Imagine a holiday along the border of a land under dispute, with army checkpoints in every village, field guns aimed at the foe across the boundary and no entry for foreigners, like me, unless you have special permission. This is a land where earthquakes and floods have destroyed the livelihood of local people several times over, and where the roads are under constant repair from landslides.
Now imagine a holiday in a green valley in the high mountains, with pine tree forests hiding wooden cottages, with a blue river cutting its way across. Imagine strolling through villages with ornately painted houses and through green countryside marked by many clear streams; seeing friendly locals going about their daily business, women taking care of children, washing their clothes in the streams and gathering herbs in the woods, all the while smiling and chatting freely – living simple and seemingly less hectic lives. If you are able to somehow reconcile those two images, then you can just about picture my holiday in Neelum Valley in the Azad Jammu and Kashmir Province of Pakistan, near the Indian border.
Before going, we checked if it was safe to go around that time of the year, at the end of summer. It wasn’t political trouble that concerned us, but as it was August and monsoon season was just about over, the landslides may have posed a risk. Some friends, who are army officers and best informed about the local situation, told us it was OK to go. So we set off from Islamabad early in the morning to reach Muzaffarabad, the first stop point in our journey, by midday.
As we crossed the bridge between the provinces of Punjab and Kashmir, the landscape around us changed. We were now entering a valley in the high mountains and the views from the road were breathtaking. Another thing that can take your breath away is the view from the edge of the road – a plunge into the river some tens of meters down. We were glad to be driving in daylight, because there are no fences or barriers at the edge, and all it would have taken was a wrong turn to dive into the Neelum River below!
Soon we entered Muzaffarabad, the biggest city and the capital of the province. There is not much to be impressed by there: there are only concrete buildings, crowded streets and no greenery in sight. Probably the only thing worth any interest is the remains of a castle perched on the high banks of the river, but there is little left of the ancient building. Taking the advice of our host at the guesthouse, we headed up the mountains for a trip so that we could get to a viewpoint over the city and the valley. As it turned out, the viewpoint was in someone else’s gardens and to get there we had to walk through their courtyard! We greeted the family, who were enjoying a quiet evening on the verandah of their house, and saw the sun setting over the city. It took us some twenty minutes to drive up the steep winding road to get there, and we considered it an adventure, but the children living there take the same route to school and back every day, and it takes them only half an hour on foot!
The next morning, we set off to Dudhniyal, one of the bigger settlements in the valley. On our way there we passed the construction site of a hydroelectric power plant and later on, we got a glimpse across the border of the Indian-occupied village (or so they say at this side of the border) with the Indian flag proudly raised on a tall mast in the middle of the settlement. Except for the flag, there was no apparent difference between that village and the Pakistani ones we passed through, and we wondered if life was any different depending on which side of the border you happened to live. There was a hanging bridge and a border post, but we had no visas and no chance to check them. Actually, I went there quite unprepared. I didn’t even have the right documents, no NOC (No Objection Certificate), which is required from all the foreigners wishing to travel through the valley. And we saw some foreigners being stopped and interviewed at the checkpoints. Fortunately, I’m good at blending in!
Dudhniyal turned out to be a charming little village with some beautiful wooden painted houses and many winding paths into the mountains and through the woods. I was enchanted by the local architecture and asked my husband to seek permission for taking photographs. It was granted. The local people were very friendly and talkative. There is not much of a tourist industry there – in some villages none at all – and there are no souvenir shops, no guides, no maps. You just have to depend on what the local people tell you about the places best worth visiting. People just come for the spectacular views and peace and quiet of the mountain villages. And for me, it was truly enough, alhamdulillah.
Next on our route was Shadra and there, to our surprise, we found a place one could call a ‘tourist attraction’. It was the ruins of an ancient Buddhist monastery, also referred to as a university, with a temple in the middle. What is left is the partial stone walls and crooked steps leading to the top of the hill where the building used to stand. Still, it was quite impressive, and the views of the surrounding mountains and some distant snow-covered peaks were amazing, subhan Allah. I wondered why anyone would build a university in such a remote location, but then reminded myself that this location may not have been so remote in the past and in a different political period, Neelum Valley had a thriving civilisation. I promised myself to find out more about the place and its history once I got back home because not much is available there: no museums and no custodians to tell the story.
When I mentioned to my mother that we were going for a holiday in Kashmir, she was slightly worried: “Isn’t it a dangerous and unstable place?” she asked. If you looked for the danger or the political instability, you could get hints of it: the ever-present army, for instance. But I guess the danger most at hand there was the possibility of landslides. I found Neelum Valley to be a beautiful, calm and relaxing place. Driving on its roads is a bit of an adventure, though. I wouldn’t hesitate going there and bringing my family again for the sheer pleasure of looking at the mountains, the rich forests, the wild rivers and the not-on-display authentic local culture.
Klaudia Khan is a mother of three lovely daughters, masha Allah. Her passions are travelling and writing.