For Pure Offbeat Travel Experience in Kashmir, Go Straight to Gurez

My Story of How I Failed On the Easiest Trek in Kashmir
July 23, 2017
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What image does your mind conjure when I say Kashmir? Fire. Riots. Militants. Indian Army. Curfew. Blood. Gore. Tear gas.

The thing about Kashmir is that the moment you express a desire to visit its untamed lands, there is always someone telling you to drop the idea for your own good.

Let’s try again. I will simply reverse engineer this and throw some words at you, tell me the first thing that comes to your mind. Paradise. Mountains. Chinar. Tree lined avenues. Hospitality. Unspoiled beauty.

See where I am going with this?

“I backpacked in Kashmir for 40 days, as a solo woman and felt that it is like a mirage. Everyone wants to visit there but rarely ever finds the courage to do so. I can feel the exaggeration even as I write these words and you will read why.”

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Razdan Top

When I first told my parents about my travel plans, they concluded that my foolishness has reached an all new level. They asked me to simply google Kashmir, which I stupidly did and the first thing I saw was news about a stone pelting incident here and a curfew there. My heart skipped a beat. I am an adventurer but I calculate my risks, after all my chances of making out alive should be higher, no? But as they say, heart wants what the heart wants!

I didn’t even know about Gurez until I chanced upon it in a movie called Highway. That one short scene where Alia Bhatt is romancing her captor, Randeep Hooda, in some valley speckled with snow capped mountains, pine trees, wooden huts and sheep. I paused the movie and got online to search for its filming locations. Voila! Seconds later Wikipedia told me that the place is called Gurez and it is located in North Kashmir.

This is the closest you’ll ever be to the militants. NOT!

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What does he look like to you?

Have you ever been told how going to Kashmir is poorest of travel decisions? I don’t even have a number anymore for the times I have been called crazy. It just makes you want to kick yourself for making the choices that elicit such strong reactions. If Srinagar made people question my sanity, Gurez drove them over the edge.

So, I am going to Gurez, I tell my friends. Where is that? They ask curiously, they like my knack for finding hidden spots. I tell them, Kashmir North Kashmir. And all hell broke loose! What business do you have in North Kashmir? But that is close to LOC? Are you mad? Militants will kidnap you for ransom. Who the fuck goes to Kashmir amid unrest and more so close to the border? Are you out of your mind? Thus began the ranting *rolls eyes*

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View of Lake Wular on the way

That was 6 months ago. Today I want to tell you right here, right now that I went to Gurez, I went as close to the border as a civilian possibly can. No, I do not have a death wish and No I didn’t meet any militants (Please, for the love of god, stop asking me this). Will I recommend this to you? Hell, yea!

To The Base of Habba Khatoon

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No caption needed!

Dawar, or home to Habba Khatoon, the posthumously famous Kashmiri poetess, is a town headquarter and accessible to rest of Kashmir via shared cabs. Take one from Batmaloo in Srinagar up to Bandipora and then another one from Bandipora to Dawar. The journey is backbreaking but the views are jaw dropping. It takes 7 hours of rickety cab ride and awkward seating positions to get there. But oh when you do, I promise (you can quote me later if you want) your pain will disappear.

“When they said that ‘tough roads lead to beautiful destinations,’ they weren’t kidding.”

Just as you enter the district, Habba Khatoon’s perfectly triangular peak emerges in the distance. You can see the old world charm locked in its quaint villages. As was with other places in Kashmir (read about my experience here), people started inviting me home for their special Kahwa or noon chai (salted tea), especially when they learned that I am traveling alone. They requested to host my stay in their humble abodes. Did you hear that? “Requested” as if offering to help a lone stranger in strangest part of the country wasn’t enough!

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That, in the distance, is famous Habba Khatoon!

I promised to call them later and continued my journey into Dawar. I was recommended to stay at Dak Bungalow but I somehow mixed it up with Tourist Rest Center. As luck would have it, I reunited with another solo traveler that I met earlier in Pahalgam (my sad story of a failed trek, read it here) in the same guesthouse.

That awesome moment when you meet your kind of people on the road!

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My friends 😀

I don’t know about you, but I believe that there is no such thing as a coincidence. Sometimes people meet you for a reason and this particular incident proved just that. I met this guy, a traveler from Mumbai, when I was stuck in a tight curfew and wanted to leave for Srinagar urgently. He not only figured out a way, but offered me the only seat he found on a hitched ride.

