By Muhammad Shahid
The air gets chillier and the environment more beautiful and serene as you move away from Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu & Kashmir, and approach Neelam valley. One can enjoy the beauty of nature in the shape of forested mountains and riverside views, besides the model houses that were reconstructed in the wake of the 2005 earthquake, along the road leading to Naeelam Valley, which is about 84 kilometres to the North & North East of Muzaffarabad.
Scenic beauty, panoramic views, towering hills on both sides of the noisy River Neelum and fountains make the valley an attractive tourist destination. The valley, comprising Athmaqam and Sharda tehsils, has a population of almost 0.126 million. By road, Athmaqam is about 84 kilometres and Sharda 136 kilometres from Muzaffarabad.
During a tour of the AJK, a team of Peshawar-based journalists found that it takes patience and a will to travel the rugged terrain. A Chinese firm, China Xinjing Beixin Ltd, has started construction work on the Muzaffarabad-Neelam valley road. Owing to the construction work, the 3-hour travel takes almost six to seven hours.
In Teetwal sector – between Muzaffarabad and Neelum valley – the River Neelum separates the Azad and Indian-held Kashmir. Every Thursday people from both sides cross the border via a bridge in Titwal. Area residents said they could not attend their relatives’ marriage parties or funerals though they were just a few metres away from each other.
“I participated in my cousin’s wedding by sitting on the banks of Neelum River and seeing my relatives, who were celebrating on the other side,” stated Hashmat, an area resident. He said the Indian side of Kashmir was underdeveloped, as there were frequent power breakdowns and the road in that area was also in a shambles.
Neelum valley is home to several tourist destinations.
Kundle Shahi: It is about 80 kilometres from Muzaffarabad. Here, silvery stream Jagran nullah joins river Neelum, where trout fish is found abundantly.
Athmaqam: Athmaqam is 10 Kms from Kundal Shahi. It is the sub-divisional headquarter of the area and serves as a take-off point for tourists interested in hiking and exploring the inner valley. It is an attractive place known for its variety of fruit. All necessary facilities viz bazaar, post office, banks, hospital, telephone and PWD rest house are available here.
Kutton (Jagran Valley): The bewitching beauty of Kutton permeated in the radius of 10 kilometres, makes Jagran Valley. The area is 16 kilometres from Kundal Shahi and is accessible by road. For the convenience of tourists, the AJK Tourism Department has constructed a rest house here. Whereas, accommodation is also available in adjacent residential complex managed by the Hydroelectric Board. From here 16 kilometers onward, Thunian, Ghansi and Jagran – spots for nature lovers and adventurists – are located.
Salkhala: Salkhala is another secluded spot of tourist interest located across river Neelum. Here, a trout hatchery has been established. A Tourist Rest House and several huts are available here for accommodation. Neelum (Karen): At a distance of about 9 Kms from Athmaqam, Neelum (Karen) is situated on the Right Bank of Neelum River at about 1,524 meters above sea level. It has a fascinating scenery. A small bazaar and a tourist rest house situated on the bank of meandering river Neelum across from where one can have a glance at the Indian-held Kashmir.
Dowarrian: Dowarrian is situated about 13 Kms from Neelum at an altitude of about 1,615 metres. It is surrounded by mountains full of Conifer trees. There is a Forest Rest House on the top of the hill and a tourist rest house is available for accommodation near main road.
Sharda: Located at a distance of 30 Kms from Dowarrian, it is a breathtaking green spot at an altitude of 1,981 meters. Shardi & Nardi are the two mountain peaks overlooking the valley, named after legendary princesses Shaeda & Narda. It has a captivating landscape with numerous springs and hillsides covered with thick forest. Over the right bank, opposite to Sharda, the river Neelum is joined by the Surgan nullah along which a track leads to the Noori Nar Pass and through it to Kaghan Valley. In Sharda, one also finds ruins of an old Buddhist Monastery and a fort which are of historical background. Facilities of a small bazaar, post office, health centre and public call office are available in Sharda. The AJK Tourism Department has established here a “Tourist Village” consisting of Tourist Rest Houses, Youth Hostels, Cafeteria and Games room to facilitate tourists.
Kel: About 19 kilometres journey from Sharda, upstream takes one to Kel. It is a small valley at the height of 2097 meters. This is another picturesque place in the Neelum Valley. The Shounter Nullah joins river Neelum at this place and leads to Gilgit Agency over the Shounter Pass (4,420 metres).
Halmet: The border village about 38 km ahead of Kel, is a fascination yet unexplored. Janawai, and Sardari are the most beautiful places around here. A tourist rest house has been constructed at Halmat to provide accommodation facilities to the visitors.
There are several identified routes for hiking/ trekking/ mountaineering. They are: Jagran–Ghansi–Ratigali–Dawarian route; Neelum–Jagran–Kaghan route; Lawat–Ratti Gali–Dawarian route; Sharda–Ghumote–Kaghan route; Sharda–Ghumote–Chilas route; Kel–Shounther–Astour route; Kel–Serwali route; Kel–Shounther route; Tao Butt Kamri Pass–Astour route. Another historical building, now called Thunian Rest House, is hundreds of years old. It used to be the abode of Maharaja Hari Singh, the ruler of Kashmir state before 1947. The entire building is made up of wood and it is at an altitude of almost 6,900 feet. It is pertinent to mention here that some of the tourist places of Neelum valley are situated in the range of Line of Control (LoC); therefore, sometimes it becomes difficult to visit these areas. So before visiting the valley, the visitors must get information from the AJK Tourism Department.