These mountain towns, called hill stations by the British, are strung all along the Himalayas and other mountains. They were developed during the British colonial rule of India. Unaccustomed to the stifling and suffocating heat of Indian summers, the British looked to the mountains for rest and recreation (R&R) for their troops and officers. In due course, as was their custom, they built official residences, offices, schools and churches in the backdrop of lush pine forests and snow-capped peaks.
The trend was set in the early part of the 19th century when the seat of Imperial India would move from Calcutta in the East to Simla in the northwest over a distance of 1,200 miles.
Getting to Simla for three months and back every year, “with the Government of India loaded largely on wagons was a logistic operation larger than many a military campaign,” notes Barbara Crossete, of the New York Times, in her charming book on the hill stations of Asia. In 1831, for example, it took 300 elephants, 1,300 camels, eight ox-carts and two regiments of troops, (one cavalry and one infantry), according to an eyewitness account, to move the seat of government.
Today 75 years after the departure of the colonial rulers, these hill stations are becoming increasingly popular. Now it is the expanding middle class with new money that constitutes the majority of those who frequent these places. Ostentatious exhibition of wealth - palatial homes, expensive clothes, fancy cars and boorish behavior - has replaced the quiet dignity and gracious living that was the norm at one time. A walk on the Mall of Murree, a hill station just 20 winding miles east of Nathiagali, offends one’s sensibilities by the grotesque display of wealth and glitter. Washington Irving, the celebrated American writer of the 18th century, would have called it vulgar elegance.
This small town has also featured, if indirectly, in the history of Sino-American relations
There is an endearing story about how Murree was developed. The government acquired the main mountain in Murree from a local owner. The English officer accompanied by his wife made the 28-mile trip from Rawalpindi to Murree in a tonga. The owner of the land entertained his guests and signed the papers. When the officer gave him the money, the man returned ten rupees to the officer to buy his memsahib proper clothes. For the mountain man, the woman’s bare legs indicated that her husband could not afford to dress her properly!
Nathiagali has been spared the kind of vulgar elegance on display in the Murree Hills. Its small bazaar with old-fashioned small shops and limited wares do not appeal to many. So does the lack of a mall or the promenade that glitterati in other hill stations use as the place to see and to be seen.
This small town has also featured, if indirectly, in the history of Sino-American relations. Henry Kissinger’s secret visit to China was arranged by Pakistani president Yahya Khan. As National Security Advisor to President Richard Nixon, Kissinger arrived in Pakistan to discuss Pak-American relations. During a dinner in his honour, Kissinger feigned illness. He was ”ordered” by his Pakistani host to go to Nathiagali for a few days of rest. (Pakistanis are known to inflict their hospitality on their guests) After showing some reluctance, Mr. Kissinger agreed.
On the 8th of July 1971, Kissinger stole away to Beijing in the middle of the night on a Pakistan International Airlines plane. In the morning a look alike of Kissinger was driven to the Governor’s House in Nathiagali. With the attention of the press and the US State Department focused on Nathiagali, Kissinger met Chinese premier Zhou Enlai and paved the way for Richard Nixon’s historic visit to China. Kissinger’s visit to China was so secret that Secretary of State William Rogers and the U.S. ambassador to Pakistan were kept out of the loop.
Henry Kissinger never made it to Nathiagali but mentioned the place and the intriguing story of his clandestine visit to China in his memoir. I can imagine the frustration of the likes of Sam Donaldson or Dan Rather, well-known and assertive US reporters, at not being able to see Kissinger for the duration of his visit to China.
I first came to Nathiagali while in college in the 1950s at the invitation of a friend to spend part of my winter break at their cottage. Their rustic cottage was situated near the small Anglican Church by the playground. It was love at first sight, and after 60-odd years I am still under the spell of that place. I go there whenever I get an opportunity that, I hasten to add, is not very often. The quaint little Anglican wooden church is one of my most favorite structures in the world, and I have lost count as to how many times I have photographed it.
I like to go there in off season to avoid the inevitable tourist traffic. It is wonderful to walk on its secluded pine needle-strewn trails, to take in the pine-scented fresh mountain air and enjoy the vistas of snow-clad peaks in the distance.
At night when a gentle breeze rustled through the pine forest and the snow fell silently and ever so gently to accent everything white, we huddled around a crackling fire
When living in Peshawar in the early 1970s, I would occasionally take my family – my late wife Dorothy and our two children Natasha and Waqaar – on vacations to Nathiagali. It was during one of those visits that we saw a hotel-like building a short walk from the rest house we were staying at. We decided to take the children for a snack to the hotel. On opening the front door, we entered a beautifully appointed spacious sitting area. It felt like a small boutique hotel. A waiter in uniform appeared and asked what he could do for us. We ordered soft drinks, but the waiter hesitated before retreating to the kitchen. My wife called him back and asked if it was indeed a hotel. To that the man replied, “No, madam, it is the residence of Abdur Rahim Khan.” Oops! We had entered the residence of the chief of the Pakistan Air Force. We apologized and made a hurried retreat.
A few years ago, I revisited Nathiagali but this time in the company of three close friends from my medical college days. Nisar Ahmed, Afzal Khan and Abdul Karim had been part of my life for over 40 years. Occasionally we liked to retreat to the seclusion of these mountains for a few days to catch up on the happenings in our lives since our last gathering. Irrespective of our individual stations in life, our friendship was based on the bedrock of our college life. Lest anyone of us acted too big for his britches, the other three were always willing and eager to help with a bit of attitude adjustment. It is a friendship stripped to its most basic components.
At night when a gentle breeze rustled through the pine forest and the snow fell silently and ever so gently to accent everything white, we huddled around a crackling fire to talk about our puppy loves that we thought, at least at the moment, to be monumental romances, our indiscretions, our embarrassing moments, personal tragedies we have faced and the distances we have traveled since leaving college. It was the modern version of Qissa-e-Chahar Dervish (the story of four ascetics, an Urdu classic) punctuated by the acerbic wit of Nisar, flighty discourse of Karim and philosophical musings of Afzal.
A hearty meal, stimulating, if spicy and colorful, conversation and the comfortable solitude in an idyllic setting in the company of good friends were all one could ask for in life.
In Sanskrit, it is called ‘nirvana.’
Dr. Sayed Amjad Hussain is an emeritus professor of surgery and an emeritus professor of humanities at the University of Toledo, USA. His is also an op-ed columnist for the daily Toledo Blade and daily Aaj of Peshawar. He may be reached at email@example.com