Night view of Muzaffarabad (Image Courtesy: @asmarsphotography)
Muzaffarabad, the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, is located on the banks of the rivers Neelum and Jhelum. It has mountains, which are usually enough motivation for the people of Lahore to run off in the summer months to the coolness they bring.
I am ashamed to say that were not immune, so we planned out three nights too, which we decided to spend at Muzaffarabad’s Peal Continental hotel. PC hotels have a very good reputation overall so we were confident we’d have a good experience. That, and the fact that the parental unit has OCD when it comes to cleanliness and wouldn’t have agreed to stay anywhere else.
Let’s move on from the sneak peek and let me tell you how we took Muzaffarabad by storm!
About the drive:
- To get to Muzaffarabad, first you need to reach Islamabad (capital of Pakistan), which is a roundabout 5-hour drive (if you follow the speed limit, which of course we did. I think) There’s a good, clean motorway and you can easily complete the drive in one go, especially since there are many great spots where you can stop and refill your tanks, stretch your legs, and generally dilly-dally about until your father yells at you to get back in the car.
- We could have stopped at Islamabad for lunch, but then we might have had to make the trip to Muzaffarabad while it was dark. It’s definitely doable, but not advisable due to the narrow, curving roads leading to your destination. Landslides are another concern on the mountain roads, meaning you need to hurry up and try to reach your destination before dark.
Onwards to Chakothi (Image Courtesy: Manaal Shuja)
- There are a couple of routes to get to Muzaffarabad; you can either take the direct route or pass through Murree. Murree has become more and more commercialized through the years and traffic is a regular concern, so it is better to avoid the area and go the other way.
- We were able to reach Muzaffarabad in around 3.5 to 4 hours. This may or may not differ; we had two cars and both drivers were extremely motivated to reach as soon as possible. It might have been due to bathroom concerns since you’ve got just two options when you’re on the road; hold it or find a big bush. Both equally unsavory.
- No need to worry about gas stations; there are plenty of those on the way.
- The scenery on the way was quite engaging. We spent half the time just looking out the window or half out of the sunroof. (Or in my case, sticking my overeager head out the window and scaring passersby.)
PC Hotel, Muzaffarabad (Image Courtesy: Maleeha Omair)
The hotel is situated on top of a hill, and it’s quite large and comfortable. You have your mammoth-sized lawns and play areas for kids, as well as specialized barbeque areas (their words, not mine. I personally couldn’t see what was so specialized about them). However, they only do the barbeque for you if there are around 50 people, so that’s a moot point. No complaint about the rooms; they were clean, airy, and comfortable. The hotel in itself was great, but there were some things about it that bothered us:
- There was no pool. While this may seem like a trivial concern, it’s actually quite important during the mornings when you wake up and there’s nothing to do except maybe sit in the lawns (with the sun beating down on your head) or play table tennis (which actually prompts a lot of soul-searching when you realize you’re piss-poor at it) and work out in the exercise room (seriously? It’s a vacation, not boot camp!)
- A pretty big grievance that we had during our stay was that they only had one main restaurant for dining, and extremely strict rules what you could order and when. At night, we absolutely had to have the buffet; along with the higher per head cost, we had to put aside our preferences and eat whatever was offered. Also, the restaurant closed around 12. It was a pretty big letdown when we were feeling all cool and rebellious and went down for a late-night coffee but were basically told it was bedtime by the huge “Closed” sign out front.
- Room service was more a nuisance than a help. If we wanted an iron or tea cups or pillow covers, we better be prepared to sit down by the phone and remind them every five minutes because they wouldn’t bring it to you otherwise.
- Spending the whole day cooped up in the hotel just wasn’t an option, unless you wanted to end up pulling your hair out in frustration. Or maybe just going to sleep.
- Food was pretty expensive. A major portion of our bill at the end was due to the food we had ordered every day.
All I can say is, don’t go to Muzaffarabad just for the weather. We thought it would be nice and cool, but it actually got a little hot during the day. It was better at night, but still not the cool breezes and strong winds we wanted.
Chakothi: The Journey
Chakothi (Image Courtesy: @Imrankhanmughal)
It is about a two hour drive from PC Muzaffarabad to Chakothi, the point where Pakistan ends and India begins. It was a pretty safe, comfortable drive, albeit with curving roads. But those are a given wherever you go in that area.
The Neelum River (Image Courtesy: Saad Masood Bhatti)
On our left, the flowing river Neelum kept us company throughout and the mountains were never ending. On the way we found a pretty good-sized mart and were able to get water bottles for the trip as well as plastic drinking cups which turned out to be pretty helpful. As well as a few other things we probably didn’t really need, but who’s counting?
Another plus point that we really enjoyed was that the hotel packed us a picnic lunch to eat wherever we found a good spot. So the agenda for the day was visiting the line of control as well as to find a good picnic spot.
