Down memory lane, I recall that after an amazing trip to Skardu and Hunza in June 1997, we travelled to Azad Kashmir the same year in December. Not to the famous Neelum Valley but on a road less taken to Kotli sector. Father was suffering from arthritis by then and his knees were giving him a tough time. Someone suggested that there is a small village called Tatta Pani (literally means Hot Water) by the Poonch River a few kilometers further from the town of Kotli. Along the river bank, there are several ponds of naturally hot sulphuric water which is known to have curative qualities. The place was famous for health tourism and people came from far and wide to find cure for their pains and ailments. I think, instead of visiting an orthopedic surgeon (which he eventually did), travelling to Kashmir to find a cure for his painful knees was a much more attractive prospect for my father.

It took us ten hours to reach Tatta Pani from Lahore. It was a quiet and isolated place surrounded by small hills. There was a solitary hotel by the road and a small shelter packed with underprivileged visitors near the river. A little further on the road was a small bazaar. We used to have our meals there in a restaurant. I remember watching Thursday night Tariq Aziz show in the restaurant and unknowingly throwing a jug full of water over a man in the street from the restaurant terrace. We used to spend our day by the river playing with water and enjoying warm sunlight. Father would keep his knee in a hot water pond and unfold a newspaper. One day I ran through a pond and burnt my legs. There was also a bridge down the river. On our last evening in Tatta Pani, we took a boat ride. It was a small white rowing boat. The boat man took us to the opposite bank of the river and then up the river stream. It was a beautiful sight. At some point in its flow, the fast stream of river changed into a calm and tranquil, gently flowing sheet of water.

Highlight of the year 1998 was our small trip to unbelievably beautiful Swat. We drove all the way to Kalam via Mingora and Bahrain, through semi hilly landscape changing into an extremely beautiful lush green valley post Bahrain, with forests of cedar over its mountains and gushing waters of the River Swat flowing through it. Once in Kalam, we lodged into a nice and comfortable suite at Hotel Midhills which was recently constructed and simply the best hotel in town. Its balcony was spacious enough and offered an excellent view of the valley, the river and the great mountain Falak Sair. Midhills was constructed right above a turn of the river which gave an illusion that water is flowing just beneath the balcony. We would stay in the balcony all day long or stroll to the bazaar to have a cup of tea in the afternoon. From the balcony, I would keep looking at a rock which emerged from the river, waiting for it to be swept away by the flow but it stood firm. I also remember taking the car’s steering wheel for the first time in an open place near Kalam and stopping inches before hitting a big cedar tree.

At Hotel Midhills, Kalam after 17 years

One day, we took a jeep ride to Mahodand Lake. I have no memories of the extremely beautiful valley leading to Mahodand from 1998, which I rediscovered only last year. All I remember is that it was a cold and rainy day and at some point, the road was blocked by a huge glacier. The jeep had to offload before crossing over and we had to follow on foot. Mahodand was a sleeping beauty. It is unlike any other lake in Pakistan, emerald in color and surrounded by great mountains. The lake is formed when the river enters a relatively broader area and spreads.

I went back to Swat some seventeen years later in 2015. As we entered Kalam, I was most pleasantly surprised to see the sign board of Hotel Midhills hanging over the bridge. I had wrongly heard that the hotel and other buildings right over the river were swept away by devastating floods of 2010. On our last evening in Swat, I went to Midhills and introduced myself at the reception. They were very happy to know that I had come back after seventeen long years and insisted that I have a cup of tea with them (typical Swat hospitality). But all I asked was permission to spend some time in the balcony which they most graciously allowed. There I was, standing at that balcony all drenched in beautiful memories of good old days. I pulled out an old picture from my purse. It was me, an overwhelmed eight years old sitting on a chair in the same balcony. I placed a chair at exactly the same spot and asked a friend to take my picture. I also looked into the river and found that seventeen years are more than enough to shift a resilient rock.

The family which was our companion to Baltistan in 1997 was planning to visit the Kaghan Valley in July 1999. They asked us to join in and we happily did. At that time a dear old friend of my father’s, Professor Taqiuddin Anjum was staying with his son Brigadier Firough at Pakistan Military Academy, Kakul. When he came to know of our plans, he insisted that we stay with them at PMA on our way to Kaghan Valley. The day we reached Abbotabad, we were entertained at a sumptuous breakfast at Brig. Firough’s home. I remember it was a pretty place inside the military academy. There was a beautiful orchard at the back of the house. Later on, we were given a tour of the academy, its museum, the grounds and a mosque which was seventy years old then. I was startled when I came to know about the tough training of cadets and the penalties they have to pay at little mistakes. Like doing ten frog hops if your spoon makes a sound while you’re eating at the mess. Later in the day, we visited Thandini, a picturesque hill station not so far from Abbotabad. We were given a very comfortable suite for the night at PMA’s guest house.

Author as a child at Thandiani

Next morning we woke up with the sound of parade from the parade ground not very far from the guest house and left Abbotabad for Shogran, a lovely hill station in Kaghan valley. I remember Shogran as a dream. It was a small and quiet place with a very attractive landscape of green fields and meadows surrounded by forests and snow capped mountains. Green grass fields of Shogran are some of the most pleasing sights I’ve ever seen. After a brief hotel-hunt, we settled for a small rest house with only two big rooms. It was a very old construction dating back to colonial times. I remember seeing a huge furnace burning in the kitchen which was definitely antique if not pre historic. Final shred of my Shogran memories is a visit to the nearby village in the evening where a kind lady who was a school teacher invited us for a cup of tea at her house.

