On a frosty December morning, I along with a friend took a country road heading northeast to the small town of Kotli Sattian near Islamabad. On the way, we crossed the Soan River bypassing the nearby Paharwala fort on its banks and in about 45 minutes, we crossed the 19th century Lehtrar forest rest house. I have childhood memories of picnics at this rest house when everyone else I knew would head to Murree on weekends.
After Lehtrar, the road becomes densely covered with tall pines and a path branches out towards the famous and well-maintained 1928 Danoi forest rest house. This rest house is also the staging ground for a day long trek to Punj Peer rocks and shrines up in the mountains. However, on that day we were headed to Kotli Sattian nestled in the mountains with Murree on one side and Kashmir on the other. It took us about an hour to reach Kotli Sattian from Islamabad.
Our host, the friendly forest officer took us to the 1932 forest range office on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Kashmir valley. We also saw the nearby historic Kotli Sattian police station while enjoying some excellent pakoras and tea.
Our host was nice enough to show us some historical records of area forests meticulously prepared by officers of the Imperial Forest Service (IFS) in times gone by. The area has still not been invaded by tourists and so a haven for nature lovers interested in some peace and serenity. Unlike Murree, hills in Kotli Sattian are somewhat flatter, covered with dense pine canopies and providing an ideal location for leisure and picnics.
From Kotli Sattian, the road forks to Bagh in Kashmir and to Karor and Patriata. We wanted to do a loop in the hills rather than going back the same route through Lehtrar. So we headed towards Karor, a village between Murree and Kotli Sattian. On our way, we crossed the small hamlet with a Burj.
Burj because here a monument 'Burj' was erected for the brave men of the village who went to fight in the first World War. Besides revealing the old name of the village 'Darnoyan', the plaque also tells us that 106 men from the village went for the war. Out of these, 15 never returned. It was indeed a humbling experience to remember those sons of the soil who went to foreign lands, to Europe, to North Africa, to Myanmar, to fight in the war. And these monuments are sprinkled across Potohar, from Soon valley in the west to Kotli Sattian in the east. I have been able to document at least six of them. These include monuments at the entrance into Soon valley, in the villages of Danda Shah Bilawal, Dulmial, Burj, Karor, and Ariari, and there must be several that I have not seen and may never get to see. These monuments or plaques have a standard pattern, with the star of David at the top and then narrating the story of the men from each village. The Ariari monument refers to the 31 men from the village who went to fight in the world war and how out of these 13 ended up losing their lives.
In Ariari, which was our stop after Burj, we came across one of the best pine forests in whole of Murree-Kahuta hills. There was a natural water fountain close to the plaque that referred to the 13 sons lost to World War I and the sun peeping through the dense forest was giving a surreal feeling to the whole place. Few locals had an idea of the fate of the families of these brave men who lost their lives in alien lands.
Our host insisted on showing us a colonial fire tower nearby and we agreed. To be able to do this, we shifted into his small jimny jeep that he drove high up in the mountains on a somewhat precarious ridge. However, soon the jeep had to stop and we saw a tall fire tower a few hundred metres deep in the jungle. We trekked to the tower which had been renovated a few years back. Fire towers are tall towers in the forest to help forest guards keep a watch primarily on fire but also on timber theft. I experience some height phobia but the stairs of the tower had decent railings so our party climbed to the top where there was a small cabin to sit in and look around from. The view from the top was breathless. Only a few fire towers remain in the Murree hills now as a number of them have gone down for want of maintenance. Besides Ariari, there is one near the Narr forest area and another near the recently renovated Charehan forest rest house close to Jhika Galli.
The primary purpose of these fire towers is to keep an eye on forest fires but with the onset of mobile phones, their utility has somewhat diminished. Also, the forest department unfortunately does not seem to be a priority of the government and they do not get enough funds for fire prevention training or equipment that can help them tackle actual fire incidents. There used to be coolies who would come from every village to help forest officers in case a fire erupted but that's no longer the case.
During the trip, our host gave us a wonderful lecture on how the forest is routinely cleaned of dry fallen pines in order to stop fires from spreading and how forest officers create artificial reverse fires to stop the raging advancing fire tongues. Managing forest fires is a whole science and I hope we can provide our forest officers with the wherewithal to fight these devastating fires.
It was now time for us to move ahead and our next stop was Karor village upward of Simli Dam. We parked our cars on the main road by the Karor forest rest house and again climbed the jimny jeep to go through the narrow streets of Karor village. After crossing the winding main street of the village, we reached the end of a road at the edge of a cliff. Here we got to witness a magnificent sunset with green valleys around us and pine-covered mountains in the backdrop. At the edge of the cliff was the now abandoned colonial police station. The police station was in reasonably good shape with its lock-ups and rooms with fire places. Here we also saw the huge 'mill stone' for the prisoners to crush wheat into flour as a form of punishment. We were told that the Karor police station being at the edge of the cliff used to communicate with the similarly situated police station at Kotli Sattian using mirrors, a usual communication technique during colonial times. The sun was going down over the hills as we offered fateha at the burial place of the brave martyr Captain Bilal, a son of the village who laid his life for the country during a commando operation in Peochar during the 2009 operation against the Taliban. On our return from there, I asked our host about the World War I plaque for Karor village and after a little bit of effort, we found the monument under a sprawling oak tree; 83 men from this village went to fight in this war and 19 gave up their lives.
It was time for evening tea before we bade farewell to our kind hosts and while waiting for tea at the 1888 Karor forest rest house, I asked the caretaker for the visitor's book. The visitor’s books of these forest rest houses are a treat to read and one can spend hours going through these nuggets of history. In these entries, I found a watchman complaining about a police officer who refuses to pay his bills, another entry was that of a teacher complaining about constant sounds supposedly from anklets in the middle of the night, and there was another who complained about dogs barking at the doors all night long. General Ayub Khan, ex-President of Pakistan, was also among those who stayed at the rest house. He was there for a night in December 1950. These visitor books offer a window into our history and someone somewhere needs to do something about preserving these records of our heritage.
After this, we made our way back to Islamabad, and in less than an hour, we were sitting comfortably in our homes.
Kotli Sattian is nestled between Murree and Kahuta and can be developed as a destination alternative to Murree. Here perhaps, the government can focus on better regulation of tourism as opposed to what has happened in Murree, where it may be too late to reverse the damage.
Karor already has some decent private resorts being developed but the government can start by promoting its excellent forest rest houses, developing some good picnic spots and carrying out awareness drives about the heritage in the area, like the fire towers, the colonial police stations, and the world war monuments. If done right, a successful and sustainable tourism initiative can be taken in Kotli Sattian.