The next morning dawned bright and clear. We all had had a restful night, especially myself as, being the chief organizer, I had (ab)used my position and managed to get a bedroom all to myself. After a hearty breakfast of parathas and omelettes and a hot shower we all felt good enough to conquer Kashmir.
Tia, our Yorkshire Terrier, who is arguably the most traveled dog in Pakistan; having accompanied us from the mountains of Chitral to the Arabian Sea in Karachi on various trips, was eagerly sniffing around the lawns of the guest house, all fired up to forge ahead.
We left Muzaffarabad city at around 10 am. We got our car tanks filled and purchased some fruit. It is the mango season and rosy images of sitting on the banks of the river Neelam and devouring ice cold chaunsas after pulling them out from its icy cold water filled our heads and made us dizzy with anticipation.
The road from Muzaffarabad toward the Neelam Valley is single but metalled and in fairly good condition. There are patches where rain water has eroded the road a bit but they are not many and generally it is easy driving.
The river Neelam flows by the road all along and makes driving quite enjoyable. The hills are green and every now and then small cascading waterfalls, especially in the monsoon season, make the scene idyllic. The biggest of these waterfalls is the Dhani Waterfall, about 33km away from Muzaffarabad and this was our first stop.
This waterfall is just by the roadside and most tourists who drive by cannot resist stopping. The water falls from a height of about 150 feet and splashes into a shallow pool, spraying the area with a fine, cool mist. We posed for the obligatory picture with the waterfall and the more adventurous among us took off their shoes and waded in the shallow pool but soon grew tired of this activity. Another family wanted their two young sons to stand right under the waterfall for a picture and would not take no for an answer.
The water was cold, the photographer a novice and the parents perfectionists; so the poor fellows got completely drenched in the icy cold water. We could hear their teeth chattering from afar but their parents did not allow them to emerge from the waterfall until a satisfactory picture had been taken. I am sure they will not forget Dhani waterfall in a hurry.
There is a newly built set of rooms across the waterfall, which also contains reasonably clean washrooms, so stopping here can serve two purposes and if you are lucky you can also buy a Walls ice lolly from a mobile vendor, if you are so inclined.
We next passed a part of the Neelum-Jhelum Hydro Power Project, which is part of an under construction hydro-electric power scheme designed to divert water from the Neelum River to a power station on the Jhelum River and will have an installed capacity of 969 MW. Construction on the project began in 2008 after a Chinese consortium was awarded the construction contract in July 2007.
The first generator is scheduled to be commissioned in July 2017 and the entire project is expected to be complete in December 2017. I found that at its appraisal in 1989, it was to cost $167 million and after another redesign in 2005 that cost rose to $935 million. Currently costs have risen to in excess of $ 4 billion amid corruption and negligence charges galore.
The road to Athmuqam is quite scenic but the weather was quite warm in July as its height is less than 5000 ft above sea level. It is a town about 73 kilometres from Muzaffarabad and also the headquarters of Neelum district, with a population of about 35,000.
It is a small and peaceful little town with a market and a post office. Banks, a hospital and telephone exchanges are also present. University of AJK Neelum campus is also located in the town and has departments of Computer Science, Geology and English. There are two degree colleges for Girls and for Boys. Private colleges & Schools can also be seen.
We reached our hotel in Athmuqam at around 2 pm. Hotel Pine Track and Green Restaurant is a small, establishment set up quite recently by Ch , an entrepreneur from Pindi. Since it is new, it is reasonably clean and has about 8 different sized rooms on two floors and a small store selling everyday items. Apparently this was their first season and so some improvements to the facilities were clearly needed. There was no hot water or gauze windows and the area around the premises could be cleaner and better maintained. But to give credit where due, the food was good and the proprietor obliging.
The location was pretty good with the river flowing by and a nice view from the bedroom windows. One could walk down to the river in two minutes and that is what we did after settling in. Clutching our bags of mangoes we all managed to make our way to the river. Though the sun was warm the gushing, glacial ice cold water made the whole experience very pleasant and the mangoes very chilled, as we lounged on the sun-baked and wave-cleaned rocks. We had ordered food before coming down and no sooner were the mangoes gone than we were being called for lunch. It was a hearty enough lunch and hunger being the best sauce, we enjoyed it fully.
The lunch made us rather drowsy and as the young ones looked longingly at the beds, I herded everyone out before all was lost to the god of sleep, Hypnos. The plan was to go to Keran which was about 10 km further. I had been very fascinated with Keran when I first heard of it. It is a village and tourist resort on the banks of Neelam river at an altitude of 5,000 ft. The adjacent village on the other side of the Neelum river in the Indian occupied Kashmir is also known as Keran.
The river Neelam marks the line of control with India here and the territory across the river is under Indian control. One could see the typical, Kashmiri architecture style houses across the bank, people moving around in them and washed clothes drying in the sun.
Further up on the hill one could see army pickets, manned by Indian army and steely, barbed wires strung out on poles. It was indeed an eerie feeling and the stories I heard from people living there made the feeling stronger. Resorts, hotels and tea stalls have sprung up all over the place as it is a well-visited tourist spot, but no such activity could be seen on the Indian side.
The AJK tourism department runs a fairly large guest house here, rooms of which get booked months in advance in the summer season. There is also a large camping area with various-size tents that one can hire to stay the night. We settled down to have some tea after we met the tea stall owner. He had swum across the river many years ago leaving his old parents behind. He pointed out an old, ramshackle house across the river and told us how he would wave to his parents from afar, across the river, for many years till they passed away one after the other. He could see their funerals being taken away from his old home but all he could do was stand at his side of the river bank and say a prayer.
