Travelogue: A road trip to Gurez, and the longing of Habba Khatoon

We all look for reasons to find that escape route, and be in a zone where nothing matters, except for one thing which one loves the most. For me traveling has always been my first love. Traveling, or exploring, or skiing, or just a mere drive to the unknown place is my reason to live.

Kashmir is an unexplored country for me. A country with a mystic nature, beyond the concertina wire and bullets for me.

As a kid, they taught me in school, to love nature, and to be a part of it, for some,  life is about earning money and living a life behind the desk. But for wanderers and explorers life begins at an adventure and is best lived out there in the wild.

The smell of pine, choir of wood, glaciers, of blue ice, streams dancing through the alleys of alpine peaks gives them the penultimate high called ‘nature high’.

“I am high on nature” Sajjid said with a grin and a laugh while pouring tea into a hot kettle. I looked around and found myself surrounded by tall pine trees, with raindrops falling through the sky, covered with snow-capped peaks. I was high on nature too.

“We encourage you to take the road less traveled, do something extraordinary and step outside your comfort zone. Feel the sheer joy of exploring the wild and beautiful,” says Ali Sajid who’s an adrenaline junkie, and the founder of Kashmir Off-Road, a club of locals, leading the pack to the less traveled roads. Luckily for me I found myself in their cavalcade starting from Hazratbal.

A group of grown-ups figuring out what kind of stove to take along, without knowing where the road would lead them to. Through serpent roads starting from Manasbal Lake to Bandipore, the journey was expected to be an off-road one, but it felt like somebody had land mined the whole road to Gurez from Bandipore.

We reached the Wullar lake and it felt like a disappointment, encroachment is at its highest; I think I saw rice fields inside the Asia’s largest fresh water lake. The beauty is around it, but the ugliness inside it, just like someone wrapped garbage in a pretty wrapper is glaring.


Across the Razdan Pass

An uphill journey from Bandipore to Razdan Pass swayed through deep forests and tall pine trees, a group of women carrying wood on their head; something that we normally see on the roads of extreme Kashmir. It is may but the Razdan Pass, placed atop at 3300m was still under the snow; as a skier all I could see were amazing piste slopes, untouched and steep.

A saint had traveled from Lahore in 1933 they say, his shrine is now looked after by the Indian Army, now that’s some political statement.


Our first checkpoint, “Drivers name, passengers name, car registration number and reason of visit?” asked an Indian trooper very bluntly, with an AK47 hanging around his arm. We thought this would be the only one, but there would be hundreds more to follow.

Now that’s what you get when traveling to the extreme part of Kashmir, a region which has been fought over, for over a century now.

Mount Harmukh is my favourite peak around Kashmir, not because of its difficulty to summit but because of its grandeur and beauty. You could see it through the pines, the sun shone on its peak and it looked more beautiful than ever.

We commenced our journey downhill through rough roads and steep gorges, all of this didn’t matter as I witnessed a community of Paper Trees, locally called Burza, they looked like they were a few centuries old.

Trees, I feel are our ancestors, and they have witnessed it all, the changing seasons or the travelers, from Franklin Roosevelt to Saddam Hussein. A glaring human intervention in nature, Kishenganga Hydroelectric Power Project; started in 2007 is still under-construction. The project is said to impact the flora and fauna of the Gurez Valley, it’s quite visible with the ugliness it has provided.


The Hamlet

Next on our path, was a small hamlet Kunzalwan, where the Line of Control lies, just across the hills. It didn’t feel that we were so close the other side, the life seemed to be much happier than the city at least.

Kishenganga, also known as Neelum, flows 180 miles from Pakistan through Gurez and back to Pakistan, the irony of nature. Neelum has bestowed Gurez with abundant water adding quality to the picturesque peaks around.

We reached Dawar which is the main town of Gurez, few miles from us we could see the glaring rooftops, indicating human life ahead. Sajid took an off-road track and settled on the banks of Neelum, in front of us was a snow capped peak, with terraces of rice fields at its foot. Dawar town has small wood-logged huts with European styled rooftops, happy faced people with a smile on everyone’s lips.

We passed the place and it was almost lunch time and we stopped at a huge green pasture, perfect for a lunch place, I jumped off the gypsy and ran straight towards the stream.

The breeze touched my face and I knew it there that I had come home. A sudden smile on everyone’s face proved me right, the only thing that mattered was the moment. I felt like I had been cradled in the natures lap, all I could see was a vale surrounded by peaks.

Now if you’re a Kashmiri you get to see that often but this was different, the place is mix bag of Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonmarg and Leh. I heard it was the epicenter of ancient Silk Route, something so mystical about it.

We finished our lunch, thanks to Sajid for bringing such a delicious lunch, home-made biryani around the banks of Neelum is out of this world. An army Major stopped by, he had the information about us visiting, the conversation was mainly about Gurez and its isolation from the rest of the valley.

The funny part being that he tried to explain to us who Habba Khatoon was and how Yusuf Shah Chak was imprisoned by Akbar during the Mughal era.

He was delighted by our visit, and said he would want more people to come and explore this part of the valley. Usually I would want to visit a place without any hassle or hiccups but if you have to get permission from an outsider to visit your own country, it makes no sense to me.

There I felt occupied, and it disturbs me to think how it happened, probably since when Akbar imprisoned Yusuf Shah Chak and made Habba Khatoon go mad, wandering the mountains in lamentation.


Habba Khatoon, the most beautiful mountain in Kashmir.

