This article is from years ago…an ode to the beautiful Northern Areas of Pakistan
Two birds fly off from a dish antenna. It is a bright summer morning and the view from the hotel in Balakot is exotic, belying the danger of the night before when a local had escaped the clutch of death in the seemingly ceaseless flow of the Kunhar as it snakes its way between the mountains. The dish here seems almost obtrusive. One has come to the mountains to escape the likes of Zee TV but well…… Ce’ est la vie
Balakot, offers the first taste of the Kaghan Valley as one travels onwards from Islamabad. A stopover in Abbotabad on the way for a brief respite is a good idea. Balakot is a historical town and the tombs of Syed Ahmed Shaheed and Syed Ismail Shaheed are famous landmarks here.
Although a pretty and picturesque town with considerable population as compared to other small towns in the vicinity even the best hotels here including the PTDC motel leave much to be desired.
An hours drive further up from Balakot is a different story altogether. A winding road from Balakot leads to Shogran – the ‘forest in the Sky’. It is a plateau which lies at a height of 2,500 meters and accommodation here at the Pine Park hotel is sufficient without the tacky feel if the hotels in Balakot.
The forest in Shogran is dense and we are told the plateau is the abode of wild animals during the off season winter months. This had seemed a little incredible to believe but was confirmed by the locals. People coming off-season do so with arms. Another local claimed to have ‘met’ a tiger just last winter when the Jeeps light caught the gleam of the tiger’s eyes.
Shogran boasts of awesome views of snow capped mountains all around. Hikes in and around the area are extremely invigorating and refreshing. The Pine trees stand tall and the eerie cry of the raven which nests high up reverberates on and off in the atmosphere. A sense of timelessness pervades as the echo of gushing water sounds through the mountains.
A couple of quaint little shops are scattered throughout the area. They seem to sell everything from candles to sweaters and everything in between. Here one also sees maize fields. Venturing a little down the actual mountainside are many local dwellings. Small children stare unabashedly in their curiosity and are a common sight. A meeting with one of the local girls however has stayed in my mind. Sumaira had stood looking shyly while I approached her with a volley of questions. She invited us to her home, a little further down. I had stood there waiting and hesitant plagued by a mistrust born of being a life time city dweller. The fears were unfounded. Hospitality is a local characteristic here. I had a good chat with Sumaira and her family with a offer of lunching on Makkai ki Roti the next day. Money apparently is not the object here for the locals. They are helpful and although a little help money wise is welcome, there are no hard feelings if the case is otherwise.
On a futher one hours distance uphill from Shogran lies Siripia, a high altitude plateau. A nerve-racking jeep ride (although one can hike up too) it is worth the risk since the views from here are absolutely spectacular. There are beautiful meadows here which sort of hit one like a surprise as it is probably the last thing one expects to find at so high a altitude. Series of meadows merge one into the other, cows grazed peacefully and the scene could have been one from a English countryside.
A clear day lets one see the Makra mountain which gets its name Makra from the fact that its peak is shaped like a spider.
Shogran is a best selling spot favorite for our film producers and a Syed Noor film was being shot in and around the vicinity and in Siripia’s meadows.
The weather here in the summers is pleasant but a little rain is enough to chill out the weather and send us Karachiites scuttling for sweaters and blankets.
Some further down from Shogran at 6800 feet is Khanian. Whereas Shogran is a touristy place with hoards of check-in and check-outs everyday, Khanian is a place which seems to possess a contemplative soul.
The hotel here is situated right next to the mighty gushing river. This is one site where the mountain is not a distant awesome view but ‘is’ right there. The constant gush of the river is mesmerizing and hypnotic and one cannot help but feel the quietness creep into ones soul.
Trout farming is done at Khanian and Trout is available at the rather steep price of Rs 1200/- per plate.
A group of Swiss cyclists made a brief stopover at the hotel in Khanian. They had flown to Pakistan from Switzerland and were cycling their way right up till the Babusar Pass. We got talking and it appeared that one of them knew my Swiss penfriend of ten years or so and had gone to the same school as her – It is a small world indeed – It appears the very quaintness/backwardness of the people and the place is what appealed to them. They had wanted to be away from the picture perfect tourist resorts anywhere around the world.
This was contrary to a Pakistani free lance journalist visiting from the States who told us how even the most remote tourist haunts in the West have the basic amenities. Different strokes for different folks!
I feel it is good to remember that it is best to enjoy a ‘getaway’ – by concentrating more on attuning to the immense beauty everywhere. Rather than lamenting on the absence of our city luxuries. We watch the tube often enough during the whole year.
Notes are exchanged with the Swiss group as to which hotel rooms are to be avoided as they travel further down the Valley and off they are on their bicycles.
Danna meadows is another amazing site to visit from Khanian. It is another plateau similar to SiriPia and the views and beauty from this site have to be seen to be believed.
Naran is the final destination on this route. It is a bustling little place with energy of its own. It boasts of a somewhat proper Bazaar with shops selling eatables, jewelry, and wooden handicrafts.
The best place to stay in Naran, if one can afford it, are the lake side cottages of PTDC. PTDC have bagged the best place to build a motel here. The cottages are right next to the river, which at this point in its journey has tapered to a lake. These are independent cottages and are the perfect getaway. Rooms at more economical rates can be found in the main building and at other hotels further down.
Lake Saiful Muluk guarded by pristine peaks is the main tourist attraction here. It is a half an hour jeep track leading upwards from Naran. One can horse back around the lake, get a video made with the family or simply trek up one of the glaciers if in a dangerous mood.
The Pine Park Hotel range in the Kaghan Valley are a good bet to stay though only in Shogran and Khanian. Rooms can be had at an average price of Rs 1500 with luxury suites costing more.
The food can become monotonous, as there are hardly any vegetables to be had here except Potatoes and the occasional ladyfingers. Chicken is ample while red meat is visibly absent. Mostly the restaurants comply with a simple dish if one provides the cook with the recipe.
The northern areas offer so much. The beauty of the area can be matched with any other in the world. One has to take care however not to rush from one resort to another in a frenetic rush done by so many who want to ‘pack-in’ everything the Valley offers in a marathon four days. To feel all there is to feel, drink in the beauty and savor each place is what should be on the agenda. Then a getaway really becomes a respite for the soul.