AS our car moved across the bumpy bridge, made of wooden logs over the raging Jhelum river deep down below, the driver of our car told us we are now entering Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK), near Kohala. We had already driven a distance of about 60 kilometres from the Queen of Hills, Murree, zigzagging through the serpentine roads dominated on all sides by lovely panorama of forest-covered mountains. But the feeling that we are entering Kashmir was something different, a mixture of enhanced thrill and excitement.
This was the beautiful land about whom the Moghul Emperor Baber had said in apparent ecstasy (translated from Persian): “If there is paradise on the face of earth, this is it, this is it, this is it”. As we crossed onto the side of Kohala, the river looked a glittering narrow rivulet, gliding gracefully through the narrow gorge, cramped between high canyon walls.
The circuitous highway to Muzaffarabad, and onward to Srinagar in the Kashmir valley, had been shovelled out, from times immemorial, later converted into a metalled all-weather driveway to the ravishing valley of Kashmir during the British era. Travellers through centuries had taken this road to revel in the cool climate of the valley and relish in some of the most fascinating natural sights in the world. Among them were the Afghans, and the Moghuls, who traversed this mountainous path frequently to escape the scorching heats of plains in Lahore and Delhi. At one point on the way, where a waterfall gracefully cascades down the mountainside, Empress Nur Jahan, who was very fond of Kashmir, was reported to have washed her infected eyes with the cool bracing waters and was cured.
We were on our way to Muzaffarabad to organize Journalists Skills Development Workshop on behalf of Pakistan Press Foundation. The programme was set in the committee meeting room of the Azad Kashmir Legislative Assembly. Secretary Information Government of Azad Kashmir, Abdul Hameed Shaheen, inaugurated the workshop. The closing session of the workshop was presided over by Finance Minister Azad Kashmir, Shah Ghulam Qadir. The road to Muzaffarabad, except for small rough patches, was surprisingly smooth and the driver of our hired car took the perilous turns of the mountain road with the grace and expertise of an experienced driver. The milestones along the way also display the distance to Srinagar, as a reminder of the cherished yearning of the people, to be able one day, to drive on the extra few miles, to arrive in Srinagar, in a united liberated Kashmir. The milestones also remind visitors that the road they are travelling on has, throughout history, been the easiest, shortest access to Kashmir from the subcontinent, and this geographical contiguity — along with other arguments of historic links of a common religion, language and culture — forms the bedrock of the aspiration of the Kashmiri people to be part of Pakistan.
The city of Muzaffarabad, located at a height of 2,250 feet above sea level is a tourist delight. It is located in a beautiful lush green valley, surrounded by forest-covered mountains, where only small airplanes can land after circling round and downwards to lose altitude. The low altitude flight from Islamabad to Muzaffarabad is in itself a thrilling ecstasy, offering passengers a chance to enjoy some of the most wonderful mountain-top sights.
As one enters the city, from the airport or by road from Islamabad, the first lovely sight to greet visitors is Domail — the confluence point of two rivers, River Neelam and River Jhelum, right in the heart of the city. It is the loveliest natural sight of Muzaffarabad, which makes people stop in their tracks. It is a pleasure to feast one’s eyes on the magnificent sight of two rivers flowing into each other to become one, River Jhelum, from there on which ultimately flows into Pakistan.
On the confluence crossroad, the Municipal Corporation of Muzaffarabad has put up a beautiful signpost, “Guide Map of Muzaffarabad City” containing historical information about the capital of Azad Kashmir. The attention catching large signpost, written in English and Urdu, informs the visitor that Muzaffarabad is the capital of state of Azad Jammu and Kashmir at a distance of 138 kilometres from Islamabad.
In its north are located the areas of Kaghan and Gilgit. On the south and eastern side it is surrounded by the Indian held Kashmir valley and Poonch. In the west, at a distance of only 70km, are located the cities of Mansehra and Abbotabad. Srinagar, the capital of the Indian held Jammu and Kashmir is located a distance of only 187 km, connected by an all weather road, which is now truncated by the Indian controlled cease-fire line near the Azad Kashmir border town of Chakothi — only 126km short of Srinagar.
Muzaffarabad was founded by Sultan Muzaffar Khan, the chief of a local tribe, in 1662 and has always been regarded as a gateway for tourists headed for the picturesque valleys of Jhelum and Neelam. Muzaffarabad has seen many ups and downs in its history.
Finally in 1947, when the area was liberated from the Dogra rule, Muzaffarabad was selected to be the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir state. It is a city with a population of about one lakh and visitors are attracted to its beautiful natural surroundings, consisting of lush green beautiful mountains. Its lovely embroidered Kashmiri shawls, handmade carpets and other exquisite handicraft are in great demand all over the world.
On the left bank of River Neelam, at an elevated hill is the historic fort of Plate, which, according to some historians, traces its history to the Mughal era. Because of its location at a height, it is a favourite spot for the tourists to savour the fascinating view of winding river Neelam and parts of Muzaffarabad city.
And those who wish to relish the cooler mountain resorts, Muzaffarabad can certainly become the focal point for visiting many lovely tourists spots in the surrounding areas. For example, at a distance of only 16km is Shaheed Gali, located at a height of 4,500 feet above sea level. Or you can take a 45 minutes journey to the 9,000 feet high, very cool town of Peer Chinassi, where the Mazar of Sufi saint Hazrat Shah Hussain is a pilgrimage point for people from far and wide. At Pattika, only 17km from the city, one can visit the bird sanctuary and the trout fish farms, with the fascinating natural beauty of the place a rewarding bargain. Or you can take longer drives to visit many lovely valleys and hill resorts in various directions of the state of Azad Kashmir.
With time, Muzaffarabad city has grown from the small semi-rural town into a real capital with impressive state edifices. These include the Supreme Court and High Court Buildings, Legislative Assembly Building, President and Prime Minister’s secretariat, State Bank Building, newly built hospital, university and colleges and a number of other impressive government buildings.