become one of India's promising tourist destinations.

Located in North Kashmir's Bandipora district, near the Line of Control (LoC) with Pakistan, Gurez has been off-limits to visitors due to its sensitive location and border tensions. But recent developments, including a 2021 ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan, have revived this remote region and its indigenous Shina tribal community.

Gurez has a rich history, and Herodotus mentioned the Dard tribe, ancestors of today's Shina people, in his 5th century B.C. writings. For centuries, Gurez was a crucial link on the trade route connecting Kashmir with Kashgar in China's Xinjiang province, making the Dard a powerful and prosperous people.

Sir Walter Roper Lawrence, the first Settlement Commissioner of Kashmir, visited Gurez in 1894 and was captivated by its beauty. In his 1895 work, "The Valley of Kashmir," he described Gurez as "the most beautiful of the 'Margs' of Kashmir, those lovely grass stretches, surrounded by forests, at an elevation of 7,000 to 9,000 meters."

Lawrence's prediction that Gurez could become one of Kashmir's most popular Himalayan destinations is finally coming true, over 125 years later.

From conflict zone to tourist paradise

For decades, Gurez's proximity to the LoC has made it a flashpoint in India-Pakistan relations. In November 2016, heavy mortar shelling forced residents to flee. The constant threat of violence and Gurez's extreme isolation – the valley is cut off for nearly six months each year due to heavy snowfall – has hindered development and economic growth.

The 2021 ceasefire agreement brought relative peace and stability. Efforts by the local government and Indian Army to promote tourism have turned Gurez into a burgeoning tourist hotspot.

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Back then, the Deputy Commissioner of Bandipora, Dr. Owais (IAS), highlights Gurez's tourism potential, "Gurez has significant potential for tourism, including sightseeing, water and adventure sports that can improve the socio-economic condition of the people."

Instead of rushing into large-scale development, Gurez is taking a measured, sustainable approach to tourism. The focus is on eco-friendly accommodations that preserve the valley's natural beauty and provide economic opportunities for locals.

Fifteen homestays are established, with more in the works. Also, 20 permits are granted for tented accommodations along the Kishanganga River, each hosting up to 300 tourists. This approach minimizes environmental impact and spreads tourism benefits evenly among the local population.

Aijaz Ahmad Dar, a formerly unemployed postgraduate from Dawar village, exemplifies this new wave of local entrepreneurship. He invested in tents for 60 tourists, with startup costs as low as 20,000 to 25,000 rupees ($240-$300) for an eight-person tent. "We have no threat of losing business due to any disturbance," Dar says, highlighting the flexibility of this model. "In case of ceasefire violations, we have nothing to lose; we can pack up and leave."

The Indian Army has played a crucial role in this tourism push, guiding homestay owners through registration processes, improving housekeeping standards, and implementing waste management practices.

“We want to live in peace and stability. We must keep humanity alive. We must continue working for the construction of the nation. Work on tourism, growth of the poor and the economy,” said Mohammad Ilyas, a resident of the Karnah sector.

Challenges and concerns

The influx of tourists brings economic opportunity but raises environmental concerns. The Kishanganga River, the valley's lifeblood, is facing pollution issues. Local resident Shamsudin Lone notes, "The government seems least bothered about waste management; it ultimately goes into the river."

Deputy Commissioner Dr. Owais acknowledges the challenges and states that plans are being developed to ensure proper waste treatment as tourist numbers increase. The Department of Rural Development is handling waste collection, and locals have been provided with separate dustbins for waste segregation.

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As Gurez opens up, there's a concerted effort to preserve the unique Dard culture. More than a dozen small cultural groups exist in the valley, with the Habba Khatoon Dramatic Club, established in 1979, being one of the oldest. Fareed Ahmad Khallo, who heads the club, emphasizes that their performances are to keep their traditions alive, "During winters, when Gurez remains cut off, we assemble and perform for our entertainment."

The annual Gurez Festival, held between June and August, showcases local culture, cuisine, and geography. The government invites celebrities, social media influencers, and tour operators to experience the valley's unique offerings.

The Indian Army in Gurez goes beyond security. Soldiers serve as first responders during emergencies, especially in winter when the valley is cut off. This relationship extends to tourism, with army personnel encouraging and supporting local entrepreneurship.

A Bright Future

With peace along the LoC, Gurez is set to fulfill Sir Walter Lawrence's century-old prediction. From May to October, the valley offers trekking, water sports, cultural experiences, and breathtaking scenery.

Gurez’s transformation from a conflict-ridden area to a tourist destination showcases its people’s resilience and sustainable development. As visitor numbers grow and the economy diversifies, the challenge is to balance progress with preservation, ensuring that Gurez’s unique culture and pristine environment are protected.

Gurez is one of the favourite destinations of foreign tourists looking for exciting trekking adventures. Hiking trails from Gurez and neighbouring Tulial lead to Gangabal and Sonamarg to the east and Drass, Dha-Hanu and Zanskar to the north.

Main attractions in Gurez

Razdan Pass: Situated at an altitude of 3300m, Razdan Pass is the highest point between Gurez and Bandipora. The Razdan Pass offers some of the most panoramic views of the high mountains and deep gorges. This pass is very close to the Line of Control.

Dawar

Dawar is the central part of the Gurez Valley which extends over fifteen villages. Dawar is the best place in the valley to get a taste of country life. It is an important archaeological site in the valley.

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Tulail Valley

Tulail is located at a distance of about 40 km from Dawar, it is a group of 5-10 villages. The incomparable beauty of this valley is beyond description. Since it is very close to LOC, prior permission from the armed forces is required to visit this beautiful valley. A perfect combination of green and brown tint meadows and mountains, the place makes a perfect combination of Gulmarg and Pahalgam.

Harmukh

Regarded as the Abode of Lord Shiva according to Kashmiri Hindu theology, Harmukh is a mountain with a maximum elevation of 5,142 meters (16,870 ft), in the Ganderbal district of Jammu and Kashmir. It is located between Gangabal Lake in the south and the KishanGanga/Neelum River in the north. Snow-capped Harmukh Peak offers a spectacular view of the Gurez Valley.

Flora and fauna

The flora and fauna of Gurez is very rich and diverse. From Himalayan brown bears to snow leopards, Gurez is home to different species of animals and birds.

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