Kaobal Gali-Mushkoh Valley, the battlefield of Kargil war, opens up for tourists

Mushkoh valley that resounded with artillery gunfire in 1999 is on the tourist map this year, thanks to the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan that has held for 43 months, enthusiasm from the people in the area, and efforts by the administration and companies that see an opportunity

September 24, 2023 05:16 am | Updated 11:28 am IST - SRINAGAR

A high-altitude alpine lake visible from the Kaobal Gali pass in the Tulail Valley. Photo: Special Arrangement

A high-altitude alpine lake visible from the Kaobal Gali pass in the Tulail Valley. Photo: Special Arrangement

The high-altitude passes of the Gurez valley, in north Kashmir, out of bounds to civilians, was once prone to frequent shelling from Pakistan. Now, it is all set to connect with the Mushkoh valley, in Kargil’s Drass Sector, Ladakh, the site of the war in 1999. The 130-km road has been opened up for tourists. Kaobal Gali, the highest pass at a height of 4,166.9 metres in Gurez, connects the two valleys.

As the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan continues to hold for the 43rd month, people are hopeful that with prevailing peace will come commerce from tourism.

Bilal Lone, 38, is a herder of zumba yak (smaller than other yaks) from the Gurez valley’s Buduaab village. He is upbeat about tourists plying on one of the traditional routes connecting the Kashmir valley with Ladakh this year, both made Union Territories after Article 370 of the Indian Constitution was repealed, revoking Jammu and Kashmir’s special status.

Mr. Lone, also a ‘panch’ (one of five elected representatives) from Angaikot village, was 14 years old when his family fled the Tulail valley, adjoining Mushkoh, for several months as shells from Pakistan pounded his village.

“Most villagers had to flee the Gurez valley during the Kargil war. It’s peaceful now. The government’s plans to open the Gurez valley to the Mushkoh valley will rejoin what is culturally one community. We all speak Shina, but have remained disconnected since 1999,” he said. “The government needs to improve road infrastructure and upgrade facilities for tourists,” he added.

The Gurez valley, with about 38,000 residents, is already setting a record by hosting 50,000 tourists this year so far. “This is a huge leap, as the maximum number of tourists that ever visited Gurez in a year, prior to 2020, was 5,000,” Owais Ahmad, Deputy Commissioner, Bandipora, said.

The administration sees huge tourist potential in opening the Gurez-Drass road to tourists. “It will be a phenomenal step towards tourism promotion in Gurez, especially in Tulail region and fulfilment of the long pending demand of locals as well as tourists. This has also been a consistent demand from adventure tour operators,” Mr. Ahmad said.

The Gurez valley is close to the Line of Control (LoC) with the Kishanganga river demarcating the line in several parts. In 2021, the Pakistan army started repatriating yaks, which strayed into Pakistan-occupied Kashmir. Earlier, hundreds of cattle would be listed as missing after crossing the LoC. “In one instance, 29 zumba yaks were returned from the Lower Salleem Post-Nadaan crossing in August, 2021. This practice continues,” an official from the revenue department, said.

“The road connecting the two valleys is being maintained under Beacon (by the Border Roads Organisation) and at present is a fair-weather road. From Abdulin onwards (near Kaobali Gali), the stretch can be travelled on only by 4x4 vehicles. We had recently organised a 4x4 car rally on the route,” Mr. Ahmad said.

Farah Zaidi, co-founder of Kashmir Off Road which organises overland expeditions in the area, said the road offers a rare range of meadows and passes. “Anyone who loves adventure, thrill, and a landscape that is unique would love to take this route,” said Ms. Zaidi, who organised an off-roaders trip to Kaobal Gali adjoining the Muskhoh valley in 2021.

The Gurez valley is one of few habitations in Kashmir where villages with only log houses exist, with no intervention of urban concrete materials. It is also home to ibex, musk deer and marmots. The meadows of Mushkoh offer boisterous wild tulip flowers and views of breath-taking glaciers. The valley is also home to the endangered Himalayan yew.

The Mushkoh valley, dotted with meadows of flowers, was in the news when Tiger Hill witnessed a bloody battle between India and Pakistan, leaving hundreds of soldiers dead on both sides. The ceasefire has brought in hope, not just of peace, but also of people coming in to experience the wonders of the terrain of both Kashmir and Ladakh.

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