September 14, 2002
Nestled between the snow-capped mountains of the Great Himalayan and the Shamshabari Ranges in north Kashmir is the pristine Gurez Valley — probably the last remaining Shangri-la since the Zanskar Valley in Ladakh was discovered a few decades ago.
Spouting near Kaobal Gali, a pass that links the Gurez and Mashkoh Valleys, the Kishanganga River meanders purposefully through the narrow, 80-km long Gurez Valley and flows into Pakistan Occupied Kashmir at Kanzalwan. Full of rainbow trout and other exotic fish, the Kishanganga is an angler’s delight. Foaming over the massive boulders in its path, gurgling under the ice floes on its frozen surface and snarling with a vengeance through the avalanches that dare to block its path, the Kishanganga adorns the valley like a beautiful string of pearls at the foot of the majestic mountains.
High up and away from the evil gaze of man, the elusive snow leopard and the nimble-footed ibex share their habitat in the virgin snows and the pine-scented forests with bears, musk deer, foxes, wolves and other Himalayan wildlife. The hardly Gurezis, one of the tribes of the erstwhile Dardistan, mostly live off the land. Their major source of employment is the Indian army deployed on the LoC. They work as porters for the army and provide ponies for ferrying loads to the army posts along treacherous trails in some of the toughest terrain in the world. As they have neither the time nor inclination for militancy, they get along well with the army.
Razdhan Pass, on the road from Kashmir, remains closed for six months during the winter. It snows heavily on the mountain tops and some of the army posts accumulate 15 to 20 feet of standing snow. Even in the valley, the total snowfall adds up to 30 to 40 feet, though the level of standing snow is seldom more than three to four feet. So, like the army, the Gurezis too have to stock up for the winter months. As their needs are simple and the funds available to them limited, they make do with frugal supplies. The inclement weather forces people to remain mainly indoors. Once in a while the sun breaks through and the warmth of the sunshine lights up the soul.
In marked contrast with the bleak winters, the summer season presents an exhilarating experience. A mellow breeze whistles endearingly through the pines and a myriad flowers sprout magically to cover every bare patch with joyous colours and a heady fragrance. Soon after the snow melts, lush green grass emerges to cover the sprawling meadows and the bakarwals trudge back up the mountains from Rajouri, Poonch and the foothills of Jammu to set up their deras on the upper reaches. Through the day they shepherd their sheep from one green patch to another — cajoling, chasing, goading them. The docile flocks huddle together — bleating loudly, bells tinkling. At night their campfires burn bright and their songs fill the sweet sweet summer air with haunting melodies. This is, indeed, a paradise on earth.
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