We started the bright day with bright hope, this was a very important day for us, 2 elusive permits one for Gurez and other for Bangus, we would be trying for and this day would decide how the rest of the trip would shape up. Had a quick breakfast in Aharbal Tourism GH, we started for Srinagar around 8 in the morning. The roads from Aharbal to Sophiyan was tremendously scenic within the dense forests and meadows going through the winding hilly roads. We crossed Sophiyan which is just 15km from Aharbal in no time and the town was still sleeping, we crossed it and saw the part of historic Mughal road just before touching Sophiyan. Further 21km nice drive around valley landscape took us to Pulwama another town of South Kashmir. We didn’t take any break as we intended to reach the SP Tourism Enforcement office at Srinagar by 10.00 in the morning, we were not sure how much time we had to spend there and was really not hopeful after our experience of loosing a complete day on the first day of the trip there. The moment we entered the Srinagar city area, traffic jam greeted us, which was a horrible experience this time whenever we touched Srinagar, it’s so congested even in leanest tourist season, I feel pity for those who would plan to travel Kashmir keeping their base in Srinagar during a high season. Apart from Dal lake, Srinagar has nothing much to offer like other so called touristy places Manali, Shimla, Gangtok etc. We finally reached Srinagar TRC (Tourist Reception Center) around 10.15 which was 30km from Pulwama and without any delay headed to SP Tourism Enforcement Office. The office staff easily recognized us and in a few minutes they came back saying the police verification hadn’t yet reached then. I was almost mentally prepared for that and we all three (including my wife and kid) wanted to meet SP in person. We were called soon and again SP tried to convince us why they couldn’t issue permit to us without the police verification. We tried to convince him politely that we didn’t leave any stone unturned from our side and did exactly what we as a tourist supposed to do starting from applying the permit from Kolkata a month before the trip. SP was worried and repeatedly telling us despite of home ministry order, if he issued the permit and later we faced any difficulties, he would be responsible and answerable. The arguments and deliberations going on for almost an hour. My wife and even kid started requesting him to issue the permit. He consulted with his subordinates in Kashmiri for almost 10 mins, keeping us in deep suspense and finally smiled and said, he would be issuing the permit to us but he told me to let all my friends know that this he won’t repeat again for anybody else in future. He advised us to take a photocopy of Govt notification (which I already put in first page of this report) and to share that with our friends and also suggested anyone willing to visit Gurez, to bring atleast a character certificate from Local Police station verifying address so that he could do something even if the police verification didn’t reach in time. I tried that even before my journey but local police station straight away declined to give any such letter / certificate citing us the technical reasons. So as of now Gurez permit is a big mess unless you have some good connection at higher level or you are lucky enough to get your police verification on time. Whatever it be my request would be to apply for it atleast a month in advance and then follow up constantly with local police and SP Tourism, Srinagar. First thing we did after getting the permit was to get 5 photocopies of that and it proved to be wise later on.
Here is the elusive Gurez Permit for us and see we required photograph and detail even for our driver Kazim, so it has to be well planned especially if you are planning to hire a car for Gurez.
Once the Gurez Permit was received, we were very happy atleast we were sure by then to complete most of the trip we planned. Next was Bangus, another big hurdle and for this we had not much of information either. I spoke to SP, Handwara (Bangus comes under jurisdiction of SP Handwara) couple of times and he asked me to meet him in Handwara and clearly told things would be considered based on then situation. But unfortunately in Aharbal I was browsing net in my mobile and found an encounter was going on there between army and militants for last 3/4 days and honestly was not that hopeful about getting a permit for Bangus. We hit Srinagar – Sopore – Baramula – Uri – Muzaffarabad highway soon and it was pretty wide and nice highway but army was checking the vehicles in regular intervals. We drove for 45 km in that nice highway to reach Sopore which was almost half closed because people were busy in offering Friday Namaz. We shopped there for few necessary things and once again in few minutes got an invitation from the shopkeeper to have lunch at his house, amazing Kashmiri hospitality, haven’t found it anywhere within or outside India. He was requesting us but we were in a hurry to meet SP, Handwara and were about to try our best for Bangus Permit, so we politely turned down the offer but couldn’t get out of the place until we told him we would try our best to go to his place during our return journey. From Sopore, the straight road goes towards Baramula – Uri and further to Muzaffarabad and right turn would take you towards Handwara and Kupwara. We turned right and kept going on an excellent highway towards Handwara. It’s in Kulangam, 27 km from Sopore, the road again divides, the straight goes to Kupwara and 3 km detour towards left would take you to Handwara Town. Just before reaching Handwara main town, in left you would find SP Office, our first destination there. We parked the car outside, faced all the questions by security guards out of SP Office and finally I was allowed to go inside to meet SP. SP, Md. Aslam, was in his early 50 and a KPS Cadre officer was the best officer I met in the entire trip. He was browsing net through his Galaxy Note, when I met him, he was in all smile and informed me that presently an encounter was going on but still as we came from so far to visit the place, he wanted to make sure we could visit the place. It’s absolutely a different experience than what we faced during Gurez Permit process. I was taken into his office. I faxed my details to his office from Kolkata and I saw he made everything ready and the office bearer brought the permit for his signature in no time. He signed it and handed over to me and then called up SHO of Kalamabad PS under whose jurisdiction Bangus comes and instructed the Officer in Charge to do all kind of help we need during our stay in Reshwari. The Bangus Permit is a 2 stage process, SP, Handwara issue the permit from Civil administration side requesting 17th Infantry Brigade (Army in charge there) to allow us to proceed. Now it’s the brigade’s decision finally to let you in that heaven if they consider the situation then is stable based on the permit issued by SP, Handwara. Now Bangus has 2 entry points, one through Reshwari, called as Bada Bangus, and other is through wadarbala, known as Chota Bangus. There is no permit presently issued for Wadarbala route and permit through Reshwari is subject to clearance from SP Handwara and Army.