Meeting him in Gurez, of all the places, was such a pleasant surprise, I still had to thank him for his kindness. When you meet travelers in offbeat places, chances are your travel preferences are going to be the same. You don’t meet selfie clicking tourists this far up, no offence!

When Your Exploration Game is Strong – To Bakhtore & Beyond

My Gurez story became so much more exciting after me and Hitesh (that traveler from Mumbai) decided to explore the village. As we were walking down the road, we noticed a tiny, wobbly bus headed to some village called Bakhtore. We flagged the bus and hopped on to it.

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The village entrance

Gurez is a conservative culture and it is unimaginable for unmarried men and women to travel jointly, let alone solo women travelers and all that urban crap! When we boarded the bus together, people automatically assumed that we are married.

 “Women asked me where “my man” was and what we were doing here. Their reactions were priceless when I told them that we were just two strangers wandering in their strange lands!”

Bringing your focus back to Bakthore, the village is about 2-3 hours away from Dawar. The ride is grueling, as expected, but breathtaking, also as expected. As we reached Bakhtore, Hitesh told me that this bus goes further down towards the last village called Tarbal. Hmm, I am on, I say. The next thing we know we are inching closer to Pakistan!

So close even Geotag picks it up as Pakistan!

Tarbal was a delight. We were stopped by Army at the entrance to secure permission from CO. Few calls later, we were walking into the last village of this sector. Don’t you think that the word “last” has such a poetic ring to it? Last village, last house, last person? Sucker for closure that I am, last is ever so inviting for me.

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Life in Tarbal happens at its own pace!

So we are walking into this fairy tale of a land where no such as thing as tourists exist. The place is so close to Pakistan border that it is common for army to deal with intruders on regular basis. The locals are almost indifferent to their skirmish and they have learnt to live their life on the edge of India. We walked deeper and deeper into Tarbal and almost always attracted curious stares from people. While being in the village was exciting, going back was dramatic!

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#TravelGoals

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The quaint village of Tarbal

It got really late as we finished exploring Tarbal. The beauty of North Kashmir is that their days are exceptionally longer. It was almost past 7.30 PM and still clear as day. But we knew that sun would set in a matter of 2 hours and we were long way from home! Thus began our struggle to make our return journey into Dawar. Lucky for us, army helped us hitch a ride in a cab that was headed towards the main checkpoint. We reached into the safe army haven and started considering options to reach the main town.

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Waiting here for the last 2 hours for a cab back home.. #NoRegrets

Indian army was very helpful as they gave us a room to sit in. As I sat there cold and hungry, an officer came and offered me a bowl full of piping hot feerni (Kashmiri rice pudding with nuts and saffron). My heart thanked him a million times as I gulped it down in one go.

“Despite the warm comforts of feerni, I was getting nervous as it got dark. We were after all in border town of Kashmir and far away from safety.”

I was almost preparing myself to sleep that night in the army shack when Hitesh came inside informing me that we found a ride! Hallelujah! I say loudly. I have always believed that where there is a will, there is a way. We sat comfortably in an ex-army officer’s car who drove like a maniac on dark, untarred mountain roads of Gurez, but got us outside our gates within 45 minutes! As was customary, he invited us over for dinner and tea. But we were too tired from the day’s adventure and were ready to call it a night.

Tulail Valley – So Hidden, it doesn’t even show on Google!

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The beauty of this village is unparalleled!

If you are an adventurer, you will know how addictive it can be. That adrenaline rush, feeling of uncertainty, fighting the fear of unknown et al. Following our exploration from previous night, we went looking for more action and Tulail Valley’s name came up. We are go-getters both of us, so the next thing we did was pack our bags and just leave.

Do you believe in cosmic signs? I may be a non-believer of a lot of things, but this I believe in. We were still thinking about our walk to the main cab stand with our heavy backpacks and swoosh came a cab going in our direction. I hailed it, even though it looked packed, and just somehow slipped myself, my bag, my companion and his backpack into the last seat of a run-down Tata Sumo. If Gurez was covered in Pine trees, Tulail Valley was a sweet transition from that greenery to a Leh-like barren landscape.

 

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Isn’t it perfect?

Village after village passed until we reached the one we decided to stop at. Sheikhpora looked like a place we’d like to call home for the next few days and it was such a beautiful decision. We got down from the cab and stared at the village below in disbelief. It was breathtaking.

“Tulail Valley was a strategic place on the ancient Silk Route and today it connects Drass sector to the rest of Kashmir.”

