Braving The Winter To Visit a Valley Shrouded in Snow and Secrets

As the chopper rose into the sky, my heart raced with excitement and a twinge of fear: This was my first helicopter ride. The man beside me glanced over and asked why I’d choose to visit the Gurez Valley now, when it had so little to offer. “Even the locals avoid it if they can,” he said. I had no clear answer. All I knew was that the Himalayan valley, shrouded in snow and secrets in the far reaches of Indian-controlled Kashmir, held something important to me, and I was willing to brave the perils of winter to discover it Visit a Valley Shrouded in Snow and Secrets.

This was my first helicopter rideLater, when I first saw images of Gurez, it seemed to embody the stories I’d heard, and I felt compelled to visit. My opportunity finally came in early 2022, as the pandemic began to wane. Tucked away in the Himalayas along the ancient Silk Road, the Gurez Valley has historically been a part of Dardistan, the homeland of the Dardic people, which stretched as far west as Afghanistan. Long forbidden to both foreign tourists and most Indian citizens, the valley — a heavily militarized frontier with razor-wire fences as a constant reminder of the ongoing conflict — recently opened its doors to tourists. Now, it bustles in the summer.

Braving the Winter to Visit a Valley Shrouded in Snow and Secrets

But as winter descends, the area becomes inhospitable and isolated, with the only road in or out buried under up to 15 feet of snow. When I landed in the central town of Dawar, my eyes were immediately drawn to the majestic, pyramid-shaped Habba Khatoon peak, standing tall behind a line of passengers awaiting a helicopter ride. I was warmly welcomed by Bashir Teroo, a cheerful man who worked as a medical assistant in the health department. Mr. Teroo, who later proved to be a trusted guide, gave me valuable insights into the daily struggles of the communities in Gurez.

But on the fourth day I awoke to the hum of a helicopter — the signal of a sunny day. I called Mr. Teroo and asked him if he could take me to Chorwan, one of the last villages along the Line of Control. He warned of danger: Sunny days after heavy snowfall can cause avalanches, he said. He suggested waiting until the snow had settled. We set out for Chorwan by car the next day. All along the route, the snow-laden terrain looked stunning, with smooth, white slopes giving way to majestic granite cliffs. Empty roads stretched before us. As we approached the village, I spotted a few locals. One of them, Jaleel Ahmad, guided us to his house.

As winter sets in, the villagers turn to their looms and knitting needles to create a variety of handmade goods from locally sourced wool. A prized handcrafted treasure is the pakol, a flat, folding hat that remains a cherished symbol of the local identity. In Mr. Ahmad’s home, as I sat on a raised platform in the warm kitchen, sipping traditional salt tea infused with butter, I felt an unusual sense of belonging.

Abdul Majid clearing snow in front of his shop.

Abdul Majid clearing snow in front of his shop.Throughout my stay, Mr. Teroo had piqued my interest with tales of Tulail, a smaller valley deep in the mountains that he said embodied the essence of Gurez. It wasn’t until the 12th day of our visit that I finally set out to find it. The sun blazed down, casting a silver sheen on the landscape, as I hired a man named Ajaz to take me there in his Tata Sumo, a large 10-seat S.U.V. with off-road capabilities. Winding roads led me through rugged terrain unlike anything I had ever seen before: The mountains grew sharper and towered over us like jagged knives. The villages I passed felt like portals to a bygone era Visit a Valley Shrouded in Snow and Secrets.

The valley of Tulail felt timeless, and as daylight waned I had no choice but to arrange for an overnight stay. By the next morning, a light snowfall had turned everything dull and gray. I trudged on the slippery road, a raging snowstorm engulfing the valley, as winds whipped the powdery snow into a thick fog. I felt a sense of awe at the resilience of those who call this harsh landscape home. Snow and isolation make even a minor emergency a potential death sentence. Fresh vegetables are a luxury between November and April, and some residents trek miles just to make a phone call. Despite a new power project in the heart of the region, residents still rely on oil generators for just six hours of power each day. And still, the people of Gurez persevere.

Some see tourism as an opportunity for growth and prosperity, but others worry that the lure of financial gains will threaten the communities’ genuine warmth and erode the very essence of the place. And it’s not just visitors: The arrival of internet access in Gurez in 2018 also had profound effects, especially on young people, offering them a wealth of information and a global perspective, and changing the way they learn outside the classroom. Social media has connected them with others all over the globe and has given them a platform to express themselves.

An animal’s footprints after a fresh snowfall. Visit a Valley Shrouded in Snow and Secrets

An animal’s footprints after a fresh snowfallIn Dawar, I met a group of young men who are part of a singing club, led by the musician Fareed Kaloo. The group performs songs in Shina, an ancient language unique to the region. My new friends kindly offered to take me to the army cafe for a cup of coffee. As I sipped my brew, the first rays of sunlight gracefully peeked over the horizon, illuminating the majestic white peaks of the Himalayas in the distance. As I admired the landscape and reflected on my trip, Zahoor Ahmad Lone, a sturdy man with a bushy brown beard and blue eyes, came over to chat. “People think we’re unlucky because we don’t have the luxuries of cities,” he said. “But they don’t realize that God has blessed us with better resources.”

Awaiting a helicopter ride out of the town of Dawar.

Later that day, when I arrived at the helipad, I learned that the helicopter was on its third flight of the day, ferrying people between Gurez and Bandipora, some 50 miles away. It would complete two more trips before the crew called out my name and I rushed over, slipping past a section of razor wire to board the chopper. As we lifted off, I reflected on the people I’d met and the cups of tea they’d shared with genuine kindness. The mountains seemed to look down at me, as if beckoning me to stay a little longer. But soon we were flying over a valley ringed by jagged peaks. The winds were fierce, and the helicopter swayed violently, terrifyingly. Eventually we emerged on the other side, the mountains bathed in a new light.

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