Dardistan, meaning the land of the Dard people, was once inhabited by this tribe. It used to refer to parts of land between north-eastern Afghanistan, northern Pakistan and northern Kashmir, extending up to a small part of Western Tibet. Even today, in places such as the Gurez Valley in Indian-administered Kashmir, descendants of the Dard people live on. They identify with their Aryan lineage, and speak a few distinct languages, such as Shina. The Gurez Valley, which is home to these people, is an interesting place to travel to, and is an ideal destination for camping, hiking, trekking or simply wandering amid picturesque mountains.
The Gurez Valley is abundantly blessed with the beauty of nature, which is enhanced by the warmth and hospitality of its people. Nanga Parbat (the ninth highest mountain in the world, and actually situated in Pakistan), the pyramidal Habba Khatoon and other snow-capped mountains that loom over this valley, as well as the Kishengnga River that runs through it, are a sight to behold. Hiking through villages with wooden houses is a perfect activity for those who want a feel of the mighty mountains in Gurez.
Habba Khatoon, as legend has it, was a beautiful divorcee who eventually got married to king Yousuf Shah Chak. Following his demise, she is said to have written poetry in his memory. Others believe her poetry was composed during their time together. Many locals believe she never actually visited Gurez, yet the mountain is named after her.
Bilal, an 18-year-old driver who takes visitors around the valley, has stories about Habba Khatoon: “The chashma (or spring) that runs from the mountain seems to be coming out of nowhere. Our grandmothers have told us many tales to explain this. One of these tales is that Habba Khatoon was taking her rounds across this beautiful mountain. The pot of water she was carrying fell down and cracked at the place where you can see the water coming from.”
Around 6-8 hours away from Srinagar (depending on the weather conditions), the Gurez Valley isn’t as remote and cut off as it used to be. Tourists don’t come in large numbers, but there are a few scenic camping spots, such as by Kissar Lake. Hidden hiking trails to spots such as Patalwan meadow and lake are also rewarding. Fishing and other such activities make an interesting option for nature lovers. Local leader and Member of the Legislative Assembly, Nazir Gurezi, told us: “Gurez is setting itself up as a destination but there are tents are available to rent, guides to take people on hikes as well as the option of horseback riding up the mountains.”
Although the Gurez Valley has some infrastructural problems today, it was once a stop on the Silk Route. Even today, enthusiastic villagers will point out the exact road that was once part of this trans-continental trade route. There is a large army presence in the Gurez Valley, yet despite being a border area, there is an atmosphere of tranquillity. Locals believe that in Gurez you can get a good night’s sleep, if nothing else. A visit proves that this is true.
Article by Mehk Chakraborty