In Pakistani Kashmir, a valley bets on tourism and prays that the peace holds

Thousands of Indian and Pakistani troops face off in the majestic Neelum across the Line of Control that zigzags through the 200-kilometer valley. The two nuclear-armed countries are no closer to resolving the Kashmir dispute. But residents are making their own future in a blossoming tourism sector.

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  1. The Line of Control is basically the Neelum river in this section of the valley at Keran. Everything on the left side of the river is Indian-controlled. Everything on the right side is Pakistan-controlled. Tourists now sit on the riverbanks – something impossible at the height of the conflict in the 1990s. New guest houses have sprouted on the Pakistan-controlled side to meet the growing demand of Pakistani tourists from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
    The Line of Control is basically the Neelum river in this section of the valley at Keran. Everything on the left side of the river is Indian-controlled. Everything on the right side is Pakistan-controlled. Tourists now sit on the riverbanks – something impossible at the height of the conflict in the 1990s. New guest houses have sprouted on the Pakistan-controlled side to meet the growing demand of Pakistani tourists from Karachi, Lahore and Islamabad.
  2. It is no wonder Pakistani newspapers and tour operators have called Neelum Valley the “Switzerland of the East”: there are snow-capped mountains, steep hills lined with pine and fir and fast-moving rivers packed with trout. But up until two years ago, the valley saw little tourism.

     

    Pakistan is in the grips of insurgency and terrorism across the country. In Pakistan-administered Kashmir, it is a different story. Growing faith in a 2003 ceasefire between Pakistan and India along the 720-kilometer Line of Control has meant droves of Pakistani visitors arriving in the valley in buses, jeeps and cars. Valley residents have been busy building guest houses to meet the demand.

     

    But the valley remains a heavily militarized zone – with thousands of Indian and Pakistan soldiers eyeing each across the Line of Control, sometimes on opposites sides of the valley and sometimes on the same mountain as Pakistanis control the lower portion and Indians control the heights. 


    Indian and Pakistani soldiers are occasionally killed in firing across the de facto border.

  3. “This was originally going to be our house. But we converted it in to a guest house once the tourism trend started,” said Rehmat Khan, resident of Upper Neelum village, a 10-minute drive up a steep road from Keran. The tourism “wave”, as he calls it, also swept up his neighbours, who sold land and animals to build four guest houses in the village. Mr. Khan charges up to 1,800 rupees ($18) for a room.
    “This was originally going to be our house. But we converted it in to a guest house once the tourism trend started,” said Rehmat Khan, resident of Upper Neelum village, a 10-minute drive up a steep road from Keran. The tourism “wave”, as he calls it, also swept up his neighbours, who sold land and animals to build four guest houses in the village. Mr. Khan charges up to 1,800 rupees ($18) for a room.
  4. Pakistan and India have fought two wars over Kashmir in the last 66 years – in 1947-1948 and 1965. A third of the disputed territory is administered by Pakistan while the rest is administered by India.

     

    Beginning in 1989, an insurgency and separatist movement flared up inside Indian-controlled Kashmir. Meanwhile, along the Line of Control, militants trained in camps in Pakistan-controlled Kashmir crossed to join the fight. Indian forces retaliated against the incursions – aiming to strike militants, their camps and Pakistani military posts.

     

    Neelum Valley witnessed some of the heaviest artillery exchanges between and Indian and Pakistani troops in the 1990s – and residents still recall a valley of fear and death that was virtually shut off from the world. Residents on the Pakistan-administered side of Neelum Valley say Indian shelling hit their homes, schools and hospitals leading to deaths and injuries.

     

    The region remains volatile. With no sign of an imminent solution to the Kashmir dispute, the artillery guns could boom again.

