Heritage in Blue Pines

Having failed a number of times in finding Charehan forest rest house near Lower Topa, my friend and forester turned civil servant Rizwan Mahboob offered to help and one fine morning, I found myself, Rizwan and Faisal standing near the Jheeka Gali turn on new Murree motorway. Soon we were joined by an experienced forest guard Zubair in his immaculately crisp uniform who was deputed to guide us to the Charehan forest rest house through a dense blue pine forest.

We started walking on the bridle path just below the Lower Topa Forest offices. The trek leads to Patriata through Gulhera Gali and was established by English foresters about a century ago. The Sahibs used to travel in Palkis or on horses along with their families hence the name bridle paths. You can see such bridle paths from Nathia Gali to Donga Gali to Ayubia to Khanspur and else where. Back to our Charehan trek, Rizwan gave us a short course in forestry telling us about false dawn, forest compartment blocks, different varieties of pines and forest working plans as we crossed several natural streams. In about fifteen minutes, we were standing in front of a pre-partition brick structure ‘Baoli’. Though Baoli is at times referred to ancient step wells quite common in Punjab plains, here the baoli was designed to collect water from a still running natural stream into a small pond to facilitate bathing as well as cloth washing. I wondered whether the Baoli has a religious Hindu connotation or is it a more local traditional innovation.

Anyways our forest guard started climbing a ‘Parri’ which is a narrow mountain path to take you across various ridges with gentle and at times not so gentle slope. Rizwan told us how these ‘parries’ are kept cleaned by forest ‘Cullies’ so that if there is a fire eruption in the forest, the fire is contained within ‘parris’. Also at the time of forest fires, ‘cullies’ are despatched to the affected area to clean the ‘purries’ of any dry wood or pine leaves to create a natural barrier in the middle of forests. So walk, walk, walk, gasp, gasp, gasp, we trekked uphill through the dense blue pines to reach a broken jeep road. Yes we could have taken the insignificant jeep road to Charehan forest rest house starting about two kilometres on right before the Jheeka Gali turn on Islamabad Murree motorway, but then trekking through dense pine forest early in the morning has its own rewards.

Walking towards Charhan rest house deep in jungle, we were crossed by wild pheasants and no we were not lucky or unlucky to see any leopards. Finally 1913 Charehan forest rest house constructed at a cost of Rs 3190 only, was in front of us. It was a typical early 20th century forest rest house with broad steps leading to it, typical slant iron sheets roof, a couple of rooms with Victorian fire places and wooden floors, a common veranda and a main front lawn. Pity that the century old rest house was substantially destroyed during 2005 earth quake and never rebuilt. Government has apparently approved building a new rest house so soon this old colonial structure shall go down along with the stories it has been privy to for over a century. And about stories, I was told that besides many Sahibs, civil servants, a famous cricketer stayed here along with his friend for a few days after the 1992 World Cup although almost every forest rest house around Islamabad has a similar story so who cares.

Our next stop was the last standing colonial forest tower on a mountain top about fifteen minutes uphill from Charehan Forest rest house. So British were quite meticulous about protecting forests and they had these forest towers constructed at various places through out the forests. A guard would sit on top of the tower and watch for any forest fires as well as any unscrupulous elements cutting trees. In case of any fire, he would send a runner to the head quarters reporting exact location of fire and requesting for despatch of ‘cullies’ to curtail fire. Now this forest tower was no mean tower, it was a huge steel structure with stairs winding around it to climb to the top observation post. The tower definitely had a commanding view of surrounding jungle as it was almost a hundred feet high and perched on a mountain top. We weighed the risks and decided to be pragmatic by not climbing to the top.

Zubair, our guide skilfully negotiated the trek down to the road through a short cut, we slipped and stumbled but finally reached the main road. On our way back, we stopped at the forest offices Lower Topa to see the Charehan forest rest house visitor’s book which was now kept here due to destruction of the rest house. These visitors’ books of colonial rest houses are a historical relic in themselves and may at times take hours to read through. So here I was with the century old visitors’ book in front of me while sipping the famous forester’s tea. The first recorded visitor in 1915 was a couple Mr and Mrs Blascheck and the last visitor before 2005 earth quake appeared to be a General from historic Guides Cavalry.

The rest house was graced by Lord Elmworth of Blandings castle in Surrey in 1929 who wrote that ‘some of the pleasure of staying at this beautiful lodge is mitigated by the lack of such necessities like water, bedding etc’. Similarly Mr and Mrs K.C Robinson as well as Pratap Singh of Imperial Forest Service seems to be frequent visitors. Someone wrote in 1918, ‘ Visitors are requested to see before they go that their servants leave crockery, house and surroundings clean’. Lastly the story about our famous cricketer appears to be true as there was an entry to the effect in July 1992 and he paid Rs 320 for the few days stay at the rest house.

These forest rest houses in Murree area are a tremendous asset. While we should ensure that our foresters have them available for their official duties, there is a huge potential of using these rest houses for tourism purposes as well. There is a whole string of forest rest houses perched on mountain tops all over Murree hills including Jheeka gali, Charehan, Patriata, Ghora gali, Lehtrar, Danoi, Nurr, Rajgarh, Karor and Sambli. Oops, no Sambli please as this forest rest house is now a strategic asset not open to civilians. Once upon a time, Dr Mahboob ul Haq and his wife used to spend their time in Sambli forest rest house thinking about poverty eradication and human development but this is not allowed anymore. Anyways I hope someone shall be working to protect the historic Charehan rest house, forest tower and the Baoli which may all crumble down soon if these continue to be neglected.

The writer lives in Lahore and can be contacted at omarmukhtar16@gmail.com. He also blogs at www.countryroads.pk

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