I am loosing a count of solo trips. The first that I did was to Rohru-Chanshal pass-Dodra village in October 2018. A four-day trip around Diwali break at the peak of offseason. There were no tourists.
During pandemic, in 2020 alone, I did three trips and all were again devoid of tourists. I drove alone on roads and was the only guest at hotels and homestays.
I left for a trip to Gurez Valley and Tulail Valley in Kashmir. Unlike biking from home to Gurez valley, I planned a flight to Srinagar.
I rent a Himalyan bike from Srinagar paying Rs 1800 for a day. First day in Srinagar, early afternoon at Dal Lake- when traffic was minimal- I could hear the silence of Dal lake. Loved the feeling and the fresh air. As the evening set in, the silence was lost to vehicular traffic and honking.
I was idling on banks of Dal lake near Ghat 18- this is far from the crowded houseboats and the market area. I saw a guy fishing, waiting for a catch. He smoked and waited patiently for the floating end of his fishing rod string to sink in water.
I felt fishing to be symbolic of laziness just like eating moongfali. Maybe there is another side to it that I am missing. Some opted to smoke while others stared blankly at the water. They rarely looked at who passed them from behind.
Next day, I left for Dawar, Gurez Valley. I was not in a hurry since a distance of 145 km could be covered in 5 hours max (non-stop) and condition of roads did not matter when I was riding the Himalyan bike.
I reached Dawar by 2 pm. The ride was on flat roads till Bandipora. My first stop was at Wular lake and the lake did not impress me much. I drove ahead to start my climb to Rajdan pass. This is the only pass that connects Gurez and Tulail valley to Bandipora and rest of Kashmir.
The roads till some 5 km downhill from Rajdan pass towards Gurez valley are well laid. Not much traffic- except the army convoys and Tata Sumos plying as taxies.
The dusty patch is pretty bad but not as bad as we experience while riding to Pang from Sarchu in Ladakh.
BSF/CRPF/JK police checkpoints are too many and frustrating, me answering same set of questions. Though, Gurez and Tulail valley has always been peaceful despite some villages close to Pakistan border there is no respite from extra security.
I cross the Kishanganga dam on my right before reaching Dawar. Dawar is the biggest village in this region. Infact some call it a town. I will prefer it as the biggest village in the region with some 15 odd hotels and a petrol pump.
Dawar is not connected to power grid but has Jio netowork- better than BSNL, as per locals. The power supply from diesel generators gives supply for 5 hours in the night and 3 hours between 4 am and 7 am- enough for geysers to heat water and inverters to charge the batteries.
I could see electricity poles newly laid adjacent to streets and the highway. A 2.5 megawatt of supply from Kishanganga dam is likely to resume for homes in Dawar alone. Not sure what will villages, the most beautiful ones, in Tulail valley get.
Despite hearing of the hydroelectric project displacing an entire village, it is still a good decision for the development of the region.
I drove to Gujran Village - the farthest I was allowed by the BSF. Usually tourists are allowed to visit Chakwali a few more kilometers ahead of Gujran.
An old man with a white long beard and fragile body enquired about me. Most villagers talk to tourists but a biker is rare for them. The old man remembered his days when there were no roads to their village and Bandipora was a day long ride on horses. He complained of why was army not permitting the locals to reach Drass via Tulail Valley.
A couple of young guys joined the conversation, while I bought two bananas from a Kiryana (this is the way they spell a grocery shop, unlike 'Kirana' in some parts of India). The kid did not get what I asked for when a local prompted him to know basic words in English. He was right as I saw a primary school at every village and a middle school at every third village in Tulail valley.
The roads are dusty but being built and the locals are happy about this. The other thing they happy about is the mobile network- Jio works since 2020. Airtel Network does not work. BSNL hardly works.
Gurez and Tulail Valley is disconnected from rest of Kashmir due to heavy snowfall- November to March- the mobile network keeps them engaged, entertained, and connected to rest of the world.
I saw a shepherd making a video call. Same for the hotel staff; heads down, lost in their smartphone screens. The owner of the guest house I stayed at Dawar - a young civil engineer, had watched all seasons of Money Heist. Thank God! I did not share what OTT was and how the DTH (in few homes only) will soon be useless.
Locals are friendly but very few would come and talk to you. If you initiate a conversation, they will reply smiling and with sincerity. Girls and women wear hijab and burkas as a formal wear. But when in fields, they wore Salwar-Kameez. Men wore kurta Pajamas and trousers. I hardly saw men in jeans.
There are not many shops to buy local specialities- clothes or dry fruits. Rajma and rice are the preferred produce. Apples are now red, big, and juicy after the horticulture department functional. Before this, apples produced were green, small in size, and sour in taste.
Entire Tulail valley and half of Dawar speaks Shina. This language is different Kashmiri and difficult to learn. The hotel owner commented, "I will love if localites get more representation at Gurez festival. Currently, outsiders are more active." Gure festival is an annual 7-day festival but the time is contingent on weather conditions.
I saw a bengali family with two aged women. They took good five minutes to step out of the cab and walk to the hotel reception. Why?
Gurez is not for elderly who can hardly walk. This is a place meant solely for solo travelers. What can they see and feel about the place as I see them lay in bed managing sub-optimal food according to their taste buds?
I could easily find veg food - not the best taste but still decent. The army cafe at Dawar is good for fast food. I enjoyed tea, two samosas, one egg roll, and mug of cold coffee for Rs 360.
But I discovered another excellent joint called Royal Sweets, a couple of shops adjacent to the army cafe. I had chola bhatura for breakfast before leaving for Srinagar.
The town is asleep till 9 am. No traffic on streets. Shops open late, pretty late. Good, I experienced 'slowness'.
I was at Gurez to be free, without any rush to see many places and spend less time riding. I did spend 6 hours to and fro from Dawar to villages of Tulail Valley but later felt it could be avoided.
I realized my old mistake- in quest to see more made me miss the most obvious. Luckily, I could do so on my last day at Gurez. I spent two hours by the river washing a clothes. The waiting time to let the clothes dry with no phone network tested my patience. And, I loved it.
Link to Youtube video for those who rely lesser on text.