In the Himalayan foothills Murree — known as Malika-e-Kohsar meaning the queen of hills — was founded as a hill station by the British in 1851. Like other cities set up by the British, the town has the Mall for promenading, parks, churches, schools, clubs and plenty of other crumbling colonial charms. Remember, during British rule, access to the Mall was restricted for locals. After independence Murree has once again become the summer retreat of the government and since Islamabad became 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 the summit and sides of an irregular ridge, and command magnificent views over forest-clad hills and deep valleys, studded with villages and cultivated fields, with snow-covered peaks of Kashmir in background.
Murree town spreads along the top of a ridge for about five kilometers. At the north-east end is Kashmir Point, with views across the valley of the Jhelum River into Azad Kashmir. At the south-west end is Pindi Point, looking back towards Rawalpindi and Islamabad. Between the two runs the Mall, at the centre of which is the main shopping area, where visitors flock. Most conspicuous rendezvous in the 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 to experiment with environment friendly agricultural processes such as greenhouses to grow winter crops. Although fruit and vegetables are important crops at the Centre but this institute has played significant role in the mainstream agriculture. The site was specially selected after a thorough survey by Canadian team of experts that visited Gilgit, Chitral, Swat, Kaghan and Azad Kashmir. The Centre has done some considerable work to extend the carrying capacity of the land. Other than this, economy of the area is predominantly agricultural though land holdings are small. Or locals have some openings in tourism industry that is still in the initial stages of development.
In addition to sunsets and cloud effects seen daily during the rains and good weather, trekking or riding in the chair-lifts are Murree’s main amusements. But one can turn the soft jaunt into a daunting experience 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 is well wooded and its scenery attractive: from Islamabad to Tret, from Tret to Ghora Gali (where “dak” horses used to change during British era), from Ghora Gali to Murree, from Murree to Barian and Changla Gali with Swar Gali and Khaira Gali in between and from Changala Gali to Nathia Gali through Ayubia and Dunga Gali. From Nathiagali a common trekking 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 a walk with big packs (pack point zero eight) instead of trendy and light backpacks on the back. Out of twenty six items, from needle to blanket to venom antidotes, one was supposed to keep in the packs only map and compasses were useful. Rest used to look like an added load about as useful wet matches during rain?
But what if sometime one wants to escape into open solitudes, into aimlessness, into the moral holiday of running some pure hazard, in order to sharpen the edge of life, to taste hardship, and to be compelled to work desperately for a moment at no matter what? That might be the reason for my once deciding to go back from Murree to Kakul cross-country.
Walking a series of hills along the ridge between Murree and Abbottabad is the way to see the green mountain glen, as it requires to be seen. Murree is over 2,200 meters above sea level whereas Abbottabad lies at the height of 1200 meters therefore walking 70kilometres 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 and then I had to go a little down too and then “sweat became a fridge.” In ever got warm again. It became soon clear that I could not walk straight. So I decided to stay at Nathiagalli. Next day, I still had cold feet but from there on it went down fast and did make it in the evening. Now I have forgotten the agony of carrying the weight of my pack zero eight but till today I have been able to preserve the feeling 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 be uncaring; while feeling without seeing can be blind.
Walking parallel to Khanpur, at the bottom of a visibly used track in a small bowl like gorge one finds a warning sign posted by some NGO concerned with conservation of wildlife and nature. “Save the Wildlife,” 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 were here with me.” Very apt! In the way, you also see stacks of animal fodder to be used in winters, villagers coming down the hills following donkey loaded with dried wood or pruning of trees and an axe hanging 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 across red cheeked and friendly kids asking for pencils, their faces bathed in peace. The peace and serenity in the area has a marvelous effect on the nerves.
Most hard core travellers, particularly foreigners, come up with some daisy character who came “offering them hashish, heroin, sledge, or something even more bizarre when they write about their travel experiences in Pakistan, perhaps in an effort to make their tales rich in adventure, absurdity and humour. Or they tell harrowing tales like their belongings stolen on gun point. Maybe they think this makes their stories culturally more erudite. But in this very touristy area (and even during my other long hauls elsewhere), what I could come across are many kindnesses from any thing but ordinary people. I was overwhelmed by the consideration I was shown during my cross country walk by a humble and hospitable local Malik Nawab Khan, an ex serviceman, who offered me food. His home was in a deadbeat place, cluster of a few houses on my way and away from any where. Exhausted, and wanting to rest my feet we settled for tea. That was one of the best and much needed hot cups of hot tea (with solid boiled eggs) that I took. He had told me to keep a lemon and suck on it while walking hard and long in hills. It gives strength and quenches thrust. He also said, “Tire the 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 more frequently.
Hunger for nature becomes more intense as one sees pristine wilderness turning into a scarce commodity. Revisiting a place like Murree doesn’t put me off. – I find a new and original angle every time! I love it every time.