By Salman Rashid
If the Soon Valley of Punjab had been in, say, India or Nepal, it would have been overrun by tourists. But in Pakistan, it is like that beautiful but poor woman and the full moon of a winter’s night that Manto said no one appreciates. The valley goes unsung. It remains Punjab’s best kept secret.
When I first ventured into this beautiful, picture perfect place, there were only a couple of roads through the valley. The one leading in from Kallar Kahar split to go either through Sodhi Jaiwali or by way of Jaba; both being incredibly picturesque. The former meandered through a largely uninhabited and forested valley with trees shading the road. The latter from Jaba passed by the lovely sheet of Khabeki Lake.
Naushehra was the main town in the valley and continues to hold the honour. A quarter century ago, it was just one street bordered by lovely old houses and a sprinkling of buildings spreading out from it. The town now has a by-pass so most travellers are likely to miss the heart of the town.
Once past Naushehra, the road headed for the peak of Sakesar. This road and the one from Sodhi were a delight: thickly shaded by shisham, acacia and sometimes fruit trees, they were straight out of a fantasy and I donâ€™t know why my dear friends Mian Ejaz ul Hassan and Mussarat Apa never went there to work magic in water colours. Sadly, the main road was widened some years ago. The trees were all cut down and as is the wont of all tree-cutters in Pakistan, no new ones were planted. The widening took away much from the beauty of this landscape.
Just off the road, there were Persian wheels worked by camels or bulls to water little plots of vegetables mostly huge cauliflower â€“ and wheat. To the right, one could see the placid stretch of Uchhali Lake. The dreamscape was completed by Chitta village on a knoll on the far shore. But now the Persian wheels are replaced by turbines. The road up to Sakesar was blocked off by the air force because they had commandeered this 1522 metre-high summer resort for a radar. In days of the Raj, deputy commissioners from three districts, Shahpur (near Khushab), Mianwali and Campbellpur (now Attock) would come up to its cool tree-shaded height with all their official paraphernalia and wives and followers to escape the heat of the Punjab and hold office here.
After the mid-1980s, Soon Valley became criss-crossed by a number of other roads. When I returned to Soon only ten days ago, I had time to travel some of these unfrequented byways. And what a delight it was! No horns, no diesel fumes, no clatter-bang of those accursed Qingqi rickshaws. The only sound was the soughing of the wind, the call of the cuckoo heard everywhere in Soon and the honeyed whistle of the golden oriole. It was already May. The days were warm (28Â° Celsius); the nights were chilly (about 12Â°) and since there was only four hours of electric power, the absence of the fan did not bother me at all.
The valley was like a vast stretch of gold interspersed with the vibrant green of sanatha (Dodonea viscosa) bushes and phulai (Acacia modesta) dwarfed by the rolling hills. The gold was ripe wheat fields and this was just the time to be in Soon. The sky was mostly mottled by clouds. And when it was not, it was shade of blue that defied imagination. At night, the stars were so close; I could have caught a few to bring home to the murky skies of Lahore. As my friends drove me around the valleyâ€™s byways, I thought repeatedly of my friend Kaiser Tufail. He goes cycling up in the great North in summers. So here is a place where he should be cycling in the winter. He will never regret this advice.
Naushehra even has a hotel called Mehria. Since it is now about a dozen years old, I did not dare to check out the rooms where I suspected unwashed, smelly bed linen. That notwithstanding and since my good friend Gulbaz Afaqi has a place for me to stay, I am returning to Soon when the month of Bhadon brings those towering storm clouds to this lovely valley.