TRAVEL: CICADAS, CLOUDS AND CAMPSITES

The connifers of Thandiani | Photos by Mohammad Faraz

Tourism in northern Pakistan has seen an exponential increase in the past few years, which is due to a combination of better road access to the northern areas as well as greater awareness of the natural beauty on offer.

Spearheaded by an increasing number of intrepid trekkers and motorbikers, the news (and photos) on road conditions, hotels, campsites, flora and fauna, are all quickly spread via social media. You can now make informed decisions on travel destinations from the comfort of your home. As local guesthouses and ride hailing services proliferate, tour operators and travel agency offices are soon going to be a rare sight. Traveller information groups abound, some boasting upwards of 200,000 members. It’s one very small global village!

Our country has no shortage of tourist areas, and while most people opt for the more well-known destinations, many smaller and more accessible spots just hide in plain sight.

One such hidden gem is the hilltop point of Thandiani, just 25 kilometres from Abbotabad. One of the many similar spots discovered by the British in the 1850s, this forested place was once a popular summer retreat for the expat community of Peshawar and Rawalpindi. As at other summer retreats, the British sought to recreate a mini England, complete with church or chapel, wood and stone bungalows (the word itself an adaptation of the Urdu ‘bangla’), library, club and post office.

A few kilometres from Abbottabad, Thandiani is a nature-lover and photographer’s delight

Recently, along with fellow members of the Volkswagen Club, I attempted the drive from Islamabad to Thandiani.

A riot of tall pink foxgloves growing naturally
A riot of tall pink foxgloves growing naturally

I should add that my ‘Go To’ book for all matters related to travel and tourism is Isobel Shaw’s Pakistan Handbook. Now long out of print, last refreshed in the early 1990s, it has yet to be improved for insights into places of interest, travel advice, and intricate cultural and bureaucratic challenges, both for the local as well as (now very infrequent!) tourists from abroad.

Thandiani, on a dead end road, offers very little accommodation for the overnight visitor, and seeing a gap, the Tourism Corporation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP) has set up around a dozen two- and four-bed camping pods on their land. We began by checking out details on their website, and then made a phone booking. Cash was transferred online to their bank account. A handwritten receipt was then sent on WhatsApp to us.

Part of Islamabad’s Volkswagen Club made the trip up to Thandiani
Part of Islamabad’s Volkswagen Club made the trip up to Thandiani

Our little group comprised a car and a van from the Club, and one (scandalous!) imported Japanese hybrid vehicle. Creating a WhatsApp group made it easy to coordinate and delegate duties amongst the travellers.

We set off via the M2 Motorway, in direction of Peshawar. A few kilometres up the road, an exit directed us on to the newly inaugurated section of the Hazara Motorway. Our vintage machines bowled along at an indicated steady 60 miles per hour; and 40 minutes later, exited near the town of Havelian, where we re-joined the N-35 — commonly known as the Karakorum Highway — a lifeline linking this area all the way to the Chinese border. Traffic is heavy, and we battled slow and frequently stalled trucks and diesel-smoke-spewing buses and other vehicles every inch of the way.

The well-maintained church built in 1850
The well-maintained church built in 1850

Twenty minutes to travel two kilometres, but we are on our way, with the main road leading to Thandiani, Nathia Gali and the other ‘Galis’ on our right. Another turn, left this time, and we are now on a narrow hilly road heading up, at times quite steep inclines, in first gear. The local transport of choice is the ubiquitous Suzuki Bolan, perhaps in thousands, but they all fall behind as we rapidly make our way up the slopes. Village houses cling to the surrounding hills like swallows’ nests; the road surface is passable for a saloon car, but watch out for those sudden sections where rain and loose earth has eaten away half the track. Proceed with caution as there are no guard rails or cement/stonewalls along the edge.

Pine trees of various types dot the landscape, their trunks and heights increasing as we approach the top. Finally, at the last hairpin bend, the small faded sign directs us towards a rough track leading to the campsite. The track rapidly degenerates into a rough bumpy boulder-strewn and cratered section. Our VWs tackle it with ease, but the hybrid import is floored; the passengers dismount, and the driver gingerly inches down the incline. Opt for a small four-wheel drive, or failing that, park outside the local cafes, and walk the last few hundred metres.

Two-person pod with solar panel at the campsite
Two-person pod with solar panel at the campsite

As you switch the engine off, you can hear the hum of what sounds like a thousand cicadas. It’s a wall of noise, and a reminder of how seldom, if at all, we hear them in our urban cityscapes. Over that come the croaks of the mountain raven, a larger jet black version of the common crow. Extremely intelligent, and occasionally kept as pets, they observe us with unusually shiny and alert eyes. The site manager, checks our papers, and we are shown our lodgings. The small pods remind us of the horse drawn caravans used by gypsies in the West.

Inside, the two narrow beds and curved roof provide for a cosy feel. Everything is clean and spotless, with white sheets and clean blankets. The exterior sports a cheerful blue and white striped pattern, the interior in pinewood-coloured faux wood panelling. The outdoor bathroom — a squat bulkier version of a telephone booth of yore — contains a WC, small sink, and shower. Water, scarce in the area, is not on tap, but in buckets. We weren’t troubled by the lack of piped water, and the bucket was refilled whenever we asked for it. Lighting is via LED strip lights and bulbs, all powered by rooftop solar panels.

The campsite itself is just big enough to provide each pod with sufficient private space, though the one central bonfire spot is shared. Daytime temperatures were in the mid-20s, the mercury dropping to 14oC at night.

Thandiani is a nature-lover and photographers’ delight, with miles of coniferous forests, large tall, old trees, multitudes of alpine flowers of every shape and hue, and walking tracks aplenty.

As mentioned earlier, the place has a few uninhabited buildings dating back to the 1850s, including the remarkably well-built and well-preserved church, where freshly painted red roofing and some new window glass point to recent repair. The church, built in 1850, is maintained and run by the Diocese of Peshawar. When was Sunday service last held here, and by whom? Thandiani still has its little secrets. Sadly, I didn’t spend enough time rooting for information among its old structures — one a residence for the priest perhaps; another a (pre-penicillin) sanatorium?

The days and nights here are cool and still, with the army of trees motionless and blue-green in the sunlight. It is idyllic to lay on a rug, read a few pages of a book, snooze awhile, and then resume.

Here at 8,832 feet, lying on the grass, surrounded by flowers, butterflies and clouds so low you think you can almost reach out and touch them, time stands still, and one lives in the moment. Our campfire provides us a constant source of hot water for tea and coffee. The next meal never too far away, it’s hardly surprising we didn’t walk as much as we should have. A few intrepid amongst the group awoke at 4am to watch the sunrise and view from the nearby hilltop. Again, I fall back on Isobel Shaw’s narrative: “It is a tiny, unspoiled hill station perched at 8,832 feet, on the flat top of a conical hill, with views in all directions. … You feel on top of the world.”

By the way, do carry away all the trash you create. Take nothing but photos, leave nothing but footprints. Leave the place as you would like to find it.

Thandiani! I’ll be back. With a pair of binoculars and more time to hear your secrets!

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Categories: PAKISTAN

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