The remote Kaghan Valley, in northern Pakistan, is one of the country’s, if not the world’s, most beautiful valleys. The lush vegetation of the terraced lower slopes is superseded by great forests of pine and fir which, in turn, give way to magnificent mountain peaks.
A morning’s steady driving from Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad, brings the traveller to the small village of Balakot. From here, the Kaghan Valley stretches ahead for 160 kilometres. It was along this route the Moghul emperors travelled to their summer residence in Kashmir. In 1898 the road became the main route to Gilgit, via Chilas on the far side of the Babusar Pass, 4146 metres above sea level.
The Pathans marched through here to their jihad (Holy War) in an attempt to save Kashmir from Indian rule in 1947. The construction of the mighty Karakoram Highway led to the Kaghan route falling into disuse – one reason for its continuing isolation.
Our journey took us along a narrow, twisting road with steep cliffs on one side, a hair-raising drop on the other. Far below, the Kunhar River – sometimes a brown, foaming torrent, sometimes a startling green, thunders along its rocky bed.
In the 1920s, the British, who never allowed postings to far flung corners of the Empire to interrupt their sporting pursuits, stocked three of the Kaghan Valley’s lakes – Dudupatsar, Lulusar and Saif-ul-Muluk – with eggs from Scotland’s best brown trout.
I had come to the valley with a friend from dry, dusty Karachi who had never ventured to this part of his country before. Drinking in the glorious views, he declared: “This can’t be Pakistan, I must be in Switzerland.”
There was a distinctly alpine feel about it. Surrounded by mountains, the high plateau’s meadows were strewn with wild flowers. No yodellers to be sure, but, on the still, clear air the distant tinkling of bells could be heard from goats, grazing on the rich pasture.
At the northern end of the valley, at an elevation of 3,224 m (10,578 feet) above sea level is the glorious, enchanted, magical Lake Saif-ul-Muluk.
We hired a jeep as far as the glacier, which we crossed on foot (disappointingly dirty) rather than putting our trust in the rather thin, hungry looking horses for hire. On the far side, drivers wait to transport passengers up the final rough stretch – a bone shaking, spine jarring experience which made walking seem a delightful idea.
Saif-ul-Muluk was spectacularly beautiful. At over 5000 metres, Malika Parbat – the Queen of Mountains – stood proudly above the circle of white peaks, their mirror image reflected in the brilliant blue waters.
There was an ethereal quality to such startling beauty, conjuring up images of magical fairy tales. Indeed, there is a legend that Prince Saif-ul-Muluk fell in love with a fairy bathing in the lake. To tease her, he stole her clothes and she, to preserve her modesty, agreed to marry the handsome prince. The fairy’s demon lover, enraged at seeing his beloved happily wed a mortal, wreaked revenge by flooding the valley. The fairies still visit at night, when the moon is full, dancing on the flower spangled meadow and bathing in the lake.
When I was putting this blog post together I Googled Lake Saif-ul-Muluk and found many entries on TripAdvisor, which hadn’t been invented when I visited the Kaghan Valley. It sounds as though my beautiful, magical place has become commercialised with eating places, (though no toilets), touts offering horse rides and boat trips, and polluted by the crowds who leave their rubbish behind. At least I have happy memories of my visit. And, given the chance, I would go again.