Globetrotting: Secret sanctuary

07 Feb 2010

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Before the war on terror broke out in the northern areas of Pakistan, much of NWFP used to be a major tourist attraction for domestic and foreign tourists. It is understandable that tourism can no longer exist in these locations, at least temporarily.

But what is most astonishing is that this war has not only deterred people from vacationing in these areas but numerous other places which are virtually unaffected by war. Foremost among these forgotten treasures is the Gilgit Baltistan region in the north and the yet to be discovered Neelam and Leepa valleys of Azad Kashmir.

Almost a decade ago, due to being situated on the borderline of India and Pakistan, the area was constantly in the line of fire. But now that the Indo-Pak relations seem to have cooled down the area is perfect for a serene vacation.

Situated along the junction of two rivers, Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir, is only a three-and-a-half hour drive from Islamabad. However, the hills of Murree can also be a stopover if the drive is still too long for some. The Neelam and Leepa valleys are a few hours further along the Neelam and Jehlum rivers.

Stretching up 240 kilometres towards the north, the beautiful Neelam valley is a secluded, deeply forested and slightly narrow valley. The single road used for commuting is the one which goes all the way to Indian-occupied Kashmir. While driving, it's melancholic to be able to drift down a path along the river which has been used as a borderline between two countries for years, holding families living along both its banks apart.

The last town along this route on Pakistani territory is Tao Bat, but the first stopover is a small town called Kutton, banked upon the fast flowing Jagran stream. The bewitching beauty of Kutton permeated in the radius of 10 kilometres makes the Jagran Valley. A European company was once working on a hydroelectric power project on the stream and has left a comfortable and fully-equipped rest house on the outskirts of the town. Jagran being adjacent to the folklore of Lake Saifulmalook is also not free from such fantasies.

The next towns on the banks of the Neelam River are, Sharda and Kel, where you can behold the fabled Shardi and Nardi mountain goddesses in the morning and the locals usually treat you to a warm bonfire by night, spiced up with mystical fairytales native to the valley. The ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery also stand in the midst of the village. The temple in it was dedicated to a Hindu goddess Sharda Devi and it was here in the ninth century that the Sharda script was developed.

Kel on the other hand can be fantasy land in spring. A fair weather road opens the valley for tourists right up to the town. The place is filled with blooming wildflowers of several kinds but what makes it unique is the numerous springs that sprout after the snow has melted giving way to a honeycomb of streams brimming in the sunlight all over the place.

Running parallel to the Kaghan Valley, the Neelam valley is separated from it by snow-covered peaks, some over 4000 meters above sea level. However, the local people there seem to have no connection with the 21st century, probably because of the decades of war which has disconnected them from the outside world. They have a peculiar resemblance with the people of Kailash especially in terms of their attire.

The area is also ideal for mountain tourism. A part of Nanga Parbat Massif falls in this area which is dominated by 'Sarwaali Peak' (6326 meters) the highest peak in Azad Kashmir. Moreover, the area is famous for trout fishing and angling.

I would be delighted if my travel account inspires someone to visit these destinations but to be honest, the present state of Murree and Kaghan is a living example of what crowds and their pollution can do to natural beauty.

So here comes a request that whoever wishes to visit these places should take care to preserve its natural beauty. There is one simple rule in this case which is to leave the place in exactly the same condition that it was when you first set foot on it.