Originally published in The Friday Times. 16 Oct, 2015.
Blame Google. For, almost every search for the most beautiful natural places in Pakistan brings to you Kashmir’s Neelum Valley. And more often than not the valley tops the list.
Also blame Facebook, since the interest in touring Kashmir has soared palpably. Social media is dappled with beautiful pictures (and selfies) of people in all sorts of superhuman poses at various places in the valley. And so it was, overwhelmed by the power of internet and fervour for travelling, that we made a trip to the Neelum Valley. And the experience was rewarding on more than one account!
The Neelum Valley, located in Azad Kashmir, is a 200 kilometre long valley settled around the pristine Neelum. A road from Muzzaffarabad takes you directly to Neelum, and it keeps on snaking along the length of the valley – until of course we reach the other side of the disputed territory. There are a number of villages and settlements along the course of the valley, sprinkled impressively with crystal-clear lakes and fertile mountains. And as much as grammar nazis warn you against using the stereotypical “heaven on Earth” expression, we can’t help being guilty of using it.
Neelum doesn’t really feel like a disputed place
The most popular and oft-visited spot in the valley has to be the village of Keran, which arguably has also got the most tourist facilities. A decent guesthouse has been set up by the Government of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, and a number of visitors come only as far as Keran. We thought the real beauty of Neelum started after Keran, but well…
Keran’s popularity is justified – for here it’s only a swathe of river that separates Pakistan and India (or more accurately, the two Kashmirs). People from both sides are practically in view of each other. I’ve heard about people praying in ‘our’ Kashmir at the sound of Azaan emanating from ‘their’ Kashmir, on days when the river runs smooth and allows sounds to travel above it undeterred. The village of Sharda comes second as far as development of tourism is concerned. And it’s the history of Sharda that does the trick.
Hundreds of years old structures are present here, the most notable being the university. Named after Sharda Devi, I was most awe-struck by the local stores there selling Urdu translated copies of her book; it’s these small acts of reviving our heritage in places like these that are essentially needed.
Kel is usually the next stop for visitors. Crossing the river and hiking for a little more than an hour takes you to Arang Kel, which just cannot be missed. The roads of Neelum are something everyone chews over. My father tells me of the sheer absence of roads in the region when he was posted there. But things have improved remarkably. You can easily bring your own car as far as Keran. You can easily take it from Keran to Kel too, subject to your driving skills and your lack of empathy towards your car’s wear and tear. But Kel is only as far as private transport will support you. If you intend to visit the last stop of Neelum, Taobatt, you have to be on a 4 by 4. You can rent these on-site, and on a decent price after some haggling.
Toabatt, the beautiful village, is scarcely populated. Its most remarkable feature is the view of the snow-capped mountain that is officially India. You’re done with the crash course on visiting Neelum Valley; let’s find God in the details now!
In a number of ways, Neelum Valley seems to be at a crossroads of time and space. Once you’re deep inside the valley, there’s a peculiar sort of disconnect you feel to the rest of the world. Sure, lack of internet and mobile connectively play a part in this (we bought special SIMs for the valley from Muzzaffarabad, the only network that works in Neelum, but that too works in only a very few places) but there’s more to it. Neelum often gives the aura of a place lost somewhere along the timeline of history, dragging behind the rest – and in no way is it piqued or desperate about covering the distance. It’s raw and untainted. Especially when you’re in Arang Kel or Taobatt or the very high lakes; with nothing but hoary mountains and chatter of the locals to keep you company, the feeling of being stranded somewhere runs high. And this isn’t really a bad thing. It is a very welcome escape from the cliched hustle and bustle of normal life.
Time is another prospect in Neelum that works mysteriously. For one, the automatic update of time on my mobile phone was at a loss to determine which side of the disputed territory we were on, since it kept on switching by half-an-hour insistently. At one time, I’m sure it mistook Neelum to be in Nepal when it forwarded the time to about an hour. To add to it, the locals’ sense of time is no help either. Every single time you’d inquire about how far a certain place is, “ten to fifteen minutes” is the standard answer. Now, keep in mind that this response can imply anything between fifteen minutes to two hours – and you can never be sure. Inquiring in kilometers is then a better deal (but those are liable to personal biases too). The trekking time is again a confusion if left to the Kashmiris’ discretion. So the best way to go about it is to be very, very specific – and you can elicit a smart response like: “We can reach Ratti Galli in about an hour, but it will take you guys about four hours!” As you can see, time and space are very subjective in Neelum!
