Postcard from the High Himalayas

I had planned to travel to Gurez on the 2nd of September but you always have to be flexible with your plans in Srinagar. As it happened, the internet and the phone lines in the Valley were cut when a prominent leader, Syed Ali Shah Geelani, passed away late at night on the 1st of September. I therefore had to delay my trip to Gurez by a week. Someone once told me that travelling through Kashmir teaches you patience – you can say that again.

For many years, I had dreamt of walking at the foot of Habba Khatoon Mountain in the Gurez valley with my friends. But I had to return to London halfway through my trip, in August 2019, when a military lockdown was imposed on Srinagar for seven months. However, this time I failed to persuade friends or relatives – with one exception – to accompany me to the remote Himalayan valley. Most of the city dwellers in Srinagar shy away from the mountains, unlike people living in cities in Switzerland who often head to the mountains for fresh air. In the end, I was able to count on only one friend, Shabir Lalla, an intrepid traveller who obliged me by driving me to Gurez himself despite his numerous business preoccupations. He swapped his compact car for a four-wheel drive belonging to his brother-in-law, who was astonished when he heard that we were travelling to Gurez. And a friend in America sent me a message expressing wonder at how I was able to arrange this trip, given the turmoil in Kashmir. 

I had been warned by another friend that it would be a bumpy ride on one lengthy section of the road to Gurez and he advised me to leave Srinagar very early. It still took us more than an hour to drive out of the town through the heavy traffic. On the way to Bandipora, we stopped at a vantage point that has been turned into a landscaped park offering a bird’s eye view of the vast expanse of Wular lake. There wasn’t much water in the lake, though, so little, in fact, that you could see cattle grazing in the middle of it. You could also see a costume drama being filmed in the park for television.

I recalled a school trip to Bandipora when I was a lad, and the sight of a mountain stream flowing through a place called Sonarwani. A few miles after one drives past Bandipora, the road branches into two. A lone soldier carrying a hefty rifle stood there and we asked him for directions. I had been forewarned that we’d have to pass through a number of checkpoints on the way to Dawar in Gurez and I shouldn’t forget to carry some ID with me. 

Driving up the mountain road you could hear the songs in unison of a thousand cicadas clamped to the pine trees. An army camp at the top of the mountain was shrouded in the mist. A commanding officer was boarding a vehicle guarded by soldiers standing inside a Suzuki Gypsy holding rifles with one hand and the frame of the vehicle with the other. I asked Shabir to keep a safe distance lest they hit a bump and pull the triggers by accident. 

Two or three cars ahead of us had come to a halt near a checkpoint. When we stopped, a policeman came over to inform us that the driver of the car should walk to a cabin built on a slope for registration purposes. He was followed by a soldier who scanned our vehicle with a searching gaze. I handed my ID to Shabir and then remembered that a sharp knife for cutting apples happened to be in a bag on our car seat. I placed it inside the glove compartment but then had second thoughts and put the knife back inside the bag in case they asked me to open the compartment at the next checkpoint. When Shabir returned he told me that he was asked about the purpose of our visit to Gurez before they issued a token for his car to be shown at the checkpoint on our way back. 

We had to stop at one more checkpoint before reaching Kanzalwan. A banner bore the words ‘Gurez Valley Tourism’ with the sub-heading ‘Militarised Zone’. It also forbade visitors from taking any photos of army personnel, stating that the area was out of bounds, omitting the letter ‘u’ in the last word, thereby rendering it ‘out of bonds’. Surprisingly – or perhaps not – tourism in Gurez is being promoted by a high-ranking police officer who was recently transferred there. 

On seeing the Kishanganga river for the first time, I was struck by its colour: I’d never before seen a river so purely ultramarine. It crosses to the other side of the de facto border between India and Pakistan after flowing through Gurez. The river is known as Neelum over there, meaning blue sapphire. Incidentally, this precious blue sapphire is mined in Kashmir.

