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The ongoing hostilities between India and Pakistan rendered the Gurez Valley, just kilometres below the militarised Line of Control in the northwest of India, out of bounds for travellers for more than half a century. Now, as the area reopens to visitors, local people are hoping their homes and cultural heritage won't be washed away by the construction of a new dam

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PREVIOUS SPREAD: a Dard Shin woman in Burnoi village, wearing a traditional headscarf. Approximately 25,000 Dards live in the Gurez Valley. They are part of a wider group of Dardic-speaking people, spread across the northern areas of Pakistan and Ladakh, as well as parts of Afghanistan and the Kashmir Valley. They were first referred to by Herodotus in 5 BC; LEFT: a Dard Shin family looks out from their traditional log home in Purana Telail village. The Gurez Valley, which stretches up into Pakistan from Jammu and Kashmir in India, remains very isolated, partly because of its mountain geography--it's located nearly 2,500 metres above sea level and is surrounded by snow-capped peaks--and partly because heavy snows make the area inaccessible for around seven months of the year. Historically, the valley was a 'tributary' of the Silk Route, providing a link between Kashmir and Kashgar in China. Script, thought to have been written during the first or second centuries AD, in languages ranging from Hebrew to Tibetan, has been found in the mountains above the valley, suggesting the route was used to exchange both goods and cultural ideas; ABOVE, TOP: three Dard Shin girls on the fertile floodplain of the Kishenganga River; ABOVE: a Gujjar shepherd girl drinks tea in a summer herding cabin in the mountains south of Gurez

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OPPOSITE: shoes piled up at the door of a Gujjar shepherd's cabin, high in the Pir Panjal section of the Himalaya, along the upper reaches of the Raman Sin River south of Gurez; ABOVE: a Dard Shin elder in the village of Burnoi, who had never seen a Western traveller in his village before. In recent decades, access to the area has been denied for security reasons--the valley is very close to the high-altitude Line of Control, the militarised de facto border between Pakistan and India. Now that peace has returned, some Dard Shin want to develop the area as a tourist destination, but the valley has very little infrastructure, and despite numerous requests for a year-round access road to the valley, the required tunnel remains unbuilt. Outsiders have also expressed concern about how rapid unregulated development might alter the area's unique character. In the meantime, a more pressing concern for the Dard Shin is a proposal to build a dam on the Kishenganga River. Pakistan and India are currently in a race to harness the power of the region's rivers. India had initially planned to construct a 100-metre-high dam on the Kishenganga, which would have flooded the majority of the Gurez Valley and forced nearly all of its residents to relocate. But due to resistance by the Dard Shin and Pakistan, which is constructing a dam downstream, the dam's height has been reduced to 37 metres. Set for completion in 2016, the dam will divert water from the Kishenganga towards Wular Lake via a 20-kilometre-plus concrete tunnel, and will generate hydropower in a nearby region. Although construction of the dam will temporarily bring work and money into the area, the Dard Shin are worried that around 130 families will still lose their homes (with more than 2,000 Dard Shin losing land in total), and more than 300 hectares of land in the valley will be submerged.The Indian government's relocation plans are unclear, and it also hasn't committed to providing hydroelectricity to those who will remain in the Gurez Valley. As electricity supplies currently range from non-existent to five diesel-generated hours a day, this has provoked anger from some. 'Ultimately, our resources are being exploited; says Zahid Samoon, a writer who was born in the valley, and who has voiced concerns about the drowning of its archaeological heritage and the effect that fragmentation of the Dard Shin will have on their culture and the survival of their language, Shina

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LEFT: a Dard Shin girl in Chakwali village, the farthest point along the Kishengana River that travellers are allowed to visit. Most children in the valley attend school, and literacy rates are around 64 per cent. Valley families largely depend on livestock farming, which they supplement with trout from the river. The area is largely unspoilt, and local wildlife includes snow leopards, brown bears and barking deer. During the 19th century, the valley was a favoured hiking area for British colonials based in India. 'Gurais [sic] is a lovely valley', wrote Walter R Lawrence, the British land settlement commissioner, in his 1895 book The Valley of Kashmir. 'The Kishenganga River flows through it and on either side tower mountain scraps of indescribable grandeur. Perhaps one of the most beautiful scenes in the whole of Kashmir is the grove of huge poplars through which the traveller enters the Gurais Valley'; ABOVE, TOP: Abduliun village, far upriver along the Kishenganga. When hostilities between India and Pakistan were at their peak, many Dard Shin villagers left the Gurez Valley to escape the frequent shelling from across the border. Today, the Indian Army still maintains a presence in the area--on the lookout for infiltrators from Pakistan--but since a ceasefire was declared in 2005, the area is much safer, and many Dard Shin have returned to their homes
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Title Annotation:photostory: GUREZ VALLEY
Author:Benanav, Michael
Publication:Geographical
Geographic Code:9INDI
Date:May 1, 2010
Words:925
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