Photo feature: Not far from paradise

A ravishing view of the Kaghan Valley, located in the Mansehra District of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Province of Pakistan. 

The Himalayas and the Kaghan valley have inspired poets, musicians, painters, videographers and photographers through the ages. For me, the inspiration came last month, when my friends revealed they were planning a trip.
At first it seemed farfetched, and then it seemed absurd because they wanted to leave within the next few days. Just as I was about to convince them that it was an impulsive and over-ambitious idea, I realised that if we don’t do it now, we probably never will. I was now sold to the idea of this trip.
On July 13, 2012 we caught a flight from Karachi to Islamabad, from where we were going to drive further up north.
After a two-day stay in Islamabad, we left for Murree, which is located at a distance of about 58 kilometres northeast of Islamabad.
My last visit to Murree came in 2000, and I remembered the mountains being quiet and peaceful. Draped in forests of pine, with narrow steep roads, at an average altitude of over 2,000 metres – I knew this place got cold.
However, this time, the traffic caught me by surprise. There were times when the car would stand still for 45 minutes. It would then move 20 feet before the 45-minute ordeal would repeat.
Women and kids were busy wooing the customers with all kinds of eatables and quick-selling gifts: Deep red cherries wrapped in leaves instead of paper bags, colourful shawls and umbrellas.

After a strenuous ride filled with endless traffic and steep roads, we finally made it to our guesthouse.
Starving, we ate dinner, which was followed by a much overdue cup of tea. Bellies bursting and shattered by exhaustion, we decided to call it a night and leave for Kaghan valley in the morning.
When I woke up next, I was greeted by the most surreal morning views I had ever seen. The hue in the sky and the cloud cover were so perfect, it all looked unreal.

A view of sunrise in Murree.
Passing through Nathia Gali, Abbottabad and Mansehra district, our aim was to relish the views of Kaghan valley and finally reach Naran by sunset.
The drive from Murree to Nathia Gali was nothing short of amazing and peaceful, but as Abbottabad drew nearer, the heat began to kick in and signs of civilisation were back, along with the traffic jams and noise.
Going through Mansehra district and Balakot, we made it to the Kaghan valley. All of a sudden, the views and landscapes became postcard perfect.
The Kunhar river flowing through the Kaghan Valley, Pakistan
Rock formations covered with pine forests and laced with streams and waterfalls fuelled by melting glaciers, the Kaghan valley is a plateau of magnificent beauty that spreads over 155 kilometres, mounting from an altitude of 2,200 feet and reaching its highest point at over 13,000 feet.
At first glance, the valley gives an invigorating feeling with crystal-clear lakes and raging mountain streams.
The freezing-cold Kunhar river flows through the picturesque valley, brimming with delicious trout fish, which a tourists’ favourite as the most requested food item in the area.
Other towns settled along the river include, Balakot, Paras and Mahandari.
Apiaries’, too, were found in abundance along the road throughout the area. Several beekeepers retail the locally-extracted honey found here.
A semi blurry image of apiaries captured from a moving car while driving by the roads of the Kaghan Valley.
At a distance of 34 kilometres from Balakot, lies another summer retreat in Shogran, which can be reached via Kewai.
The road leading up to Shogran is a mission in itself. It makes one feel like being part of a video game. The road here was much more narrow and steep in comparison to other routes.
In addition to that, there was an ever-looming danger of landslides and tree falls. The road here is more like a trek trail instead of asphalt-covered route made for cars. The adventure seems endless. At each moment, you are locked between thrill and threat. A danger sign, that greets you often along the road, gives a constant reminder of how you are in absolutely no control of what happens next.
By the time we came down from Shogran, it had already been more than eight hours since our departure from Murree. The sun had now set well behind the mountains and we were driving in the rain with darkest blue sky and furious lightning.
Fog had surrounded the air and at a distant of every few kilometres, we had to drive through waterfalls flowing down the mountain range and in to the river.
Soft snow falling off the mountain ranges that comes from melted glaciers alongside the roads of Kaghan Valley
Another couple of hours later, we were graced by the first sight of Naran: An array of shining lights.
Entering Naran, I noticed that the main residential area was located all along a single road, which stretched a long way deep into the valley.
The road had numerous hotels, street stalls and an entire marketplace offering food, a variety of warm clothes, traditional craft-work etched in beads and various other handmade accessories.
Most of the locals running businesses in Naran hailed from Balakot – a town located 88 kilometres away.
Naran is usually hit by such freezing winters that it is only operational in the summer season.
The most prominent attractions in and around Naran include Lake Saiful Muluk. This picturesque lake has its own share of folklore. An old man claiming to be a storyteller asked if I would like to hear what he had to say. Without a moment’s hesitation, I obliged.
A view of the enchanted lake Saif ul Malook in Naran, Pakistan.
So it goes that Saif – the prince of Misr at the time – once dreamt of courting the queen of fairies, who was entrapped by a giant.

