Heaven in the North

Having spent a sizable chunk of my early childhood in Islamabad, I find myself drawn to nature in all its brilliant forms. There is something very special about that intoxicating smell of freshly cut grass; the unmistakably musty smell of forest; that first blossom of spring; those wild squirrels, birds and butterflies that are as much a part of your daily life as fresh air—Something you just don’t get to experience in the hustle bustle of an urban metropolis like Karachi, where the only fresh air is the kind your air-conditioner promises, and that too in a tightly sealed room.

So, to beat the heat and escape from the horrible electricity crisis that had crippled Karachi last year, my family decided to visit “home” for a couple of weeks, from where we picked up a bunch of cousins and in a spur of the moment decision, set out on a three-day trip up north into Kaghan and Neelam valleys, two of Pakistan’s most prized possessions, both in terms of beauty as well as tourism.

The 60 km drive from Islamabad to Abbotabad seemed to end even before it started. With a couple of stopovers to stock our rented mini-van with all the snacks we could accommodate, it took us no more than an hour and a half to reach the city’s main bazaar. We were on our way soon to Mansehra, which is a major stop for tourists on their way to Kaghan as well as those traveling the Karakoram Highway which leads to China. The small city of Mansehra has a very old history, its geographical boundaries has constantly been changed in the times of various Rajas, Maharajahs and Kings in the past. Alexander the Great, after conquering northern India, established his rule over a large part of it, and the people of Mansehra also played a major part in the freedom movement in early 1900s. Today Mansehra is a place of scenic beauty that plays hosts to hundreds of tourists during summer ever year, and we certainly were no exception.

The drive from Mansehra to Balakot was also a short one. The 2005 earthquake which virtually destroyed the town has drastically changed the scenery of the area, but life is slowly returning thanks to UAE and Saudi relief organizations. UAE has volunteered to rebuild Balakot into an improved town with housing colonies, schools, hospitals, and other civic facilities. Saudi Public Assistance for Pakistan Earthquake Victims (SPAPEV) is also helping the government relocate the town, which the people of Balakot seemed to have mixed feelings about. The main bazaar was bustling beneath its makeshift shelter of corrugated-iron sheets and temporary cabins. The area around River Kunhar that runs through the town is a perfect picnic spot even though the river is kind of murky. We didn’t stop for long though because reaching Shogran before nightfall was our number one priority. We had our own van, but if you’re traveling by car, it’s better to shift into a minibus at this point. Minibuses to/from Balakot would cost you about Rs. 200 and leave from the northern end of the main road when full. Outside of July to September you may have to take a passenger jeep to Kaghan and change, or hire a 4-wheel jeep.

By May, Shogran and Naran are usually accessible by a 4 wheel drive. Hotel prices and occupancy rates were low at the time, but only because many of the scenic attractions were still under snow. High season begins in earnest in June, before the monsoon brings rain and numerous temporary roadblocks in July and August. Still, up valley travel is possible. Fine weather returns in September and October, with the nights getting colder and the chance of snow in late October. From late November to early April snow routinely blocks the road beyond Kaghan, and the upper villages are mostly deserted. We were smart to have planned the trip in Early May.

The road to Shogran is very thrilling because of its extensive steep height. The front wheels of the jeep were virtually 2-4 feet higher than back wheels, which caused a lot of excitement and fear together. The forest on the way is a real beauty which is breathtaking. The village itself is situated on a green plateau in the Naran Valley at a height of 2,362 meters above sea level. We went straight to Pine Park Hotel, which is one of the high-end hotels in Naran. We were lucky to get rooms without prior reservation, as the manager informed us that the hotel was booked-up till mid August starting next week. The Pine Park Hotel claims to be a warm and luxurious accommodation amidst idyllic terrains, and indeed it was! With a backdrop of violet-blue mountains, it’s surrounded with well-manicured lawns colorful with flowers and pine trees that extend as far as the eye can see. There are other relatively cheaper hotels in the area too, but at Rs. 3500 a night including breakfast, Hotel Pine Park is your best bet in the area if you’re not traveling on a very tight budget.

After having a very decent early dinner at the hotel’s restaurant, we went for a short walk along the dirt paths encompassing the hotel. Venturing into the pine forests didn’t seem like a very safe option in the night, so we stayed clear especially because we’d been warned of wild monkeys and cats that live in the area.

Fully vitalized after a good night’s sleep, most of us were up shortly after dawn, and eager to start the day. After a quick breakfast in the hotel restaurant, we were on the road in a couple of hired 4 wheel jeeps that the hotel management had arranged for us. Our first stop of the day was at Siri & Paya, two beautiful peaks with equally stunning views in the Kaghan Valley.
Embraced by the cool forested peaks of the Lesser Himalaya, this 160 kilometer long Kaghan Valley drained by the burbling Kunhar River is one of Pakistan’s most popular summer holiday spots among local and foreign tourists alike. The verdant valley is not without its problems of crowding, litter and gouging hoteliers during the brief season, but outside the summer peak, you will find the promised tranquility though many of the hotels will have closed their doors.
After a couple of hours of enjoying the mountains, we were on our way to Naran by going down from Shogran to Kewaii. Our jeeps took us from Kewaii Chowk leading to Naran via Kaghan Bazar, and most of the two hour journey was spent oohing and aahing at the awe-inspiring scenery that surrounded us. River Kunhar with its loud gushing waters on one side of the road accompanied us all the way to Naran.

