The question that begs an answer is, will Gurez be able to hold onto its soul or will the inroads of the outside world rob it of its essence? Time will tell.
I have always been fascinated by places that exist on the fringe, far removed from popular imagination, etching out a quiet existence of their own. On the surface, they may be part of the new world, but their soul essentially remains rooted in antiquity. This is a land where the daily routine is dictated by the change in seasons and happiness is still measured in terms of the abundance of the harvest.
In Urdu, gurez means escape or evasive and rather true to its name, this serene valley, Gurez, of the high Himalayas has remained so for ages. During the glorious days of ancient trade, Gurez was Kashmir’s gateway to the Silk Route. The caravans from Srinagar used to undertake a month’s gruelling journey, to reach the bazaars of Kashgar and then further on to Central Asia.
Gurez then was part of ancient Dardistan, inhabited by the Dards. Today the same region goes by the name of Gilgit but unfortunately the Line of Control between India and Pakistan, cuts right through it. So while the rest of it is controlled by Pakistan, Gurez is the only home of the Dardic folk on this side of the border.
It is ironic that a place of such pristine beauty should now have to exist in the shadow of fear. But that in no way takes away the allure of this fascinating land. The deeper you go into the valley the more it feels like travelling back in time. Clusters of rustic logwood houses cling to the mountainside, cattle graze in the meadows and wooded slopes of poplars, willows and linden bring up the background. Not more than a couple of decades ago, the natives used to travel on horseback, traversing the 4000 m Razdan pass just to get provisions from the nearest town. It is this remoteness and abundant natural beauty that has helped in preserving the old world charm.
Change finally seems to be knocking on its doors. In the last five years motor roads have been built to most of the villages. A hydro power project at the head of the valley is near completion and threatens to submerge an entire section of the forest and the surrounding villages.
Gurez, like all Himalayan valleys, is endowed with stunning landscapes. The Kishenganga river cuts right through it, a heaven for trout fishing
The natives of Gurez have a long tradition of hosting travellers and if you were to visit them, they would look after you as if you were one of their own
These logwood houses are relics of the old way of life in the valley where it is customary for the village folk to invite travellers for a cup of tea. Once you accept, be prepared for a treat of local breads, homemade sweets and walnuts
Corn, wheat, potatoes and rajma are the main crops cultivated in the valley
Kids make the most of the outdoors in the summer, as in the winters, they are mostly confined to the house
The customs, traditions and dressing of the natives of Gurez is closer to people of Gilgit than of Kashmir
Gurez remains cut off from the outside world for the six long winter months. This turns the summer months into toil as the villagers stock provisions for the rest of the year
A native of Tuliel cleans corn to store up for the cold months ahead
Teenagers do all kinds of field work in these parts
Women folk of the valley not only take care of the household chores but spend equal time on the fields
A native of Tuliel district picks up the last crop of potatoes before the onset of autumn
It is heart warming to see that even the smallest village in the valley is committed to imparting education.
Before removing the wool, the herders give the sheep a thorough bath in the ice cold waters of the Kishenganga
During the end of summer, teenagers rush back home after school to help their parents in the fields
After a hard day’s work, women of Chorwan sit out in the alley to catch up on the news in the neighbourhood
Around a decade ago the village folk used to travel on horseback to nearby towns to buy provisions. However, once roads were built they sold the horses to the Bakkarwal nomads
If there’s one legend that almost every girl in the valley knows, it’s Habba Khatoon. Her sufianakalams are still sung on festive occasions and a beautiful pyramid shaped peak has been named in her memory at the town of Dawar
In an age where pillaging the natural landscape in the name of development is hitting new lows, Gurez is one of the few places with its soul still intact
Mayank Soni is a photographer and filmmaker based in Mumbai. His work focuses mainly on travel, culture and environment conservation. His love for the outdoors and indigenous cultures has led him to explore a range of remote corners across India. He regularly contributes to Lonely Planet Magazine India, National Geographic Traveller Magazine India and Conde Nast Traveller India.