Exploring Paradise on Earth: Lesser Known Kashmir – Introduction

This trip would never be possible without the tremendous help from Amit Tyagi (Hiambuj), Anirban (ADC) and Sunny Paaji (SunnyKashmir). No amount of thank would be enough for them as from starting of planning the itinerary, getting permits, connecting me even to Director Tourism of J&K, these guys were instrumental in making this trip happen and when I felt almost frustrated, these guys keep on encouraging me and such a trip in terms of complex logistics with family won’t be possible without their unconditional help and support.

When we did a fabulous Zanskar and Ladakh trip last year, I was pondering about coming back to the state again but this time specifically for the Kashmir Valley. Kashmir has been attracting highest tourist footfall in last 2 years among all Indian states but saddest part is like Arunachal it’s concentrated just on pocketful of places like Sonmarg, Gulmarg and Pahelgaon. I can vouch you won’t get the experiences of Kashmiri warmth and raw beauty of valley in any of these established commercial places. But then comes the next question where we will go, honestly I was not aware of any places except those so called established tourist places and along with that the ever volatile situation of the valley that makes it more difficult to plan especially when you go with family.

The planning started a year back and first we started debating over the time to go. From the perspective of natural splendors you really can’t make a call, Spring is the season of flowers blooming all across, summer is the time to enjoy the lush green with snow scapes, autumn is the time for fruits and the valley turned fire with fall colours and winter brings a different perspective with it white veil altogether. Weather plays a very important role in any Himalayan trip and so we gone by familiar wisdom of selecting either of the two windows, one just before monsoon arrives around June by which high passes should be opened or just when monsoon recedes around end September as the reversal of wind flow keeps the weather usually better and dry during these periods, if you have noticed most Himalayan summits are attempted during these two windows. We chose September end over June primarily because of

1. The pass openings are almost guaranteed
2. Roads are at its best condition in Himalayas and water crossings are mostly manageable which was a must for us as we were venturing in the unknown roads.
3. Season would be at its leanest and obviously you have an upper hand in bargaining which is essential in valley.
4. Airfare usually be cheapest in the quarter ending September (than that of in June)

I booked my flights from Kolkata – Srinagar and back way back in January this year and for 3 of us return cost just 25K (which subsequently gone upto 70K later, thanks to shut down of Kingfisher).

I called up Sunny Paaji around January and had some initial discussion on the places I should include in the trip, that time it was very sketchy and only thing we could conclude that keeping 2 weeks for the trip is safe to cover the most part of the valley, flight tickets were booked accordingly. Then several rounds of discussion with ADC (Anirban) who did his Kashmir trip in last year October and Hiambuj (Amit) who did another brilliant trip in August, slowly started giving me clarity on the plan. This is the first trip in my life where I didn’t have the clear idea of the routes / plans to be taken even couple of weeks before starting the trip. Slowly the names of the places, I repeat just the names (as I still have no idea on what they could offer then), were started figuring out. Gurez, the famous Kishanganga river outlining the LOC and Habba Khatun peak in backdrop, Bangus the brilliant meadows, very popular to foreign trekkers till mid eighties and the Warwan valley, hidden treasure of nature sandwiched between Pahelgaon and Zanskar Valley were came out as must go. We included Dudhpathri too as it was close to Srinagar and heard about its beautiful meadows. I wanted to visit Lidderwat Valley, courtesy Sunny Paaji’s T-log and hence wanted to include Aru too. Amit’s extremely useful suggestion on including Aharbal made a lot of sense which we realized once we visited the place. I also have a hidden wish to explore atleast one of three frontiers from Kupwara, Karna Valley, Keran Valley and Machil valley but even on the start of the trip not sure how to get permits to visit those places.

Once the destinations are in place, question comes in which order, clockwise / anticlockwise how we would travel as I was not so keen to touch Srinagar every time enroute. This time the thumb rule we taken was let’s go for the places first where permits not required and that would give us additional time to try for permits of other places if required. This turned out to be a very good strategy as we later realized, when to get Gurez permit I had to spend almost 2 full days in Srinagar.

So route plan charted as follows:

