Almost everybody takes Murree Expressway to reach Murree. There is another route that not many are aware of…
As we witness the horrifying images of the tourism tragedy over the weekend, we cannot help but hope that we never have to face such a catastrophe again. Murree is located virtually a stone’s throw from Islamabad. The popular hill station sees a heavy influx of tourists every year and almost everybody takes the Murree Expressway to reach there. There is an route not many are aware of, i.e. Lehtrar Road from Khanna Pull on Islamabad Expressway. This route is feasible for people who live around Islamabad Expressway and visitors who come in via GT Road.
At the Chirah Chowk, Lehtar Road merges into Kotli Sattian Road. Many tourists prefer going to Kotli Sattian due for being a picturesque hill station. Hotels and restaurants there are also way better than in Murree. After spending some time in Kotli Sattian, they leave for either Murree or Bagh in Azad Jammu and Kashmir. Despite the poor quality of the road leading to Bagh, it remains one of the best hill stations in Kashmir. The road from Kotli Sattian to Murree is carpeted and has a number of stops at high points for tourists to pull over. Unlike Murree, no one harasses tourists into paying exorbitant amounts of money just for appreciating Nature there.
However, it is a detour and not advisable if you plan to return to Islamabad within the day. For a day trip, one should take the Chirah Road from Chirah Chowk on Lehtrar Road instead of driving to Kotli Sattian. This road merges into Kotli Sattian-Murree Road at Bun, which is attached to Murree and the starting point of commercialisation and unwelcoming attitude that Murree is identified with.
Chirah Road is single, windy but narrow at some points. Good driving skills and strong vehicles are recommended on this road. Dualisation of the road has been approved but has not begun yet. This is the Zone V of Islamabad. Even though the Capital Development Authority (CDA) has not planned any big housing schemes here, it has also not made any tangible efforts to protect this area from the construction mafia – which has started mega housing projects to cash in on the peace and tranquillity of this region.
Scenic valleys and the view of farms along the road cannot even be imagined on the Murree Expressway. Small markets close to the facility offer tea for Rs 50 per cup. Unlike Murree Expressway where tourists constantly report overpricing in addition to intimidation, food prices are reasonable.
In an overdrive to tap tourism potential, the government has promoted the hotel industry on hill stations. Locals say that the area has witnessed an unprecedented number of hotels coming up in the last three years.
What takes the cake is the Simli Dam Lake, where one can easily pull over, rest for a bit and take in the mesmerising views of blue waters against hills covered with lush green trees. During rain and snowfall, the view is magical. However, smelly poultry farms and too many roadside signs just stick out like an ugly feature. As you cross the Chirah bazaar, you’re welcomed by tall pine trees on stony hills. In an overdrive to tap tourism potential, the government has promoted the hotel industry on hill stations at a shocking pace. Locals say that the area has witnessed an unprecedented number of hotels coming up in the last three years.
There was a time when people could listen to the silence of Nature in the area. Now a hotel with a PTI signboard, named Jungle Hotel, has been erected there. ‘Hotel’ is a misused term here as most of these facilities are motels or restaurants.
From this point tourists can head back to Islamabad. If they plan to go further, Bhambrot Sayedan should be their next destination. With neat and clean guest houses overlooking Murree hills, it is a perfect stop. Many business families from the Punjab have set up trendy houses there. From Bhambrot, you can drive to Bun, where restaurants offer food at regular prices. Waterfalls and streams in Bun are incredible though their beauty does not deter all visitors from throwing around all kinds of garbage, including plastic bags and baby pampers. The surrounding hills are great for hiking.
However, the moment you cross into Murree from Bun, you are attacked by an army of hotel agents swarming your vehicle. Rates of rooms and food are up suddenly. You cannot park your car off the road as some hotel agents will claim the place and charge you by the hour. Due to the commercialisation, most roads remain jammed most of the time. Since the Kohala Road has been repaired, tourists can take this road to go to Kashmir or Ayubia which is close to Nathia Gali and Khanaspur. From there, most people go to Nathia Gali but if you go to Khanaspur instead, you’ll get to see a number of sports grounds and open gyms, which is quite rare in hilly areas.
The writer teaches development support communication at International Islamic University Islamabad. Twitter: @HassanShehzadZ