To be fair, Neelum (as is true for most of Azad Kashmir) doesn’t really feel like a disputed place, nor does it give much aura of autonomy. The geographical and linguistic continuum of the valley keeps all your surprises at bay. The majority of the locals (the total population being 0.25 million) converse in Pahaari, which is basically the same language spoken in Hazara region, or Hindko (almost all of us on this trip either hailed from Hazara or were cognisant with the language). You can then easily converse with the locals in the language they’re most comfortable in. However, the language in Neelum shifts as you delve deeper into the valley. After you’ve passed the major part of the valley speaking Pahaari, there’s this beautiful village called Sardari (which invariably dots all the advertisements for Neelum’s tourism), which is apparently the only place in Neelum to speak the quintessential ‘Kashmiri’ language (a question that had been bothering me for ages). And as you advance towards the extreme of the Valley via Helmet and Taobatt, the linguistic habit of the locals changes to Shina and other Gilgit-Baltistani languages, given the regional intimacy.
There’s a gloomy tinge of grey beneath this show of colours
Also, there isn’t a sudden shift in the sights and sounds as you enter Neelum (and unfortunately, no groovy exclamations about being in heaven at once). It’s only slowly that the valley opens itself up for you. The sapphire coloured Neelum is definitely the first offering. The peculiar, wooden houses are the next, and what a sight they are. The oldest ones are the best, and they boast of such intricate work that you’re left in awe. Topping these houses are colourful shelters – blue, orange, yellow, red; a pleasant departure from the green and brown of the mountains. A little insight into these houses: most of these are triple storied, and the practise is that the family lives on the middle floor, with the cattle being on the ground and the cattle-food on the top floor. Except lending convenience, this setting affords the dwellers ample protection from the cold in snowy Neelum winters. All the colours of the Valley attenuate as you cover distance – the grass, for one, gets fantastically greener, something that even a colour-blind like me can solely appreciate.
But then, there’s a gloomy tinge of grey beneath this show of colours in Neelum. For when all is said and done, this remains a disputed territory – with a Line of Control stretched amidst its torso and numerous families torn apart. Almost everyone you meet in Neelum has a view on Kashmir issues – and almost everyone we talked to (admittedly not many) had his view neatly nestled in favour of Pakistan. The Army’s presence is not only conspicuous but also incessant. Check-posts are set at the entrance of about every main centre, and entry of all is officially done. (The only other time I’ve been through this many check-posts was in Swat). But then, the Army’s notorious condescendence is nowhere to see, and the personnel deployed in Kashmir behave markedly better (with the tourists and locals) then they would in ‘mainstream’ Pakistan. Not one Kashmiri complained about the Army’s presence, rather were confident that the Army’s presence was essential to their survival. The roads, the bridges – most of the infrastructure there is in Neelum – are the Army’s endowment. But then, where the Army might have won the hearts of the locals, politics and myopia may also have estranged Kashmiris from themselves. There’s reportedly one bridge in Athmuqam where Kashmiris from both India and Pakistan can come to meet each other, but other than that, the two sides of Kashmir sound complete strangers to each other. Not only is there no evident desire of the locals to get the whole Kashmir on board, they might even be indifferent to each other. The owner of the guest-house we stayed in at Arang Kel was very vocal about the issue: “Azad Kashmir needs Pakistan, and Pakistan needs Azad Kashmir. That is all. We should be one, but that Indian side of Kashmir – that should be left to India. Decades of Indian occupancy, mixed with the heavy Hindu influence have changed those people; and we are better off without them!” However, all these are only impressions, and I’m not trying to be an expert on anything. For one, in almost all the villages of Neelum, slogans of “Kashmir banay ga Pakistan” could be seen. However, it was only in the last station that we spotted “Kashmir banay ga Khud-Mukhtaar” on the wall of a public washroom. In Neelum, there’s definitely more than what meets the eye!
