This week’s dream
Returning to Kashmir’s Gurez Valley
The Gurez Valley appears, at first glimpse, as if “plucked intact from a folktale,” said Michael Benanav in The New York Times. Over the past century, this beautiful region high in the Himalayas has had little contact with the outside world, especially since 1947, when India and Pakistan began fighting over Kashmir, and Gurez was closed to visitors. Ten years ago, a friend and I leaped at the chance to hike through the valley shortly after the ban was lifted, and I was so dazzled that I vowed to return a decade later. To my eyes, “it might have been Shangri-la: Waterfalls tumbled down fluted slopes dusted with emerald grasses, snowy summits towered in the distance, and crooked wooden villages dotted the landscape.”
Happily, little has changed in Gurez itself. When I returned this spring with a new traveling companion, we were treated again with “warmth and amazement.” Guesthouses had popped up here and there, but we mostly stayed with families we met by chance, all of them steeped in a long tradition of hospitality that dates at least to the valley’s years as a Silk Road hub. “Children often followed us around, fascinated,” and some people remembered me from my first trip. They were thrilled when I showed them photos I’d taken in 2008. I left the pictures as gifts.
Army outposts, checkpoints, and razor-wire fences reminded me that Gurez is still not Shangri-la: It’s a contested border area that closely parallels “one of the world’s most militarized frontiers.” The day before we arrived, Kashmir’s government collapsed, and reports of killings by security forces filled the news. But Gurez itself remained peaceful. It’s “the rare nook of Kashmir where the Indian Army is on good terms with the local population.” Once, two officers “no less hospitable than local families” invited us into their outpost for tea and snacks. Later, we met a professor from Dawar who arranged for the Habba Khatoon Dramatic Club to stage an impromptu show. When the dances and Shina ballads ended, the troupe declined to be paid. “It was their duty, the lead singer said, and they were happy to do it.”
At Bandipora’s Kaka Palace Guest House (kakapalace.business.site), rooms start at $36. ■