Friday, 3 November 2017

THE FOREST REST HOUSES OF KOTLI SATTIAN AND MURREE HILLS

Besides building magnificent official and residential mansions in Rawalpindi, Lahore or Karachi, the British left their footprint in almost every town they went to — like Murree, Nathiagali, Multan, Sahiwal etc. They ensured their officials ‘Sahibs’ were properly cared for while on inspection visits touring the country. Hence, they started constructing ‘Dak’ bungalows for postal department, canal rest houses for Irrigation department especially in colony districts, and forest rest houses all over the places but especially in Northern Punjab and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.

Over time all of these rest houses would be known as ‘Dak bungalows’ as postal service was considered by the British as the most vital service to be maintained at all times. Depending upon the requirements of various departments, these Dak bungalows would be at fixed distances from each other, normally around eighteen miles, a distance coverable during a day’s pony ride.

These rest houses had various categories and were equipped with basic boarding and lodging facilities for the ‘Sahibs’, camp followers and their beasts of burden.

I was lucky to visit a number of these colonial forest rest houses set in dense pine forests deep in the hills. Most of these forest rest houses have a century-old visitors’ book available with the caretaker, which is usually a treat to read.

Interestingly, besides officers of Imperial Forest Service and Indian Civil Service, I found General Muhammad Ayub Khan, C-in-C and President of Pakistan, a frequent visitor to these forest rest houses in the 1950s. Later in the 1990s, both Sharifs and Imran Khan would occasionally turn up in one of these rest houses for a short visit.

There are some serene pieces of history which you should explore on your day trips out of Islamabad. Begin on the road to Lehtrar from Chak Shahzad. As you cross Nilore on your right, the road forks into two at Charah chowk. The left road goes to Patriata bypassing Simli Dam; take the right one to Lehtrar. As you cross river Soan, the road becomes hilly and after crossing a few villages on the way, you reach Lehtrar. Ask anyone and they shall guide you to the Lehtrar Forest Rest House just off the main road.






The rest house comprises two small bedrooms, constructed in late nineteenth century with picturesque valley views. With expanding villages all around, the views have been compromised but still worth a peaceful evening picnic. If you carry on the main Lehtrar road towards Kotli Sattian, another twenty minutes from Lehtrar, take a u-turn to your right on the road to Danoi village. You should reach the Danoi Forest Rest House in about ten minutes.
Over time all of these rest houses would be known as ‘Dak bungalows’ as postal service was considered by the British as the most vital service to be maintained at all times.


Danoi Forest Rest House

Constructed on a levelled piece of clear land surrounded by tall pine trees, the 1928 Danoi rest house is situated in a picture postcard setting. It is also the staging post to four hours trek to ‘Punj Peer’ shrine up in the mountains. There is also a 1908 Narar Forest Rest House near the shrine; however, that is currently occupied by security forces and not accessible being close to Kahuta. Danoi is not only connected to Narar rest house through a proper trek but also to Lehtrar rest house down the hills.These treks or bridal paths in forest lingo were used in the days long gone by Sahibs and their entourages while doing forest inspections and the practice continues by local foresters to this day. The name ‘bridal path’ apparently comes from brides being carried in palkis, similar to Gora sahibs.

From Lehtrar, come back to Nilore and turn right at Charah chowk towards Simli Dam and Patriata. In about thirty minutes, you would bypass Simli Dam and see the spill way to your left. Drive another thirty minutes in the mountains and you shall reach Karor.




Ask anyone about the Chawan Forest Rest House and they shall guide you to a nice 1888 two bedroom rest house on a small hill with clear valley views. The visitors’ book kept at the rest house is a treat to read with one Sultan Mohammad Khan complaining perennially about malfunctioning chimneys while the chowkidar complaining about ‘police methods and harassment’ by an unauthorised police officer who barged in with his camel men and other followers. Similarly, the chowkidar is being warned for allowing a naib tehsildar to stay and all this bickering is going on the page which also mentions ‘we were very well looked after’ by General Ayub Khan who was there from Dec 18-19, 1950.

Besides Ayub Khan, the rest house hosted Roedad Khan, General K.M Arif, General Rafaqat and a number of Imperial Forest Service and Indian Civil Service officers. Mrs Tahira Izhar in 1984 mentions listening to ‘ Ghungroo’ (ankle dancing bells) and firing sounds which made her fearful; however Tehmina Khan from Government College Sialkot takes the prize by giving vivid details in 1985 of deadly howling dogs throughout the night who were trying to enter the rest house.

You can always come back from Karor and after crossing the Simli Dam spill way, take a turn towards right to Simli Dam and lake. But to enjoy a cup of tea at the picturesque Simli rest house, you need prior permission from Capital Development Authority.


Since we are following forest rest houses, so don’t turn back from Karor and carry on to Patriata. In about another thirty minutes from Karor, you should reach the small town of Ban. Now Ban does mean jungle in Urdu and I have no idea if this is just a coincidence. Again, like almost all other forest rest houses, you shall find yourself driving to the top of a hill from the main road. Ban Forest Rest House was constructed at a cost of Rs 1875/ in 1905 and has around four decent bedrooms with limited supply of water.

And yes I was able to lay my hands on the visitors’ book starting in 1923 with one Mr Muhammad Khan who stayed here for a week in June 1923 along with his children. My eyes stopped at Mr and Mrs D.N. Wadia from Geological Survey of India, Calcutta who stayed at the rest house in 1924. A bit of google search revealed him to be one of the most eminent geologists of his time who later also became Advisor to Nehru in 1947.



The search of colonial forest rest houses in the hills of Punjab continues


                                                             Patriata Rest House
     


Our final stop last week was a small town called Ban, about 30 minutes from Karor, from where another 30-minute drive will take you to the vicinity of Patriata.

