Situated on the border of Punjab and Azad Kashmir, there was a time when Murree was the most romantic getaway for Pakistani couples. Even though tourism has taken a big surge in recent times, credit to social media, and it shares popularity with other Northern spots, its attractiveness somehow has remained undimmed. There are two major routes to get to the hill station from Islamabad; the express highway routes connecting the capital city will take around one to two hours. This is one of the reasons why Murree is the first choice for many to spend their holidays at. Surprisingly, the nearest rail link to Islamabad is Rawalpindi which is more or less 30 minutes away. A little trivia that I learnt during my first ever train ride is that the city was made a permanent cantonment two years after it was occupied by the British in 1849. The majestic, and astonishingly well kept, colonial building of this station was built in 1881, making Rawalpindi the largest cantonment in South Asia. Recalling a bit of what I saw, the capital city is as fancy as it gets; from the kind of cars you would see budging on to the roads and bridges, everything is class A when it comes to quality. The city has its own pace, as it shuts down major parts of the market and calls it a night around 10pm. The cleanliness and quiet in the air gives one much to remember.
The other two less well-travelled paths from Islamabad to Murree, which also take longer and are risky for the quality of roads, though visually more beautiful, connect you to the Lower Topa and Old Murree Road, respectively, the latter route starting from Monal that is known for the breathtaking views it offers. Admittedly, any road you take is risky because the roads are narrow, giving space to only one car-at-a-time to pass freely, as well as inclined, with Murree being inhabited around a hill. Hiding under a blanket of snow in January, the hill stations welcomed me with visuals to kill for. With many couples and families in sight having a ball in the coldest month of the year, Murree lives up to its reputation, despite being densely populated, highly commercialised and often overcrowded. Reminiscents of colonial architecture can still be witnessed in the form of cottages and a few other buildings, including the Holy Trinity Church. Many locals believe that Mother Mary is buried in Murree and that the town is named after her (formerly Mari). Her supposed tomb sits on a hill underneath a television tower where you may need a special permit to visit. Holding an impressive number of high standard educational institutes is another fact that the spot takes pride in. Mall Road, however, is possibly the biggest attraction the tourist spot has to offer. The General Post Office (GPO) building, my personal favourite to look at, standing tall at the GPO Chowk does a brilliant job of stealing looks from the passersby with its bright red caps and a palace-like structure.
The rush of visitors has forced many locals to act as agents on commission now to attract potential customers for hotels and restaurants. The first night there led me to devouring finger-licking chapli kabab, a local delicacy. It being the size of the serving plate helped for, as my travel coordinator would have it, I were to check-in at an uphill hotel, which is a struggle on its own regardless of whether you are layered up to double of your body weight. Come night, come day, old men with trolleys hoard the lane to find weaklings such as myself to charge for pushing them and their luggage to and fro in their carts. The never-ending strips of shops, including coffee and soup stalls on either side of the Mall Road never lets one feel bored or cold. One comes across many traditional crafts just waiting to be taken back home; the shopkeepers have an eye for identifying easy targets and will try to quote the highest possible price, but the trick is to accompany someone who is good at bargaining and blend in as much as possible – in my case, that meant not conversing in English. Murree doesn’t promise extraordinary souvenirs and buys that are unavailable elsewhere in the country, nevertheless, its shawls, dry fruits and customised key chains are what you should stock on, if feeling generous.
The morning after our arrival at the hill station, I set out to experience an aerial view of the place, riding on a chairlift. Driving to Patriata, also known as New Murree, at a mere 15km distance, I could see a colourful display of shawls along the road by vendors, the shades complimenting the kaleidoscopic sky during the day. Patriata is the highest point in Murree Tehsil, a subdivision of Rawalpindi District, with the hills standing at 9,000 feet above sea level. To my disappointment, the chairlifts had been under repair since a month or two, so I remained unable to enjoy my first cable car ride that transports its passengers to the highest point from where the heavily forested area and its eccentric fauna inhabitants are vividly visible. Apart from Patriata, famous spots that connect with Murree are Pindi Point, Nathiagali, Ayubia and Thandiani hill station. Many of these places can be trekked, as well.
Activities in Murree may seem limited, but with added attractions like Cineplex and golf course, it is a local tourist attraction like none other. The two-day trip dawn this realisation upon me and reminded me of an American journalist Camile, who wrote once, "Everything and anything can happen in Murree. Romance is in the atmosphere; intrigue is in the air. The roads to this happy holiday's resort embrace both, the heaven and earth. In Murree, it is easy to fall in love". •