I take pride in knowing Soon Valley like the back of my hand.
So when Saad, the young, bright analyst in our office mentioned the abandoned city of Tulaja in Soon Valley, I was a bit unsure.
But that brief conversation got me curious and one spring morning, we were on our way to the Valley.
From the motorway, we exited at Bhera and took the under-construction road to Khushab, where we bought the traditional dhoda and pateesa from one of the 30 so-called original and genuine Ameen Dhoda House outlets, all on the main road, all in complete disregard to each others’ copyrights.
From Khushab, we took the road to Soon and, in 30 minutes, we entered the Valley, where we were welcomed by the World War I monument celebrating the sons of the soil who laid their lives for the Crown, from Ypres to Normandy.
After another 30 minutes of twisting and turning through the shrubby Valley, we saw a small sign pointing right to the shrine of Baba Kachhaywala.
Here, we left the paved road and entered a dirt track barely wide for one jeep. On the track, we crossed many small coal mines and, in 20 minutes, we were at Baba jee’s shrine. There was a little stream nearby and a small congregation had gathered there to pay respects to the Baba.
The ancient city of Tulaja is little known save for a few pictures on the internet showing a huge boulder, several hundred feet high, rising out of the earth like a natural fortress.
Before my trip, I could find no credible references or any pictures of the city itself. All we knew was that the abandoned city is on a plateau on top of the high cliff. So it was time to climb up.
We left our jeep at the Baba Kachhaywala shrine as we needed to trek from here.
We asked if there was anyone who could guide us to Tulaja. But while locals had heard of it, we found no one who had been to the actual place.
People looked at us with some suspicion and tried to dissuade us from going there. However, we were able to convince three boys to accompany us.
The trek started with a small water bottle each and a few snacks. We began walking towards the cliff and on to a path which took us close to the bottom of the high cliff.
Climbing up turned out to be the wrong move. And here started our ordeal.
We were not really prepared and wearing t-shirts while having to go past thorny bushes was not a great idea. The boys leading us were adept, but even they had no clue as to the right path to Tulaja.
There was no track and we were making our own way, climbing up at a nearly 70-degree angle, jumping from one rock to other and using all fours at times.
Soon, we were sweating and panting and remembered we had one small water bottle each. After about 30 minutes of this vertical climb, we reached a grassy, flat plane at the side of the main boulder.
The boulder indeed looked like a natural fortress, with a sheer drop of several hundred feet on each side and slanting backwards. Our guess was that there should be some way to the slanting back of the boulder.
We were surrounded by dense, high shrubs as we tried to find our way to the wall of the boulder.
We were hopeless and thirsty, and were trying to accept failure and hurry back as the trek going down seemed even more dangerous. It was then that we saw a man at the top of the boulder looking our way.
We gave him a shout and he shouted back. There were introductions and he signaled us to one side of the boulder.
Hesitant but still up for another attempt, we followed his directions.
We again hit the side wall of the boulder, and while trying to manage through loose rocks and thorny bushes, we came across the small, centuries-old and apparently the only entrance to Tulaja.
It was a small cave-like entrance and, as we climbed up, we found the steps leading us to the plateau above.
The myth is that the inhabitants of Tulaja would seal the cave entrance with large rocks every night and remove them in the day.
As we climbed up the now well-formed staircase, soon the steps opened up to an expansive plateau, and we were surrounded by ancient structures all around.
Most of these structures appeared to be living quarters or one-room houses, but some were bigger and multiple-room structures.
Though we did not explore the whole plateau, it seemed around 10 or 12 acres.
We were able to see small pits dug into the rocks to store rainwater, similar to many ancient cities around the world.
While exploring the structures, we found chiseled rocks, at times eight-feet long, making up the walls. It can be anyone’s guess how these rocks were chiseled and moved to form part of the walls.
The edges of the plateau were sheer drops of hundreds of feet and provided astounding views of the Punjab plains towards the south and Soon valley towards the north, with miles of rolling mountains and jungles all around.
My best guess is that Tulaja was a Hindu settlement like many other similar settlements, such as Katas Raj, Tilla Jogian, Mallot, Amb or the Mari Indus temples, continuing across the Indus to Kafir Kot.
Most of these settlements were strategically located natural forts providing a bird's-eye view of the plains for miles. All of these archeological sites are historic gems and must be preserved and protected.
While exploring the plateau, we found the man who had signaled us to right path. Between us, we first thought of him as a potential fugitive and were a bit hesitant to even climb up, but we were completely wrong.
Habib, the shepherd, was sitting in the middle of the plateau with his jute-covered water bottle with him.
He generously offered water to us despite having just one bottle, and then showed us around like he was Lord of Tulaja — and indeed he was.
I remembered with a strange feeling that I had seen Habib before, in another hiker’s video from six years ago, the lord present in the loneliness of Tulaja.
It was time to head back. We were worried about the steep descent, but Habib showed us another route parallel to the ridge with a slower descent.
We climbed down from the plateau on a semi-visible track along the ridge rather than climbing down to the base of the boulder.
The track became more visible as we descended and, in about 30 minutes, we could see the shrine. The sight of the shrine gave us a bout of energy and we reached down in no time.
For future explorers, I would suggest to park the car at the shrine. There is a narrow, rough road ahead of the shrine and around three tracks branch off in quick succession.
Start your walk on this track, leave the first left track and take the second left track up into the mountain.
Walk about half a kilometre and try finding a barely visible path to your right. Once you find this path, it should be an easy one hour trek on the ridge to the side of the boulder. Then, find your way up the plateau to Tulaja.
Tulaja is like a dream, it is mysterious, abandoned and few people know about it. Go explore it.
Have you ever explored any off-the-beaten paths? Share your experiences with us at email@example.com