  5. “We had 14 very tough years,” recalled Neelum guest house owner Rehmat Khan. With the roads too dangerous to drive or walk, Mr. Khan said he would trek through the forests and mountains to a nearby town to bring back flour and vegetables for his family – a trip lasting three days. The entrepreneur is aware of the risk even today. “I’m spending hundreds of thousands of rupees and taking a big risk. It’s like sitting on a powder keg. One day if the firing starts up again, the business will be finished.”
    “We had 14 very tough years,” recalled Neelum guest house owner Rehmat Khan. With the roads too dangerous to drive or walk, Mr. Khan said he would trek through the forests and mountains to a nearby town to bring back flour and vegetables for his family – a trip lasting three days. The entrepreneur is aware of the risk even today. “I’m spending hundreds of thousands of rupees and taking a big risk. It’s like sitting on a powder keg. One day if the firing starts up again, the business will be finished.”
  6. Sajjad Akhtar manages a guest house in Neelum Valley. Here he tells the story of the footbridge over the Neelum river - visible in the photo - that connects the Indian and Pakistani sides. Twice a month, villagers on both sides of the river – often family relations – meet in the middle of the bridge to exchange news and gifts. As we spoke, we could see uniformed children heading home after school on the Indian-controlled side and soldiers walking the grounds of their compound, the Indian flag hoisted above.
    Sajjad Akhtar manages a guest house in Neelum Valley. Here he tells the story of the footbridge over the Neelum river - visible in the photo - that connects the Indian and Pakistani sides. Twice a month, villagers on both sides of the river – often family relations – meet in the middle of the bridge to exchange news and gifts. As we spoke, we could see uniformed children heading home after school on the Indian-controlled side and soldiers walking the grounds of their compound, the Indian flag hoisted above.
  7. “You couldn’t do this before 2003,” said Neelum Valley resident and photographer Amiruddin Mughal standing on the riverbank. The 2003 ceasefire has transformed life in the valley. Farming, construction and tourism have all picked up. It was a different story before."[Shells] used to fall in our fields and we would go and stay in the forests,” he said, adding that the stays could last up to five months.
    “You couldn’t do this before 2003,” said Neelum Valley resident and photographer Amiruddin Mughal standing on the riverbank. The 2003 ceasefire has transformed life in the valley. Farming, construction and tourism have all picked up. It was a different story before."[Shells] used to fall in our fields and we would go and stay in the forests,” he said, adding that the stays could last up to five months.
  8. Understanding how the Line of Control zigzags through the Neelum Valley takes some work. There are sections where the distance between Indian side and the Pakistan side is the width of the river - hardly 100 meters. We stopped at one point in the road to look at the Indian side on the opposite side of the river only to discover that an Indian soldier had raised his arms and was watching us through his binoculars.
    Understanding how the Line of Control zigzags through the Neelum Valley takes some work. There are sections where the distance between Indian side and the Pakistan side is the width of the river - hardly 100 meters. We stopped at one point in the road to look at the Indian side on the opposite side of the river only to discover that an Indian soldier had raised his arms and was watching us through his binoculars.
  9. According to Shehla Waqar, Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s secretary of tourism, 2011 saw 250,000 visitors to the valley; in 2012, there were 600,000 tourists. “For the last two years our tourism is really booming and flourishing. In Neelum Valley we didn’t even have one private guest house till last year. But this season…we have now 115 private guest houses over there in the span of a year,” she said. The target market is domestic tourists because of restrictions on foreigners.
    According to Shehla Waqar, Azad Jammu and Kashmir’s secretary of tourism, 2011 saw 250,000 visitors to the valley; in 2012, there were 600,000 tourists. “For the last two years our tourism is really booming and flourishing. In Neelum Valley we didn’t even have one private guest house till last year. But this season…we have now 115 private guest houses over there in the span of a year,” she said. The target market is domestic tourists because of restrictions on foreigners.
  10. Crossing the Kohala bridge over the Jhelum river, with Pakistan on the left and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) – the name given to Pakistan-administered Kashmir – on the right. It takes just over two hours to reach this point from the capital Islamabad. Many Kashmiris want to redefine the relationship between Pakistan and AJK so that Kashmiris have a greater say over taxation, spending, economic development, electricity and hydroelectric projects – just to name a few areas.
