Beyond the fascination for the verdant valley of Gurez, an attempt has been made by a native to make sightseers feel home.
At the foothills of mount Habba Khatoon, Haji Ghulam Mohammad Lone steps out of his two-storey structure with a smiling face and an untiring spirit. He rests in his lawn chair and turns chirpy over the change he spearheaded in the land of Dards.
The septuagenarian’s house turned hotel has become a signpost of new Gurez. A little over a decade back, it was this native who would lay the groundwork for the changing landscape while tackling the tourist footfall.
Today, Haji’s Kaka Palace is encouraging the weather-weary residents of the highly militarized zone to come out of the cocoon and embrace the sweeping change.
“It was an uphill task to put Gurez on tourism map,” Haji reminisces in his retreat.
“Before government abolished the travel permit system in 2007, there was no lodging system for sightseers in Gurez.”
Back then, Haji was working in the local tourist reception center and would often see distressed tourists wishing to spend a few days in Gurez.
“I was pained to see people getting disappointed over no night-stay facility in Gurez after travelling from far-flung places,” he recalls.
Gurez then received two to three tourists a day and Haji would shelter them at his home for a night.
Years later, as hush prevails over the Line of Control (LoC), the gradual influx of tourists has turned homes into lodges in the scenic valley lying some 123 kilometers from Srinagar on the erstwhile gateway to the iconic Silk Route.
Even though Haji was quite optimist about the change he wanted to bring in his homeland, he was up against the vagaries of the fair-weather.
Following the heavy snowfall by ending October every year, Gurez remains cut off from the rest of the valley for at least five months.
Despite this annual hostage situation, Haji tried hard to motivate his people to invest in the homegrown holiday business.
But it wasn’t easy given how Kishanganga Power Project had already uprooted and drove many of his tribe-members out of Gurez.
Somehow, Haji—holding chieftain sway on his tribe—fiercely used his proactive persona to create the desirable change on the ground.
“I told my neighbours to accommodate tourists in their houses and earn living out of it,” he recalls the change that swept the Dardistan under his watch.
“It was a win-win situation for all. We people are economically backward here and our only occupation is agriculture or labor work. My idea was to grow Gurez on the lines of Gulmarg and Pahalgam.”
Haji again had to lead by an example after the simpletons stayed reluctant to his idea in the beginning.
He was the first to convert his home into a guesthouse and restaurant.
Later he reconstructed his house into a two-storey hotel — the hospitable site now telling the tale of changing Gurez.
The change was largely noticed in 2014 — the year when Gurez started receiving a good number of tourists.
On the face of the footfall, Haji’s neighbours followed his footsteps.
They converted their houses into hotels and lodges to accommodate holidaymakers. Among them was Nasir Khan.
After Kishanganga Power Project submerged his ancestral home in Badwan area of Gurez, Khan’s family had to purchase a piece of land in Wampora area of Gurez for house building.
“But due to tourist rush, my father changed it into a hotel,” Khan says. “It was a timely call which made us part of Gurez’s growing tourism industry.”
Back at Kaka Palace, Dipshita, a 28-year-old tourist from Pune is having breakfast. She travelled to Sonmarg and Pahalgam before visiting Gurez.
“I’ve been to Gurez for the very first time and I fell in love with its beauty,” she says. “I think this valley is far more attractive compared to the places I visited before coming here.”
But the likes of Dipshita wouldn’t have experienced the joy of staying in Gurez, had not Haji leading from the front to create tourism avenues in his homeland.
“Gurez has come a long way from my TRC days,” Haji says.
“Today, the tourism has become a collective calling for the people — otherwise sustaining on agriculture and labour work.”