You’ve probably read to death about the mainstream must-see destinations in Kashmir, right from Gulmarg to Phalgam, Sonmarg and Srinagar. I wanted to explore the beauty of Kashmir from a different vantage point. If you too are looking to indulge in sights that are off the beaten path, this look-back at my journey will inspire you to explore the hidden gems of Kashmir.
I started my research in January this year, and zeroed in on exploring the untouched beauties around North and South Kashmir. Heading off the beaten path and being one with nature is a wonderfully liberating experience. I believe it is “better to see something once than hear about it a thousand times”.
Arranging the tour on my own turned out to be a challenge, as most of the areas don’t have proper connectivity via phone or email. Having run out of patience after trying for a while, I decided to book through a travel agency only to discover that a majority of them don’t cater to the areas I was aiming for. Finally, one travel agency – www.greenkashmirtravels.com – agreed to my plan.
Finally, our journey was planned for May 2018. Even the driver assigned to take us around had not visited a majority of places on our itinerary in his last 10 years of working in Kashmir.
When we announced over plans to friends and families, the unanimous reaction was – ‘Have you gone nuts? Why the hell do you want to risk your life?’ Their concerns amplified manifold as our travel plan covered a few sensitive areas close to the LoC. Things took a turn for the worse just a week before our travel when news of attack on some tourists broke.
But incidents like these could happen anywhere, so brushing the concerns aside, we (two families including three kids) decided to go ahead with a positive attitude. Having experienced the unadulterated beauty of this land, I’m glad we went ahead with our trip.
So, the trip-o-meter was like this:
South Kashmir – Kokernag, Daksum, Sinthan Top, Verinag and Yousmarg
North Kashmir – Gurez and Lolab Valley
In this part, I cover favourite location from the trip – Gurez Valley
Gurez deserves the number one spot for its truly magical beauty and mystical landscape. Nature dominates this land that is still largely untouched by human definition of development, and humanity keeps a wide-eyed but low profile. A new mind-blowing view specially crafted by nature’s hand to completely knock your socks off awaits you at every curve and bend. The serene beauty apart, Gurez is also a place of key historic importance. Kashmir was once connected to Gilgit via Silk Route, and the road cuts through Gurez.
The journey was tough as the road conditions are really poor. It took us 8 hours to cover a 150 km stretch. From huge pot holes to sluggish muddy roads, crossing water stream to traversing through rocky terrain, our vehicle meandered through slowly but steadily. The best part is you won’t pay attention to any of these discomforts as the scenic views around hold you spell-bound.
You have to brace yourself for intensive security and identity checks at various check posts en route. The army personnel were extremely friendly and down to earth. For every 5 minutes of delay, there was an apology from them followed by a cup of hot tea. The villager’s hospitality was unmatchable too. For me, the caring outlook of these humble people was one of the biggest highlights of the trip. With simple gestures and reassuring words like ‘sab khairiyat hai, kuch bhi ho humko bol dena’, they made us feel comfortable and secure in a land far away from home. A hallmark of the much-famed Kashmiri hospitality.
Srinagar – Bandipora – Wular Lake – Tragbal (the last stop where you will find a road-side dhaba) – Razdan Pass – Dawar (our base camp)
Places to See in, and on the way to, Gurez
Wular Lake – A majestic view of Asia’s biggest freshwater lake
Razdan Pass – The snow capped mountain with a very low visibility
The Peer Baba shrine on Razdan pass
Tulail Valley and villages like Barnoi, Sheikpora ,Badugam and Bagtore. If you travel close to 90km you will reach the last village Chakwali. The army doesn’t allow tourist movement beyond this point. We only ventured around 25 kms into Tulail valley.
Habba Khatoon – A pyramid-shaped mountain named after the legendary poetess.
Where to Stay
Dawar Guest house run by JK Tourism offers a decent stay for 1000 Rs/night. Ph: 01957-255284
Kaka Palace – A private lodging option. Contact details: 0195 255232, 9469389643; firstname.lastname@example.org
Dawar Dak Bungalow – Information available on tourism helpline numbers 0194-2472449, 0194-2452690
Where to Eat
Noorani Hotel – The owner, Mustafa, also organizes local sight-seeing trips on request. Contact – 9469045449
Other Key Things to Note
Expect only bare minimum facilities at your accommodation. Some villagers offer home stays, but we didn’t try those. Cleanliness is a big factor to consider while finalising a lodging option. One has to be prepared to make a few compromises when travelling to offbeat locations. Don’t expect any internet connectivity and be prepared to be cut-off from the rest of the world. BSNL is the only service provider functional in the area and even their connectivity is dodgy.
The valley has limited electricity and power is typically available only from 7pm to 11pm. May to September is the best time to visit. From September to Feb the valley is completely cut off due to heavy snowfall. Nowadays, a helicopter service is also available for Rs 3,000 per head and a minimum of five passengers. It takes about 30 minutes to reach the valley from Srinagar.
Weather did play spoil sport throughout our trip. I did not see a single sunrise or sunset during the entire stay. My hopes of shooting sunset were dashed completely. My driver summed up the weather conditions perfectly, ‘Sir ji, Mumbai ke fashion aur Kashmir ke mausam ka koi barosa nahin.’