Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Those quaint rest houses

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My friend Kashif Noon called to tell me of a string of forest rest houses stretching from Kallar Sayidan southeast of Rawalpindi all the way to Murree by the road less travelled through Kahuta and Lehtrar. He had heard of them on the good authority of a certain Rizwan Mehboob.

According to Kashif, Rizwan, while serving in the Forest Department nearly twenty years ago, had become very well acquainted with the rest houses and the lore attached to them. It would be useful to travel discover these little known rest houses, some of which owing to a lack of maintenance are now ruinous and may soon be lost forever.

And so, because Kashif can never start on time in the morning, we left Rawalpindi an hour late. Turning off the Islamabad Highway for the Sihala-Kahuta highroad, we were soon at the latter place to stop at the forest Department office in order to peruse one of those old diaries written by officials of the department. Some of these, Rizwan had earlier said, went back to the early years of the 20th century.

Instead we picked up a very talkative sub-divisional forest officer whose name is withheld to protect the guilty. And guilty he was for even now being enamoured of the accursed alien eucalyptus. Now, years since the government has banned eucalyptus, it is people like him who are yet incapable of recognising the damage this imported species has done to our land. The man was in favour of planting it on good farmland as a cash crop. He did not know of the wretched experiment carried out in Mitha Tiwana near Khushab.

Funded by an international donor agency, this 1990s project had, over five years, promoted a mono-culture of eucalyptus on farmland. The pipe dream fed to local farmers was that a paper mill projected to be set up in a nearby district would lap up all these trees making the farmers millionaires. The mill owner absconded with the loan and farmers were left with the trees that they eventually got rid of for as little as a hundred rupees each.

When they went back to their usual crops, the farmers discovered that their produce had fallen to less than half of what it once was. Most of them just barely literate, they did not know that eucalyptus leaf litter had damaged their land, nor too did were they aware that this baneful pest’s root exudates destroy fertility. And here we had an ‘expert’ who would much rather remove all indigenous species to replace them with this imported blight. He was coming with us as a counter-balance to Rizwan’s good sense.

As a junior forest officer Rizwan spent four years walking every inch of the Murree-Kahuta Forest Division to prepare the last ever Working Plan. Of that later, but first a word on the division: after they started building the bomb which should have protected us from all and sundry and which we have ended up protecting with our lives, first from the Indians and now from Al Qaeda, the forest was re-designated Murree-Rawalpindi North Forest Division. Someone somewhere thought that by wiping out the name Kahuta, they would obliterate the place from human memory as well as from the satellite maps that the Jewish-Hindu lobby possessed.

As for the working plan, this was instituted back in the middle years of the 19th century when the British first established the various forest departments. Rizwan, all admiration for the systems those men had established, said they treated the forest as a living entity. They knew a healthy pine (Chir or Pinus roxburgii) lived up to a hundred years and they divided this span into four parts. The first twenty-five years, the tree was a child, the next quarter it was in its youth. From fifty to seventy-five it was a mature tree and could be felled. Thereafter it entered old age.

Those long-forgotten forest officers laid down that no tree would be felled in the first quarter of its life. In the second, only thinning was permitted to remove weak trees. In the last two quarters, the tree was used for resin extraction or could be harvested for timber. Even in the last case, cutting was meticulously planned. In an acre, says Rizwan, five or six mature and healthy trees were permitted to stand while the others were removed. These were ‘mother trees’ for regeneration of the forest.

An over-crowded forest of this species of pine will contain only mature or over-mature trees. And that was how the first British foresters found it and devised the Punjab Shelterwood System and a hundred-year cycle for the Chir pine. Because this tree sheds its needles to lay a thick mat on the floor, a crowded forest can create a carpet so dense that seeds cannot germinate. That necessitated thinning of the forest which followed a thirty-year Working Plan.

