Pakistan has been blessed with a wide range of landscapes and terrains. From the Arabian Sea in the South to the lofty mountain ranges in the North, a plethora of diverse topography is spread out in all its glory. The sea, deserts, fertile fields, grasslands and lofty mountains one encounters across the country all have their own ambiance, language, ethnicity, seasons, environment and wildlife. Not many countries of the world can make such a claim or boast of such diversity!
I have been lucky enough to explore a relatively large part of the country but my forays into Kashmir had remained confined to Muzaffarabad and Rawlakot. I had heard with wide-eyed envy, of the supreme natural beauty of the Neelam Valley, from friends who had made the effort to venture forth in the area, but it had remained elusive till now.
So it was last July when I decided to plan a trip to the upper Neelam Valley with my family. As I surfed the net to look for travel information, I was struck by the lack of clear, accurate and relevant information for tourists. The only help I got was from a couple of posts on ‘Pakwheels’, where two gentlemen had taken the trouble to write an account of their travels in the Neelam Valley. Their effort was indeed valiant and selfless and I thought then that I would write my version of my experience of the trip if I managed to undertake it.
So after I had taken in whatever information was available on the net or from my friends, I first tried to book accommodation at army facilities in the area. There is a strong army presence in the area because of the proximity of the border with India but none of my contacts could rise to the occasion, as rooms had been booked far in advance. Summer vacation in schools, combined with the fact that it was the period immediately after Ramazan and Eid, meant that there were many like-minded people zooming in on Kashmir.
I next contacted the AJK tourism department at Muzaffarabad for room bookings in the area. I was told quite nicely but brusquely that all tourism guest houses in the valley were fully booked till mid- August. I was offered help and contact numbers of private hotels / guest houses that could be arranged but would cost double. Eventually on a friend’s recommendation, who had been to the place recently, I booked two rooms at ‘Pine Track Hotel and Restaurant’, at Athmuqaam. The idea was to stay a night at Muzaffarabad and then move on to Athmuqaam the next morning. Once there we would decide what to do next.
We had also invited my brother’s family to join us and so it was a motley crew of 8 who embarked on this expedition on a rainy, July morning from Pindi. The youngest member of the expedition was my 15 month old great nephew, Dayyaan, aka Chota Aadmi, and the eldest was another member of the group, who will remain unnamed and has crossed the half a century mark! The group comprised four males, five females and one dog, echoing our firm belief in equal rights for all and aptly representing the gender statistics for the country!
We were travelling on two cars, a Toyota Corolla Altis 2016 and a Honda CIvic 2011, and left Pindi on a rainy Thursday morning in July, at about 8.30 am. As I stopped to check my car’s tire air pressure near the airport, I was told cheerfully by the busy attendant that one of the tyres was punctured. This meant a delay of about an hour as the puncture was fixed and so it was around 10 when we traversed Islamabad and drove further on the Kashmir highway. On the Murree expressway we made our first stop at a roadside tea stall to have breakfast. The rain had stopped by then and the sun was attempting to break through the clouds. It was a pleasant, breezy morning and the ‘anda parathas’ combined with a nice, strong cup of tea gave a good start to the trip.
The Murree expressway is reasonably good driving and we reached its end at around 11.30 am. Muzaffarabad can be accessed by two roads from here. One way is to drive straight on through lower Topa and on to Kohala and the other is to turn left toward Jhika Gali and then turn right toward Bhurban and on to Kohala. This road is single and rather narrow but in better condition and so this is the road we took. We reached Kohala bridge around 1.30 pm after travelling about 40 km.
Kohala is a town on the River Jhelum and a gateway to the Muzaffarabad and Bagh districts of Azad Kashmir. It lies where the Punjab, Kashmir and KPK boundaries meet. In ancient times Kohala was a centre of Hindu pilgrims who worshipped Kohala Devi. By the middle of 500 BC Kohala had become a centre of the Buddhist community and a temple was constructed between Kohala and Knair Pull. It was a route of Buddhist monks for travelling from Taxila to Sharda Buddhist university in Upper Neelam Valley. In the first decade of 1800, Malka Singh, administrator of Rawalpindi, captured Kohala by force. In 1814 he and the Dogra government of Kashmir under Gulab Singh developed the area as a business centre for Hindu merchants. The more popular theory regarding the etymology of Kohal is that it originates from the name of a Hindu goddess Kohala Devi because Kohala was a place where Hindu deities were worshipped on the banks of the Vatesta (Jhelum) River before the arrival of Islam. Kohala is a place where caravans from Kashmir stayed after crossing Jhelum River and their horses and donkeys were tied there.
In 1863 Sir James Abbott, the first commissioner of Hazara, changed the name of the area from Patan to Kohala. The British government transferred the administration of Kohala to Muree on a one hundred-year lease in 1873. The Punjab government renewed this lease in 1973 for 20 years and it was reunited with Bakote in 1993. Allama Iqbal wrote his famous poem “Himalya”, the first poem of his book Bang-e-Dara staying in a rest house here in 1930.