The tea was hot and sweet and, combined with some butter puff biscuits, did much to raise our spirits. Darkness was now falling and we headed back to our cars. The ladies sauntered into a handiwork stall while we negotiated the hiring of a hi-ace wagon to take us to Kel the next day. The driver agreed to pick us up from our hotel at 6.30 am the next morning and so we drove back to our hotel.
The moon almost full that night and was quite high now. The sound of the rushing water was louder now and the river shone and writhed in the moonshine like an undulating snake. We had a barbecue dinner served by the riverside and thoroughly enjoyed it. As we sat sipping our qahva the world seemed far away and with no mobile signals and internet, living in the moment was the only and most appropriate option.
We all had a reasonably restful night and were up with the dawn and ready at the appointed time but the van was nowhere in sight. The hotel proprietor had not arrived yet and so there was no way to call or contact the driver. At last my nephew and I walked to the nearest petrol pump where an obliging gentleman very readily allowed us to use his cell phone. The area does not have the usual mobile companies services available in Pakistan, but since 2014 the Special Communication Organization (SCO) of the army has provided mobile phone services for the local communities up to Kel. Eventually we managed to reach the driver on the phone, who said he was waiting for us at Keran. Apparently there had been some miscommunication between the driver and the proprietor and eventually it was the proprietor who came to get us in his van at about 8 am. We were on the road by 8.30 but had lost valuable time.
The area from Keran to Sharda and then on to Kel is extremely scenic. The mountains are verdant with trees and grass and frequently dotted with waterfalls and streams. The road upwards of Keran is quite narrow and bumpy but not recommended if you like your car. It is best to hire an appropriate vehicle depending on the number of passengers and just sit back and relax. Ours was a hi-ace van which seats 18 and so the 8 of us had a lot of room to ourselves.
Our driver was one Raja Obaid, a local, who owned a van and a Pajero that he rented out and also drove when needed. He was a very decent and caring person who seemed to think of us as his responsibility and was quite protective of us. He was already feeling rather guilty for the delay and so tried to make up for it by pressing down his right foot as hard as he could.
Most of the area we traveled through was indeed very beautiful but poverty seemed to rear its ugly head everywhere. It is a very conservative part of the country and no women folk could be seen in public. The few that we crossed on the road were carrying pitchers of water or firewood and seemed emaciated and undernourished. Little girls are made to help at young ages and seem happy to do what they can.
As Saima and I walked down from the ruins of Sharda University, the schools had just ended and boys as well as girls could be seen on their way home from school. They looked rather disdainfully at my camera and the girls, not even yet 10, hid their faces. One of the boys stopped and told me that pictures were ‘haraam’. The moulvi seems to be doing a good job here!
Though water is plentiful, the terrain is not very crop-friendly. Men folk usually prefer to join the armed forces and another common occupation for the people of the area is the hospitality industry, where they work as waiters, cashiers, cooks and bakers all over the country.
There are many army camps in the area and because of the LOC with India, one has to frequently stop, identify and register oneself before being allowed to continue. Our next stop was Sharda.
Sharda is one of the two tehsils of Neelum district, and is reputed to be the most beautiful spot of the Neelum valley. The Sharda temple or the Sharda University is located here at a distance of 60 miles from Baramulla in Indian-administered Kashmir and 140 km from Muzaffarabad. It lies 16 miles to the northwest of the Line of Control in a militarily sensitive area.
The temple dedicated to the goddess Sarastava? (Sharda) is on the banks of Neelum River. Kashmir was once the centre of learning of Hindu Vedic works until the people dwelling in that region were forcefully converted to Islam. The temple is so ancient that Kashmir State was earlier known as ‘Sharada Desh’. As part of their daily worship, even today Kashmiri Hindus salute the devi Sharada, and ask for the charity of knowledge.
The temple had periodically fallen into disrepair by the 14th century, and was last repaired by Maharaja Gulab Singh of Kashmir in the 19th Century. Following the brief 1948 war in the region between Pakistan and India, the site came under control of Pashtun tribesmen who had invaded the region. Control was then passed to the newly formed rebel government of Azad Kashmir.
The site was heavily damaged in the 2005 earthquake which struck the region, and has not been repaired since that time by the government of Pakistan. Pakistani Hindus rarely visit the temple, preferring to visit sites in other parts of the country and as such, restoration of the temple is not considered a priority. The site is currently under the control of the Pakistani army and a jawan sits by a table selling souvenirs; mainly a cup and a key ring.
While the natural beauty of the area is spell-binding, the lack of infrastructure and basic facilities I saw all across the valley made me extremely sad. If that is not enough the senseless littering by tourists as well as residents is appalling.
The banks of Neelam at Sharda were littered with empty juice packets and other colourful objects and the few hotels we saw quite gaudy and dirty. No doubt, nature reigns in all its splendor all across the Neelam Valley, but the human settlements are decrepit, dirty and unkempt. Most buildings exhibit a lack of aesthetic sense and beauty. Lack of education and knowledge is more to be blamed here than poverty!
Finding a public toilet is a useless endeavour and if a local restaurant has a toilet it will not have water…while the river flows by! That, in my opinion, explains the whole dilemma we face as a nation…
So after energizing ourselves with yet more mangoes we were ready to explore Kel…but that’s another story!