    Crossing the Kohala bridge over the Jhelum river, with Pakistan on the left and Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) – the name given to Pakistan-administered Kashmir – on the right. It takes just over two hours to reach this point from the capital Islamabad. Many Kashmiris want to redefine the relationship between Pakistan and AJK so that Kashmiris have a greater say over taxation, spending, economic development, electricity and hydroelectric projects – just to name a few areas.
  11. Foreigners are required to have a “no objection certificate” from the Pakistani government before entering Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This road continues for another hour before reaching Muzaffarabad, the administrative capital. Beyond, that it is another three hours to Neelum Valley along a road built by a Chinese company. Travel in the Neelum valley is forbidden to foreigners because it is within the 16-kilometer security zone from the Line of Control.
    Foreigners are required to have a “no objection certificate” from the Pakistani government before entering Pakistan-administered Kashmir. This road continues for another hour before reaching Muzaffarabad, the administrative capital. Beyond, that it is another three hours to Neelum Valley along a road built by a Chinese company. Travel in the Neelum valley is forbidden to foreigners because it is within the 16-kilometer security zone from the Line of Control.
  12. Heavy machinery is used on the road to Muzaffarabad to clear the roads, break up large boulders and build concrete walls to hold back rock and landslides. Muzaffarabad was devastated by the 2005 earthquake that killed more than 75,000 people in the region and destroyed over half a million homes, schools and hospitals.
    Heavy machinery is used on the road to Muzaffarabad to clear the roads, break up large boulders and build concrete walls to hold back rock and landslides. Muzaffarabad was devastated by the 2005 earthquake that killed more than 75,000 people in the region and destroyed over half a million homes, schools and hospitals.
  13. Muzzafarabad, administrative and political capital Pakistan Kashmir. It is late afternoon and about 90 minutes from breaking fast in Ramadan. At the mosque near where I am staying, the congregation had just finished their prayers.
  14. Offering paragliding, white water rafting and mountain treks are just some of the adventure activities tour operators are hoping to provide Pakistani visitors. But there is another category: religious tourism. This is the shrine of the 19th century Sufi saint Hazrat Sain Sakhi Saheli Sarkar in Muzaffarabad. The are dozens of similar shrines across Pakistan Kashmir. The government tourism web site invites tourists to visit the shrines.
    Offering paragliding, white water rafting and mountain treks are just some of the adventure activities tour operators are hoping to provide Pakistani visitors. But there is another category: religious tourism. This is the shrine of the 19th century Sufi saint Hazrat Sain Sakhi Saheli Sarkar in Muzaffarabad. The are dozens of similar shrines across Pakistan Kashmir. The government tourism web site invites tourists to visit the shrines.
  15. A shawl shop in Muzaffarabad’s teeming Madina market. Kashmiri shawls are a big draw for locals and visitors – as are rugs made from wool. But craft shops are non-existent further away in the Neelum Valley. Tourism experts say the success of Neelum Valley will rest not only in building guest houses and restaurants – but also in reviving the local craft industry in areas like woodcarving.
    A shawl shop in Muzaffarabad’s teeming Madina market. Kashmiri shawls are a big draw for locals and visitors – as are rugs made from wool. But craft shops are non-existent further away in the Neelum Valley. Tourism experts say the success of Neelum Valley will rest not only in building guest houses and restaurants – but also in reviving the local craft industry in areas like woodcarving.
  16. A staple vehicle on the steep, winding, dirt roads of Neelum Valley: the four-wheel drive jeep.
    A staple vehicle on the steep, winding, dirt roads of Neelum Valley: the four-wheel drive jeep.
  17. About an hour’s drive in to Neelum Valley, there is the massive Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project being built by a Chinese consortium. The project has been marred by delays and ballooning costs. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has ordered that the project be finished at least a year ahead of the 2016 scheduled completion date to help solve the country’s energy crisis.
    About an hour’s drive in to Neelum Valley, there is the massive Neelum-Jhelum hydropower project being built by a Chinese consortium. The project has been marred by delays and ballooning costs. Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif has ordered that the project be finished at least a year ahead of the 2016 scheduled completion date to help solve the country’s energy crisis.
  18. Corn field, Neelum Valley.
