How a Kashmiri visitor’s misconceptions were dispelled, as this travelogue suggests.
In February, a phone invitation from a friend in Pakistan was a pleasant surprise. It was also an opportunity to take a break from the dreariness at home, even if for a short while.
The next day I flew to Delhi along with my mother and sister and the first thing we did was visit the Pakistan High Commission for visa. Courteous and polite Pakistani visa officer greeted us. Though he asked many questions about my profession, situation in Kashmir and regarding our purpose to visit Pakistan, his approach towards us was very affable and he arranged for our visas immediately. It’s heart-warming the way the embassy staff treats Kashmiris with dignity and special care.
Pakistan has a special place in the consciousness of Kashmiris. Although I had been to Pakistan several times before, I still felt excited, more so because my mother and sister were accompanying me this time.
We decided to cross over to Pakistan on foot via Wagah border post. The first thing we encountered was a humiliating physical search by troopers of Border Security Force (BSF). It reminded me of the early nineties when such searches were a daily routine, by the same force, on Srinagar streets.
After clearing the Immigration and Customs check at the actual gate of the border, we walked through ‘no man’s land’. The first thing you observe is a huge gate with Baab-e-Azadi (Gate of Freedom) engraved on it. It is the gateway into Pakistan – ‘the land of pure’. My mother and sister looked joyful stepping on the Pakistani soil. A young female officer, after clearing our immigration, softly asked us to report to the local police station for.
“Welcome to Pakistan,” she murmured graciously. Customs and Pakistan Rangers officials were equally nice to us.
We hired a taxi which took us to Niyazi Adda in Lahore, where we boarded a luxury coach to Islamabad. Buses in Pakistan are very plush and fares are economical. A trip to Lahore from Islamabad on motorway costs around 800 Pakistani rupees. The Chinese built buses are fully air conditioned. Lively bus hostesses serve refreshments to passengers on board. Lahore and Islamabad are connected through an excellent motorway link. Motorways of Pakistan are a network of multiple-lane, high-speed highways in Pakistan. Brainchild of former Pakistan Prime Minister Mian Nawaz Sharief, these motorways are an indicator of the nation’s determined effort and sheer resilience to thrive even in turbulent times. These excellent highways have all facilities on a par with international standards and are being currently expanded across the length and breadth of the country.
At the Karachi Company Bus Terminal in Islamabad, our host Advocate Sardar Abdul Raziq Khan was waiting for us. He drove us to Kashmir House in Islamabad, where he had made arrangements for our stay.
After completing formalities at the local police station, our host took us for a tour of the twin cities of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Islamabad reveals itself as a planned city of leafy enclaves and broad avenues dotted with jacaranda and eucalyptus trees. Islamabad’s architecture is a blend of modernity and old Islamic and regional tradition which adds to the overall grandeur of the city. We spent the day visiting the Shah Faisal Mosque – an architectural marvel built with financial support from King Faisal of Saudi Arabia; Centaurs Mall, a premium shopping mall; Daman-e-Koh, a viewing point and hilltop garden located in the middle of the Margalla Hills; Rawal lake, an artificial water reservoir; Shakarparian, the urban backwoods which has an arboretum with trees planted by dozens of foreign heads of state.
At dusk we visited Pir Sohawa, a rapidly growing tourist resort on top of Margalla Hills. Pir Sohawa is also famous for Monal restaurant that is one of the most famous eateries in Islamabad. Eating here was great experience as it offers great food and its open patios give a breathtaking view of the city of Islamabad. The host was kind enough to provide us two prepaid SIM cards, which kept us connected with family and friends.
Next, I wanted to visit the garrison city of Rawalpindi. I have emotional connection with this city as my paternal grandfather Late Khwaja Amin Mukhtar is buried here. A well-known Kashmiri leader and General Secretary of All Jammu and Kashmir Muslim Conference, a major political party of Azad Kashmir, he passed away in 1997. He had lived in self-exile for 47 years in Pakistan because of his political beliefs. I have fond, vivid memories of him as I had visited him so many times. He was a man of impeccable character, wholly devoted to his political beliefs and convictions. Our host Sardar Abdul Raziq Khan, a Muslim Conference leader and a close friend of my late grandfather, accompanied me to his grave. While offering fateha, I was thinking of all those years he spent without his family or any close relative. I was thinking about the generations of Kashmiris who went through the same ordeal. Sardar Raziq comforted me as emotions overwhelmed me. After leaving the graveyard, Sardar Raziq took us on a tour of Rawalpindi city. We visited several landmarks such as the Commercial Market, Raja Bazar, Rawalpindi Cantonment, Liaqat Park and Jinnah Park.