In order to realise his dream, Saif packed his bags and set off along with two jinns.

When the full moon was reflected in the glistening bowl of Lake Saiful Muluk, fairies were believed to descend and bathe in the lake.

On one such night, in order to gain the queen’s attention, Prince Saif ordered his guardsmen to steal her tiara.
Lake Saif ul Malook, Naran
When the queen and her companions emerged from the lake, Saif appeared. As a result, the queen’s companions vanished as the queen stood stunned. The queen was obligated to stay: She couldn’t return to her master without her crown.
The storyteller went on to narrate that while Saif and the queen were on the run, the giant set out on his search. They hid in a cave, which they had locked with their prayers until the giant’s demise.
At present, Lake Saiful Muluk remains one of the most visited attractions of the Kaghan valley. The lake is surrounded by magnificent snow-layered mountains and lush green grass. A fragrance of fresh flowers and cool breeze surrounds the area.
A view of a plateau in the vicinity of lake Saif ul Malook. 
This lake has however commercialised with time and offers tourists boat and horse rides.
The area comprises a small marketplace, which offers mountain-friendly shoes and garments for rent and various kinds of food items for sale.
The depth of this lake is said to be unknown and in winters, snow covers the ground for up to 30 feet.
The peripheral view is so surreal that pictures cannot do justice to the lake’s splendour.
From there on, we rented horses and went further up. Surrounded by a combination of waterfalls, soft slushy patches surrounding hardened glaciers and huge rocky paths – we rode until reaching a platform of camps, with a waterfall on one side, leading to a three-hour hike up to Ansoo Lake.
A view of Malika Parbat (Queen of Mountains ) a few kilimetres ahead of Lake Saif ul Malook.
On the opposite side stood Malika Parbat (Queen of the mountains), known as the most dangerous mountain of the Kaghan Valley.
The height of the summit is not very significant in comparison to the massive peaks of the Karakoram Range. The peak gets its name from its steep apex.
It was not until earlier this month that climbers scaled the Malika Parbat.
A view of the Lulusar Lake. the main source of the Kunhar River .
Lulusar is another cluster of mounts near the Naran Valley. The lake here is the central source of the Kunhar River, which streams across Kaghan Valley through Jalkhand, Naran Valley, Kaghan, Jared, Paras and Balakot – until it junctions with the Jhelum River
The lake is 48 kilometres away from Naran, on the Naran-Babusar road. The Babusar road leads to the Babusar Top and further towards Chillas.
This was by far the most captivating and magnificent sight that I have experienced so far. The mountain range is aligned with poetic beauty; the Hindu Kush on one side and the Himalayas on the other.
A view of the Himalayas from the Babusar Top, the highest peak of Kaghan Valley. 
We were the only ones present at this point, along with a handful of locals. Just then, it started to hail.
A local came to get us out of the blistering cold and invited us inside their tent, where they were making their own version of roti, which they served with steaming hot chai.
Simply put, it seemed like I was part of a fairytale. I am glad that I took time out to discover the hidden wonders my country has to offer and most importantly having the opportunity to make others aware of it.


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