As we reached the village entrance, yet another army enquiry happened. We had to submit our national ID cards to gain access. By this time, I was getting used to the stares and questions. So when I reached the Dak Bungalow after answering a million questions and dodging a few along the way, I felt at peace. Look at all this beauty around you that people don’t even know exist! Just as I was thanking my stars for coming here, in came two 14-year old boys bursting in to my room. Their curiosity was so endearing I almost laughed at it.

As we talked a bit, one of the boys, Bilal, offered to take us up to his village Juniyal. We were obviously interested and agreed to leave at 4 PM. As the time approached, the weather turned and became windy. As if this wasn’t enough, the trail leading up to his village was insane at best. I had to get on all fours to finish the last stretch. The winds were howling, almost threatening to sweep me away with it! I somehow managed to finish this section, panting my way to the top.

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Just a glimpse of that insane trail *facepalm*

As soon as I entered the village, all the women, girls and kids surrounded me with excited chatter. Who the hell is she? They all encircled me and started asking questions in their Sheena language. I was confused but I loved all the humdrum I was bringing to their peaceful lives. It was raining by now and the mud was making it hard to walk.

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The village life 🙂

So the kids grabbed me by my hands and raced me to a spring of religious importance to the villagers. We paid our quick respects and headed back down. They all helped me wear my raincoat and walked me safely as Hitesh was slipping and falling his way through the mud. Bilal invited us over for tea, an invitation we gladly accepted as it started to pour by now.

Me and Hitesh went to the locals’ home where they brought us tea and biscuits to keep us warm. The room was filled with kids and their excitement knew no bounds with the two of us. Hitesh is a photographer so they asked him to click a picture of us in a frame. Thanks to his awesome abilities, I could seal that precious moment forever. After finishing up, it was time to go back. This time we took an easier, but longer trail down. The rain had subsided but the valley took on a golden shade! I felt blessed as I spent yet another memorable day in North Kashmir.

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Say Cheese :D!!

Now do you believe me when I say that Gurez is not only doable, but comes highly recommended? Phew! I seriously hope you are convinced. Don’t hesitate to drop me a line if you have any questions!

Did you like what you read? Would you be willing to travel really offbeat? Tell me in comments!

Kanika Gupta
Kanika Gupta
I find beauty in all things natural, mountains are my soul and adventure is my passion. I hate being stagnant and my mind feeds on problems. I travel because I believe that change is the only constant in this universe. So embrace it, love it and celebrate it!

41 Comments

  1. Pradee Tomar says:

    Loved every single word and every word left unquenched thirst asking for more.

  2. K. Kaushik says:

    Very interesting. Liked the spontaneous love and affection shown by the villagers, especially the younger ones. By reading this it makes me feel Kashmir is normal. Wanted to visit so many times, but always felt let things become normal. But looks like one can travel if one has the will to do so

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Thank you! Kashmir is as normal as Delhi and Chandigarh amid all the Dera Sacha Sauda confusion. You can never truly be safe anywhere in the world. Atleast in Kashmir, people are willing to go the extra mile to help you stay safe. it is time we stopped judging Kashmir based on media hype.

  3. SAURABH says:

    Lovely post Kanika..Did my first trip this July to Kashmir in 44 years for the Great Lakes..It is a stunning place…Would like to check out Gurez..Like the bit where you said there are no selfie tourists there…

  4. Balaji says:

    The most awaited blog post. Wonderfully written.

  5. EPIC is the word. I’ve tried many times to explore Gurez and Tulail Valley but as they say sometimes things happen when your heart really wants them to happen!

    Many thanks for the virtual trip and the super photographs.

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Shubham, thank you so much! I am honored when photographers and bloggers of your repute not only read but also appreciate our written word! I am so encouraged.. thanks once again.. You can also subscribe to my blog and get more stories in your inbox.

  6. Arpita says:

    Hi,

    Have been reading your blogs recently and it has imbibed an immense urge in me to explore the off-beat Kashmir. I must say you write really nice!

    Off all the places mentioned by I genuinely want to visit Gurez if its actually the place from the movie ‘Highway’! You know, thats my dream of going to that place and yoy have almost fullfilled it. I can’t thank you enough for that!

    Can you please share few more details about the place Gurez? Like how to reach there and all with few more spectacular pictures? Please!

    Thanks in Advance!

