“Every morning is a ‘good morning’ in Kashmir and the same can be said about the serene nights here,” says a friend from Quetta, mesmerised after visiting Neelum Valley, named after the blue-green waters of the River Neelum that flows through the magical valley.
Fast-flowing streams of fresh water, chirping birds, mighty hills and a cool, gentle breeze blowing down from the snow-capped mountains enchant everyone, especially those who come for the first time from the hustle and bustle of major cities to experience the Neelum Valley.
Almost every part of Kashmir has rivers, streams and lakes with crystal clear water but this valley is especially famous for its breathtaking natural beauty and sweet-scented surroundings.
The hauntingly beautiful Neelum Valley in Azad Jammu & Kashmir enchants all visitors with its pristine landscape
The region was earlier known as Drawah and the river as Kishanganga. However, in 1956, the Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) government renamed the Kishanganga as the River Neelum and Drawah as the Neelum Valley.
Athmuqam is the district headquarter and the capital city of the valley, administratively divided into Athmuqam and Sharda, two sub-divisions each with two entrances — one being the Neelum Road via Muzaffarabad and the other through the Kaghan Jalkhad Road.
Sharda is the most picturesque spot in Neelum Valley with a captivating landscape with numerous springs and tree-covered hillsides. The houses built on steep mountain slopes have their roofs partly stuck into the mountain. In ancient times, Sharda was allegedly a seat of knowledge and wisdom. Ruins of an old Buddhist University can also be found here because of which it has special attraction for archaeology and history enthusiasts.
About nine kilometres from Athmuqam is Keran, situated on the right bank of the Neelum River. This is a fascinating spot with a small bazaar and a tourist rest house from where one can view India-held Kashmir.
Neelum Valley is accessible by an all-weather road metalled up to Kundal Shahi and well-maintained all the way up to Kel. Tourists visiting the valley are often compelled to extend their trip so as to further explore the landscape. Compared to travelling in local buses that ply daily on this route, a 4x4 jeep hired from Athmuqam to visit areas such as Kel, Arang Kel and Taobat in the upper valley can take one to deeper excursions. Horses and ponies are hired locally for travelling to the interior part of the valley.
Known as pearls of the Neelum Valley, Kel and Arang Kel are the most inaccessible villages, yet these serve as base camps for mountaineering activities up to the Sarawaal peak 6,326 metres above sea level and the Sarawaali Glacier — the highest peak and largest glacier of Kashmir.
Situated at a distance of 38 km from Kel is Tau Butt, the last station in Neelum valley. It is also the nearest location from where the Kishanganga River (after starting in the Indian city of Gurais) merges with the Jhelum River in Muzaffarabad, and becomes River Neelum. Tau Butt offers more to explore. It has a long, severe winter from October to the end of April with heavy snowfalls.
There are many waterfalls in AJK but the Kutton waterfall — 80km away from Muzaffarabad — is the most beautiful. Visitors prefer to stop here as their first destination during their trip to the valley.
Being close to the Nanga Parbat massif, the valley is ideal for adventure tourism. Here, one can see hilltops covered with green forests and fields lush green with crops.
The River Neelum separates Tithwal and Chiliyhana, the border towns of AJK and India-held Kashmir. A bridge connecting the two towns is the meeting as well as the crossing point for the people of the divided valley, of course with necessary travel documents from concerned authorities.
At an altitude of 12,130 feet in the upper Neelum Valley, the Ratti Gali Lake is an alpine glacial lake fed by the surrounding glacial waters of the mountains. Due to heavy snowfall, the lake can only be accessed from May to August.
The River Neelum divides the valley into two parts, both having an abundance of forests with deodar, pine, fir, wild walnut, strawberry, as well as herbs and medicinal shrubs not only valuable in economic terms, but also in enhancing the landscape. Walnut and precious stones like ruby add to the rich natural habitat of the valley.
Found only in the Northern Areas of the country, the Himalayan monal (known locally as murgh-i-zareen or surkhaab) is one of the most beautiful and expensive birds breeding in the valley.
While the Neelum Valley is rich in natural beauty, its inhabitants are mostly poor. Their income mainly depends on agriculture produce, livestock and handicraft, which is why many residents of the valley have migrated to the bigger cities of AJK and Pakistan in search of livelihood. But with the advent of tourism in the valley, new opportunities and sources of income have sprouted while local tourism has also increased.
Several decades of cross-border tensions between Pakistan and India severely restricted the mobility and outdoor activities of the local residents. However, following the ceasefire agreement between India and Pakistan in 2003, the valley has become a popular tourist destination since the past 15 years.
Regardless of all its sufferings — including the infrastructural damage caused by the devastating earthquake of 2005 — the valley hosts an increasing number of tourists each year.
The writer is a freelancer and an MPhil scholar in Mass Communication. He tweets @SMubasharNaqvi
Published in Dawn, EOS, July 29th, 2018