Azad Jammu and Kashmir: Hometown glory

A trip to Ganga Choti in February includes a trek through dense snowfall.  PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

A trip to Ganga Choti in February includes a trek through dense snowfall. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

Azad Jammu and Kashmir is home to some of the most breathtaking views and landscape in Pakistan. While Neelum Valley may be the more popular destination in the area, other districts have nothing less to offer. Thus, in this pursuit, I ended up in Kashmir’s Bagh district in an attempt to scale the Ganga Choti mountain and explore a hidden gem, located right in the heart of Punjab, Swaik Lake.

Ganga Choti

Located at a height of 9,989ft (3,044m), Ganga Choti belongs to a group of mountains known as the Pir Panjal Range. According to locals, Ganga got its name from local Hindus residing there at the time before Partition. While the mountain is not accessible by Jeeps and requires a day’s hike to reach, the route is considered to be fairly easy during the summer, and is noted as a go-to destination for amateur backpackers. However, our group decided to travel in February, and was, thus, able to witness the area’s dense snowfall during the hike.

The trek to the mountain is challenging after heavy snowfall. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

Before reaching Ganga Choti, we spent the night at Sudhan Gali, located just four kilometres before the mountain. Situated within Bagh district, the town lies at a height of 7,000ft (2,134m). The name of the settlement originates from a Pashtun tribe, Sadozai, who migrated here during the time of British rule. Upon our arrival, we decided to venture into the town for a meal. We struck up a conversation with the owner of a restaurant, who gave us company throughout our meal. When the time finally came to pay the bill, the owner, demonstrating the hospitality of the locals, insisted that the food was on the house.

The next day, we set out on foot for our destination, and 30 minutes into our journey, we glimpsed traces of snow. The weather was pleasant and the landscape astonishing. We crossed the first hill with ease and were met with a plane extending till another mountain far ahead. However, the snow started to pile up at this point. With each passing step, our feet dug deeper into the snow, and as the snow became denser, it became harder for us to trek. There were moments when one would fall waist-deep underneath the white surface, waiting to be pulled out by another member of the group. Soon, the pathway disappeared and we had to fumble to make our way across, trying to avoid any deep falls. It took us a few attempts to establish a safe path, and once we were able to do so, we gained our pace once again.

Tourists enjoying the placid waters of Swaik Lake. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

After four hours of trekking, we finally saw Ganga Choti. Covered in a white blanket, its peak was the highest point of the area. The mountain’s sheer magnificence stopped us in our tracks, as we paused to admire it. By this point, we had run out of drinking water and were salvaging snow as an alternate source. However, I couldn’t wait to get to the destination. We carried on for another two hours until we were left with our last climb. Spurred on by our excitement, we managed to reach the peak within 30 minutes. A breathtaking view of the Himalayan mountains surrounding the valley was laid out before us. Resting my back against a stone, I realised I wouldn’t be more content than I was in that moment.

Starting the hike towards the lake. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

Although Sudhan Gali and Ganga Choti attract many backpackers throughout the year, the area has not been developed to handle a large number of tourists. Sudhan Gali has only two guest houses and there is no hospital or high school catering to the locals.

Swaik Lake

When we think of natural tourist destinations in Pakistan, it is common to cite locations in the northern areas of the country. However, there are unexplored gems in our own backyard, beautiful destinations just waiting to be discovered in our own provinces.

Situated near Kallar Kahar, a subdivision of Chakwal district in Punjab, Swaik Lake can be accessed through the M2 motorway linking Lahore and Islamabad. One can take the Kallar Kahar exit from the motorway and drive till the Khandoyah village via the Choa Saidan Shah Road. From there, a 45-minute hike will lead you to the small but breath-taking lake.

When I departed from Lahore for the lake, I did not know what to expect. I did not anticipate the hike, but as most backpackers often do, I found my way to Khandoyah, and ended up in a valley surrounded by hills. The circular ground between the hills is often used as a makeshift cricket field, and you can witness children from the village participating in the game. This is also the starting point of the hike.

One may feel wary of the hike needed to reach the lake. However, instead of the usual uphill trail, the lake is located lower than the starting point, and hence, requires little to no effort to reach the destination. With only a few kilometres to cover, it only takes a quarter of an hour to reach the lake.

A trip to Swaik Lake offers a perfect escape from busy city life. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

Hidden behind a scattering of trees, bushes and rocks, Swaik Lake cannot be seen until the last moment. The lush green waters, nestled between steep cliffs covered in a blanket of vegetation, provided a cosy spot for a picnic. The water trickling down the cliffs to the lake creates the illusion of a small waterfall. Further down, a stream gushed away from the lake, allowing the water from the lake to spill into it. Upon closer inspection, I spotted hundreds of tiny fish scurrying in the green water. The lake is an ideal place for anyone wishing to dip their feet in the water, or go for a swim.

Since there are no shops or commercial activity after Kallar Kahar, one would need to carry their own supplies. This would pertain to any form of food, medical supplies or most importantly, drinking water. However, be sure to keep your load as light as possible, or else the hike will become harder. Another factor to keep in mind is waste disposal. I found wrappers and old water bottles on the lake, and it was disappointing to see how such a simple act of thoughtlessness could ruin anyone’s experience. Be sure to carry waste bags with you to dispose of trash.

There were moments when one would fall waist-deep in the snow. PHOTO: MOEBIN KHURRAM HAFEEZ

Swaik Lake is just one example of the tourist destinations in Punjab. However, Sindh and Balochistan have their own naturally beautiful spots to boast of, with the Hingol National Park in Balochistan, and Gorakh Hills in Sindh. A day trip to a beautiful location is entirely possible if one cannot travel all the way to the northern areas.

Moebin Khurram Hafeez is a law student at the Lahore University of Management Sciences. He blogs about his expeditions on the Facebook page Travel Diaries.

Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, August 16th, 2015.

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