• Friday, October 31, 2014

Reflections

Journey of a Life Time

Ziauddin Choudhury

In the summer of 1969, I spent two and a half months in Abbottabad, a district in North West Frontier Province of Pakistan (now Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa) as a Civil Service Probationer. This attachment to a district, considered vital to Civil Service training, included trying court cases, learning land revenue administration, and other aspects of district management. Toward the end of my attachment I chose to visit the Kaghan and Naran valley which lay in the northern most part of the district ostensibly to inspect revenue office there, but really to gorge my sight in that heavenly part of Pakistan.
Kaghan and the adjoining Naran village have always been a major tourist destination in Pakistan. The valley and the adjoining mountain peaks are termed the Swiss Alps of Pakistan. But a visit to the area required serious efforts that time including some dare devil driving that tested the visitor's nerves to an extreme level. The valley lay at a distance of less than 100 miles from Mansehra, then a sub-division of Abbottabad, now a district. The journey took a full day since three fourths of the road at that time was paved with stones, and the last leg of about 12 miles consisted of a one way road between Kaghan and Naran. (The transportation situation has vastly changed now).
The scenic road began from Balakot (place associated with Syed Ahmed who led a local revolt against the British) the fast moving Kunhaar River flowing by the side. The road meandered through mountains and valleys of pine and apple orchards. After Balakot, the road crossed the river and gained altitude fast and after a while it reached so high that river Kunhaar appeared to be a very thin line deep down in the valley on the left side. Although a mere fifty or sixty miles, the trip from Balakot to Naran took more than eight hours in those days. It was partly because of low speed due from caution that the drivers of vehicles (mostly jeeps) took in navigating the treacherous road, but also in large part because of one way traffic between Kaghan and Naran. Traffic from each direction alternated every two hours guided by telephone message from either side for the last portion of the highway. The highway itself was serpentine, but the scenery was most dramatic as it passed through evergreens, and apple orchards with a view of the fast moving Kunhaar River below.

Naran Saifulmaluk.
Naran Saifulmaluk.

It was already dusk when we (myself and my other civil service colleague) reached Kaghan as my transport, a World War II Jeep Willy, had developed some problems in Balakot. We spent the night as guests of the local Chairman of Union Council, in a beautiful guest house surrounded by apple and walnut trees. In the morning we were treated to breakfast of greasy but tasty parathas, minced meat, and heavily sugared milk tea. A special treat was fresh apples from the tree in the yard which the son of our host shook down from the tree and washed in the ice cold water of the mountain stream running by.
As we took off for the last leg of our journey, I had more surprises in stock than I had prepared myself for. The road was not only paved with stones but it was also precariously situated on a mountain precipice with gorges that appeared to be miles deep. In front of us there were several automobiles, all jeep and some jeeps converted into pick up vans, lined up. Ahead lay the road going up at a gradient of what seemed to be about 25 degrees. The traffic was guided by a man from a booth with red and green flags. The red flag was up and so the traffic from our side had stopped. Luckily we were given the green signal after about half an hour, and we clenched our teeth for the perilous journey ahead. There were six passengers in our small jeep; my colleague and I were seated in the front. I wished that I had sat in the back for the sight of our driver (a local) going through the road in a devil-may-care attitude gave me the most spine chilling one hour that I would ever experience in my life. Every time he stumbled on a stone I thought we were falling deep into the ravine thousands of feet below. Luckily we survived the ordeal and arrived in one piece in Naran.
My residence for the three-day mission to the valley was an exquisite forest bungalow in Naran—one of the very few government rest houses in the area. In the late sixties, the valley was like a virgin land unspoiled by tourists and any commercial exploitation. The daring ones who travelled this far would lodge in the government rest houses, or as in the case of two South African tourists that I happened to run into, live in camps.
At the end of the office visit, the Tehsilder had a surprise for me. He suggested that I visit the legendary Lake Saiful Muluk, one of the world's high altitude natural lakes, about 20 miles away from Narran. From Naran it is almost a vertical climb of 3000 feet to reach Saif-ul-Muluk. A jeep track goes to the lake. On way to the lake we had to pass through a glacier where in fact our jeep got stuck. It required several of Tehsilder's men to push the jeep and get over the icy patch. However, the ordeal was worth the while. The pristine lake offered an excellent view of the 5290 m high Malika Parbat (Queen of the Mountains). The lake and its surroundings have a touch of unreal about them and are breathtakingly lovely. There is a charming legend about a prince called Saiful Muluk who fell in love with a fairy of the lake. I was sorry to leave the lake only after a couple of hours as the sun was setting and we had the glacier again to negotiate on way back.
On our way back to the forest bungalow I ran into two young South African tourists who had put out a tent at the base of the hill. They were of Indian ancestry, and had come out on a visit to the sub-continent on their own. They had come to Narran for trout fishing, they told me. I was told later that the Kunhaar River is a heaven for trout fishing. I had no idea what a trout looked like, let alone how to catch trout.
The two young men, Musa and Mustafa, invited me to join them fly fishing for trout next morning, which I did. As luck would have it, I even succeeded in catching two robust trout that we took to the rest house and had the fish grilled for the evening dinner. We did invite the new found friends to dinner; after all it is they who taught me to fly fish. We left the enchanting valley the next day.

Malka Perbat Naran.
Malka Perbat Naran.

 

Published: 12:00 am Friday, May 09, 2014

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