After spending that day and night in beautiful Shogran, we moved on to Naran the next day. Brig. Firough had booked us at PMA huts, a beautiful rest house by the River Kunhar some 5 kilometers further from Naran. There were a total of three rooms, one big and two small, facing the river. Dining room and kitchen were housed inside the second building. Staff quarters were built slightly higher than the other two buildings. PMA huts had a spectacular view of the valley and the river flowing just a few yards away. I have such happy memories of those three beautiful days spent there. Perhaps, it was our best childhood vacation. All children (a total of seven from both families) would play all day long by the river. Kunhar isn’t a great river at this point. During the day, with the low volume of water, small islands would emerge in the river. We would grab each other’s hands and cross the water to the island. The beauty of life knew no limits then. Worrisome and stressful adolescence and adulthood was still years away. And we were the luckiest children on earth, or so we thought.

Staff at the PMA huts comprised of three members. There was a supervisor who was also a “maulvi”. He would recite azaan five times a day and lead prayers at a small platform modeled like a mosque. Then there was a caretaker and finally a cook named Zulfiqar. I struck up a quick friendship with Zulfiqar. He was a super nice man in his mid twenties maybe. He would allow me to meddle with his cooking and invade his kitchen whenever I could, only to learn making an omelet from him. It was a time when letters were still written and we hadn’t heard the word “internet”, so I promised Zulfiqar that I would write to him. He gave me his address, Cook Zulfiqar, PMA Huts, Naran, Tehsil Balakot etc etc and he said “I befriend almost everyone who visits here. They all promise to write but they never do.” He was right. I never wrote back to him.

We left for Lake Saif ul Malook on our second morning in Naran and spent the whole day at the lake. It included a horse ride and a slide on the glacier added to an absolutely stunning view of the lake and the great Malika Parbat standing over it with all its majesty. Saif ul Malook has ruled my heart since then. On our third and last day at PMA huts, Zulfiqar and the caretaker prepared a delicious barbecue for us. Chairs and tables had been arranged at an open space by the river. A delight of chaunsa mangoes followed after the barbecue. I remember burning my hand and Zulfiqar treating the burn with a freshly cut potato. It must have been my recklessness for the child made of mercury that I was. That night, Zulfiqar lighted a bonfire for us. It was a beautiful night. We sipped our teas and chatted through the night. Fresh cold air was blowing from the north. The sky was completely star studded. Gentle humming of the river intoxicated our tired senses. I was so drowsy that I fell asleep in my chair while the bonfire was still burning….

Fast forward 15 years and I am back in Naran in the August of 2014. It was our last day in the valley. We were just coming back from Dodipatsar Trek which had been a real test for non trekkers like us and left us exhausted. But I couldn’t leave Naran before seeing PMA huts. The major sign board on the highway was gone so we had some difficulty in finding it but we eventually did. The huts were very well maintained. Buildings were freshly painted and benches were added to the garden. The caretaker went to an attention at my mentioning that we were Brigadier Firough’s guests here fifteen years ago. I asked about Zulfiqar.

Barbecue by River Kunhar, Zulfiqar and the caretaker are seen preparing it

“He’s posted at Kakul, Sir.”

“When you see him, do tell him that a chota sahib came back looking for you after fifteen years.”  

A barbed wire had been added around the premises separating it from the river bank. Due to security concerns, PMA hut wasn’t opened for any visitors that year. I spent some quiet moments there by myself. Going back to old places with beautiful memories is always a heartwarming nostalgic journey.        

2000 is the only year in my life without a journey to mountains. Instead we went south to Karachi to attend a family wedding. Most exciting thing about the whole idea was a train journey on one of the longest routes of Pakistan. A cabin was book on the summer train, a brand new economy class service for summer vacations introduced that year by Pakistan Railways. We boarded the train from Lahore’s central station on the evening of 31st July 2000. The train rolled through some familiar areas of Lahore and passed on into the country. Sun had come down. We tied a sheet in front of the cabin and made it comfy and private. Father went up on the berth to sleep and I remained glued to the open window of the cabin looking out in the night, my imaginations and fascinations running wild. Early in the night, the train made a brief stop at a small station named Ahmadwal. A gentleman filled our water bottles for us. Moon had come up in the sky and the night’s magic was truly unfolded when landscape changed into desert after midnight. Next morning I woke up to see the golden Sindh on the first day of August. The bright sun was painting everything in a golden shade. We passed through wide plains and many miles of date gardens. Slums started emerging when we were nearing Karachi. The train finally stopped at Karachi Cantt Station around noon.

Zulfiqar lighting a bonfire on our last night at PMA Huts, Naran

We stayed in Karachi for seven days. Apart from the colorful wedding functions, I remember this visit as a flurry of reunions at lunches, dinners and teas with our many relatives in Karachi. To me, the most special thing in all this was getting the chance to meet some very kind old people from our grandfather’s generation who started leaving for their heavenly abodes soon after. Amidst all this excitement, I particularly remember one lovely afternoon we spent by the sea. Having spent her childhood in Karachi, my mother had great memories with the city and knew exactly its mood and the feeling. She taught us how to make a gharonda, a little house by plastering wet sand around your feet and then gently removing it. The hollow thus emerged was a gharonda. Then she took mine and my brother’s hands in hers to have us experience something which they did in their childhood. We stood still after taking a few steps towards the sea. A wave touched our feet and on its way back took the sand from under our feet making us feel a slight tickling……. just one fond memory from long ago. I remember bringing a lot of sea shells back home from the beach.

In 2014, I started rediscovering Pakistan on my own. Since then, I’ve been to nearly all destinations I saw in my childhood and many more. Although I am once again, completely mesmerized by the beauty of northern areas, I feel that there is a difference of feeling between childhood and adulthood. Now the feelings are intense but maturity has taken the innocence of childhood. Somehow, the world was a much grander and endlessly beautiful place and all journeys were more like fairytales. These travels are undoubtedly my best childhood memories.