The next few days, we relaxed in the cosy environs of Kashmir House.
One evening, we went to the official residence of Azad Kashmir Prime Minister Raja Farooq Haider Khan, who had invited us for dinner. Scion of an influential Rajput clan from Chakar area of Azad Kashmir, he surprisingly welcomed us in chaste Kashmiri. He later informed us that his grandmother who was from Srinagar had taught him fair bit of Kashmiri. Soon his wife and daughter joined us on the table and discussed Kashmiri cuisine, culture, and dress with my mother and sister.
We spent hours talking about politics and contemporary Kashmir situation. The Azad Kashmir PM was all praise for the resilience of Kashmiris. Raja Farooq Haider also gave necessary instructions to his Personal Staff Officer to facilitate our trip to Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, Peshawar and Lahore, as we had desired to visit these places.
Over the next few days, we were also invited for dinner by President of Azad Kashmir, Sardar Masood Ahmad Khan, former Prime Minister Azad Kashmir and President Muslim Conference Sardar Attiq Ahmad Khan and Speaker of Azad Kashmir Assembly Shah Ghulam Qadir. Meeting these ace political figures from Azad Kashmir was quite an experience and all of them spoke affectionately about their association with my late grandfather.
We drove to Muzaffarabad in a car provided by the Azad Kashmir government. We had a brief stopover for lunch at Muree, a colonial era hill station. Muzaffarabad is four-hour drive from Islamabad. By noon we were there. On the way, one comes across breathtaking scenes of winding rivers and hills. We stayed at MLA Hostel in Chatter area. Next morning, I wanted to take a round of the Muzaffarabad city, I had been here in the mid-nineties, then a sleepy town being used as a base camp for insurgency in Kashmir. The city then was charged with militant activities and fervour. There used to be lot of Kashmiri militants in camouflage fatigues belonging to various organisations openly roaming with AK-47 rifles in the Toyota pickup trucks. Now no trace of militants was noticeable in the city. Even the ubiquitous offices and banners of militant organisations were conspicuously absent. Nestled in hills, Muzaffarabad, after the devastating earthquake of October 2005, has reemerged as a beautiful city with new designed houses as the government has focused on the reconstruction and development with international aid. The Turkish, United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia, South Korea, and China governments have built residential houses, shelters and government offices and other infrastructure resistant to earthquake. Saudi Arabia is building an ultra-modern university campus, whereas, the new government office buildings, secretariat and residential enclosures have been built by Turkey. Sheikh Khalifa bin Zayed Al Nahyan Hospital has been built by the UAE. Chinese and Koreans are mainly involved in building the hydro-power projects. Hundreds of Korean and Chinese workers are stationed in Muzaffarabad and adjacent areas for construction of these projects. Koreans have already completed two 100 MW projects and are working on another 89 MW project. The Chinese are developing 1100 MW power project on river Jhelum near Kohala besides other smaller projects. Chinese consortium CGGC-CMEC (Gezhouba Group and China National Machinery Import and Export Corporation) is also developing a 969 MW Neelam-Jhelum hydro-power project near Muzaffarabad. The much controversial project has been designed in an effort to secure water rights over Neelam as India is constructing Kishanganga Dam upstream. These power projects will not only make Azad Kashmir self-sufficient in electricity but would also earn substantial revenue.
After seeing the development, I went to various other important places in the city. Lohaar Gali, situated 9 kilometers from the city, offers a bird’s eye view of the city. At nights, the city lights present an unforgettable scene as viewed from the Pearl Continental, the lone five-star hotel in the city. A visit to Madina Market was also a nice experience as one gets to meet Kashmiri shopkeepers who have migrated to this side in the early nineties. Many of them have set up small Kashmir art stalls selling embroidered shawls and other Kashmiri dressing material. There are also many restaurants in the city run by Kashmiri entrepreneurs who offer authentic wazwan. A signpost on the Muzaffarabad-Srinagar road near Domail, the confluence of Neelam and Jhelum rivers, says Srinagar is only 182 kilometers away.
After a few days in Muzaffarabad, we headed straightway to Mirpur. The city of Mirpur is known as mini-England because of its large British Pakistani community. With the help of a British firm, Pakistan has built Mangla Dam, a huge hydro-power barrage on the Jhelum river close by. As we arrived here at dusk, the brightly lit Mirpur city with its palatial villas, impressive roads and well-stocked shops spoke of all-round affluence.
