Tuesday, July 8, 2014
Experience to hill station Murree can be a mixed bag. It is popularfor cold pine forests, amidst magnificent mountain scenery that makeit a first choice for a day's outing or serious hill walking. It iscommon with locals throughout the country as well as foreigners innearby Islamabad on the run from the sweltering heat of plains insummer. And in summers it is crowded like a cinema hall some time.This archetypal hill station is famous for other things too: It is a convenient political pawn to keep the loyal and or hideout for foreigndignitaries on their way to secret strategic missions elsewhere.
In the Himalayan foothills Murree -- known as Malika-e-Kohsar meaning the queen of hills -- was founded as a hill station by the British in1851. Like other cities set up by the British, the town has the Mall for promenading, parks, churches, schools, clubs and plenty of othercrumbling colonial charms. Remember, during British rule, access tothe Mall was restricted for locals. After independence Murree has onceagain become the summer retreat of the government and since Islamabadbecame the capital of Pakistan in 1962, has expanded rapidly. There is a governor house, other government houses and summer homes of affluent class from all over the country. The residences are built on thesummit and sides of an irregular ridge, and command magnificent views over forest-clad hills and deep valleys, studded with villages andcultivated fields, with snow-covered peaks of Kashmir in background.
Murree town spreads along the top of a ridge for about fivekilometres. At the north-east end is Kashmir Point, with views acrossthe valley of the Jhelum River into Azad Kashmir. At the south-westend is Pindi Point, looking back towards Rawalpindi and Islamabad.Between the two runs the Mall, at the centre of which is the mainshopping area, where visitors flock. Most conspicuous rendezvous inthe town is General Post Office on the Mall.
Apart from odd looking ruins of Murree Brewery (shifted to Rawalpindi long ago), there is an Ecology Centre that was established in 1960 toexperiment with environment friendly agricultural processes such asgreenhouses to grow winter crops. Although fruit and vegetables areimportant crops at the Centre but this institute has played significant role in the mainstream agriculture through its work oncereal rust. The site was specially selected after a thorough surveyby Canadian team of experts that visited Gilgit, Chitral, Swat, Kaghanand Azad Kashmir. The Centre has done some considerable work to extendthe carrying capacity of the land. Other than this, economy of thearea is predominantly agricultural though land holdings are small. Orlocals have some openings in tourism industry that is still in theinitial stages of development.
In addition to sunsets and cloud effects seen daily during the rainsand good weather, trekking or riding in the chair-lifts are Murree's main amusements. But one can turn the soft jaunt into a dauntingexperience in the name of adventure. Who stops! Like for more daring types and those who want to beat the crowds and still enjoy the green environs of Murree, the best is to explore the surrounding areas.There are many defined walking trails in adjoining country that iswell wooded and its scenery attractive: from Islamabad to Tret, fromTret to Ghora Gali (where "dak" horses used to change during Britishera), from Ghora Gali to Murree, from Murree to Barian and Changla Gali with Swar Gali and Khaira Gali in between and from Changala Galito Nathia Gali through Ayubia and Dunga Gali. From Nathiagali a commontrekking route is to Thandiani with an overnight stay in the way.
Though sometime out of compulsion, I have been walking on Murree-Kakul (Abbottabad) route for sometime. During training in Military Academy Kakul, even fun trips to Murree customarily used to be converted in awalk with big packs (pack point zero eight) instead of trendy andlight backpacks on the back. Out of twenty six items, from needle to blanket to venom antidotes, one was supposed to keep in the packs onlymap and compasses were useful. Rest used to look like an added loadabout as useful wet matches during rain?
But what if sometime one wants to escape into open solitudes, intoaimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, inorder to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to becompelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what? That might be the reason for my once deciding to go back from Murree toKakul cross-country.
Walking a series of hills along the ridge between Murree andAbbottabad is the way to see the green mountain glen, as it requiresto be seen. Murree is over 2,200 meters above sea level whereasAbbottabad lies at the height of 1200 meters therefore walking 70 kilometres downhill from Murree to Abbottabad, even cross country,should be an easy option. But it is not. The contours, those thin,maroon lines on maps of the area are not easy to negotiate on ground.That is what I found during my zigzagging along the contours.
First it is a climb. I felt comfortable and warm but every now andthen I had to go a little down too and then "sweat became a fridge." Inever got warm again. It became soon clear that I could not walkstraight. So I decided to stay at Nathiagalli. Next day, I still hadcold feet but from there on it went down fast and did make it in theevening. Now I have forgotten the agony of carrying the weight of mypack zero eight but till today I have been able to preserve thefeeling stirred by encounter with natural beauty in the way. The wildflowers were big and grass green. It was all very silent. I felt the true essence of a place, for seeing without feeling can obviously beuncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
Walking parallel to Khanspur , at the bottom of a visibly used track ina small bowl like gorge one finds a warning sign posted by some NGO concerned with conservation of wildlife and nature. "Save theWildlife," it advises. Beneath the images of the different birds found in the area, independent visitors had scrawled their names and someone had written his own impromptu comments that reads, "Wish you werehere with me." Very apt! In the way, you also see stacks of animal fodder to be used in winters, villagers coming down the hillsfollowing donkey loaded with dried wood or pruning of trees and an axehanging on side, or carrying the load on heads for use as fire wood,or a rabbit frolicking on the grass, maybe a rat. Or you come acrossred cheeked and friendly kids asking for pencils, their faces bathed in peace. The peace and serenity in the area has a marvellous effecton the nerves.
Most hard core travellers, particularly foreigners, come up with somedaisy character who came "offering them hashish, heroin, sledge, orsomething even more bizarre when they write about their travelexperiences in Pakistan, perhaps in an effort to make their tales rich in adventure, absurdity and humour. Or they tell harrowing tales liketheir belongings stolen on gun point. Maybe they think this makestheir stories culturally more erudite. But in this very touristy area(and even during my other long hauls elsewhere), what I could comeacross are many kindnesses from any thing but ordinary people. I wasoverwhelmed by the consideration I was shown during my cross countrywalk by a humble and hospitable local Malik Nawab Khan, an ex serviceman, who offered me food. His home was in a deadbeat place, cluster ofa few houses on my way and away from any where. Exhausted, and wantingto rest my feet we settled for tea. That was one of the best and muchneeded hot cups of hot tea (with solid boiled eggs) that I took. Hehad told me to keep a lemon and suck on it while walking hard and longin hills. It gives strength and quenches thrust. He also said, "Tirethe mountain not yourself." I realize the folk wisdom in the advices every time I walk. And we still are in communication with each other.Malik Nawab remains another reason for me to visit the area morefrequently.
Hunger for nature becomes more intense as one sees pristine wilderness turning into a scarce commodity. Revisiting a place like Murree doesnot put me off. - I find a new and original angle every time!