The Friday Times | Nov 10, 2006
Imaduddin Ahmed finds a good holiday in off-season Swat
As a resident of Turkey, where they have faith in the science of astrology, Bade was able to pinpoint that the Eid holidays would come at the end of October. Perfect timing for an off-season break to northern Pakistan. We’d avoid the summer rush of tourists escaping the heat and we’d avoid the winter rush of ski tourists. We’d also avoid their litter and noxious car fumes.
A five day trip, our travel agent – Himalayan Holidays – recommended, would be adequate for a relaxing holiday in the scenic princely state of Swat.
The trip to Swat’s capital from Lahore by land is inexpensive – Rs 700 by the Daewoo bus, the civilised way to travel. It almost makes travel to the greener pastures every weekend a temptation, but for the 10 hour duration of the journey. Saidu Sharif, the capital, also has an airport. Daewoo had decided to take an Eid holiday on the day of our return to Lahore, so we travelled back by the Swat bus company for half the price – a bargain on the face of it, but I wouldn’t recommend it. Our seats didn’t recline properly and the men were given to ogling at the only female specimen on the bus.
Neighbouring Gilgit has recently suffered sectarian violence, so I was a little apprehensive about our security. It’s a good idea to be guided by a local who knows the people, and for that reason I would advocate the use of a travel agent if you don’t have your own contacts in the area – the travel agent will get you in touch with a person he trusts and works with.
Attaullah, our guide around Saidu Sharif, was resentful of the negative media portrayal the area has been receiving and the negative impact it’s had on the number of visitors coming to Swat. “American groups are surprised when they come here because they haven’t seen such beautiful places or beautiful people before,” he said. “They’ve promised to come back again and again.” Rehmat Gul, our quadro-lingual guide in Kalam, shared Attaullah’s resentment at the media’s portrayals, citing, in particular, a sensationalist Jang ‘report’ that Osama Bin Laden was in Swat. That said, he estimated that 50 out of 30,000 people in tehsil Kalam fought as Mujahadin in Kashmir against Indian forces. Having a local guide was a good safety precaution for foreigners, therefore, since they would know everyone in the area and would guard against mischief. Rehmat Gul found police escorts, however, unnecessary. Far East Asians, Europeans, Canadians and Indians, including Hindus, were welcome in tehsil Kalam. Russians, Americans and Afghans were not.
Apart from giving the tourist security, a local guide knows his way around Swat. A fellow holidaymaker, who had hired his car and driver from Peshawar, found that his driver hardly knew his way about in Swat. We paid Rs 2,000 per day for a 4×4, fuel and our guide-cum-drivers who took us to Malam Jabba, Kalam, Mahodand lake, White Palace and several sites of the Gandhara civilisation.
Your travel agent should also arrange good discounts for you at the hotels you intend to stay at. In Saidu Sharif, we stayed at Serena Hotel for a little over half the price quoted on their board above the check-out counter and on the internet. Going off-season means that you have more leverage for bargaining with the managers and owners of hotels in any case and if you move on to a hotel that your travel agent didn’t book you at, you should bargain for a discounted price. The price we were quoted at Sangam Hotel, about the only private hotel open at this time of the year, was the same cost as an undesirable guesthouse in Lahore. The hotel strength was the extremely warm and considerate hospitality of its management. On our return from Kalam, we stayed at the Rockcity Resort for little more than what we paid at our hotel in Kalam. It matches Serena Hotel for elegance and luxury but trumps it for location – the hotel is 4 km outside of the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif, overlooking the Swat River and free from the noise of passing rickshaws.
A hike to the peak of a hill in Malam Jabba where an inactive skilift takes its passengers is more charming than it sounds. Here you stand 3,000 metres above the sea. The hill has been cleared of trees, which means that you can see the surrounding panoramic view. The peak has a steep drop on the other side which allows winds to carry fresh air quickly to the spot. When devoid of skiing tourists, the peak makes for an excellent spot to practice yoga, dance or meditate.
If you haven’t come for skiing, you find piles of 5th century rubble disappointing and etchings in stone of the Buddha anticlimatic, houses in Lahore’s GOR are more impressive to you than the Nawab of Swat’s White ‘Palace’ and you haven’t come to visit the Swat museum, I’d recommend you move up valley for some truly beautiful scenery.
Visiting Mahodand lake was the highlight of our trip, although it was more of a river with swollen meanders than a lake when we went. The road from Kalam is awful, so if you’re thinking of driving, a 4×4 is a must. The 40 km journey takes two hours on the ‘road’ that bad. That said, the awful drive is well worth it.
Images of the plain that we arrived at are what I hope will reappear in my dreams. Our driver gone off several kilometres down the road to a designated meeting place where we would fish for trout, Bade and I were left alone as the only human beings in the vast space of the high valley to wander together through the yellow earth, waddle through the streamlets that came our way and sit and meditate on the river’s bank. Establishing a strong connection to the elements here was easy – we had earth, water and the mountain air surrounding us.