Murree, Pakistan – April 11, 2015
Leslie and I had a blast today. Our persistence trying to go on a Community Liaison Officer (CLO) trip paid off with our selection to participate in the journey to Murree, Pakistan.
Murree began as a British cantonment in the middle of the 19th century. At some point during its time under British rule, a brewery began operating in Murree under the name Murree Brewery. Today, that brewing operation is now located in Rawalpindi, a large suburb of Islamabad. Since this is the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, there are no liquor stores. One can only obtain Murree beer from one of the five-star hotels in Islamabad. Not long after our trip, I did get some of the beer. I thought it tasted a little too hoppy and bitter. However, that is a story for another time.
We arrived at the Embassy in time to have some breakfast in the American Club. In addition to breakfast, we also ordered lunch to go, since the flyer for the trip noted a picnic lunch.With our lunches in hand, we walked outside the Club to the waiting vehicles. We picked a car at random, hopped inside, and soon departed.
Ultimately, the road reduced to just two lanes and began to gain altitude. A river flowed rapidly alongside the way. Unfortunately, I have not been able to track down the name of the river. Regardless, it was a beautiful valley. It reminded me of portions of the Colorado River west of Vail, Colorado.
Frequently we saw long, narrow, stone buildings. Some were one-story buildings, while others were two-story. The CLO Assistant happened to be riding in our vehicle. He informed us those were chicken farms. Unlike chicken farms in the United States, I did not detect any foul (pun intended) odors as we passed.
We continued to gain altitude into a heavily forested area. At times, the forest was broken on either side of the road by a small village, with shops and homes built very close to the road edge. As we passed through their lives, the villagers stared at us, no doubt trying to figure out just who was traveling through their town.
Periodically we encountered switchback turns. Many were very tight turns. I do not recall seeing any as sharp in the mountains of Colorado. In some instances, the corners had a divider to keep traffic traveling in the opposite direction from leaving their lane.
The mountainsides became increasingly steep. Looking across the valley, one could see that much of the mountainsides are stepped, no doubt to help control erosion. The CLO assistant shared that those opposite mountainsides were fully forested when he was a child. Now they stand barren, victims of commercial logging.
A little more than an hour outside of Islamabad, we reached our destination, Pindi Point. The attraction to the area is the Pindi Point chairlift. A roundtrip ticket on the chairlift cost 350 Rupees, about $3.50. At that time of day, the only other people present consisted of a handful of chairlift workers.
At the bottom of the chairlift was a sign comparing the Pindi Point chairlift with two others in Pakistan. Some of the points trumpeted facts such as no breakdown or accidents in 24 years; it can operate in winds of up to 120 km per hour (not with me on it); and its gearbox is at least twice as big as the others.
I watched as two people from our group got onto the chair in front of Leslie and me. I decided that if we were there in the winter and if we had had skies, getting on would have been easy. When the chair came around the wheel, we both plopped down. The chair dipped a little, making it hard for Leslie to pick up her legs. One of her legs caught slightly under the chair. Luckily, she was not injured, but it did cause her some pain.
The Pindi Point chairlift is only intended for sightseeing. There is not an associated ski area there.
The ride up the side of the mountain was beautiful but steep. At about the midway point, a worker was standing at a platform. It did not seem to be a chance encounter, but rather, the man’s job seemed to be to stand there. I do not know why he was there. However, he was courteous, smiling, and waving as we greeted him in Urdu.
Near the top, we saw two young men lounging on a blanket under the chairlift. They both enthusiastically waved and shouted as we traveled overhead.
At the top, just like chairlifts in the United States, we had to get off on the run. One of the workers there helped Leslie. She just barely kept from falling. That, on top of the beginning leg drama, had her shaken. That is when we noticed we had several dozen stairs to climb to reach the road at the top. It took a little time, but we finally made it to the way. I openly mused as to why the builders of this beautiful chairlift had stopped a couple of hundred feet below the road.
The top of the stairs emptied into an arcade type area. There were people selling food and water, while others operated booths with games. Another group held onto several white horses. The area bustled with tourists.
Some of the housing we encountered appeared abandoned, but in fact, people did live in them. There was a real feeling of expeditionary living in many places.
The elevation was about 7,500 feet. That made for some very nice, comfortable weather. The road circles the top of the mountain, dropping slightly into the town of Murree. At one point, there was an overlook. Murree is only about 30 miles from the Pakistan/India border. From the overlook, we could see India and snow-capped mountains.
Mickey Mouse characters were abundant. One, in particular, pointed the way to the Regency Hotel to passers-by looking for a place to stay.
