Neelum Valley: The sapphire trail

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The girl in the sapphire shawl inquisitively peeks at passers-by. Her village, Sharda, a quiet settlement on the banks of the Neelum River in Azad Jammu and Kashmir – surrounded by towering mountains, fields of green and ancient history – has recently witnessed the arrival of a curious new visitor: the tourist.

Vacationers from Karachi stroll along the ruins of a prehistoric university dedicated to Sharda Devi, the goddess of wisdom whom the area is named after, photographing everything in sight. A group of thrilled local children follow their trail every step of the way. The tourists approach the girl, asking if they can photograph her. In contrast to many of the women in her area, who shy away from the camera, she timidly agrees. Right before they leave, however, she has a request of her own: “Spare change?”

Sharda is rich in natural beauty but its inhabitants are mostly poor. They smile at visitors but their poverty – patched clothes, tattered shoes and grime on the faces of the children – is noticeable. The main source of income for people living in the Neelum Valley remains subsistence agriculture and livestock-rearing as well as handicraft. Many migrate to big cities within and outside of Pakistan in search of other sources of income. Those living in even higher areas are often dependent on remittances.

With tourism to the Neelum Valley, comes new wealth, new opportunities and new sources of income. In the last two years, in particular, the valley has seen a rise in local tourism. The most popular destinations lie on the banks of the Neelum River, which curves along the 200-kilometre valley, trailing westwards along the Line of Control (LoC) until it finally submerges into the Jhelum on the outskirts of Muzaffarabad. The valley’s name comes from the colour of the river — sapphire. Over 350 villages are established along its banks. Some of the most commonly visited spots include Jura Camp, Kundal Shahi, Kutton and Jagran, Salkhala, Kutha Peran and Meengal, Athmuqam, Keran, Nagdar, Dawarian, Dodnial, Sharda, Kel and Halmet. The very last station is Taobat.

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Much has been said and written about the splendour of Kashmir – ‘heaven on earth’ as one poet called it – but only recently has tourism been promoted here. Unlike the Naran and Kaghan valleys in Hazara district – running parallel to the Neelum Valley, divided only by the lower Himalayas – which are established recreational spots, Kashmir has only recently begun to tap into its tourist potential. There could be several reasons for this: the increasing number of tourist agencies offering expeditions, the much lower expenses for boarding and lodging, and a sense of security that had been missing for many years. Cross-border skirmishes continue, and relations between India and Pakistan have been less than ideal, but this has not hampered the tourist trail.

An Indian flag can be seen fluttering across the river, on the way to Athmuqam — a town named so because it is the eighth station from Muzaffarabad. This is the where the LoC between India and Pakistan and the two Kashmirs is most clearly visible. On the Indian-controlled side, a large cricket field and miniscule figures can be spotted. “They got the better side,” grumbles the taxi driver. Spanning the water is a bridge with a line through the middle demarcating the border: it is a meeting point for families divided by political boundaries.

At the checkpoint here tourists are cautioned not to take photographs. The travellers from Karachi get off and discreetly snap a few pictures from their camera phones anyway. The men discuss territorial water politics with nationalistic fervour. They then get back into the coach and proceed to sing Bollywood songs for the remainder of the journey.

As the road winds further up the valley, high protective walls safeguard cars from falling over the ravine; or so one thinks until told that the walls are built to protect villagers from shelling from across the border. From Athmuqam onward, the architecture also seems to change. Mosques are round structures missing the traditional minaret. Some of the two-storied houses built almost entirely of logs show a definite Chinese influence. A young waiter from a small roadside restaurant proudly mentions that he has learnt a smattering of Mandarin and can now communicate with his foreign customers in their own language.

China’s more contemporary influence is also hard to miss: the under-construction Neelum-Jhelum Power Plant is located some 22 kilometres south of Muzaffarabad. Expected to be completed by the end of next year, it will be partially operational this year. A large red banner with Chinese lettering in gold plastered across the bleak mountain can be seen. The technical help may be from China but the manual labour is all local. Nomadic tribes can be seen resting at the site with their livestock. In the summer, the Gujjar nomads migrate with their sheep and goats from the foothills of the mountains to higher pastures and descend downhill again during the winter.

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Nearly everyone you speak to has a story to tell about the earthquake a decade ago, the many friends and relatives that they lost on the fateful day. Some houses along the way still show signs of damage; attempts at renovation abandoned midway. In Keran, tents donated by the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, Rotary and others for disaster relief are now occupied by trekkers. Keran is a popular destination for backpackers, adventure travellers and the occasional honeymooners. It’s also one of the few places where the Azad Jammu and Kashmir government has shown genuine interest in developing tourism.

In other places, however, the government role seems to be minimal. If there are any housing and accommodation services, it is done in private capacity. Tourism is at its infancy here and it often shows: one guesthouse will have heating but marginal sanitation facilities, another will have running water but no heating, a third will have both but neither functioning. Anywhere a few hours away from Muzaffarabad, there is little to no mobile connectivity.
There is also the issue of large-scale littering. At Keran, a waiter dumps a sackful of milk cartons right into the flowing, pristine waters of the Neelum River.

There is a simplicity to life in the valley — it moves at a languid pace. Businessmen from Karachi mock a local’s sense of direction when “just around the corner” instructions turn out to be nearly an hour-long drive. They marvel at the relativity in the concept of time and distance here.

Later, on the drive back, one of the tourists on the coach asks the driver if the mountains visible in the backdrop are in Kashmir. Hospitality seems to end here when the tired and slightly agitated driver curtly responds, “You are not in Kashmir anymore. This is Pakistan”.

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