By Ayesha Sheikh
Nestled in the heart of Neelum Valley, close to some 136 km away from Muzaffarabad in Azad Jammu and Kashmir (AJ&K) lies a small town called Sharda; untouched, uncharted and far away from the madness of the metropolitans. The place was once known to be the hub of learning and pilgrimage in ancient India. It can rightly be called an adventurer’s dream, centered in the midst of the ruins of a dilapidated temple of the Hindu goddess, Sharada Perth, with two snow-capped peaks, Shardi and Nardi, cascading the town like a protective mother.
The tribulations of reaching Sharda are immense; the roads are difficult and the infrastructure is close to absent. Finding a good resort is a tough ask and surviving in such a remote location is definitely not an easy feat. All these myths seemed real to me before I actually got a chance to experience the magnificence of Sharda.
Despite being a travel enthusiast, the name Sharda was completely alien to me but everything changed when I came to know about a trip being taken to the small town by Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund (PPAF). With a bit of effort and good luck, I managed to visit a place which became entrenched in my mind!
There is no second thought about the fact that Pakistan is blessed with some of the most scenic locations. However, the unfortunate part is the absence of facilities and infrastructure which have made access to such locations a very tedious task. To my delight, through my trip I came to know how NGOs led by Pakistan Poverty Alleviation Fund are leading the way to empower local communities of these areas and strengthening the scope of tourism in Neelum Valley. PPAF’s Partner organization i.e. Akhuwat Foundation (AF) and Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) played a pivotal role for the development of these remote yet breathtakingly beautiful locations.
Although I was on a planned trip with PPAF, my expectations regarding accommodation were not high. The infinite warnings I got from my relatives before going for the trip instilled an unconscious fear in my mind that perhaps it won’t be the easiest of the journeys but everything changed when I reached the valley. We were welcomed by Mudassara Bibi and family, the gleaming faces generated so much warmth and happiness that it instantly made me forget about the perils of the last 12 hours. For the next few days, Mudassara bibi’s home became my own.
Home away from home – houses named after local fruits and flowers
All the facilities which can only be imagined in a decent urban hotel were already available at Mudassara Bibi’s residence. Spacious rooms, warm water, clean washrooms and a secure environment. All the apprehensions which ruled my mind before coming here were pleasantly shattered. Not for a minute did I feel that I am living in an unknown place. The people of Sharda melt your heart with their relentless hospitality; they become your family and your reason to smile.
What particularly struck me were the unique names given to each room. These names depicted the local traditions, culture and heritage of the area. One of the rooms was named Gul e Aftaab which is a famous flower found in the area. Others were named Musk, Nudboon, Marmot, Deodar and Markhor. Every name was symbolic of a special feature of the area and that is what seemed highly appealing to me.
My room was called Deodar. Early in the morning, the rays of sunshine peaked inside my room, making the tall standing Deodar trees shine. From the scenic views just outside my window to enjoying a cup of warm tea in the evening whilst standing in the verandah, everything seemed surreal. The grave silences in the night seemed so peaceful to a person ambushed by the sounds of urban cities that it became hard to explain.
Introducing Airbnb model in Pakistan
However, this wasn’t the case a few years ago. It was the continuous effort of Poverty Alleviation Fund which changed the destiny of this place. The accommodation was a serious concern for thousands of tourists coming to Sharda and they often had to sleep in cars. PPAF saw this problem as an opportunity and started a unique concept, something we know as the Air Bnb model. Under the Neelum Valley Project in Sharda, HWF, through PPAF, supported community institutions and selected 100 houses whose owners were provided resources to upgrade the most scenic room in their house as per modern standards where tourists can stay as guests. The selection criteria required the house to have a scenic view, space for car parking, accessibility and safe construction.
Seventeen out of these 100 rooms have already been renovated, one of which belongs to Mudassara Bibi’s house where I stayed. Work on remaining 83 is also gaining momentum and will soon be ready to host guests from all over the world.
Akhuwat Foundation provided a loan of Rs. 125,000 for the up-gradation of the rooms, while Himalayan Wildlife Foundation (HWF) provided training to the locals on basic serving etiquette.
This distinctive program has ensured two-way benefits, as the locals have the opportunity to enhance their income; while tourists also have access to high-quality accommodation and sanitation facilities. PPAF is working with its partner organizations to further improve the facilities in Sharda and has also provided funds to HWF for developing a dedicated website where people can easily plan their trips, book accommodations and view the options. Interested tourists can also call at helpline 0313-1257070 for all questions, information and booking related queries.
A brighter tomorrow
During my 3 days stay at Sharda, I got the chance to interact with the locals a lot more. I visited a handful of markets, played with children, sat under the open sky and absorbed the place as much as I could. There was so much to learn from Sharda, whether it was its people or its culture.
It was refreshing to see how young women have now become breadwinners for their house. The project has helped them earn a decent income and become resilient entrepreneurs, ending numerous hassles. I could see the satisfaction in their eyes and I could also feel the happiness inside me. PPAF is transforming lives in this small town and soon it could become one of the most famous tourist spots of Pakistan.
These opportunities are rare and few, more often than not we are unable to visit such locations in our own country. I luckily got this opportunity, and Sharda gave me a chance to connect with life once again and it’s a chance you should all take.