Dummy’s Guide to Kashmir

KASHMIR. A truly fascinating place which gives people the visions of beauty and referred to as the “Paradise on Earth”. The name is enough to conjure up images of on snow covered mountain peaks, valleys with a shroud of flowers, enchanting mountain streams and beautiful lakes. Well the geography and the de facto political boundaries of the state are a bit more complicated. Here I try to explain the complexities of what used to be the Riyasat-e-Jammu and Kashmir in 1947. I will use that as the reference point and as a geographical unit will refer to it as RJ&K.

Moving beyond the territorial claims that individual countries have on RJK and avoiding the political baggage that comes with the veracity of each claim I will just mention the geography and the political status as it exists as on date. Based upon the actual territory that is being held by the various countries which have a claim on RJK. That being said I would like to emphasise that purpose of this article is to educate travelers and mountain lovers about where they can go and where they cannot which is governed basically by their nationality and the relationships which exist between individual countries.

RJK consisted basically of the regions Jammu, Kashmir, Ladakh, Baltistan, Gilgit and the uninhabited Aksai Chin. I would first comment on the areas of RJ&K that are under defacto Indian control which I will call J&K. J&K broadly consists of the regions of Jammu, Kashmir and Ladakh. However there are little parts of the former Baltistan that exist in J&K like the Kargil district and Gurez. Jammu consists of the Jammu district as well areas along the border like Poonch, Rajouri, Udhampur and Doda. The beautiful Valleys of Badarwah and Kishtwar are also a part of the Jammu region. Jammu has its share of mountains especially the rugged region of Kishtwar but they are largely unknown and away from the glare of the outside world. I will cover the Jammu region in detail in a later post but for now we move on to Kashmir.

From Jammu we move onto the fabled “Vale of Cashmere” as it was called. Technically the Valley starts once you cross the Banihal Pass/ Banihal Tunnel (Pir Panjals) on the highway or when you cross the Pir Ki Gali Pass (Pir Panjals) on the Mughal Road when coming from the South. The original road to the Valley via Muzuffarabad is no longer in use due to political reasons. Also you can alternately cross the Sinthan Pass or the Margan Pass to go to Kishtwar or Warvan. Up North the Zoji La marks the exit from the Valley while to the North West the Razdhan Pass would also entail technically leaving Kashmir Valley but those areas of Gurez are still considered a part of the Kashmir region.

In the geological past the Valley was once a lake called the Satsar Lake which drained eventually due to various factors. However there is still a large diversity of of Lakes from the largest Wular Lake to the most famous Dal Lake to thousands of high altitude lakes nestled within the mountains which are an attractive trekking destination. The Kashmir Valley is bound on the South and South West by the Pir Panjals. And on the North and North East by the Great Himalaya and the Zanskar Range. It is by far the largest Valley in the complex Greater Himalaya Mountain system and certainly the most celebrated one.

Kashmir Valley is actually the Jehlum Valley and the Jehlum is the main drainage system for the Valley. The traditional source of the the Jehlum is considered to be the springs at Verinag. However many attribute the source to the Konsarnag Lake and even the Sheshnag Lake. The Lidder and Sindh are two main well known tributaries of the Jehlum. The Lidder has two main sources the Kolahoi Glacier for the West Lidder and the Sheshnag Lake for the East Lidder. The Sindh River rises from the Machoi Glacier near the Amarnath Caves.

Srinagar is the capital city of J&K and lies on the banks of the Jehlum River and it also includes the famous Dal Lake and the Nigeen Lake. The city is well know for the various Gardens laid out by the Mughals as well as the new fangled Tulip Garden which is a hit with the tourists. The Srinagar city has its own range of mountains called the Zabarwan Mountains which is a sub range of the Zanskar Range. The home of the endangered Hangul, the Dachigam National Park also lies on the edge of the City.

There are various other places of tourist interest in the Valley including Gulmarg, Pahalgam, Sonamarg, Yusmarg, Kokernag, Verinag, Achabal, Daksum, Parang and lately places like Doodpathri etc. My personal favorite has always been Gulmarg probably because I have sent a lot time here while growing up. The lesser know place which has fascinated me the most has been the Warwan Valley which could only be reached by trekking in the good old days. I happened to spend 5 nights in this enchanting Lost World. Being born in Kashmir and having familial connections in Himachal I have seen a lot mountains but Warwan was special. Nowadays there is a road which goes over the Margan Pass and takes you to Inshin, the main village in Warwan. As of now I am not aware of how further this road goes. Technically though Warwan is a part of Kishtwar and hence a part of the Jammu Region.

A special note on Warwan Valley : The people of this region are by some accounts the closest that come to the ancient Kashmiris. Their language is the purest form of Kashmiri. The Warwan River runs through this enchanting Valley. This Valley runs parallel to the Lidder Valley and is around 3 to 4 km wide and 30 km long at an average elevation on 8000 to 9000 ft. At a place called Sukhnis the Valley transforms into a Gorge and on reaching Rangmarg you have two options.Taking a left leads you to the Gulol Pass crossing which you can descend into Sheshnag. Going straight takes you to the Botkol Pass going over which you come down to Panikher in the Suru Valley (Zanskar). This is the same route taken by the indomitable General Zorawar Singh when he launched his expeditions into Ladakh. Interestingly there was a Government proposal to make a road from Pahalgam to Panikhar which would technically be 45 kms but would provide unparalleled beauty as for almost half that route would under be the shadow of the fabled Nun Kun Massif. A point of special note is that Warwan as such is not in proximity of the Line of Control as compared with Gurez or Lolab.

Another region which sees a lot of tourist interest in the Gurez area. Gurez is actually a part of the Baltistan region but is counted in the Kashmir Valley. The road to Gurez leads one over the Razdhan Pass and then you enter the enchanting land called Gurez. There is a road which goes from Gurez towards Kargil but as of now it is a military road. The fact that it is a part of Baltistan is borne out by the fact that the locals speak the Shina language, which is quite prevalent in Baltistan instead of Kashmiri.

And then there is the Lolab Valley and the Bangus Valley (both the Bod Bangus and the Lokut Bangus). These are again very scenic areas but the movement of civilians especially tourists is severely restricted due to the proximity to the Line of Control. The Government is under pressure from the Locals to promote tourism here and lately the Government has shown its inclination. The meadows at Bangus both the small one and big one are larger than the better know meadows of places like Gulmarg.

Moving on once we cross the Zoji Pass (La, Gali, Daraa are local words which also mean “Pass”) we enter what we now consider as the Ladakh region. The areas across the Zoji down to Drass and Kargil is actually a part of Baltistan that is under Indian control and amalgamated into the Ladakh region. The flavor of these areas is distinctly Balti and they are culturally quite different from the Ladakhis. And finall we come to the enchanting Trans Himalayan region known as Ladakh which used to be referred to as Western Tibet by Western historians. For all facts and purposes Ladakh is actually a part of Tibet that ended up with India due to the vicissitudes of history. A detailed write up on the geography and mountains of the Ladakh region would come up next.

(Self written with some factual inputs from the Internet)

A historical map from 1912 by Workman on their various trips in Kashmir. Today these trips/treks are just a dream as with the situation as it exists till today.