Bagh in Azad Kashmir has become so famous that it seemed natural for me to go there, especially as it was a little over an hour’s ride from where I happened to be. As the cramped public minibus arrived at Bagh, the sight of heaps of trash and blue plastic shopping bags, strewn on both sides of the long bridge at the entrance of the city put a damper on my spirit. The weather as I stepped out of the wagon at the bus stand was distinctly stifling after the preceding night’s rain. Bagh did not seem to like me much, it seemed.
It was afternoon and I wondered where I would sleep the night when suddenly I bumped into a stout, rose-cheeked middle-aged man.
“Are you a taxi-wallah?”
Unlike congested, degenerating Murree, this unexplored town in Azad Jammu and Kashmir reminds you of the fresh air and scenic vistas that hill stations were meant to be about
“No. I drive that wagon between Bagh and Rawalakot.” He pointed towards his minibus.
“Ok then, can you recommend a hotel or guest house for the night in pleasant surroundings away from this crowded and stuffy bus stand?”
“Do you want to stay in Bagh? There is nothing here,” he seemed surprised and I felt awkward.
“I have never been to Bagh; it is a new place for me,” I justified my intention to stay there.
The minibus driver said, “If I were you, I would go to Sudhan Gali. It’s just an hour away, cool, quiet and lush green. You will forget Murree and remember me with gratitude for recommending it to you.” His recommendation had a tone of enthusiasm. “Come, that wagon is leaving in a few minutes. I will get you a good seat and instruct them where to drop you. They all know me.”
Zakir was a jovial fellow and had driven public buses in Karachi for 13 years on the Saddar-Nazimabad route. He returned to his hometown, Rawalakot, when things became too rough in Karachi in the early 1990s. Notwithstanding the need for caution with strangers in new places, and unlike Bagh, we hit it off instantly.
Two hours later but before sunset, the coaster dropped me in the cold, refreshing mountain air scented by pine trees, in the main bazaar of Sudhan Gali. A nearby signboard said ‘7,800 feet above sea level’. The bazaar consisted of a dozen small shanty shops, a couple of dhabas and not more than around 40 people, including the shopkeepers.
A rundown room albeit with hot and cold running water, in a five-room guesthouse run by the Azad Kashmir Tourism Department, became my shelter for the night. It is adjacent to the more expensive Benazir Palace hotel on a hill a 10-minute walk from the bazaar. The inn-keeper told me that he had given me a “low” price because these rooms were closed for repair! Consequently, he dispensed with the formality of paperwork.
Deriving its name from the Sudhan Zai tribe, Sudhan Gali — at a slightly higher altitude than Murree — is what Murree must have been a hundred years ago. I hardly saw more than 10 visiting families there. In my mind, I compared that with choked roads around the degenerating Murree. It felt like I was an exclusive visitor. Grazing herds of cattle and sheep offered a pleasant site. So did the numerous springs and their cold, sweet and healthy water. However, the sight of packs of dogs and their barking at night seemed jarring in a serene hill station like Sudhan Gali.
There were several walking tracks close by, including one going up to the hilltop with a view of Ganga Choti behind which lay the border with Indian-held Kashmir. However, because it was not advisable to go there in cloudy weather, I explored other treks for the first two days.
Six in the evening was closing time for eateries. The standard fare, as in other small towns of the country, were paratha, egg and tea for breakfast and chicken karahi or daal with bread for supper. Except for Karachi, electricity load-shedding across the country including Azad Kashmir is more or less the same; one hour of light followed by an hour of darkness — pitch dark and dead silent in the mountains during moonless nights.
On the third day which was also my last day in Sudhan Gali, I had no option in the absence of any transport, but to start walking up to see Ganga Choti despite cloudy weather. It was a kind of day travelers are thankful for when they suddenly encounter it, especially after a rather uneventful spell of bad weather while exploring a new region. So I decided to embark on the eight kilometre uphill hike as far as I could manage and see what was in store for me.
About a quarter of the way on that lonely road and soon after the rocks replaced the paved road, the gentle drizzle turned into a heavy downpour. There was no shelter other than trees and my delicate straw hat was meant to shield the sun not the rain. There wasn’t a soul in sight. Fortunately, a few minutes later I saw a small truck trudging upwards. I waved and it came to a halt.
“Where are you going?” asked the driver.
“We are going there too, but there is no room for you inside. If you can hang on at the back, go ahead.” I went ahead for lack of options. It was still raining lightly.
By the time we got stuck in the mud on the slippery track, my arms and hands were stiff. I wanted to get off and return to my base on foot, but it was too far. I held on to the iron grill of the truck while standing on the footrest after the driver gave me a motivational talk to literally ‘hang-on.’
The bumpy, ascending ride began to create a bonding with other passengers even when we were not conversing much. An elderly lady from Karachi offered me space to sit on the edge inside the truck with my one leg hanging out. I guess the initial apprehension about a stranger from nowhere had thawed.
As the truck and rain stopped at the hilltop, there was another 20 minute hike to the vantage point. The passengers at the back were all ladies and children. A gentleman from Karachi with a young guide was sitting with the driver. The guests from Karachi were accompanied by their local host family. They had come fully equipped for barbeque and tea which I was graciously offered.
After about a three-hour picnic, on the way back downhill, we got into a lively conversation. The lady talked about her absent husband who liked to collect books, and the daughter about the criminology degree she was pursuing at Karachi University. She was working on a course assignment about the condition of women in far flung mountain hamlets of Azad Kashmir. We were interrupted when the truck got stuck in the muddy road once again. It took considerable collective effort to push it out and get going again. Before we knew it, we reached my destination, the main bazaar of Sudhan Gali. The return journey was surely much faster.
My travelling companions were staying at a village at another hour’s drive from Sudhan Gali. The local hosts of my fellow Karachiites insisted on my joining them and being their guest in their village, but I was already a bit weary from the long roller-coaster ride in the day. So I thanked them for their kindness and begged their leave. The unplanned preceding three days had turned into one of the most memorable short holidays I ever had.
After a day well spent as a wanderer, I did not hear the dogs of Sudhan Gali barking that night.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 18th, 2016