Naran has a small bazaar like Murree Mall Road which primarily sells local handicrafts and dry fruits. We contemplated going fishing in River Kunhar but decided against it to save time. We had to back in Shogran by nightfall. At 2400 meters, Naran is a beehive in the tourist season, choked with jeeps and minibuses, and the hotels are also almost always packed. By October the few hotels that remain open may ask less than a fifth of the summer price. From November to April, Naran completely shuts down.

One hour drive uphill took us about 800m higher to the famous Lake Saiful Muluk (or Mukl). Surrounded by moody, snowy mountains, the lake is said to be inhabited by fairies. Legend has it that in ancient times a mortal, Prince Saiful Mulk, fell in love with a fairy there and married her. Lake Saiful Muluk is undoubtedly one of the highest and most beautiful lakes in Pakistan. The water of this over a mile in diameter oval shaped lake is spectacularly clear with a slight green tone. The clarity of the water comes from the multiple glaciers all around the high basin feeding the lake. Unfortunately, a small portion of the lake was half frozen because of heavy snow fall during the previous winter. Some ambitions people prefer trekking their way up to the lake, which would take you approximately 3-4 hours; the path starts just above the main bazaar. Alternatively, you can hire a jeep for Rs. 700 from Naran, which can take up to six passengers. The driver will stay at the lake for about an hour, allowing you to go for a horse ride or boating before returning. The hills that surround the lake are some of the highest peaks of Naran Valley. One of the renowned mountains, Malika Parbat, stands to the left of the lake and makes for an absolutely brilliant view.

Our next stop was Lulusar, which is a group of mountains some two hours away from Naran Valley. It is famous for the Lake Lulusar, which is much larger than other lakes around the valley, and is surrounded by snowcapped hills, making it a natural tourist attraction. Located between Basel and Gitidas, Lake Lulusar is the biggest natural lake in scenic Hazara. It feeds roaring River Kunhar which is its main source. You come across magnificent view of the lake through the jeep trek on the banks of the lake that takes you to Babu Sar Pass.

By four in the evening, we were on the road back to Shogran and Pine Park Hotel, where once again we slept like there was no tomorrow. The third day began a little later than our previous two days, and by 10 am, we were on our way to Muzffarabad, the scenic capital of the State of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The journey from Kaghan to Muzaffarabad can merely be described in words; one truly has to see it to believe it. Cradled by lofty mountains, Muzaffarabad reflects a blend of various cultures and languages, and the people too seemed to get better-looking as we traveled further!

Standing on Kashmiri soil was an emotional experience for us all. On one hand we were awe-struck by its tranquil beauty, and on the other we were heartbroken because we knew what the place and its people have been through over the last 60 years. Azad Kashmir’s capital was just 25km from the epicenter of the devastating 2005 earthquake and the city is still recovering, with reconstruction and temporary shelter still much in evidence. Muzaffarabad used to be just another stop on the road to Srinagar – but a strategic one, at the confluence of the Neelam and Jhelum Rivers. Its sole tourist attraction, besides the nature, of course, is a 17th-century fort built by the town’s founder, a chief of the Chak tribe named Muzaffar Khan, to ward off the Mughal armies of Emperor Akbar. The architectonics of the fort show that great experts in design and structure participated in its construction. It is surrounded on three sides by Neelum River. The northern part of the fort has terraces with steps leading to the bank of the river while the eastern side was very well protected from the hazards of flood waters but some parts in the north were slightly damaged.
The main bazaar of Muzaffarabad was rather sleazy, and didn’t have much to offer except walnut carvings, dry fruits and Kashmiri shawls—everything you can buy in Karachi.

Exhausted by the over ambition travel plan, we were eager to reach our last stop of the trip, Neelam River Valley, as soon as possible. Running through the Lesser Himalaya, the 200 Kilometer Neelam River Valley, which I found out was called the Kishanganga before partition, is Azad Kashmir’s main attraction–or would be if there was no Line of Control, which in places is just a few kilometers away. Like the Kaghan Valley that runs parallel to it, the Neelam Valley is famous for trekking, fishing and enjoying nature. The river and a side valley, the Jagran Nala, are stocked with trout. Stopping here for fishing would ideally make for a wonderful experience but once again we were short on time and out of patience. Our car took us up a paved road that runs halfway up the valley, and a 4 wheel drive track continues for much of the rest, for which we once again had to hire a jeep. From here we went to the famous 134 square kilometer Machaira National Park, where the forested Ganga Mountains, a branch of the Himalayan foothills, separate the Neelam and Kaghan Valleys and provide a fragile home to brown bear, ibex, Himalayan griffon vulture, western tragopan, lammergeyer and, allegedly, snow leopards.

By late evening, we were on the road yet again, smiles on all our faces; our eyes sparkly with admiration for the beauty that is Pakistan. Most of the journey back to Abbottabad was spent in a daze, and we were back home in Islamabad before a midnight coffee session over which the ones who’d stayed back were devotedly scoffed at for missing out on what was without doubt “a trip of a lifetime”!
High altitude and thin air is the only problem we faced on this three day expedition, except perhaps a few mosquito bites for which you should remember to take along a good insect-repellent. There is plenty of wood in these areas for camp fire and cooking if you’re into that, and the locals will gladly help arrange for firewood if you are willing to pay. Do remember to set the destination and amount to be paid with jeep drivers and porters in advance and also try to make hotel reservations in advance to avoid any problems. The number of tourists this year was much less than usual perhaps due to the recent military operations in Swat which gave the region a lot of negative press, but we felt the Kaghan valley was for most part trouble free. Tourism is the only industry of this region and the people of the area depend on it, so do make a plan to visit soon because security certainly isn’t an issue anymore.