FOR city slickers from Karachi, a trip up north is a treasured experience indeed. Fleeing the mounds of garbage, streams of sewage, noxious air and rampant crime that have unfortunately become the hallmarks of this rapidly deteriorating metropolis, it is worth seeking out a few days of peace and quiet in the mountains and hills in the north.
However, rather than experiencing any Zen-like moments in the Himalayan foothills in and around Islamabad, one is surrounded by a cavalcade of tourists from across the country. This should have been expected for, after all, we arrive in Islamabad smack in the middle of the winter school holidays. Trekking in the Margalla Hills to Daman-i-Koh via Trail 2 (supposed to be the ‘easy’ trail) we find that the great vista of the federal capital that we made the schlep up the hill for has eluded us, thanks to fog/mist.
Daman-i-Koh is packed with screaming kids, a few screaming adults, and people of all ages taking selfies. It is a veritable tower of Babel, as apart from Urdu and Punjabi one can hear Seraiki, Sindhi and Pashto, among other languages and dialects this writer was unable to figure out, indicating that domestic tourism is apparently on the uptick.
In one corner, a character dressed in a garish sherwani sells knick-knacks from his small shop, along with paan, all the while blasting hideous Bollywood numbers from his boombox. However, this noise pollution is soon countered by a wizened old soul playing the rabab at some distance; an older gentleman sways to the sweet melody of the rabab, as with a vista of amazement a youngster watches the musician dexterously play this traditional instrument.
But what is disturbing is that many fellow tourists think little of throwing their trash — empty packets of chips, juice, fizzy drinks, etc — wherever they feel like it, despite the fact that the CDA has placed waste bins to properly dispose of rubbish. As a Karachiite who has seen his city progressively drown in a sea of filth, I fear that unless littering in these salubrious locales is nipped in the bud, the hills around the federal capital will soon have a major garbage problem.
In search of more pristine locales, we head up to Ayubia the next morning. After barrelling down Murree Road, as we cross Islamabad’s city limits, the air seems to get crisper as the altitude increases. Soon enough we are making our way up towards Murree and further on towards Ayubia on a winding but well-built mountain road. It is still early in the day, so the road is relatively clear.
Passing through the various hamlets and towns that form part of the Galiyat, the vistas get progressively more spectacular, with snow-capped peaks in the distance, as the air becomes increasingly nippy. Along the mountain crags young men have spread shawls in bright colours to catch the eyes of passing motorists. Contrasting with the green of the trees and the brown of the rocks, the burst of colourful shawls offers a surreal scene.
All this driving calls for a pit stop; a dhaba with a fine view is chosen in the vicinity of Changla Gali. The cool mountain air has sure worked up an appetite. However, a piping hot plate of pakoras — as savoury as anything Karachi’s Burnes Road has to offer — with a tangy raita on the side, washed down by steaming cups of delicious tea, sends energy and sugar levels rising. I naively ask our expert driver/guide — a member of the local Abbasi community who proudly flashes his clan affiliation with the prime minister of Pakistan — why each eatery displays a small flock of desi chickens up front. Are the birds pets? Enlightening me, he tells me the chickens are lunch or dinner, served up fresh to diners upon request.
But humans are not the only ones feasting in the mountains. Every few hundred metres, troops of monkeys can be seen devouring morsels flung at them by tourists. Interestingly, some of the simians have piled on the pounds, thanks to the largesse of the tourists. Unfortunately, while visitors may be providing easy meals to the apes, they have also brought loads of trash with them. And while the rubbish witnessed earlier at Daman-i-Koh was off-putting, here in the rarefied air of Ayubia, in the shadow of majestic mountains, it is downright disgraceful. Amongst the mountain shrubs and piles of snow, the cola bottles and packets of chips look totally alien. One even spots gutka wrappers: it appears that this oral scourge has spread from Karachi into the hinterland.
Pakistan boasts numerous regions where one can still connect with nature. While domestic tourism needs to be encouraged, both visitors and locals must be educated on how to preserve the environment and encourage sustainable tourism, and keep our forests and mountains free from plastic and other trash.
Published in Dawn, January 23rd, 2018