Disclaimer: no racism intended. But if you’ve ever heard of the Kashmiri women being very hard-working and Kashmiri men, well, not exactly hard-working, Neelum rubberstamps that assumption for you. The women, exceedingly shy and allergic to cameras, are always seen working – in the fields, in the homes. The men, well, are usually sitting and chatting, or staring at the travellers all day (“You can’t blame them, they’ve got a 24/7 reality TV going on with tourists all day”, remarked a friend). But despite this apparent abhorrence for working, the locals are hospitable to the core. Every local you meet is willing to help (even if it is with their personal standards of time and space) and all are excited to share an opinion or two. There are schools in Neelum, there are Basic Health Units in the valley – but poverty remains a rampant issue eating away at the core of this place. The best indicator for this is the local kids, who’d always (I repeat always) come to every tourist to ask for “dus rupay”. Not only is the prevalence of this habit alarming, but also the meek demand! Dus rupay? Imagine giving a beggar in Lahore that! But on the upside, despite the petty income – the habit of looting the tourists hasn’t at all caught up with the Kashmiris yet. A reason for this might be that tourism in Neelum is a recent fancy, (it has only actually picked up in the last two years) and the locals haven’t yet took to the practice of cashing it mercilessly. Try the Galiyaat, or Naran/Kaghan to witness what I’m talking about. Visiting Neelum remains very economical, with all the cheap rooms and decent food. And talking of economy, as we came to Kel’s bazaar one day, spent and hungry after the tribulations of hiking in the supreme sun, we stopped at a bakery to eat something. There wasn’t much, but a friend bought a certain sweet. We’d have paid anything for that at that moment, but when the price was sought – the reply was a honest, “paanch rupay”. For this unadulterated hospitality alone, Neelum is a must-visit!
There are a number of surprises that await you in this valley, often touted as the “best-kept secret” of Kashmir, some of which being excessively more pleasant than others. To start with, at about twenty kilometres from Muzaffarabad, just at the entrance of the valley, work is underway on Neelum-Jhelum power plant, being done mutually with the Chinese government. It should be functional by the end of next year, and is perhaps also the reason the PC hotel in Muzzaffarabad was teeming with Chinese. Moreover, there are functional ATM machines in the bigger centers. This comes out as particularly striking since even the heavily visited Galiyaat have none – with Murree and Abbottabad being the nearest cities to avail the facility on either side. Mobile connectivity, as already said, is skimpy at best. The Army has its own calling enters that can be availed by the public, but even those come with a curfew timing. Neelum remains devoid of electricity throughout the day, and it’s only in the night that everything shines up. There are a number of local turbines set up in different villages that supply the electricity. Also, there just are not any fans in the valley. Small solar cells, though, are visible at a lot more places than you’d expect.
Another (not so pleasant) surprise that marks itself throughout the trip to Neelum are the gypsies and their flock of cattle – using the same one-lane road of the valley and blocking it for you a far more number of times than you can remember. Oh, and the most unexpected surprise of all. Remember the kid who had gone viral on the internet a few months back – a genius who didn’t think twice before replying to every science question he was asked? Well, we met his father in Kel. Proud as anyone would be, he emphatically narrated of how his son had been approached by various families and groups regarding his higher education – and who is now studying in Islamabad, thanks to a family from the Kashmiri capital. So the next time someone tells me that talent brews from places where you’d least expect it to, I am going to believe them straight away!
To be honest, I’ve been impressed a lot more by some other places in our country; and was at a loss to determine the rage about Neelum in the beginning. Partly because being from Abbottabad, greenery, mountains and rivers don’t attract me the way they enchant others. But then, as clouds hovered above us and everything turned a mellowed hue that I realised what the fuss was about. And pardon me for being melodramatic here but I now believe that the valley has its way of growing on you in reminiscence. In the weeks following our return, it came to visit me often – and that is perhaps why the Neelum is as famous. The river Neelum, the constant denominator throughout the Valley, hisses you to itself – and then flows through you for times to come!