Islamabad and Northern Punjab
Northern Punjab is a hilly area, with a population more sparsely distributed than in the central and southern regions. Islamabad and Rawalpindi form an anchor to this region, and make a good base from which to begin a tour. To the south of the cities lies the Potohar Plateau, an undulating tableland which fills the space between Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa and the Jhelum River. It is known for the huge Rohtas Fort, the serene Katas Raj Temples and the Salt Range.
As the Potohar mountains approach the border of Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa, the countryside becomes more barren and the society more cosmopolitan, yet more conservative. You’ll see a couple of burka-clad women among the scores of turbaned men outside the Panja Sahib Sikh Gurdwara at Hasan Abdal, and at Taxila lies an ancient Buddhist civilisation. In the hills north of Islamabad, the terrain becomes increasingly rugged and densely forested forming the tranquil foothills of the Himalaya and Karakoram Ranges.
Islamabad and Rawalpindi
If you are arriving directly into Islamabad International Airport, you will have a choice of bedding down in either the capital or Rawalpindi, the large military city just 15 kms to the south. The cities are two sides of the one Pakistani coin; Rawalpindi was a garrison city, with chaotic, dusty bazaars filling in the spaces between famous academies and institutes. Islamabad on the other hand is the bureaucratic heart of the nation, imposed by lush hills, bountiful nature reserves, upscale commercial districts and the opulent Shah Faisal Mosque. All of the above considered, Islamabad and Rawalpindi offer a microcosm Pakistan in a neat package.
North of Islamabad: Murree and Nathia Gali
The town of Murree, in the hills above Islamabad, was developed as a ‘hill station’ for the British colonisers to escape the baking heat of the Punjabi summer. The gentry would roam the forested mountainsides and wait for the first signs of winter before retreating back to the lowlands. Nathia Gali and its surrounding townships were originally built for the colonial elite. Nowadays, Pakistanis flock to the region for the climate, which in summer is still quite hot, but in winter can be snowed in. Come in summer and expect big crowds; come in winter and you’ll be well-advised to invest in one of the warm woollen shawls that locals drape themselves in.
While Murree is in Punjab, Nathia Gali, Abbottabad and Thandiani are in Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa (KPK). All speak Hindko, a variation on Punjabi which is closely related to Potohari (the native tongue of Rawalpindi).
Leaving Islamabad, the road climbs steadily, winding its way up into the hills. Signs inform travellers of their altitude, but you’ll only need to look out the window on one of the bends to appreciate the rapid ascent. The increasingly twisting road climbs 33kms beyond Murree, heading over the border into KPK and through the galis. After reaching its highest point near Nathia Gali, it begins a gradual descent over 32 kms towards the garrison city of Abbottabad. From here, the Karakoram Highway heads north through some semi-lawless regions towards Gilgit, or southwards back to Islamabad. Just outside of Abbottabad, a smaller road climbs the hill towards Thandiani
The hardy inhabitants of this mountainous area speak Potohari (pronounced ‘pot-war’), a dialect of Punjabi related to Hindko Punjabi, which is spoken north of Islamabad. Once upon a time the Pakistan military was dominated by men from this region as they were considered a ‘martial race’; that is, more suited to do battle – a racial legacy left behind by the British. The region still churns out a disproportionate number of army generals and military types, however nowadays this has more to do with family and social tradition than with racial profiling. There are some places in this area which are really worth visiting – Rohtas Fort and The Katas Raj Temples are prime examples of just how much Pakistan’s tourism industry has to offer if it were given the opportunity to flourish.
Before travelling to Pakistan, it is essential that you make yourself aware of current events, preferably from as many sources as possible. For safety advice, it is recommended that you read the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller Travel Advisory for Pakistan, the British Foreign Office’s Pakistan Travel Advice, or your government’s relevant department.