Apart from being famous for its educational institutions and Pakistan Military Academy, Abbottabad serves as the gateway to some most stunning sites in Pakistan. While other hill stations are deserted during winter this place has visitors due to its bracing weather all year around.
The town has beautiful gardens and tall, tree lined roads: splendid stretches of turf with plenty of room for polo, football, hockey and golf.
At 1,250 meters above sea level, Abbottabad lies below the lush pines of the Murree Hills. The importance of the town has been diminished a little after the completion of Karakorum highways because, in the past, the only track available to reach Karakorum was through Babusar pass, which could only be approached through Abbottabad.
In spite of this development, it continues to be a transit town for those who want to venture to Northern Areas of Pakistan. Abbottabad is the junction point from where one can go to places like Hunza, Gilgit, Skardu and Indus Kohistan of the Karakorum Range. One can also reach Swat, Dir and Chitral of the Hindukush Range or can head to Naran, Lake Saif-ul-Muluk, Shogran and Babusar Pass of the Himalayan Range. Neelum, Lipa and Jhelum Valleys are also connected through Abbottabad. It is where the hills start.
Coins of the Greco-Bectrians kings discovered from the Hazara tract suggest that the area was inhabited in first century B.C. But Abbottabad was founded in 1853 by James Abbott (hence the name), who was the first Deputy Commissioner of Hazara – the district right up to its conversion into a division in 1976. In October 1976, Tehsil Mansehra was given the status of a full fledged district, which consisted of Mansehra and Batagram Tehsils. Subsequently in July 1991, Haripur Tehsil was separated from Abbottabad and made a district.
Abbott James was one of those upper crust Englishmen who helped manage Britain’s vast domain. He studied the local conditions, customs, traditions, history and habits. After a lifetime spent travelling around the hills and valleys of Hazara, there seems nothing about the district that he did not get acquainted with. This is why he knew the district and its people thoroughly. Aside from being an efficient administrator, he was a keen observer and researcher, linguist, archaeologist, historian, botanist and town planner. Abbott’s tour reports, still preserved in India Office Library London, are a valuable reservoir of knowledge for those interested to know about the area.
After independence in 1947, the town became a place for seeking knowledge. Now it is a home to prestigious institutions of learning: the Ayub Medical College, Burn Hall School, and Abbottabad Public School. Ten miles up from Abbottabad is a teaching hospital. Nearby Kakul has the Pakistan Military Academy (one of the best rated military training institutions in the world, giving training to cadet officers from many countries in addition to Pakistan) and the Army School of Music. Before independence, Albert Victor High School and a Municipal Anglo-Vernacular High School were good educational institutions in the town.
The cantonment area of Abbottabad gives an old look: European-type huge bungalows, the club, the church and the British cemetery are still there.
The town presents every graduation of scenery, altitude and climate. I caught my first glimpse of Abbottabad in early March when I traveled up to Havalian by train and further ahead to the town by a Ford Wagon. Now comfortable flying coaches commute between Rawalpindi-Islamabad and Abbottabad.
Spring in Abbottabad is for the most part a lovely time. Clouds fly about low in the sky, playing hide and seek with the hills. There is a nip in the air, with frosty mornings and chilly evenings. The lush green countryside is at its best after weeks of winter rains. New leaves are budding into the light, and the blossoms are out in all their glory — apricot, pear, peach, plum and apple. I ate the world’s most delicious plums from the orchards around Abbottabad.
During my two year stay in the town and permanent association thereafter, I have come to know Abbottabad and its environment. It still is a clean little place, as pretty as a picture postcard. On weekends, young and smart gentlemen cadets from the Military Academy, dressed in similar attire, throng the shady streets lined with humble shops. Clusters of houses are widely scattered along hill contours that give a sense of openness. On a clear day, one can see right across the valley from Abbotabad to Thandiani and, if listening carefully, one could hear the pipe or brass bands playing melodious tunes in the School of Music, or some instructor shouting drill orders at the top of his voice. More people are seen walking. There are fewer vehicles on the roads. The town has no high-rise buildings and dazzling plazas, and of course there seems to be no hurry.
The panorama starts changing after crossing Haripur. Environment is tranquil, pollution free and quiet. One finds countless attractions spread around. There are meadows, grassy stretches, wild flowers and walking tracks. You can go for climbing, trekking, rock repelling or explore Thandiani or Shinkiari valleys. Further north; you can go to the black mountain near Oghi or to see the Asokan inscriptions on boulders near base of Bareri Hill close to Mansehra. Or just sit on top of a hillock overlooking Ilyasi Mosque and count yourself lucky for being there.
While the entire valley is breathtaking in its splendor and beauty, one of my most enduring memories is watching the sunrise over snow clad Thandiani (meaning ‘cold’ in the local language) in winters. It is a small plateau surrounded by pine forests. The drive to Thandiani from Abbottabad is one with lovely views on both sides of the road. There are some of the most beautiful glades on the way to Thandiani.
The road rises gradually above Abbottabad. In the past, on the way to Thandiani, along with tall majestic pine trees you could come across groups of monkeys. Unfortunately, their population is dwindling now.
Thandiani offers lush, green sights, with small colorful flowers blooming everywhere. It looks like someone has covered the mountains with green velvet layers and the flowing water channels increase its splendor and majesty. Every scene is lovely on its own. At night the lights of Abbottabad and Azad Kashmir are clearly visible. To the east beyond the Kunhar River, you can see the snow covered mountain ranges of Kashmir, to the north and north east, the mountains of Kohistan and Kaghan are sighted, and to the North West are the snowy ranges of Swat and Chitral.
A well-defined and common walking trail leads from Thandiani to Murree through well wooded and attractive country.
In this very tourist area, apart from spectacular sights what one comes across is kindness from the ordinary people of the area. It was while walking on this route that a local who courteously walked some distance with me once said, “Keep a lemon and suck on it while walking hard and long in hills. It gives strength and quenches thirst. And, tire the mountain not yourself.” I realize the folk wisdom in the advice every time I walk.
More adventurous people can backpack and take a long walk off the road track to Hasan Abdal. On the way, people have tea at the lonely railway station Sarae Saleh. By the time you reach there, it will taste the best. On the way, you will surely come across cadets from Pakistan Military Academy, walking in files with heavy rucksacks engaged in outdoor training exercises. On this route, also look for a peculiar board hanging on the perimeter fence of an orchard near Haripur that reads, “Greedily looking on the fruit is prohibited.” What is the harm in looking at fresh fruit from across the fence? I keep wondering since I first saw it.
Abbottabad has been a favored summer destination for rest and relaxation; for locals on the run from the sweltering heat in summer all over the country. It’s also for foreigners, in the capital city Islamabad who want to chill out on weekends, and for hardcore travelers on the way to picturesque northern Pakistan and beyond to China. But one does not have to wait for any season to go to Abbottabad. You can enjoy it any time during the year.