Map of Bangus:
This is the permit of Bangus we received from SP Handwara.
The SP called up Army Brigadier on his own and spoke to him directly, requesting him personally to issue the permit to us. Their discussion lasted for 5 mins and after that SP told, army was not so keen to issue permit as it was not safe and he advised us not to deviate from the defined trek route at any cost. He asked us to meet the army in TCP Nawgam where the 17th Infantry brigade was located for further permission. With lots of hope in our mind, we proceeded towards TCP Nawgam which just couple of km before our final stop for the day, Reshwari. We were stopped at the gate of TCP, at entrance itself they started laughing once they heard a family wanted to visit Bangus with kid. They said in 2012, not a single person was allowed there and there was absolutely no chance of going there. We showed him the permit issued by SP and requested to speak to Brigadier. Then they said, getting Brigadier at that moment was not possible instead he advised me to speak to the head of 1 Naga Regiment who controls the Bangus Permit. He spoke to the officer and apprised him of detailed situation and I understood officer from other side asking this man to dissuade us. Anyway once they understood we were really serious about this, he asked my wife and kid to sit there in his office and asked me to visit the officer directly escorted by one army person. In a short while I met the officer, Vidyanand Medhkar, a young man in his mid twenties from Pune. He is very polite yet firm on his decision that under current circumstances he could not permit us to proceed beyond Reshwari. He said he won’t even allow us to Reshwari unless it was late in afternoon and we planned there to stay. I could hear in between the radio / wireless messages he was responding and it was clear to me a combing operation was in progress in the region and they hunted 2 out of 12 possible militants already there. I couldn’t disagree to his concern on our security and he was telling repeatedly under present situation if anything happens to civilians it always have a deep impact on army, so he was helpless and so were we. Then he finally told me he had to consult to his senior officers located at Baramula but he said he was 99% sure we won’t get permission. I asked him about the rest 1% chance and we need some basic preparation like getting mules / horses in the morning if we were lucky to get the permit. He shared his cell number with me and asked me to call at 9 in the evening. I was in a mixed mood, the Bangus was so near (Another 15km) yet so far and the situation was not looking promising at all. I thanked the officer for all his efforts and had even tea in his office before I left for final stretch of journey towards Reshwari. We reached there finally around 6.00 in the evening when day light was fading and it was a fabulous place to stay. The hills all around, the dense forests, high trees and mawar river flowing just in the backyard made it an awesome place. The JK Tourism bunglow here was completely made of wood and quite old, it was the only Guest House in valley what according to caretaker was not torched in those violent days. We were quite tired and the namkeen chay prepared by caretaker Bashir was something to enjoy after a long and difficult day. I called up Kalamabad Police Station as SP asked me to do, and the Officer in Charge Mr. Mehboob was very co-operative (may be because of SP’s instruction) and he told he would arrange everything for me even the army permission and would send 2 armed police to escort me. I told him about my discussion with army but he was confident and asked me to take rest and he would take care of rest in morning. I called up around 9.00 in evening the army officer and he said he still couldn’t connect to his senior officer and would be back to me next morning before 9.00. I had nothing to do but to leave the whole thing now on our fate before we retired for the day.