    Corn field, Neelum Valley.
  19. An old Bedford truck - quite possibly 50 years old or more - plying the paved road along the Neelum river. Its load: lumber. Notice how the passenger side front windshield opens.
    An old Bedford truck - quite possibly 50 years old or more - plying the paved road along the Neelum river. Its load: lumber. Notice how the passenger side front windshield opens.
  20. Mohammed Yusuf, who owns a small food stall along the main road running through Neelum Valley, says he remembers shops being destroyed by Indian shelling. A 2003 ceasefire has given residents faith that they can build up their businesses once again.
    Mohammed Yusuf, who owns a small food stall along the main road running through Neelum Valley, says he remembers shops being destroyed by Indian shelling. A 2003 ceasefire has given residents faith that they can build up their businesses once again.
  21. Late afternoon at Mohammed Yusuf's food stall in Neelum Valley. Ramadan fare: samosas, pakoras and orange jalebi sweets for when people open their fast. The surprise: in the middle you will find hardboiled eggs fried in batter. The same treats are popular with drive-by tourists.
    Late afternoon at Mohammed Yusuf's food stall in Neelum Valley. Ramadan fare: samosas, pakoras and orange jalebi sweets for when people open their fast. The surprise: in the middle you will find hardboiled eggs fried in batter. The same treats are popular with drive-by tourists.
  22. This is one of the government-owned guest houses for government employees. They pay up to 2100 rupees ($21) per night. Next door, a private hotel charges 3000 rupees. Nawaz Sharif stayed at this guest house last year. He won the national elections this May and became prime minister for a third time. The room he stayed in is at the very end of this building with a private balcony overlooking the river and Indian-occupied Kashmir.
    This is one of the government-owned guest houses for government employees. They pay up to 2100 rupees ($21) per night. Next door, a private hotel charges 3000 rupees. Nawaz Sharif stayed at this guest house last year. He won the national elections this May and became prime minister for a third time. The room he stayed in is at the very end of this building with a private balcony overlooking the river and Indian-occupied Kashmir.
  23. Three boys from the Pakistan-controlled side swimming at Keran village, the Indian-controlled side with the huts on the far side. Crossing the river would mean braving strong currents and facing arrest. Resident and photographer Amiruddin Mughal remembers a wedding engagement in 2004: “The girl was from that side, the boy from this side. People on the other side were gathered, people on this side were gathered – all happy and dancing. In the middle was the river. Each side could not cross to meet each other. But the engagement happened anyway.”
    Three boys from the Pakistan-controlled side swimming at Keran village, the Indian-controlled side with the huts on the far side. Crossing the river would mean braving strong currents and facing arrest. Resident and photographer Amiruddin Mughal remembers a wedding engagement in 2004: “The girl was from that side, the boy from this side. People on the other side were gathered, people on this side were gathered – all happy and dancing. In the middle was the river. Each side could not cross to meet each other. But the engagement happened anyway.”
  24. Athmuqam, the headquarters of the Neelum Valley. If you drive up in to the hills, there are bunkers where residents would scurry whenever the artillery exchanges between India and Pakistan got intense. The hilltop in the distance in this photo is controlled by Indian troops, say local residents.
    Athmuqam, the headquarters of the Neelum Valley. If you drive up in to the hills, there are bunkers where residents would scurry whenever the artillery exchanges between India and Pakistan got intense. The hilltop in the distance in this photo is controlled by Indian troops, say local residents.
  25. The U.S. international aid agency (USAID) has provided a $248,000 grant to help develop 70 guest houses in the valley and train 550 local residents in hotel management. While beautiful, the Neelum Valley remains vastly underdeveloped compared to other districts in Pakistan-administered Kashmir.  Locals are jittery about a return to hostilities. Last August, valley residents protested over allegations that banned militant groups were creeping back in to the valley and could end up destroying the peace.
    The U.S. international aid agency (USAID) has provided a $248,000 grant to help develop 70 guest houses in the valley and train 550 local residents in hotel management. While beautiful, the Neelum Valley remains vastly underdeveloped compared to other districts in Pakistan-administered Kashmir. Locals are jittery about a return to hostilities. Last August, valley residents protested over allegations that banned militant groups were creeping back in to the valley and could end up destroying the peace.
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