They say Taj Mahal is the symbol of love but I would disagree to that. When I laid my eyes on the pyramid shaped mountain I was awestruck by its grandeur and finesse, as if the angels had hand crafted it with utmost precision.

Habba Khatoon loved Yusuf and wrote poetry in her love for him, which was unconditional and as grand as the mountain itself. We stopped for a smoke and all of us spoke no word at that moment, the beauty, love and longing, all too overwhelming.

It was about to rain, clouds taking over the sky, as if the weather could feel how the heart felt.

What did we all think at that moment? I don’t know how do we explain that feeling. The feeling of him being taken away from her, is this how love is to be?

It is certainly what a lot of Kashmiri women have been facing in the past three decades, their loved ones being taken away, and the longing that never ends.

And when you look at it from the birds view, Kashmir has always had such love stories. The stories without happy endings, where there are no silver linings at every storm.

The quotient of happiness lies in how we perceive things, for her she must have only wanted him to be on her side as I want to be here, in the now, amongst the mountains forever, lost, and silent.

By the time we reached the tourist reception center in the middle of the town, it had started raining. Storytellers see things differently, often leads you to places that you expect less. We drove 8 hours non-stop to reach this place, it rained and rained heavily but that didn’t stop me from gazing at the mountain. It was getting late and we had to move ahead some 20 kilometers to find a camping site.


To the Dard, and some chicken

We landed at this site called AP Bagh, it must have been an army camp before being destroyed; in the middle of nowhere there were barb-wires and base plinths for army quarters. Our first night had a big bonfire with, mutton and chicken barbecues for dinner. Late into the night we spoke and ate, sipping tea, warming our hands, and the night passed into a deep slumber enduing magic, with burning wood crackling.

The next morning we woke up to a light rain, and a mix of sunshine, tea was being prepared with the smell of pine around. I held my cup of tea and sat in my tent scribbling some words which were still resonating in my mind. We packed our tents and stuff and put them back into our cars, ready to hit the road again.

Through glaciers and broken bridges we reached Telail. Life is difficult there, to live here one must embrace struggle, every living thing conforms to it. Everything in nature grows and struggles in its own way, establishing its own identity, insisting, struggling resisting for its very existence, at all cost, against all odds, more so in Kashmir.

People here speak Shina, a language from the Dardic people. The sound of it as sweet as the water of Neelum itself. Every turn we took, each person we saw looked at us with a smile. I felt like an alien in my own land, these are my brothers and sisters and it just made me wonder how diverse our country was. Seven months of road closure separates Gurez from the rest of the vale.

One hospital for 38,000 people in a galaxy of mountains, hamlets separated by broken bridges. Still, a hope lingers on and paves way for something extra-ordinary. A vegetable truck on the road brings cheer and happiness around the faces of these resilient people of Gurez.

“Aaj sab ke ghar mein murga banega” laughed the chicken vendor. The chicken had landed after seven months and it was a celebration indeed. We bought a few too, but there was no help cleaning them, some of us cleaned and washed the chicken in the freezing water.

My brother Shadaab who I guess has never done anything like that before was busy cleaning, marinating the chicken for dinner.

To reach the next camping site at Chakwaali, we had to cross a stream and marshy land; that brought smiles and yays on my comrades’ faces. They could properly off-road now, and the people from the village came to enjoy the show. Water splashing all over and huge cheers came from the crowd.

One by one we all came across the stream to the camping site. A group photo was against the backdrop of half-hidden mountain under a blanket of white cloud with the sun striking at its snow-capped peaks.


The last night

Nature speaks to us in such a way where a man becomes completely numb. We were listening to U2- Where the streets have no name; I was trying to figure out where we were. I tried Google on my cell phone but luckily it didn’t work. The place still remains a mystery to me and I can only connect to it with the song that was playing. It was raining in the vale, sun rays peeking through a low cloud cover on my back.

It was as if nature was trying to tell me how beautiful it is, like a new bride in her best gown; something that didn’t move but made me wonder, how small am I, as I stood in that rain, against that silver lining. This feeling of being lost and to wander into unexplored lands of Kashmir, cannot be explained. A human is a speck against the mighty nature; God’s backyard-Gurez.

We spent our night under the stars with peaks shining as metal; I looked from the window of my tent, it was cold and peaceful. The stars had come out and everyone seemed delighted to be a part of this adventure trip. I slept at peace that night, I was under the stars and galaxies that night; my mind felt like being the center of the world, with everything moving around me. Music of cellos and there I stood in the middle, witnessing it all, the stars, the night, the sound of the stream, burning fire and the feeling of being at peace.

Personally I don’t like endings; there will be another journey and another story to write. We left in the morning with our souls behind, we had been touched and Gurez had become a part of us. “Imagine the whole picture without army bunkers, camps, checkpoints and artillery; it will be the same as God created it” I said to Sajid and he couldn’t agree more.

The lines that divide us shall not divide my urge to wander, the world was made for us to wander and explore. When the sun sets and stars take over the command of the mighty sky, it seems like Gods country, without boundaries.

Gurez is unexplored and it should remain such, we the non-conformists don’t want it to turn into a commercial mess.

Times when you leave your comfort zone and traverse into extreme wilderness, the people there are the most hospitable and loving. Hamlet after hamlet, smile after smile; it just took my heart away. A journey on the road, of the soul who wanders into the unknown.

‘With or without you’ my love I always seek you through sunrise and sunset. Like a violin in the sky, clouds make it more musical than ever. For the love she wrote, for nature I wander. Gurez, the mystical land.

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