The building of a dam on the Kishanganga has turned the river into a glistening lake. However, when you drive further along the road on the edge of the dam, you realize that many more houses would

have been submerged by it if the dam had been built as high as originally envisioned.  The construction of this dam has caused consternation among the people living downstream on the other side of the border. A herd of cattle had recently drifted there and their owner was pleading with the government for permission to bring them back.

A friend in Srinagar who had recently been to Gurez suggested that I pitch a tent on the banks of Kishanganga in Wampora but I couldn’t find any camping site there. I was told later that the camping season had already finished although it was only early September and still warm in Gurez.

We were welcomed in Dawar by Javid, an acquaintance of Shabir who lives in the town. He had arranged accommodation for us in a family-run hotel called Kaka Palace, named after its patriarch. He had already changed the reservation twice by the time we got there. 

After dropping our bags at Kaka Palace, Javid took us for a walk. He wanted to show us a spring near Habba Khatoon Mountain, which is named after a 16th-century poet who had enticed the last king of Kashmir, Yusuf Shah Chak, with her fine words. It was always a moving experience for me as a child to see Habba Khatoon’s biopic on our local TV channel, Srinagar Doordarshan. Her ‘life closed twice before its close’, to borrow a line from her fellow poet on another continent, Emily Dickinson. Habba Khatoon was first married to a man who was full of rage and she suffered immeasurably in that relationship. The second husband, King Yusuf Shah, made her a queen but he was sent into exile to Bihar by the Mughal emperor, Akbar. After this, Habba Khatoon roamed the mountain in Gurez at a loss. Immortality as a poet was unveiled to her as her third distinction, just as it transpired with Emily Dickenson. Habba Khatoon became renowned after her death, so much so that an eminent 20th-century Kashmiri poet, Mehjoor, expressed a wish to be buried beside her. 

The next morning I got up early to see the Habba Khatoon Mountain up close. I heard Bollywood-style devotional songs being played at an army camp in the town. There was a checkpoint on the road leading to the Mountain. A couple of motorists had stopped there but I wasn’t sure if pedestrians had to ask for permission to cross as well. A Kashmiri policeman standing near the post nodded as I walked past him. 

On my return, I was greeted by a man who asked me what had brought me to his hometown. He told me that the chances of finding a job in Gurez were slim and I felt some empathy. After some chitchat, it dawned on me that he’d been fishing for a job, perhaps mistaking me for a civil servant or a corporate bigwig. 

Habba Khatoon Mountain looks like a monolith and changes colour from the time the sun rises behind it to when it sets on the other side. At midday, Javid drove us off-route to a place where we could see the valley from above. I had seen a few photos of this valley but the actual landscape looks considerably more dramatic. He told me it was the pathway of avalanches in the winter and pointed out a plateau where a large water tank had been swept away by the snow.  A clearing on the wooded mountain had the words ‘Jashne Gurez’ painted on it in white and could be seen from afar, heralding a tourist festival in the town. Only a small number of tourists visited Gurez in 2019 but the number has gone up significantly in 2021 despite the disruption in travel caused by the pandemic.

I would have loved to stay one more night in Gurez but I had to take a PCR test in Srinagar before I could fly back to London and was therefore hard-pressed for time. We left Dawar at 1 o’clock so that we could have afternoon tea near Razdan Pass. We had stopped at a tea stall on our way in but it had already closed for the day. We parked our car on a mountaintop to make our own cuppa and lit a small gas cooker on the kerbside but even then we had to shield it from the breeze. The silence over this vast mountainous landscape was absolute and you would see another car on the road only after a long interval. To drink a cup of chai while sitting on a rock on the roof of the world is an unforgettable experience. On another mountaintop, we could see concrete huts occupied by the army. However, the soldiers were out of sight, though perhaps watching us through their binoculars. The scenery was breathtaking enough and the chai refreshing enough to be worth running the risk of attracting their attention. 

One reply on “Postcard from the High Himalayas”

What an interesting account: I am glad you are safe. Were the situation easier there I would enjoy visiting myself… though I am sad to hear the lake is drying up. Good wishes. Joan

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