Kashmir's Gurez Valley
The Gurez Valley is a fertile, fifty-mile cleft carved through the Himalayas by the mighty Kishenganga River. It sits directly below the high-altitude Line of Control that divides Indian and Pakistani controlled sectors of Kashmir, which is one of the most tensely guarded frontiers in the world. For security reasons, Gurez, which is on the Indian side, was closed off to the outside world in1947 - but the Dard Shin tribespeople who call it home were allowed to remain there.
The crooked wooden villages that dot the floodplain look like something straight out of an old folk tale. Most have no electricity, plumbing, or telephone. For half the year, the villagers are completely sealed off from the rest of the world, as the one road in and out of the valley is buried deep beneath snow. Most families farm small plots of potatoes, vegetables, and spices. In the highlands surrounding Gurez, nomadic shepherds arrive every summer from other parts of Kashmir, and from Punjab, to graze their goats.
While life in Gurez has been affected by the presence of soldiers guarding the border, the closure of the valley meant it remained totally untainted by tourism for 60 years. At the end of 2007, Indian authorities decided to open the area to visitors. In June, 2008, TCP's founder, Michael Benanav, became the first Western photographer to enter the valley in at least six decades. He found a deeply isolated place that's beautiful and weird, idyllic and surreal, at once an alpine Shangri-La and a militarized zone. He and his traveling companion spent weeks walking the length of the valley, eating and sleeping in the homes of local people along the way. They were both struck by how fragile Gurez seemed, both environmentally and culturally, and wondered what would happen to this very special place once tourists found out about it.
Most people in Gurez want tourists to come, imagining the money that will flow in with them to this poverty-stricken place. Some dream of visitors arriving on helicopter tours from Srinagar; others want to promote fishing and hunting; one person even suggested that a golf resort could be built there.
TCP plans to document how traditional life in the Gurez Valley is affected by the introduction of tourism to the region. Having experienced it before any kind of tourist industry or infrastructure existed, we are in a unique position to gauge its impact over time - for better and for worse, and certainly for different.