After some 15 minutes of the winding road and amazing views, you will reach the Patriata top, the other end of the famed cable car. Patriata top has a small bazaar, which operates as long as the cable car operates. Once the cable car closes around 8pm, it becomes a ghost town as all the shopkeepers either go down to Patriata town or to their homes in nearby villages. There is an exclusive fairytale Dak bungalow at the top of the hill. The whole hill is fenced and belongs to the Forest Department.

Patriata forest rest house was constructed in 1913 at the cost of Rs3,600. It was renovated a few years back and now has four bedrooms. This rest house is one of the most decent and well-maintained places to spend a night, where once the cable car stops, the only sounds you hear are from the winds hissing through the deodar forest and wolves howling in far off valleys. Mind you, it’s not a very pleasant experience in the dark of the night, especially if you are with children.

The rest house is known to have hosted the Sharifs a few times. The caretaker will show you a particular spot where Nawaz Sharif sat alone to enjoy the views.Our next stop is Charehan forest rest house near Gulehra gali. So drive down the winding road through the Patriata town to the Murree Expressway. In about 10 minutes, you will reach Jhika gali, where to your right is a hill covered with blue pines of the Charehan forest. Just before the hill, a trek leads to an ancient water point, traditionally known as baoli, from where another 30-minute trek will take you to the Charehan rest house. You will need a guide for this trek.


Alternatively, take a u-turn towards Islamabad and continue for about a couple of kilometres till the Charehan hill on your left starts receding. Just where the hill recedes to give way to the valley views, there is a jeep trek going up to the rest house. I have not driven on this trek but my guess is that it would take some 15 minutes to get to the rest house on foot from the Expressway.

The book confirmed the rather juicy story of Imran Khan staying at the rest house between July 8 and 12, 1992, after the 1992 cricket world cup with his foreign friends. “No water arrangement, no electricity, poor arrangement,” he commented in the book. He paid Rs320 and signed the book.
The Charehan forest rest house was built in 1913 at a cost of Rs3,190. It has three to four bedrooms, along with a sunroom and a dining area. The rest house crumbled during the 2005 earthquake. More than a decade later, the building still awaits reconstruction.

Another 10-minute trek will lead you to one of the last surviving colonial forest towers. This is a huge early 20th century steel structure on top of a hill meant to keep an eye on forest fires as well as any illegal tree-felling activities. Few people dare to go to the top of this tower — I was not one of those.



Chahrehan Rest House

But back at the Charehan forest office, I had the opportunity to lay my hands on the visitor’s book. The book confirmed the rather juicy story of Imran Khan staying at the rest house between July 8 and 12, 1992, after the 1992 cricket world cup with his foreign friends. “No water arrangement, no electricity, poor arrangement,” he commented in the book. He paid Rs320 and signed the book.

Perhaps, this was the time when Imran decided to fix the system by joining politics.

“Visitors are requested to see before they go that their servants leave crockery, house and surroundings clean,” wrote another visitor. Pratap Singh of Imperial Forest Service and Mr and Mrs K C Robinson were apparently frequent visitors. A very interesting entry is by Lord Emsworth from Blanding Castle, England, who stayed for almost a month in summer of 1928. The only mystery is that Lord Emsworth is a character in fiction by P G Wodehouse. Whoever was Lord Emsworth at Charehan in 1928, he wrote, “Some of the pleasure of staying at this beautiful lodge is mitigated by absence of necessities like water, bedding, etc”.

General Tasawar Hussain of the celebrated Guides Cavalry was the last visitor to the rest house in summer of 2005. But the most recent entry is by Naseerul Haq of the Forest Department, who inspected the rest house on October 9, 2005 – a day after the disastrous earthquake.

                                                              Ghora Gali Rest House


There is also a scenic Bhurban forest rest house at Aliot on the Jhika gali-Bhurban road. The beautiful rest house with a huge lush green lawn has since been designated as the Governor House, and out of bounds for all and sundry like yours truly.

Another forest rest house is on the Jhika gali road towards Lawrence College. Again set in dense pines, the rest house is reasonably well maintained and worth spending a night or two in.

On the way back to Islamabad, on the old Murree road through Jhika gali, Kuldana, Sunny Bank and Ghora gali, you will see a sign on your left indicating the Ghora gali forest rest house up on the hill. The rest house was constructed in 1890 for Rs1,875, and has four to five bedrooms with exquisite wooden work, bay windows and a wide terrace. There is a dwindling water spring close to the rest house, a well-kept nursery and the good old caretaker who takes care of the property like it’s his own, again a fast vanishing breed.The visitor’s book shows that General Ayub Khan, then Commander in Chief, visited the rest house on May 20, 1951, along with Brigadier Burki and party. Razia Ahmed and Rahima Ahmed had their first pony rides at this place while Governor Punjab and his family took up an entire page of the visitor’s book on June 1, 1958.

You can continue on the same road in dense pine jungle to reach the elegant and historic 1881 Punjab forest school with its academic and residential blocks. The same road further down will take you to the Murree Islamabad road on your way to Islamabad.

My friend and forester Rizwan Mehboob has advised me to cover Surba, Rajgarh, Ghoon and Panjar forest rest houses to complete the Kahuta circuit. These unexplored forest rest houses will remain a reason for me to go back to Murree-Kahuta forest division sometime soon.

These colonial rest houses all over Pakistan are the government’s assets, meant to promote tourism. While these rest houses are reasonably maintained, there is room for tremendous improvement in terms of furniture, fixtures and services. The government must consider outsourcing them to hoteliers or organisations that will promote sustainable ecotourism.



 Explored by : Omar Mukhtar Khan                 Click here for more details

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