The mercury is soaring. Work seems boring. On the odd rainy day, the cold breeze momentarily teleports you back to the rolling hills and strong winds of Kalam in the Swat Valley. The frigid drafts of air from the AC remind you of the fresh mountain air at Malam Jabba and Shogran. You find yourself zoned out, picturing the winding roads leading from Muzaffarabad towards the beauty of Azad Kashmir. If you find yourself in such a state of mind, you may be suffering from an acute case of wanderlust. And in such a case there is only one thing to do; call up some friends and proclaim with glee: “Pack your bags guys, we’re going on a trip!”
Four young bankers, myself included, found ourselves in such a state. We’d spent time living together on training at the National Institute of Banking and Finance in Islamabad and fortunately for us, we could avail lodging there. This was to be our rendezvous point to plan a foray into the north. An evening dinner at Roasters in Sector F-6, followed by an eager discussion on places to visit set the tone. Suffice to say there was very little of sleeping that night.
Our departure time from Islamabad was 7:30 am. I turned onto Murree Road with the intention of reaching Abbottabad in an hour or two. In the interest of saving time, we had decided that breakfast would be had on the road. As the road got steeper, the air felt less stifling and views more mesmerizing; as was evident from my friend in the back seat, clicking away happily with his camera. By 10:40 in the morning we had reached “Mushkpuri”, the famed trekking spot near Ayubia. We continued for a short while until we started descending towards the city known for its verdant parks, pine-covered hills and of course, Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. It was soon obvious to us that our estimations of time on the journey had been way off; so when I spotted a small hotel by the side of the road with a beautiful view of the surrounding hills and valleys we finally stopped for breakfast. Soon the air was filled with the aroma of eggs and parathas being fried, and doodh patti being brewed to perfection. Revitalized, we resumed our journey in earnest.
I recall thinking that I had never seen so many shades of green in my entire life; in the valleys that were racing us up the mountains, on the mountains themselves, as far as the eye could see. The river Kunhar ran beside the road, lowering the temperature even further, much to our delight. Around 2:30 pm, we spotted a dhaba beside the road with a stunning view of the first snow-capped peaks. Makra View Hotel had been named after Makra, the mightiest of peak in the area. After offering our prayers, we settled under the green tarp shade of the hotel for chai. At that precise moment, the clouds above us decided to burst, and a light drizzle and breeze made for a heavenly setting.
We chatted a while with the staff and were informed that the path from Naran to Chillas and onwards had not yet been opened following the seasonal snowfall. Dismayed as we were, we continued onwards in the hope that the information given to us was incorrect. An hour later, the wonderful vista that is Kaghan Valley greeted our sore (and tired) eyes. Stopping by the roadside for some pictures (and to put on our jackets), we felt pangs of hunger and decided to speed on to Naran in time for an early dinner. The distance between Naran and Kaghan is approximately 30 kilometers. That may be smooth sailing on the motorway, but on this road it can take a while. Passing through glaciers and rocky terrain that can only be likened to a roller coaster ride, my experienced hands ensured that we reached Naran safe and sound at around 5:30 pm. Unfortunately, our fears were realized and the path beyond Naran was indeed closed.
My last visit to this picturesque place was some 13 years ago. I remembered the place I had stayed back then and made a strong case for us to hole up there. The PTDC Motel was still the serene and tranquil setting I had memories of. Nestled just after Naran by the riverside, it is more of a resort than a motel. With it’s rocky terrain punctuated by more than a smattering of trees, it is a world away from the hustle and bustle of city life back home in Lahore. I specifically asked for the huts by the river. Expensive as these were, the ‘Surti hut number 12’ was to be our abode for the night. My fellow adventurers were sold the second they saw the huts.
After freshening up, we walked into town and started looking for the most crowded restaurant. Some inquiries regarding where we could find the best tasting cuisine lead to another dhaba filled with local men. Here we had some rather bland mixed vegetables and a chicken karhai that took way too long to cook and tasted alright. We were just glad to have something to eat. As Naran had been inaccessible until ten days ago, the best restaurants had yet to open, the locals explained. Walking back to our hut, I was pleasantly surprised to see a Lipton-branded van selling tea. Marketing knows no bounds, right? We now planned on how to salvage the remainder of our trip over chai. We decided to head up to Lake Saiful Muluk early the next morning.
All of us were exhausted from the previous day and unsurprisingly, no one awoke before 10 am. To make up for lost time, we quickly headed over to the PTDC restaurant and ordered breakfast. The first whiff of omelettes, parathas, channay and chai had me regretting not having last night’s dinner here. An elderly gentleman waited on us and we learned from him that the path to Saiful Muluk was snowed in. Jeeps could traverse the majority of the 10-kilometer distance, however, the remainder would have to be covered by foot.
We tracked down a local jeep driver in Naran and set off for the lake around noon. As we gained altitude, we found snow-capped peaks all around us, and the air was now causing our ears to go numb. Even though the trek to the lake involved traversing the ice-covered mountainside, we were hardly the only ones making the journey. Large groups of student, couples and families shuffled up the mountain at varying speeds. The occasional snowball fight meant you had to be alert to avoid being hit in the face. The steep slopes didn’t help, and we had to stop to catch our breath more than a few times. After an hour-long journey, our reward came into view, and all weariness left us in an instant; replaced by wonder and appreciation. We sat down at a makeshift chai spot; a few chaarpais sunken into the snow, and ordered chai with aaloo pakoras. Suffice to say, it was the best cup of tea I ever had.
None of us had the energy to walk back down the slope, and so, four fully-grown adults were seen slipping and sliding down the hillside shouting gleefully like a bunch of five-year-olds. No regrets, not even one!
That night we feasted on delicious mixed vegetables, daal and chicken karhai at the PTDC restaurant; it tasted every bit as good as we had hoped. In the morning, we departed in search of our next destination.
On my insistence, we stopped by some colleagues in Peshawar for Charsi Tikka at Namak Mandi. But that’s another story. Until next time!