I couldn’t sleep in the night because of the tension regarding permit, gone up early in the morning and had a cup of tea and Bashir told me to have a visit in the Reshwari Village, he said there are 9 villages very close by and thus there name Nawgam came. It was an amazing morning the first ray of sun was making a magic in the valley floor. Here are some fabulous moments in the morning at Reshwari:
Morning at Reshwari:
The Reshwari GH beside Mawar River – Awesome location to stay few days:
I came back around 8.00am and was really anxious over my discussion with army officer in next one hour. Once I returned to the Guest House, I found Officer in Charge of Kalamabad PS (Mr. Mehboob) was already present there with 2 armed police persons. He confidently asked me to get prepared and start as soon as possible, he also had arranged the horses/ mules for us. He said he spoke to army already and we shouldn’t have any problem to proceed till Bangus. Now I was in a fix, should I call the army officer at 9.00 to get his confirmation or should I rely on Mehboob and proceed to next army camp and try my luck there directly. Somehow I decided to follow Mehboob and start for Bangus. From Reshwari the road is motorable road up to Neelvan which is 4km, where from it is 12km of trek route via lush green forests to Bada Bangus. We left the car at Neelvan where we found 2 new JK Tourism huts were built, though we didn’t understand under present situation how tourists could come and stay there. The ponywallas came with 4 mules and 1 horse, my daughter got the horse, we and the two security men took the mules. Now here at Neelvan army asked to show our identity and asked where we were going, hearing Bangus, they asked about the permit and we showed them the permit issued by SP and told them that we informed the brigade at Nawgam too. They spoke in their wireless set for few mins with base camp, keeping us waiting there for few minutes in the middle of few nervous moments and ultimately smiled and gave us a go ahead. We still couldn’t believe we have got the permission for Bangus but we didn’t wait for a second there and started our journey on mule. Soon we left the main road and a very narrow road was taking us route through the dense coniferous forests. It was really difficult to find your ways inside the forest unless you knew it really well. We realized why army was not keen to give us permission, you couldn’t really see someone even in a distance of 5 mtrs from you, so dense the forest was.
Neelvan where the new JK Tourism huts were built: Motorable Roads end here:
That’s the start of Trek for Bangus Valley:
We slowly entered in the dense forest:
Soon we reached a lovely meadows and we took a small break there. This gave us the first impression of what might wait for us at Bangus.
There were few small stream crossings across the dense forest and finally we reached at the bottom of a very steep ascent of almost 60 degree, this was a difficult area to cross as the region had lots of small gravels and that made it even more difficult to cross.
The ascent was difficult:
Somehow we continued and after almost 1 hour of steep ascent we suddenly got exposed to the Bangus Valley, it’s a lush green meadow, quite big in size and the horses, sheep were grazing there, even we could spot the wild flowers across the valley, made it even more beautiful. The feeling was difficult to express in words, starting from hearing about this place, planning all the way, facing so much difficulties in getting permit, all efforts were making so much sense then. Instead of wasting any more time with words, let’s have the visual treat.
Our armed security guard during the trek:
Lovely wild flowers in Meadow: (You would find 50 times in April / May as the locals told)
Happy family click at Bangus:
We couldn’t even understand we spent more than 2 hours in that heaven until the ponywalla reminded us that we required another 3 hours to be back till Neelvan and the road was not safe after evening, leave alone the militants, the forest was full of bears and leopards and the villages almost every other day used to receive their attacks. The journey was one of the most memorable journey for us as we never ascent a 60 degree slope before, neither we took any journey accompanied by 2 security persons armed with AK47, nor we had to haggle so much for getting a permit and finally after all efforts we never felt so satisfied at the end of it. It was like a dream came true when we came back to our GH at Reshwari and was in a dream until my phone rang and the army officer in other end informed me with due apology that they couldn’t grant our Bangus permit. I was so shocked momentarily that really couldn’t react, just said ok and thanked him and hung up the phone. Still it is not clear to me how I reached there, whether they didn’t stop me because of SP’s personal request to Brigadier but didn’t want to issue an official permit or it was just sheer luck that took me to Bangus. Whatever it might be, I am thankful to God and to Aslam Sir for being able to visit this wonderful place.
Next day we were supposed to move to Chandigam GH at Lolab but Sabbir saab, the tourist officer called me in late evening to inform that as suddenly Lolab festival was scheduled and there were a lot of VIP movements there, he couldn’t host me at Chandigam on next day and he arranged my accommodation at Chowkibal PWD GH for next day, alternatively I could stay at Reshwari for one more day and on 1st October I could reach Chandigam. We decided to leave for Chowkibal and planned to visit Sadhna Top on next day but what finally happened was completely unexpected.