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      HI Arpita,

      You can easily reach Gurez from Srinagar by taking shared cabs. Take one from Batmaloo to Bandipora and then Bandipora to Dawar (district headquarters in Gurez). You can stay at Dak Bungalow or Tourist rest center. I recommend the former because I was told that they cook meals for you. TRC doesnt have food facilities. Let me know if you have any more questions. Also, you can follow my facebook page for more updates and pictures from my travels.

      http://www.facebook.com/lifeoutside2by2

  7. Akshya says:

    A must read for Indian Women .. Proud is a small word, i am feeling honoured to share a bond with you. What a storyteller you have become, i can totally imagine myself walking beside you through the valley. Thank you for bringing out such beautiful face of kashmir amid poltical chaos. Keep doing what you love. ❤️❤️❤️❤️❤️

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Akshya.. my love! Your words have elevated me to an all new level.. thank you so much for reading my words and relating to my travel itch. Friends like you keep people like me fuelled for growth.

  8. Anurag Jajoo says:

    Hi Kanika… super to read about your Gurez Valley travel. I’m a mountain lover and Gurez has been on my mind for sometime now. I heard it requires permit from DGPs office in Srinagar. Please confirm and also share a brief itinerary of what all places/villages one should cover.

    Thanks a lot and keep exploring such exotic places. I love your spirit of travel to such offbeat locations.

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Thank you Anurag. no permit is required for Gurez. You will be checked a few times along the way at army checkpoints but that’s about it. Apart from the villages I wrote about in my blog, you can also consider going up to Checkwali which is the last village in Tullail Valley. It is gorgeous and also closest to Pakistan border. Let me know if you visit that place!

  9. Beautifully written. Loved it. This place tops my list now. 🙂

  10. TEJAS says:

    This place is now in my bucketlist …!! & just can’t wait to tick mark it..Thanks for sharing your experience.

  11. Wonderful post
    I heard about it but not explored it yet..Would love to go here soon

  12. Neelaanjana says:

    This is out of the world! So inspiring….its surreal. I haven’t traveled solo yet, feel that I wouldn’t enjoy not being able to share the feelings at the moment….but reading such experiences makes me wonder – why not!

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Hi Neelanjana, thank you for reading my blog and most importantly enjoying it. I suggest that you should try to travel on your own at least, for the sake of experience if nothing else. Besides, you are never truly alone when you travel solo, you find lots of good company on the road. Let me know if you ever take the plunge! 😀

  13. Preeti says:

    Simply aMazing…., i hv travelled Most of kashmir n remote areas in Leh tht no tourist goes… My driver was hesitant but i manged to pursued him… Just u learn tht part of village was occupied by POK and subsequently taken back by our army in 1999..

  14. Sanjay says:

    Nice Read ! Thanks for sharing ! Happy Trails

  15. Afryn says:

    You stories are really inspiring. I feel, I too want to be part of your journey 🙂

  16. Rota Gala says:

    It surely is a tapeatail trail…Would definitely like to feel the sojourn journey out there next for sure…

  17. Farhanbhat says:

    I feel proud because i am from that place which you brought into notice … I must tell that you have done a tremendous job… your artistic work is appreciable…lot of love from me😍

  18. Siddharth says:

    Kanika, I was undergoing a personal turmoil a week back, and knew that I needed to be in the Himalayas at that very moment. A random Google-search brought me to this blog-post of yours, and I knew I had found the place that would balm me just right. It took some mental strengthening on my part to book the flight tickets, but as I reflected on what you as a solo traveler had paved as a strong way, I knew I would find my solace for sure, despite all apprehensions. Within 6 hours of thinking about going to the Himalayas, I was in the flight to Srinagar, and re-traced your carefully enunciated steps. Spent a heavenly 3 days in Gurez, 1 day in Srinagar (for another trail… a subject matter of a different nature!), and just back home to Hyderabad.

    You have touched my life in a special way… and enabled a wonderful process of unraveling in me. Thank you! 🙂

    • Kanika Gupta says:

      Siddharth! I cant even begin to tell you how happy your comment made me! I am glad that it could help you the way it helped me. traveling through Kashmir was my catharsis too! Hope you are doing well now and please keep reading my future blogs as well! Thanks a tonne.

  19. Alpana says:

    Whoosh! The beauty and tranquility of Kashmir is almost palpable . Loved your expression. Almost feel like going again. I was in Kashmir a couple of years back and drove upto chandanwadi. Your pics are awesome. Thanks for sharing.

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