Slowly, the jeep driver reverses to the very edge of the gorge — as if he deliberately wanted to create a sense of the adventure for his passengers. A lurch of shifting gears, the grating front-wheel drive, and there is a near skirmish with the jutting rocks, in sync with the swaying of human bodies packed like sardines in the jeep. There is an abundance of rental jeeps in Kaghan Valley but the standard procedure is to ride jam-packed. The logic behind this is that the more human bodies per square inch of jeep capacity, the lesser the jerks and jolts are felt.
Onwards to Sharan, the mountain gorges and the raging Kunhar River recede behind the thick jungle. The track, though no less menacing, meanders lazily between towering trees, clumps of wild flowers and berry bushes. How far down below into the canyons the trees are rooted is anybody’s guess, but the credit for the dense forest cover goes to some extent to the massive forestation activity of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) government. The jeep driver claims a leopard was seen there last winter, a pack of wolves were driven out by locals and a sleuth of bears had been seen clambering up a slope in the near distance after the first snowfall.
The 90-minute jeep ride to Sharan across the River Kunhar from Paras, off the Naran road, leaves you craving for sunlight. It’s no wonder that, as the last bend of the road suddenly opens into a cupola of green terraces guarded by sky-hugging peaks, one is reminded of the metaphorical title of Nadeem Aslam’s book The Blind Man’s Garden. Sharan is indeed a blind man’s garden — its ambience can be savoured by all senses and not just one’s sight. It is a garden to be felt.
The magnificent wilderness of Sharan in district Mansehra brings all your senses alive
Two hours from Abbottabad to Balakot and another hour to Paras, driving on a smooth road gives no indication of the adventure ahead. For on this stretch of road, the raging river running alongside is at a safe distance. The mountains, though craggy, are well-netted by anti-landslide measures. Small-time hotels abound, offering comfort and paid-parking facilities. But it’s tough to choose a jeep for the journey to Sharan. Tourist-savvy advice: go for the most talkative driver, because half the fun of the adventure lies in the conversation which is bound to centre on the joys of this hideout in the mountains, untouched by trash and tourists.
This is why Sharan, at more than 8,000 feet above sea level, is a literal paradise. Six terraced fields, encircled by towering mountains, have stood the test of time. The timber forest department’s hut, built by the British in the early 19th century, stands on firm ground, though a tiny post-earthquake stone structure now gives it company. Barring the recently-planted dozen or less ‘pod’ homes (complete with solar panelling), all else is dense green.
Spread out across the green terraces, the locally manufactured ‘pods’, set up by the KP tourism department, are available at astonishingly reasonable rental rates and come with clean beddings, personalised washrooms and life-sustaining amenities.
A day in Sharan is ideal for lazily lounging in deck chairs. As the sun plays hide and seek with the rain clouds, the camp staff is always at hand offering cups of hot tea and breakfast omelettes and parathas. The single-file trekking up the peaks and down the vales carries you into another realm. Track forks are common and can often mislead you, but there is comfort in the sound of waterways frothing from the mountainsides as a sure sign that habitation is nearby. So even if you have strayed away from the campsite, there will be a hovel around the bend and a ready cup of tea with goat milk and the security that civilisation — the Sharan campsite — is not far.
The steep mountain peaks offer a spectacular view if you have the energy to climb up. The guide, if you are savvy enough to hire one, will keep up sagging spirits by turning around every few steps and telling you that the top is just another five minutes ahead. The five minutes in mountain parlance is easily 20 minutes by urban standards. The Manchi top takes the cake. From here, the distant township of Shogran — a tourist spot in Kaghan — and the famed Musa ka Musalla can be seen. However, despite the stunning vista before you, both appear diminutive in size courtesy the distant vantage point.
Today, Sharan is a far cry from what it was 20 years ago when tourism was a lost cause. Locals welcome visitors, ready to regale them with adventure stories but they are keen to keep the reserve unpolluted. In fact, a huge board at the camp’s entry point states the dos and don’ts about littering and security guards enforce that the pint-size paradise of Sharan is not to be trifled with. The admonishing signpost is probably one of its kind in the Kaghan Valley.
Locals proudly rattle off the names of indigenous tree species — cedar, spruce, walnut, fir — which they are morally bound to protect. Their sense of ownership is apparent. Down below in the small valleys, prosperity has made a mark by the amount of colourful and neatly laid out tin-roofed huts. The innumerous jeep tracks leading to each settlement is another lesson in communal living; a local explains, “We resurface these tracks each summer since winter snow lays everything to waste.”
Sharan is an unspoilt treasure waiting to be discovered. It may not be long before soiled diapers and fast-food shoppers spread their tentacles here. This may be the only place in the country where the 500-rupee penalty for littering is taken seriously — at least for now.
Published in Dawn, EOS, November 4th, 2018