At the lowest point of the road, we were in a small commercial area. The CLO asked if anyone wanted to do some shopping. Of course, everyone jumped at the chance. Leslie and several others stopped in a little trinket store.
Just across from the store were five or six white horses. I imagine they were there for rent; however, we did not partake. Regardless, I am not sure I could have gotten on the horse anyway. Even if I had gotten on, based on the size of the saddle, some 80 percent of my caboose would have been without support. While I stood and watched, one of the wranglers went to work on the shoe of one of the horses, filing some problems away.
Departing the commercial area, we began the gradual climb along the road back to the chairlift stairs. We walked by a street cafe. I do not know what they were cooking, but it sure smelled good. For fear of stomach issues, I kept my course true and did not stop.
A little further along the way, we encountered another group of horses. They seemed to be everywhere. After that, we saw a man that was roasting what looked like nuts and beans. He also had some popcorn for sale. It was an interesting photo opportunity, but again, we dared not partake. We did not want to take a chance of occupying the bathroom for the next two straight days.
Just around the corner from the cooking vendor, I spotted another rugged-looking home. A cute little girl about five or six years old stepped out of the house to try to determine just what was passing by her home.
Nearing the stairs, I saw a man selling baskets. They were all handmade from local bark and twigs. I bought one that is a good size for bread or fruit. It cost a whopping $2. In the same area, some of the people stopped to partake in the various games of chance. They reminded me of games at local fairs in the United States. They seem so simple, yet one very rarely wins any of the tantalizing prizes on display.
We encountered another likeness of Mickey Mouse. This time he was on the door of a brightly decorated truck, near the Pakistan flag. The Urdu phrase near his head translated to “Heart Heart Pakistan.”
When we made it back to the top of the stairs, Leslie told the tour organizer of the troubles she encountered with the chairlift on the way up. She asked if the chairlift could slow down when we got on and off the chair. Climbing down the stairs, we saw a sign that had an awful lot of Urdu and then one word in English, “Rescue.” That made me a little nervous, but such is the life of someone illiterate in the local dialect.
Much to our surprise, when we arrived at the chairlift, it stood still. Thankfully, the operators granted Leslie’s request. We got on and waited for the trip down to begin. It was just as beautiful as the trip up, but this time, we understood just how steep it was. After clearing the platform, we saw the two young men on the blanket again. They seemed just as excited to see us this time as the last. Another 100 meters or so down from them, we saw three children under the lift.
They asked us for candy or money. If my hands had been free, I probably would have tossed them some money, but, between my camera, backpack, and newly acquired basket, I could not manage anything else.
At the base, the chairlift stopped again so we could get off. Once everyone was down, we walked to a small home about 100 meters from the chairlift. We sat with the others in the dining room and ate the lunch we purchased earlier.
Our next stop was Kashmir Point. Our stop there called for a train ride. The engine of the “train” is a tractor made to look like a train engine.
When we arrived, the small square was bustling with people. A young boy with a hawk on a stick immediately caught our eye. It is the type of bird we see soaring in the Islamabad area daily. I am sure one could have taken a photo with him and the hawk for a fee. I might have done so if our group had not been moving so quickly to the waiting train.
The train, pulling two coaches, stopped. Our group boarded the second coach. Shortly after that, the train departed. Sitting directly in front of us, at the rear of the first coach, was the cutest little girl. She kept looking back to try to figure out just who we were.
The train traveled along a road that circled the top of the mountain. The area, known as Kashmir Point, gets its name based on the fact one can see the Kashmir area from there. The total trip only took about 15 minutes.
On our descent from Kashmir Point, we saw hundreds of Kashmir shawls and blankets displayed along the roadside, usually at turns in the road. They were beautiful, but we did not stop.
Soon, though we were still in the mountains, we transitioned to a four-lane divided highway toward Islamabad. We arrived there when the local schools were letting out. It was easy to see that the children all had to wear uniforms.
Along the highway, I found the roadside signs interesting. They provide the same information as warning signs in the United States, but with a flair for English. I saw signs such as “dead slow” warning of a sharp curve; “speed hump”; “speed camera ahead” warning of radar; and a “falling rock” sign. The falling rock sign seemed necessary as we did see a large rock-slide in the opposite lane.
We also passed a Rescue station. I could only wonder if it was the same station referred to by the sign at the top of the chairlift. Lastly, we saw a sign that we thought depicted Smokey, the Bear. It was a similar message with a different character, Murree the Bear.
We ended up at home in the mid-afternoon. All of the roses in the median of 7th Avenue brightened the end of the trip. We truly valued the experience because the security situation here does not allow for much sightseeing.