The question then is what happened when there were no foresters to intervene? Then, forest fires took control. In the dry, hot months, the carpet of parched needles would spontaneously catch fire. The nutrient rich ash and humus would then percolate into the ground to revitalise it and any new seeds hitting the forest floor thereafter would easily take root. Thus, so said Rizwan, a healthy forest was not a crowded forest of aged trees. It was the one that had trees of various ages and a floor sufficiently clear of tree detritus to permit regeneration.

The last Working Plan in the Murree-Kahuta Forest Division was prepared in the early 1990s. And it was Rizwan, then a young forester, who spent four years roaming every inch of this good land working on it. But by then ‘conservation’ had become a buzzword on the tongues of people who scarcely understood conservation and felling was banned. The Working Plan was put on hold and since then the Forest Department has worked on ad hoc day to day planning. Meanwhile, the forest will by and by turn into a living fossil with over-mature trees and little or no regeneration because of the floor being covered with a thick mat of dead needles.

Our first rest house of call was Rajgarh. From Kahuta with the eucalyptus forester with us, we had taken the highroad to Kotli in Kashmir and had to ask where to turn off the road for Rajgarh. About a kilometre off the road, we were forced to abandon Kashif’s jeep and walk the rest of the way. A man coming the other way said it would take us half an hour to reach the rest house. We took about ten minutes and Kashif said he must have taken our paunches into consideration.

Beautifully set on a flat piece of ground amid wooded hills with a stream flowing below it, this was where Rizwan stayed many nights when he was doing the Working Plan in 1991. Today it is a roofless hulk; the victim of neglect that is endemic to most government departments. Though there was no plate on the premises, I suspected this one would have been built in the first or second decade of the 20th century and just a little tender maintenance would have kept this romantic little place serviceable. But, no, we had to let it go to pot.

As we were leaving Rizwan also spoke of another rest house, a haunted one, where a young forest guard, Niaz, had been murdered. The poor man’s mother still haunts the surroundings and every night wails, ‘Vay puttar Niaz, kithay ai!’

Rizwan said he had heard her back in 1991. I said we ought to spend a night at that one and perhaps tell the woman she should be looking for her son where she herself now resides. But it turned out that the rest house in question was also now a ruin. Kashif suggested we come with our tents and camp out to update the old woman. Rizwan smiled benignly and advised us to be kind. That was what he said every time I launched on one of my many censorious orations.

When the Brits built these rest houses, they paced them at every sixteen miles, the distance a sahib on inspection could easily cover on horseback in a single day and arrive well before nightfall. But with motor transport coming into its own, these distances became redundant and many of the rest houses lost their importance. Within three quarters of an hour of leaving the ruined hulk of Rajgarh we had fetched up at Panjar.

A right lovely little building it was and shaded by, among others, spreading mango trees. At 840 metres above the sea we found them somewhat peculiar. Rizwan said these were not unusual and that he had seen mango and jamun trees in this forest at several places. Time was when people planted these trees because they knew better. Now idiots rule the roost not only on private properties, but also from the Parks and Horticulture to the Forest Department and we have either eucalyptus or all sorts of imported species of trees.

Today nobody, not even these so-called experts heading the various departments, understand that native species should take precedence over all others. Today, having failed to transform this good land into Australia with an over-abundance of eucalyptus, we suffer from the sickness of turning it into everything save what it really is. We are now going overboard with all sorts of exotic species at preposterous prices. If we had any sense at all, we would be planting this land with what has always grown here and what comes free.

As we sat in the mellow afternoon sun, the keeper of the rest house came around to chat. He was surprised that Rizwan knew so much about forestry and asked why and how. Rizwan said he had once worked for the department before moving on in life. The man next wanted to know what Rizwan did now. This dervish among us lesser men hedged shy of telling the chowkidar who he really was. I could not keep myself and blurted out that our friend was the DCO Chakwal currently on leave.

