Of Sahibs and Forest Rest Houses II

Back on the main road and in another thirty minutes, you shall reach the vicinity of Patriata. Now take the road to the top of the Patriata hill and after some fifteen minutes of winding roads and amazing views, you would reach the Patriata top where the famed cable car from down below finally ends. Patriata top has a small bazaar which operates as long as the cable car operates and once the cable car closes around 8 pm, it becomes a ghost town as all the shop keepers either go down to main Patriata town or to their homes in nearby villages. There is an exclusive fairy tale Dak bungalow at the top of the hill, well the whole hill is fenced and belongs to forest department. Patriata forest rest house was constructed in 1913 at a cost of Rs 3600/- , was renovated a few years back and now boosts around four bed rooms. This rest house is one of the most decent and well maintained places to spend a night however once the cable car stops, the only sounds you hear are from wind hissing through the Deodar trees grove and wolves howling in far off valleys, not a very pleasant experience in the dark of the night especially if you are with children. The rest house is known to have hosted Sharifs a few times and the caretaker shall show you a particular view point at the corner of the rest house where Nawaz Sharif would sit alone and enjoy the views.

Our next stop would be Charehan forest rest house near Gulehra gali. So drive down the winding road through the Patriata town to Murree express way. Once on the express way, it’s a ten minutes drive to Jhika Gali turn to Murree. Stop at Jhika Gali turn on the express way, to your right would be a small hill covered with blue pines known as Charehan forest. Just before the hill, another bridal trek takes you to an ancient water point traditionally known as Baoli and then you can trek through the blue pines to the Charehan rest house in about thirty minutes, however you need a guide’s help for this trek. Alternatively, take a u-turn towards Islamabad and continue for about a couple of kilometers till the Charehan hill now on your left starts receding. Just where the hill recedes to give way to the valley views, there is a jeep trek going up to the rest house. I have not driven on this trek but my guess is that it would take some fifteen minutes to get to the rest house on foot from the express way. Charehan forest rest house was built in 1913 at a cost of Rs 3190/- and constituted three or four bed rooms along with sunroom and dining area. The rest house crumbled during 2005 earth quake and awaits reconstruction however just next to the rest house, another ten minutes trek takes you to one of the last surviving colonial forest towers. This is a huge early twentieth century steel structure on top of a hill meant to keep an eye on forest fires as well as any illegal tree felling activities. Few people dare to go to the top of this tower and I was not one of those. But back at the Charehan forest office, I had the opportunity to lay my hands on the visitor’s book. The book confirmed the rather juicy story of Imran Khan staying at the rest house after the world cup in 1992 with some of his foreign friends. Imran Khan stayed there from 8th July to 12th July 1992, apparently wrote ‘ no water arrangement, no electricity, poor arrangement’ paid Rs 320/- and signed the book. Perhaps this was the time when Imran decided to fix the system by joining politics. Another visitor wrote ‘ Visitors are requested to see before they go that their servants leave crockery, house and surroundings clean’. While Pratap Singh of Imperial Forest Service and Mr and Mrs K.C. Robinson seems frequent visitors,  a very interesting entry is one Lord Emsworth from Blanding castle, England who stayed for almost a month in summer of 1928. The only mystery is that Lord Emsworth is a fictional character used by eminent writer P.G. Wodehouse. Now whoever was this Lord Emsworth at Charehan in 1928, he wrote  ‘some of the pleasure of staying at this beautiful lodge is mitigated by absence of necessities like water, bedding, etc’. General Tasawar Hussain of celebrated Guides Cavalry was the last visitor to the rest house in summer of 2005 however the last entry is by Naseer-ul-Haq of Forest Department who inspected the rest house on 9th October 2015, one day after the disastrous earth quake of 2005.

There is also a scenic Bhurban forest rest house at Aliot on the Jhika gali Bhurban road. The beautiful rest house with a huge lush green lawn has since been designated as Governor House and out of bounds for all and sundry like yours truly. Another forest rest house is on Jhika gali road to Lawrence College. Again set in dense pines, the rest house is reasonably well maintained and worth spending a night or two.

Now is the time to return to Islamabad but lets take the old Murree road passing through Jhika gali, Kuldana, Sunny Bank and crossing Ghora gali on Murree Islamabad road. Just after Ghora gali, you should see a sign on your left leading to Ghora gali forest rest house up on the hill. The rest house was constructed in 1890 for Rs 1875/- and has four to five bedrooms with exquisite wooden work, bay windows and wide terrace. There is a dwindling water spring close to the rest house, a well kept nursery and the good old caretaker who serves the property like his own, again a fast vanishing breed. The visitor’s book tell us that General Ayub Khan Commander in Chief, visited the rest house on 20th May 1951 along with Brigadier Burki and party. Razia Ahmed and Rahima Ahmed had their first pony rides at this place while Governor Punjab and his family took a whole page of the visitor’s book on 1st June 1958. You can continue on the same road in dense pine jungle to reach the elegant and historic 1881 Punjab forest school with its academic and residential blocks. The same road further down shall take you to Murree Islamabad road on your way to Islamabad.

My friend and forester Rizwan Mehboob advised me to cover Surba, Rajgarh, Ghoon and Panjar forest rest houses to complete the Kahuta circuit as well and these un-explored forest rest houses shall remain a reason for me to go back to Murree Kahuta forest division sometime soon.

These colonial rest houses all over Punjab and Pakistan are natural assets for the Government to be used to promote tourism. While these rest houses are reasonably maintained, there is a room for tremendous improvement in terms of furniture, fixtures and services. Government should think of some out sourcing models where these assets are handed over to quality hoteliers or organizations promoting sustainable eco-tourism.

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