Off the beaten path, Neelum Valley offers you a chance to get away from the trials and tribulations of city life and explore one of the most beautiful places on the planet, right here in Pakistan.
A land of blue waters, panoramic valleys and breathtaking greenery, home to God’s manifestations of beauty in nature is the Neelum Valley, one of Pakistan’s most enchanting tourist destinations. Those who have set foot on this land call it heaven on earth.
To spend some time away from the boiling city heat and escape from the overcrowded hill stations, all you need is some financial backing and an open mind to venture beyond your comfort zone, and into the untouched.
Situated in the Azad Kashmir region, this dream valley stretches from about 50 km north of Muzaffarabad till the existing Line of Control between Azad Kashmir and Indian Kashmir. The valley is connected by a road that snakes alongside the Neelum River and ends at the village of Taobat.
The valley features a number of small village settlements, trekking trails, lakes, mountain passes and other unique scenic features which are spread all over the valley. Halfway along your journey on the first day, you will land at Keran. Exploring this beautiful village on the banks of the River Neelum is the closest you may get to Indian Kashmir, which lies just across the river. The riverbed here is narrow, and you can see past the gushing waves of the river to a very similar life on the other side: women sowing seeds in the fields, children playing along the banks and astonishingly similar wooden houses in the middle of grassy fields.
The two main destination points are Sharda, a quiet village one kilometre off the main road and connected via a hanging bridge, and Kel, the largest settlement in the entire region. From Sharda, the mystical Noorinar top can be sighted touching the sky. This mountain pass connecting Neelum Valley to the Kaghan Valley is a daring one-day trip for those who wish to take their adventure to the next level. This pass is marked by beautiful slopes at a stunning elevation of 13,000 ft and is decorated with endless beds of wild flowers.
On a day’s trek from the beautiful village of Dwarian is the Ratti Gali Lake, undoubtedly a tourist’s favourite retreat. The lake, situated at the border between Neelum Valley and Kaghan Valley, at an elevation of 14,000 ft, features grassy meadows that beg you to tread upon them barefoot.
To enjoy the other destinations that Neelum has to offer, you will need more than just curiosity. On the way from Keran to Kel, is the majestic 50m Machal waterfall, which combines the excitement of a hundred cold showers. Upon reaching Machal, you can pull out a pair of Bermudas and push yourself into a shower you will never forget.
Night travel is highly recommended as the idea is to savour every moment of your adventure. If your vehicle has a sunroof, stick out your head and feel the swift air blow across your face as your jeep lights navigate through the darkness.
Every nature exploration trip has its climax and Neelum Valley offers its own at Taobat. The village is a few kilometres short of the Line of Control, at the point where Neelum River enters Azad Kashmir. At the heart of this small village, surrounded by green meadows, flows the Taobat Nala or Taobat stream, with its blue waters reflecting the colours of the sky and its swift flow irrigating the corn fields alongside its bank. Crossing to the other side of the stream, you will find yourself at the banks of the Neelum River emerging from a narrow gorge at the far end of the valley. Vast grassy fields at the base of surrounding mountains, alongside the Neelum River, are of a unique kind you will rarely find elsewhere.
Since nights and early mornings are a special time at Taobat, I spent some time one night beside the Taobat nala admiring the overwhelming aura of the moonlit valley. As the late hours of the night approached, the moon slowly peeked in from behind the gigantic silhouettes of the surrounding mountains, its silver blaze increasingly reflecting onto the gleaming Taobat Nala, as the voice of the stream echoed through the deafening silence.
It is very difficult to explain Neelum in terms of an ordinary tourist attraction. You will not find bazaars promoting attractive regional delicacies for lunch, salesmen running around shouting ‘saab sasta room attach bath’, or roadside hotels providing attractive night-in deals. Instead, you will find nature at its purest; a small khokha offering lobia chaawal under a tree’s peaceful shade, and a few blokes smoking pipes, least bothered about the beauty surrounding them.
The rare specialty of the Neelum Valley lies in the variety of experiences that it has to offer. From dusty rocky roads to beautiful winding treks, from heavenly green pastures to crystal clear waterfalls, and from excellent camping grounds to well-maintained hotel accommodations, Neelum Valley is a complete tourist package for all those who appreciate nature at its best.
You may be a parent looking for a long due family vacation with your grown up kids, or a group of young people in search for an adrenaline rush, or honeymooners looking for a memorable night-out under the moon, or a solo traveller in search of his/her soul in the purity of nature, Neelum Valley has all that you need.
How to get there: To begin your journey you need to take the new Murree Road in Islamabad and drive up the mountain until you reach the hill station. From there on the road starts its descent into Kashmir. Once you reach Muzaffarabad the real adventure begins, you will require a 4×4 jeep for the rest of your journey because of the dirt tracks left behind as a result of the catastrophic earthquake of 2005. It is also advisable to make accommodation arrangements in advance.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, September 25th, 2011.