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A mountain View- The Neelum Valley

Azad Kashmir/Neelum Valley 5-Day Itinerary

by Pomy

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Can foreigners visit AJK?

No, foreign tourists are not allowed to visit this place, as only Pakistani nationals can travel there. Various checkpoints require proof of Pakistani national identification.

Identification Card Checking at Various Check Posts

Ensure that you keep your National Identity Card (NIC) with you, whether you are walking around on the street, in a car, or even in a taxi with a local driver. You must show proof of identification, especially at various tourist spots, and photography of the bridges is prohibited.

Best Time to Visit Neelum Valley, Azad Kashmir, Pakistan

From May to the end of October. Summer months are very touristy and crowded. If you visit after September, you will get a better deal for lodging. However, the downside of travelling non touristy time is that various restaurants that are season will be closed.

Islamabad to Karen by Road

We began our journey from Islamabad, spent a night in Keran, and the following day proceeded to Sharda. Keran is a village intricately divided by a river, with one part situated in Indian Kashmir and the other in Pakistani Kashmir. The river serves as a natural boundary, creating a unique geographic and political distinction between the Indian and Pakistani territories of Keran. This picturesque village is a tourist hub, located 93 kilometers (58 miles) away from Muzaffarabad, and it takes three hours to reach there. Keran is situated at an altitude of 1,524 meters (5,000 feet) and is positioned along the banks of the Neelum River.

Keran is a stunning place offering captivating scenic views of the valley and the Neelum River. You can witness a breathtaking river with Indian Kashmir visible on the opposite bank. The river looks particularly captivating when filled with snowmelt water during early summer.

The proximity to the Indian village, with people walking on the streets and kids playing, creates a unique experience. However, occasional gunshots from border security guards serve as a reminder that it’s a troubled area.

Indian and Pak Kashmir View Across the River Neelum

Indian and Pak Kashmir View Across the River Neelum

Upper Neelum Valley

Keran is situated in the Lower Neelam Valley. The following day, we hiked up to Upper Neelam Valley, which proved to be an easy-to-medium trek. It is a 1.8-mile-long hike, partially along a steep trail but mostly on a paved road. Alternatively, you can skip the trail altogether and opt for the road. For those who prefer not to hike, there is road access to Upper Neelum Valley.

Upper Neelam Valley offers breathtaking views of mountain villages, and staying overnight is an option, given the availability of numerous guest houses and restaurants. We indulged in Pakora and Chai at one of the restaurants on the top, enjoyed stunning views before hiking back. You can check out the hiking route here

Initially, we planned for a two-night stay in Keran but ended up leaving after just one day. We enjoy walking and are not the kind of travelers who simply sit in front of a good view for sightseeing. Our preference is to explore by walking, engage in conversations, and meet local people to experience their culture.

In Keran, however, we found that walking was difficult due to congestion and numerous checkpoint and not much for hiking either. The area was crowded with guest houses and souvenir shops, which didn’t align with our preference for quiet and nature-focused places. Consequently, we decided to head to our next destination.

But for those who enjoy sightseeing and are not avid hikers, Keran is a better choice because it has developed infrastructure from a tourism perspective. There are more guest houses in Keran than in Sharda. However, it was not the right fit for us.

Drive from Karen to Sharda

The same day, after hiking back from the Upper Neelum Valley, we headed to Sharda, a three-hour drive away. Sharda, although more spacious than Keran, lacks the extensive tourist infrastructure found in Keran. The guest houses in Sharda were not as comfortable as those in Keran. