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.
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.
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. 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.
To the south of the cities lies the Potohar Plateau, an undulating tableland which fills the space between Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa and the Jhelum River.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. 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.
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, 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.