Chakothi: The Experience
Chakothi Market Area (Image Courtesy: @Imrankhanmughal)
Chakothi isn’t all that grand an area, but it was the meaning behind it that we really enjoyed. There was an army guard who greeted us and gave us binoculars to study the area. What was really interesting was that we were able to look right across at India while standing firmly in Pakistan. The main feature of the place however, was a bridge that connected the two countries. A couple of guards escorted us to the bridge in front of which we then took pictures. And no, we did not get shot by Indian sharpshooters while on our way. There was a closed gate so we couldn’t go further than that (and neither could the bloodthirsty Indian troops come any further) but it was still pretty exciting. We quite enjoyed the whole concept.
The Bridge that divide India & Pakistan (Image Courtesy: Manaal Shuja)
We had been told that there is a multitude of waterfalls in the area, and we came across one on our way back. It was very easily spotted and directly in our way. That experience was quite exciting, as we had to climb and balance on rocks to get to the site.
Patika, Muzaffarabad (Image Courtesy: @ashhadk)
Once there, we were able to find a small nook where we had our picnic. Afterwards we had to climb a little more to go closer to the waterfall. It wasn’t overly perilous or anything; quite easily manageable if you’re with a group of people who are able to help each other out. The effort was definitely worth it though. Getting up, close, and personal with the waterfall and feeling the incredible cool breeze was something I definitely wouldn’t forego. However, it wouldn’t have hurt to not have the customary bunch of young male hooligans documenting our every move with their wide open eyes.
Pir Chinnasi is the absolute top-most point of the whole area. This was another experience not to be missed. A lot of people told us the area wasn’t worth the drive but the drive itself was thrilling. It took us 2 hours to get to the top and the road was quite narrow and at times difficult to navigate, but the thrill we got when we looked to the side and saw the whole city spread out beneath us was definitely worth it. We couldn’t stop ogling the whole way up there.
Sunset at Pir Chinasi (Image Courtesy: Dream Visions by UYK)
Mostly people go up there to look at the mazaar (place of worship) built quite a long time ago. It could be said that it was the historical site to see in Muzaffarabad. The weather was quite cold up there, which we enjoyed a lot after the heat. A sweater would have come in handy if you had to stay there for longer. However, the whole site was completely trashed. You’d think the people had no concept that the trash isn’t actually supposed to go on the ground.
It was touch and go for us, since we actually wanted to picnic at a meadow we had seen on our way. Once again the hotel had packed a lunch for us. I think what we most enjoyed on this trip was the amazing weather. The clouds came right to our level and it even drizzled a bit. If there was one reason I would go there again, it would be because of the weather. If there was one reason I wouldn’t go there again, it would be because of the cows. Yes, you read right. Or maybe they were goats? Whatever they were, they seemed to have the idea that we’d brought the party right to their doorstep and were eager to join in. My dad spent half his time trying to fight them off. (Not that he was an equal match or anything.)
River Neelum (Image Courtesy: Manaal Shuja)
Definitely don’t travel to Pir Chinnasi when it gets dark. For an inexperienced driver, it could be quite dangerous. Even if you’re going during the day, make sure to have the more skilled driver at the wheel. Maneuvering can get tricky, especially when there’s a car coming from the other side. If you have an expert at the wheel, you can just sit back and relax. Or in my case, stick your head out the window.
Believe it or not, Muzaffarabad has a couple of jewels if you want to get in a bit of shopping for trinkets and traditional stuff. Bad news for someone like me who balks at the word “shopping” like it’s a form of medieval torture. You win some, you lose some.
There is one handicraft shop on the road to PC hotel (it’s a pretty straightforward route so you can’t miss it), and another that’s around ten to fifteen minutes away from it, in the market area. There were two major differences:
- The price: the one nearer to the hotel was much more expensive. For example, at the other one we got seven items for 7000 rupees ($66.78) whereas this one was selling just one item for that price.
- The quality: the more expensive one had much higher quality items. The cloth was finer and the work excellent. Not that I would know, since I didn’t step foot in it. But my mother is a great source.
City View (Image Courtesy: Manaal Shuja)
A Few Tips & Tricks
- Visit Neelum View Hotel. It had a riverside restaurant and even looked as if it might be a great place to stay overnight. But probably not if you’re a clean freak. PC is the best choice in that case.
- Have tea at a dhaba (a small roadside shop). We stopped at one on the way to Pir Chinnasi, and it was the best tea we’ve ever had. I think it’s even better if you have it in a glass instead of in a cup.
- Don’t miss out on corn on the cob (called chhalli in the native language). They make it slightly burnt and very tasty.
- The people of Kashmir are very sweet. They’re eager to help and easy to talk to. Don’t hesitate to stop and ask for directions.
View from PC Muzaffarabad lawn (Image Courtesy: Maleeha Omair)
Since we stayed at PC which is an expensive five-star hotel for all three nights, our room rent was a bit much. However, the comfort level that the PC hotels provide can’t usually be matched by another. It was boring yes, but after all we didn’t go just so we could hang out in bed all day (even though it was a fine, fine bed indeed and I might’ve missed breakfast once in lieu of staying in it). All in all, I had a lot of fun and even laughed a lot, which I’m told is quite a feat. However, given the opportunity, I probably wouldn’t want to stay for another couple of nights. Short and sweet, in my opinion, is best. Quit while you’re ahead and all that.