Built in 1902, Panjar rest house was in perfect condition – just the getaway for a few days. The only drawback was the red and white telephone tower right besides it. But thankfully it made no noise; it simply stood their looking as ugly as death. But now word is that someone in one of these tourism development corporations has come up with the bright idea of taking over these largely disused buildings to turn them into resorts. This will be the most foolish thing to ever be permitted. And as certainly as night follows day, it will happen in this blighted land.

We have seen what TDCP did to pristine Kallar Kahar in the Salt Range. The lake shore is infested with rides of all kinds and there are boats let loose in the lake. The migratory ducks that paused there twice every year no longer visit it. In their mindless bid to encourage tourism, the corporation has killed one little piece of ecology.

We can be assured that once they get their hands on these rest houses of this less travelled road, the surrounding trees will be chopped down to make way for the rides. The mango trees that have overseen so many changes to their world will be lost, and so too the pines. In this verdant place the rest house will stand out like a lonely waif in the midst of an ugliness of shuttering and cables.

Will it be asking for too much to encourage not the ride-seeking kind of madness, but eco-tourism? That is, people visit these places to enjoy the bird song and the solitude. And to look up into a velveteen sky studded with stars like they have never seen before. We have examples from neighbouring India where such facilities have been opened up for the public with plenty of good sense. Why cannot we follow suit? If the Forest Department relents and permits whichever tourism development corporation wishes to ruin these lovely retreats, it will be guilty of a great crime against the environment. But I fear the worst will happen.

Having started late from Rawalpindi, we had to drop the other rest houses. The last on our itinerary this day was Lehtrar. Only six months earlier I had been here and well remembered the hordes of butterflies that flitted about painting rainbows as they went. But in early November, they were gone. We lounged on the veranda waiting for the lunch that Rizwan had asked to be cooked on a wood fire. I must concede that wood smoke does give a distinct flavour to the food.

We turned back for Rawalpindi at the end of this unfinished journey. There were still three other rest houses to check out. And there was the one where the inconsolable old mother still sought her son in the dark of night. We resolved to return one day soon to complete the circuit.

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posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 28 April 2013 at 10:16, Anonymous Sobia Bajwa on Twitter said...

To me the people like you are the pulse of Pakistan. Good to see u on twitter sir! Used to wait for the The News Sunday just to read your column.

At 28 April 2013 at 11:58, Anonymous M Behzad Jhatial said...

a brief but composed account of geographical history plus fana and flora. Worth reading....

At 28 April 2013 at 16:44, Anonymous محمد ریاض شاہد said...

Sir the good point in your travel writing is that you go an extra mile to dig out the history of the objects which other merely pass by.

At 28 April 2013 at 17:15, Anonymous rizwan said...

Sir really nice to access u on smart phone

At 29 April 2013 at 16:54, Blogger Lahoremassagist said...

I suppose some of the rest houses are still functional. No?

At 4 May 2013 at 12:53, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Sobia, Behzad and Riaz, Thank you very much. You make my day.
Rizwan, You are the hero of this story and you are not going to be spared now that you are a big man in Lahore.
Nayyar, Some rest houses are still functional and great places to stay.

At 27 May 2014 at 21:44, Blogger Unknown said...

Salman and Rizwan, I trekked from Danoi forest rest house to Punj peer yesterday and was googling about it when I came across this wonderful piece. I am also planning to write on the whole murree string of forest rest houses including Patriata, Bun, Danoi, Lehtrar, Chawan, Sambli etc and would be calling you guys to dig more info... + banda pooch hee leta hai jatey hovay:(... Cheers, Omar Mukhtar

At 28 May 2014 at 09:27, Anonymous Salman Rashid said...

Well done, Omar! This was such a hurried trip. I wish we had spent more time.

At 3 January 2018 at 13:23, Anonymous Anonymous said... did you finally go to the haunted one??/ Just curious. Loved the narration !!

At 3 January 2018 at 14:52, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

No, Meher. We never went to the one here. But I did spend on night in the spooky Sanghar rest house and revisited last March during the day.


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