Valley of dreams in Pakistan's Kalam

Valley of dreams in Pakistan's Kalam

This Eid, I had the pleasure of visiting one of Swat's most scenic towns: Kalam. A true gem of nature, words seem inadequate to describe the breathtaking beauty of this area, its gushing streams and splendid mountains. With the Taleban now long gone, Kalam is now re-emerging from the shadows as another one of Pakistan's tourist spots.

In terms of altitude Kalam, at 2,000 metres, is close to Murree, but seems far higher than the popular hill station because it is surrounded by tall peaks as far as the eye can see. The most prominent of these is Falak Sar (5,918m), capped by pristine white snow at the top. The valley is flooded with lush greenery, so lush that all most visitors want to do is lie down in the grass and drink in the beauty.

One distinct feature of Kalam is the abundance of streams and waterfalls. We stayed at the Walnut Heights a chalet-style resort perched on a hill beyond the main bazaar, right next to a stream that flows down into the lower part of the town.

Every night, I lay quietly with my eyes closed, just giving in to the sense of tranquillity from the sound of water gushing down the hill.

But of course, it would be a waste to make a 13-hour drive from Islamabad only to stay indoors. The air is so clean, it would be criminal not to step out and breathe in that crispness. And so, in the company of a hotel staff member called Waris Khan, we spent half a day hiking up the hill and taking in the colourful flowers as well as the valley spread out below.

The highlight, though, was our visit to Lake Mahodand, some 40 kilometres from Kalam in Swat's Ushu District. Travelling in an open-air jeep arranged by the hotel, the bumpy journey was often uncomfortable but the lack of windows and a roof meant we could see all the glaciers and waterfalls. Falak Sar was also nearby, humbling us with its brilliance.

Mahodand itself is a real treat. Blue waters, graceful mountains and gorgeous meadows give it the allure of a place one discovers by accident though the presence of other tourists made it clear it is not so secret. Most stood around and enjoyed the sights though the more adventurous could be seen riding horses or taking a boat out onto the water.

While I personally would have preferred to enjoy Mahodand in perfect solitude, I was also pleased to see other tourists, which indicated that Swat was back to its former glory as a tourist destination following the disastrous Taleban period.

The army's operation in Swat, Operation Rah-e-Rast, ended successfully six years ago. Army check-posts can be found frequently throughout the Swat Valley, and soldiers go about doing their rounds in jeeps every so often. The region is now safe and stable, though the effects of the Taleban era are still felt by its people.

Talking to a 10th-grader from Mingora named Manzoor, I developed a better understanding of the terrorist organisation's rule, and the horror and hopelessness it had brought for the people of Swat.

Life was at a standstill. People were forbidden from venturing too far from their homes.

Violating any of the draconian laws in place led to public beatings. Girls were not allowed to go to school. And violence was the norm. My heart sank when Manzoor told me that he saw bombs go off on a regular basis, a sight that to this day traumatises him.

The scars of yesterday must not be forgotten. That said, memories of a bygone era also take away from the pleasure Kalam brings.

Back in Karachi and the banality of a regular schedule, I cling to my fond memories of the serene Swat valley. The heart keeps asking the mind, will we go back soon?

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