A land of blue rivers, cascading waterfalls, lush green vistas and hospitable people, Neelam Valley in Azad Kashmir makes for a memorable holiday, as recently discovered by Qasim Yar Tiwana, the creative force behind QYT Events. Post a week-long trip to the valley, named after the beautiful Neelum River that flows through its length, he shares his learnt wisdom on how best to tackle this scenic, yet at times treacherous, area.
It was a week-long family trip comprising 25 people of various age groups. The oldest person was 60 years old, while the youngest (my daughter Raania) was 9. Family members assembled in Islamabad from all across – my sister from Karachi, my in-laws from Dubai, cousins from Sargodha and Islamabad, while we went from Lahore. It was a unanimous decision to explore Azad Kashmir, as we had all been up north to KPK and Gilgit-Baltistan many times, but never to this side. We had heard that Kashmir was referred to as ‘Pakistan’s Switzerland’ and we were intrigued.
Our first stop, Kutton, was 3 hours from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Kashmir. It is one of the many picturesque villages that dot the valley, surrounded by amazing views of mountains and covered in greenery. Our two-day stay was spent exploring the nearby waterfall, picking the most luscious fresh fruits from the abundant trees in the area and snacking on them, and enjoying family time together. It began to rain as soon as we arrived, and the sound of raindrops pretty much remained the constant soundtrack to the trip.
From Kutton onwards, the road conditions became treacherous. Roads were destroyed during the earthquake of 2005 and what remains are mere dirt tracks. When it rains, it becomes especially difficult to navigate the mountainous terrain. From Kutton, we drove about 5 hours to a town called Sharda, stayed overnight and left early morning for Kel, another 5 hours.
Bone-tired from all the jostling and bumping during the car ride, we were happy to spend two days in Kel, a charming village with not much to do except enjoy steaming cups of chai while staring at beautiful snow-capped mountains in the distant, catching up on our reading and bonding with family members one doesn’t get to meet that often. It finally got properly cold here.
No trip to Neelum Valley is complete without a picnic in Arang Kel, located atop a hill and famed as one of the most beautiful places on earth. Situated at over 8,000 ft, it is famously difficult to reach. From Kel, one has to take a short cable ride to cross a river and what awaits you on the other side is truly hair-raising. We had to trek up a steep, almost vertical mountain for about an hour. The lack of oxygen made one breathless so you could only climb two minutes or so before needing a break.
I was about to faint by the time I reached the top but one look around me, and I realized it had been worth it. Pictures can’t do the place justice, it is truly paradise.
With a little attention from the authorities – better roads and some good accommodation – I have no doubt that Azad Kashmir would top the list of tourist destinations in not just Asia, but the world. I just hope the tourism department turns its eye to this part of our North also.
1 It rains a lot so an umbrella and raincoat are a must.
2 Some areas are remote so I would advise to take a well-stocked first aid kit to deal with medical emergencies.
3 There is a lot of trekking and climbing involved and shoes suffer from wear and tear so an extra pair of joggers is needed.
4 A sturdy walking stick would be a great help.
5 Food options are limited (most meals consist of daal chawal and karahi) so pack lots of dried foot items and snacks, such as bread, croissants, biscuits, juices etc.
6 Books and music for some much needed down time
1 Azad Kashmir is one of the most beautiful places that I have ever seen, but it suffers from a lack of amenities. Hence go with a realistic mindset. There will be arduous periods but those will be rewarded by some unexpected natural beauty.
2 Roads are unpaved most of the way, hence travel only in jeeps.
3 You have to be relatively fit for a trip to Neelum Valley, because some trekking and climbing is inevitable and believe me it’s not easy.
4 Be smart about what you eat and drink. Even though we stayed at army messes and were careful about the drinking water, I caught a terrible stomach bug and was hospitalized on my return.