I could feel the difference as soon as I drove across the Kohala Bridge over the Jhelum River, and into Azad Kashmir. While the natural beauty of the terrain remained unchanged, the lack of infrastructure and the effects of a clear economic downturn were immediately visible.
I took the road going up towards Dhirkot, which meant an immediate uphill drive. A few minutes later when I reached a vantage point, I stopped the car and got out to look down at the Kohala Bridge to see the opposite bank of the Jhelum River. There were scores of vehicles and colourful umbrellas at the picnic-point on the Pakistani side, while the Azad Kashmir end had only a couple of modest structures that served as stopover facilities for mainly public buses and the occasional explorers like me.
Three things strike you as soon as you go deeper into Azad Kashmir: The breathtaking natural beauty; the simple and friendly nature of its poverty-ridden people and the pathetic condition of the roads and tourist facilities as compared to those in the adjacent Pakistani region, or in Indian-held Kashmir for that matter.
On a map Azad Kashmir looks a small strip of land, however, since almost the entire terrain is mountainous, travelling from one town to another can be a long, time-consuming and meandering journey made worse due to the condition of the roads and the ever-present danger of landslides. After an over two hours drive up and down winding roads from Kohala, I decided to spend the night in Dhirkot, a small town roughly halfway to Bagh.
|Boating in the Banjosa Lake, Azad Kashmir|
‘According to legend, an ascetic named Kashyapa reclaimed the land now comprising Kashmir from a vast lake. That land came to be known as Kashyapamar and, later, Kashmir. Buddhism was introduced by the Mauryan emperor Ashoka in the 3rd century BCE, and from the 9th to the 12th century CE the region appears to have achieved considerable prominence as a centre of Hindu culture. A succession of Hindu dynasties ruled Kashmir until 1346, when it came under Muslim rule. The Muslim period lasted nearly five centuries, ending when Kashmir was annexed to the Sikh kingdom of the Punjab in 1819 and then to the Dogra kingdom of Jammu in 1846.
Despite enormous opportunities, tourism trade and industry has not been developed in the region
The creation of this princely state helped the British safeguard their northern flank in their advance to the Indus and beyond during the latter part of the 19th century. The state thus formed part of a complex political buffer zone interposed by the British between their Indian empire and the empires of Russia and China to the north. For Gulab Singh, confirmation of title to these mountain territories marked the culmination of almost a quarter century of campaigning and diplomatic negotiation among the petty hill kingdoms along the northern borderlands of the Sikh empire of the Punjab.’ [Encyclopaedia Britannica]
|Neelam River circling Muzaffarabad|
Finding a place to spend the night became a challenge like in most small towns in Pakistan. I was shown a ‘hotel’ above shops in the main bazaar; clusters of beds with bare, stained mattresses and pillows constituted the lodgings. To my query about better facilities, I was advised to try my luck at the forest rest house a couple of kilometres away.
The caretaker/cook/sweeper/cashier (no receipts or paperwork formalities here) and manager of the facility of this beautifully located classic rest house was a short stout middle-aged man with darting eyes. The rooms he showed were much better than those I had seen a few minutes earlier, but the price was exorbitant. Later, I learnt that it was government property, which the local officials of Forest Department and its staff made full use of as a money-making opportunity. Nevertheless, the walk in the forest the following day, with its flora and fauna, as well as the simplicity of the locals, who were not used to having tourists, was an exhilarating experience. The latter part was so much fun that I decided to resume my Kashmir adventure on public transport after returning the borrowed vehicle to my friends in Rawalpindi.
|A brook in Dhirkot|
From Rawalpindi I took another route this time, through Kahuta to Rawlakot, which is an important large town famous for its bowl shaped location. While the valley is generously gifted by nature, the tourism trade and industry is pretty crude in Azad Kashmir even though enormous opportunities for investment exist in this territory. Interestingly, while a huge portion of the male population of Azad Kashmir works in Pakistani cities and beyond, the large number of women who remain behind have a high literacy rate and education is regarded a noble pursuit.
A mesmerising artificial lake at an altitude of 6,499 feet, Banjosa, is about an hour’s drive uphill from Rawlakot. Lush green hill forests tower over the lake. Journalist and broadcaster Raza Ali Abidi’s short story, Pankharian, a sensitively written tale in the backdrop of the 1965 war, is set around this lake.
Although there are numerous places worth visiting in Azad Kashmir including old forts like the Sharda Fort, the Red Fort and the Black Fort in addition to old Buddhist ruins and Hindu temples, I had time for only one more stop and that too briefly — Muzaffarabad, the capital.
Located at the confluence of rivers Neelam and Jehlum, Muzaffarabad is named after Sultan Muzzafar Khan, a chief of the Bomba dynasty (1652). Its estimated population is 750,000, and the city has a very attractive look due to the snake like Neelam River flowing through and around the city. It is a large city with fine hotels and shopping areas. The roads and infrastructure is better than the rest of the region. Since roads are almost the only means of transportation in Azad Kashmir, there is a large bus terminal in Muzaffarabad. That is where I found the wagon for my return journey via Abbottabad. Among my travel companions on the wagon were two quiet little ‘kids’ — in case you didn’t know (like me), that is what baby goats are called in English! In conclusion, one can say that Azad Kashmir is a beautiful place to visit, and even a little investment in infrastructure and tourist facilities would go a long way towards reviving the economy of this picturesque, but neglected region.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, May 3rd, 2015