22nd Sep – Kolkata – Delhi – Srinagar (Reach by 12.00 noon) and proceed to Aru and stay at Aru.
23rd Sep – Aru Stay and visit Lidderwat Valley
24th Sep – Aru – Mattan Sun Temple – Kokernag – Valioo – Mattihgawran – Lehanvan – Margan Top – Inshaan (Warwan Valley)
25th Sep – Visit Around Warwan, go as far as Dasbal in south (another 10km from there road ends and you will reach Nayapool and 2 days trek via Marwah can take you to Kishtwar), Aftee in North (where road ends and a 2 day trek in either side can take you to Panikhar in Zanskar Valley towards east or in Pahelgaon towards west.)
26th Sep – Inshaan – Margan Top – Valioo – Kokernag – Verinag – Quazigund – Wanpu – Kulgam – Aharbal
27th Sep – Aharbal – Spohiyan – Pulwama – Budgam – Khan Sahib – Dudhpathri
28th Sep – Dudhpathri – Budgam – Sopore – Handwara – Reshwari
29th Sep – Visit Bangus Valley
30th Sep – Reshwari – Handwara – Kupwara – Sadhna Top and if possible to Karna Valley till Tangdhar and if could manage permission then till teetwal.
01st Oct – Tangdhar – Sadhna Top – Kupwara – Lolab
02nd Oct – Lolab Valley – Kupwara – Sopore – Watlab – Bandipore – Rajdhan Pass – Kanwaljan – Dawar.(Gurez Valley)
03rd Oct – Dawar – Barnoi – Neeru – Chakwali (Till the point civilians are allowed and road starts winding towards Drass via Kabul Gali) – Tilail Valley – Back to Dawar
04th Oct – Dawar – Chorwan Forward Post to LOC if permission granted and then move towards Kanwaljan – Bagtore till Tarabal where road ends. Planned to trek towards forward post again if permission granted. – Back to Dawar
05th Oct – Dawar – Rajdhan Pass – Tragbal – Bandipore – Gandherbal – Kangan – Naranag – Back to Srinagar
06th Oct – Spare Day considering the infamous track record of Strike/Bandh in Valley (This came very handy later)07th Oct – Srinagar – Delhi – Kolkata Flyout.

So now with an ambitious plan in hand, the next question comes from where and how we get permissions.

This should be a separate part in T’log as during my extensive travels in remote Ladakh or Arunachal I never faced so much complicacy in getting permits and spent so much time to get those elusive permits.

Let’s chart out the permit processes in a nut shell:

Gurez: If you are not a resident of Bandipore, J&K you have to get your permit from SP (Tourism Enforcement) at Srinagar office. For that you have to apply with your details in a prescribed form 15 days in advance atleast (I will suggest do it a month in advance) with your photographs. If you are in a rental car, even the driver’s details and photograph is needed. This will go through proper scrutiny before it would be sent to your local police station for pre-verification which is simply a MUST now. The rule has changed recently on 31-Jul-2012 and now SP/DC Bandipora can only issue permit to people residing in Bandipore, all others have to follow the long drawn process mentioned above. Read the exact Government circular below (Clause ‘e’ is the difficult one) and prepare for some difficult times if your police verification doesn’t reach in time. Keep photocopies of the permission and we had to give it in 4 different places and our passports / I-Cards were checked 8 times between Bandipora and Dawar. I tried to figure out why these rules and formalities and when speaking to locals, it seems Govt discourage people from outside to visit Gurez and main reason is the 3X110 MW Kishanganga Hydel Power which is going through terrible rough times as tussle between Govt and locals now gone upto court and right now all works in dam sites are stopped because of a stay order from court. Otherwise the LOC and other issues remain much peaceful here than the areas like Samba sector in Jammu or Bangus area in Kashmir Valley.

Govt. Circular on Gurez Permit:

Gurez Notification

Permission to visit any forward post like Chorwan has to be taken from the local army brigade.

Bangus: Really unpredictable and it’s absolutely your luck that can take you to this magical valley. You have to apply to SP, Handwara in plain papers and SP will issue a written permission on behalf of civil administration and request 17th Infantry Brigade stationed there to issue final permission. So you are at the mercy of the army and their movement and other factors. When we went, an encounter was going on and I heard myself in army brigade out of 12, 2 were eliminated, they were combing for rest 10 if they slipped out to POK or hidden in the dense forest region. We were denied permission by Army for good enough reasons but how we finally made it to be told in the T’log later.

Karnah / Keran / Machal Valley : In all cases permission has to be taken from office of DC / SP Kupwara and then visiting forward post needs army permission.

To visit Teetwal, last Indian village from where you can see Pakistan’s village, roads, bus/trucks everything in 50 mtrs distance, has to be taken from Police Station / Tehsildar of Tangdhar. Same will be verified and countersigned by Army at Chamkot, 10km before Teetwal. There is an excellent PWD Guest House at Teetwal, just beside river Kishanganga which might be an excellent stay but unfortunately Tangdhar Police doesn’t issue more than a day’s permit which makes it impossible to stay there.

Warwan : Doesn’t need any permission but just before the ascent of Margan starts, you have to make an entry in Army check post and similar entry would be required once you reach Inshaan.

After a lot of text, it’s time for a few snaps to show you the highlights, details would come soon as I proceed with this T’log.

Aru – The start of Trek to Lidderwat:

Warwan – Untouched Heaven on Earth

Nun-Kun Peak from Back side : From the Margan Top – On a clear day it’s very well visible.

Verinag – The best garden I have seen in Kashmir

Elusive Bangus – I can walk many miles to go there again

Teetwal Bridge – River Kishanganga makes the divide. We are in Indian Side , Other side is in Pakistan, try to identify the flags of Azad Kashmir (POK) and Pakistan on other side:

Fall colors playing at Lolab:

Gurez Valley with Kishanganga flowing across:

Dudhpathri – The lovely meadows:

Next : Unexplored Kashmir – Aru, Lidderwat Valley