While visiting Mirpur, the signs of prosperity are at ample display. Unlike Srinagar, which has now earned the sobriquet of ‘the dustiest city in the world’, the roads here are properly black-topped, streets well-lit and civic amenities better. Azad Kashmir is not what we get to hear through Indian media; the impression of it being a backward territory vanishes the moment you see it .It is not heavily dependent on subsidised economy on this side of Kashmir.
The employment of 60,000 men from this region in Azad Kashmir Regiment of Pakistan Army, besides remittances from a vast expatriate community, forms the backbone of its economy making it self-reliant to a large extent. Unlike other provinces of Pakistan, society here is egalitarian and has a literacy rate of 70% which is well above the national average.
After seeing a slice of Azad Kashmir, on our next schedule was a visit to Peshawar. Peshawar, home of the Pathans, is in its purest sense, a frontier town with a distinct tribal flavour. It is situated in Pakistan’s restive north-western province Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KPK) and has long been wracked by violence. Located close to the Afghanistan border and the lawless tribal border region, Pakistani military is fighting to quell terrorist groups here. When we reached the city, the driver told us that we had entered one of the most terrorist prone cities in the world and advised us to be careful. Though, during the day, Peshawar hums with the hustle and bustle of frontier life, the Pakistani Army troops manning checkpoints on the various roads of the city keep a close watch on every vehicle travelling through the city. At one such check point, we were intercepted by some troopers and after many questions and scrutiny of identity papers they allowed us to go. This reminded me of the ordeal of travelling in Srinagar in the early nineties.
We first visited Karkhano Market. I had visited this market some twenty years back, when Pashtun traders in this market used to sell mostly contraband products from western countries like France, Britain, Germany and USA. Now this market is flooded with Chinese goods, and anything that sells here has ‘made in China’ label on it.
People in Peshawar are certainly conservative in terms of dressing or socializing which is why fewer women are visible in marketplaces and most of them are draped in shuttlecock burqas or chadors.
We spent hours visiting various markets and places of historic importance in Peshawar like Bala Hisar Fort, Peshawar Museum, Saddar Bazar, Gor Khatri, Namak Mandi and Qisa Khawani Bazaar. Qissa Khawani Bazar is known as the Piccadilly of Peshawar. In the ancient times, there were professional story tellers here. Caravans arriving from various Central Asian states would stop here, have kehwa and get entertained by the storytellers. Having green tea at the traditional kehwakhanas – tea points – of this market is a refreshing experience.
The final destination on our itinerary was Lahore. It takes six to seven hours on the motorway to reach Lahore from Peshawar.
An ancient city with many historical sites, Lahore is the heart of Pakistan and famous for its architectural splendour and culinary treasures. We were conveyed repeatedly the now-clichéd saying about Lahore: “Jine Lahore nai vekhyam, o jamya-e ni – those who have not seen Lahore, have seen nothing.”
We had four days permission to stay in Lahore, which we spent travelling, shopping, and savouring Lahori food.
From the Lahore Fort to Minar-e-Pakistan to the Badshahi Mosque, Lahore has a lot to offer to a visitor. Lahore looks glorious because it has retained the flavour of its Mughal past as far as architecture is concerned.
My mother and sister found Lahore a shopper’s paradise. Liberty Market, Anarkali Bazar, Mall Road and Icchra Bazar were their favourite haunts. Being the residents of ‘Maqbooza Kashmir’ (Occupied Kashmir), we were given substantial discounts. The inquisitive and courteous shopkeepers asked many questions about the situation in Kashmir and offered us refreshments.
In the evenings, visiting food streets of Lahore like Gawalmandi Food Street and Fort Road Food Street to taste Lahori cuisine filled with spice and unique aroma was a life time experience. Like our Kashmiri wazwan with so many options to pick from, the task of what to eat becomes tricky.
As our one month visa ended, the driver provided by Azad Kashmir Government drove us back to Wagah. As we walked back into India through the ‘no-man’s land’, we were again subjected to painstaking physical search by BSF. At the immigration counter I was questioned in detail by the Indian intelligence sleuths. They enquired about my purpose of visit, the places I visited and the people I met. After offering many cups of tea and discussing things at length, they allowed me to go but not before taking my mobile number, email, and photostat copies of passport and identity card.
A sardarji drove us back to Amritsar and the very next destination was our home in Kashmir. This trip to Pakistan was an experience of a lifetime and we realised how much affinity Pakistanis have with Kashmiris. Pakistan is not only about sectarian bombings, targeted killings and Taliban insurgency. A visit does help dispel many misconceptions.