The red canopies stretching over the banks of the river Jhelum and the festive air drew us in. We parked our cars and walked down to the river which had attracted quite a crowd, even though it was a week day.
Apparently the done thing is to hire a ‘charpoy’ placed in the shallow water, lounge in it with your feet dangling in the water and munch on corn cobs, pakoras or rather sorry looking fried fish.
Local entrepreneurs had set up small stalls selling eatables etc and a fair number of beggars had also converged on the area. We also did what others were doing. The water was cold and refreshing but the eatables looked rather dubious. We soon grew tired of this passive activity and resumed our journey, despite protests from the chota aadmi, who was feeling quite at home in the cold water.
We left Kohala bridge at around 2 pm and entered Muzaffarabd district after about half an hour. The capital of the Azad Jammu and Kashmir, is situated at the confluence of the Jhelum and Neelum rivers. It is 138 km from Rawalpindi and about 76 km from Abbottabad. The present name of Muzaffarabad was given to it after the name of Sultan Muzaffar Khan, a chief of Bomba Dynasty in 1652.
One sees many suspension bridges all over Kashmir. Many have now become disused or are only used by pedestrians but they do lend a certain archaic charm to the area.
A little before the Muzaffarabad city, is a waterfall on the other side of the river, which has been commandeered by local entrepreneurs and a dolly / cable car can take 4 people at a time across the river to the waterfall where artificial pools have been created and tea stalls set up.
There was quite a long line of people waiting to take the rather rickety looking cable dolly and so we moved on after stretching our legs.
We reached Muzaffarabad city at about 3 pm. Accommodation had been arranged at the state guest house, next to the PM house, which we managed to find quite easily with help from friendly traffic policemen. The guest house was reasonably well maintained and the staff was generally helpful. We found out the guest house was a gift from the government of Turkey!
By the time we had checked into our rooms and freshened up, it was about 5 pm. We decided to go out to explore the area but before that we needed to energize ourselves and so the suggestion to have high tea at PC Muzaffarabad was enthusiastically hailed by all.
The hotel is located on a hill top overlooking the sweeping spectacle of Pir Chinasi and the surrounding mountain ranges, a 10 minute drive from the main market. The views on all four sides are spectacular and the vista of the mountainous landscape with the rivers Jhelum and Neelam meeting at Domail quite breathtaking. Unfortunately same can not be said for the high tea, which though adequate, failed to excite our taste buds.
Muzaffarabad is the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir and is located on the banks of the Jhelum and Neelam rivers. The district is bounded by KPK in the west, by the Kupwara and Baramulla districts of Indian-administered territory in the east, and the Neelum district of Azad Kasmir in the north.
The Neelum river streams through the town, joins the river Jhelum at Domel and plays a dominant role in the micro-climate of Muzaffarabad. The Neelam river’s water is clearer and of a bluish hue in the winters, while the river Jhelum can be distinguished by its muddy water but the difference becomes more apparent in the winters. In the monsoon season both rivers look quite the same. The original name of Muzaffarabad was ‘Udabhanda’, which was the capital of the Shahi dynasty.
The shrine of Hazrat Sain Sahki Saheli Sarkar is located at the District Headquarter office complex in Muzaffarabad. The shrine has been a centre of religious activities and Spiritual inspiration for a long time and is the prime attraction of the capital city. The annual Urs (gathering/ congregation) of the saint is observed every year from January 13 to 21 with great fervour.
The URS is attended by many followers particularly from the region of Hazara, Punjab and Muzaaffarabad. Hazrat used to call his male devotees “Aria”. And termed the female followers as “Saheli”. Therefore, he was also knows as Sayin Saheli and Sayin Aria. However, according to some authentic source of information, his real name was Syed Sulfiqar Shah. The saint is said to have passed away in the year 1900.
Many brave Muslims have taken the risk of fleeing the persecution of the Indian army in occupied Kashmir and made it to the Pakistani side by crossing the Neelum river. I met a rickshaw driver in Muzaffarabad who had managed to escape occupied Kashmir and the atrocities of the Indian forces, by swimming across the freezing Neelam river with bullets whizzing past him, 15 years ago.
His wife and kids were still on the other side and he lived in the hope of being reunited with them some day. He had horrifying stories to tell of the cruelties inflicted by Indian forces on the Muslims in the occupied Kashmir, which included being blinded by bayonets and tortured mercilessly.
The popular sentiment in Muzaffarabad aspires to an Azad Kashmir which includes the Indian occupied area but that has remained an elusive dream since the creation of Pakistan and a solution does not seem to be in sight.
The sun soon set over Muzaffarabad. The high tea was a distant memory now and we ordered a simple chicken karahi dinner at the rest house and turned in for the night. The next stop was Athmuqaam from where we were to explore the scenic beauty of the Upper Neelam Valley, but that is another story!