By Omar Mukhtar Khan
DIPPED in beauty with its swaying lush green forests, snow-capped mountains, gushing steams and the indigo blue Neelum river, the Neelum Valley is the most famous and scenic valley of Azad Kashmir. Located to the north of Muzaffarabad, this wonderland is stretched over 200 kilometres in the form of a bow with the Kaghan valley on its left and the Kapwara District of occupied Kashmir on its right. The main river of the valley originates in the Indian occupied Kashmir and is known as KishanGanga there. The river changes its name to Neelum as it enters Pakistan at Taobat. There are numerous small mountain streams which feed the main Neelum river during its course of ultimate confluence with the Jehlum river at Domail in Muzaffarabad. All these feeding streams of the Neelum river come from their own sub-valleys of the main Neelum Valley and normally serve as treks into neighbouring valleys and areas.
From the northern end of Muzaffarabad city, the road enters into the Neelum Valley. It runs along the indigo blue waters of Neelum for almost its entire length. Although the road is metalled in its initial part, after Nouseri as one crosses the river to come to its right bank, the road gradually becomes shingle and with some further advance all that remains of it is a rough and tough jeep track.
In about three hours of a scenic drive, one reaches the small town of Kundal Shahi. It is recommended to take the small branch road to the left of Kundal Shahi to reach Kuttan. Kuttan is a small beautiful village along the banks of a gushing Jagran steam. At Kuttan, the residential facilities are excellent with proper dining halls, billiards room, and jacuzzi etc. These are actually parts of the residential compound of the Swedish firm that designed and developed a hydro-power plant further up the Jagran stream. The set house is booked in advance from Muzaffarabad C&W department and like elsewhere in Azad Kashmir, one has to bring cooked or uncooked food along. Kuttan is a nice place to spend a day or two. An interesting excursion from Kuttan is to explore the hydro-power plant, which is about half-an-hour drive up-stream from Kuttan. The plant is in itself an engineering miracle with several hundred metres long tunnels in the mountains. Staying at Kuttan and exploring this sub-valley further up can be a nice idea.
From Kuttan as one gets on the main road to Kel, one crosses the famous towns of Athmuqam, Neelum village, Lowat and Dowarian. At Dowarian, a trek towards left may take you to Ratti Gali lake and onwards to Naran in the Kaghan valley. However, some basic experience in trekking and a dependable guide is essential for any such adventure.
The next recommended stop over in the Neelum Valley is at Sharda, which is bout a four-hour drive from Kuttan. Sharda is a beautiful tourists village along the banks of the river Neelum. Here, the base of the river widens and gives emergence to silver sandy beaches. There are several rest houses, including forest and tourism rest houses. While at Sharda, a visit to Sharda fort and the ruins of a Buddhist university is a must. It would be an interesting research to analyze the arrival of the Buddhist in the area, their purpose, and the possibility of an ancient trading route etc. Another interesting sport that can be undertaken at Sharda with 100 per cent results is trout fishing. All you need to do is take an experienced local along while going for fishing.
It is thrilling to note that along this route in the Neelum Valley, the traveller is under direct firing range of the Indians at many places. At certain points special concrete and steel walls have been constructed to protect the plying vehicles and people from Indian shelling. The last main town along this road is Kel, which is a Brigade Headquarters and is about a two-hour drive from Sharda. If one is interested in going further from Kel, one can go up till Taobat and here at the border between Azad and Occupied Kashmir, the KishanGanga becomes the river Neelum.
It is recommended to stay at Sharda for a couple of days. From Sharda a jeep track branches out to the left and leads to Naran via Jhalkhad in about six hours, and is highly recommended for the breathtaking landscape it offers. There is a wide variety of wildlife in the whole of the Neelum Valley. The wildlife is especially concentrated in the surrounding high valleys away from the population and include various species of pheasants, partridges, monkeys, bears and snow leopards.
It is essential to have a four-wheel drive with an experienced driver while travelling in and around the valley. All the rest houses have to be booked in advance from Muzaffarabad and carrying food along is necessary. The travel is recommended only during the ceasefire period and foreigners must seek permission from the Home Department before entering the area.