Widely known as ‘Heaven on Earth’, Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJK) needs to be on the bucket list of anyone interested in travelling within Pakistan. Situated in the northern region of the country, AJK has unparalleled scenic views to offer, with mountains, valleys, waterfalls, and lakes that are beyond picturesque. If you’re planning to tour the region anytime soon, here is our tourist’s guide to Kashmir, which covers not just how to reach Kashmir but also what to see and some recommended activities.
GEOGRAPHICAL LOCATION OF AZAD JAMMU AND KASHMIR
AJK has three main divisions and lies to the north of Punjab and the east of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. The divisions are Muzaffarabad, Mirpur, and Rawalakot. Muzaffarabad Division is made up of three districts, namely Muzaffarabad, Neelum, and Hattian Bala, with these being further divided into a total of seven sub-districts. Mirpur Division, on the other hand, contains the districts of Mirpur, Bhimber, and Kotli, with these having 10 sub-divisions. Rawalakot, the last division, comprises Poonch, Bagh, Sudhnoti, and Haveli, with 15 sub-districts.
HOW TO REACH AZAD KASHMIR AS A TRAVELLER
We haven’t included how to reach Kashmir directly by air in our tourist’s guide to Kashmir since there are no direct flights to the region. The closest airport for you to land on if you are flying from within or outside Pakistan is Islamabad International Airport. After this, your journey will have to continue by road.
However, while it may take longer, the road trip itself is an attraction with scenic views of the hills and rivers in the area. The journey by road takes around four to five hours from the capital and takes you to Muzaffarabad, which is also the capital of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. You will cross through Murree Hills on the way. You can choose to drive yourself or catch a bus from Islamabad as buses depart for different areas of Kashmir every 20 minutes.
WEATHER IN AJK
While the southern part of the region is hot in the summers and moderately cold in the winters, the northern areas remain warm in the summers but can get very cold in the winters as snowfall is common here in December and January. The area also sees heavy rainfall every year in the monsoon season.
PLACES TO VISIT IN AZAD KASHMIR
There is a lot to see and do in AJK, but in our tourist’s guide to Kashmir, we’ll try to cover all the important regions that you must visit and all the things to do in Kashmir. Let’s get started:
A forested valley in Azad Jammu and Kashmir, Neelum Valley is named after the Neelum River. It is also one of the top tourist spots in AJK and is also one of the best weekend getaways from Islamabad. No trip to the region is complete without taking in the scenic beauty that this place has to offer. Along with natural beauty, the valley is home to several small towns and offers plenty of hiking, trekking, and mountain climbing opportunities. Places to visit here include the villages of Kel and Taobat as well as the tourist spots of Arang Kel, Kutton and Keran.
Acting as the base camp for several different excursions that take place within Neelum Valley, Kel is a tourist town that also leads further on to Arang Kel via a 3-hour treacherous trek. Arang Kel provides a scenic view of the Nanga Parbat nestled amid snow-covered mountains. Several other glacial lakes in the region can also be reached from the village of Kel.
Reached from Kel in Neelum Valley, Shounter Lake should be your destination if you are fond of camping. Surrounded by snow-topped mountains, the lake is a beautiful sight to behold, but it is only accessible via a jeep ride.
CHITTA KATHA LAKE
Another lake to visit in Kashmir is the Chitta Katha Lake in Neelum Valley. Sights of goat herders and snowy mountains await you here as well as plenty of camping opportunities. You can reach the lake either by hiking or via a jeep ride from Kel.
RATTI GALI LAKE
Neelum Valley is home to several glacial lakes. Among these is Ratti Gali Lake, which can be reached via a tiring but rewarding trek up the mountains. At an altitude of nearly 12,000 feet, the lake literally takes your breath away, but it’s a majestic sight to behold!
As headquarters of the Rawalakot District, the town is one of the closest from Islamabad. However, only summer trips are recommended as winter weather can be quite extreme here. Spring to summer is also when the area looks the most beautiful. Located within the Pir Panjal Range, the region of Rawalakot is also known as ‘Pearl Valley’ since the abundance of almond blossoms in the summer give it the appearance of pearls scattered on the ground when viewed from above. Some famous tourist destinations here are Banjosa Lake, Toli Pir, Tatta Pani, and Sudhan Gali.
Banjosa Lake is an artificially built waterbody in the middle of dense pine forests. The area gets a lot of snow in the winter, but summers bring out its true beauty when the fields around the lake are green, and the water is perfect for boating.
At around 8,800 feet above sea level, Toli Pir is a hilltop location ideal for a climb in the summers. The view from the top is fantastic and is not to be missed during your trip to Azad Jammu and Kashmir.
Another major tourist destination in Kashmir is Jhelum Valley, which hosts a large number of foreign and national tourists every year. Rice fields, cherry trees, and walnut plantations are spread across the valley in the summer, enhancing its natural beauty. Leepa Valley is the most popular tourist spot here.
High mountains and pine trees greet you in Leepa Valley, and the area is mostly home to farmers that have fields atop the mountains. The placement of the fields makes it appear like a stairway built into the mountains, reaching for the skies. People here are quite friendly and the local villages must be visited for a dose of Kashmiri culture.
MANGLA DAM LAKE
Mangla Dam is the second largest dam in Pakistan. The dam is built over the Jhelum River and is the 16th largest dam in the world. It results in the creation of Mangla Lake where boating activities can be enjoyed by tourists and locals alike. There is also a park nearby for family picnics.
Want to view Muzaffarabad from the top? The hill station of Pir Chinasi is at the height of 9,500 feet above sea level and offers breath-taking views of the city below and its green surroundings. Pine and oak forests surround the area and many people camp here overnight to enjoy the beauty that this place holds.
THINGS TO DO IN AJK
Azad Kashmir’s varying topography makes it suitable for a variety of adventure sports such as trekking, climbing, hiking, camping, paragliding and more. White water sports that can be enjoyed here are kayaking, canoeing, and rafting, while other water sports include boating, windsurfing and more. There is also a lot of wildlife in the region, and if you are an avid photographer, you can find plenty of opportunities to capture some wonderful images.
TIPS FOR TRAVELLING TO AZAD KASHMIR
Our tourist’s guide to Kashmir would be incomplete without a checklist of the dos and don’ts during your trip to Azad Jammu and Kashmir:
- Remember to carry identification with you at all times. (NIC for Pakistanis, Passport for foreigners)
- Pack warm clothes for the trip even during the summer months.
- Sturdy boots and gloves can help you in your adventures.
- If you suffer from motion sickness, keep your medication handy.
- The northern parts of Pakistan are some of the safest in the country. Do not let people’s fears ruin your plans to visit AJK.
- Take light snacks and a water bottle along with you during your hikes and treks.
- Cell reception is relatively poor in some parts of Azad Kashmir, so you might not be in contact with your loved ones for a few days. Come prepared for it.
- Bring a high-tech camera and take pictures that will stay with you forever.
This concludes our tourist’s guide to Kashmir, but if you are eager to head up north and AJK doesn’t hold your interest, you can consider a trip to Gilgit-Baltistan, which is among the best tourist destinations in Pakistan.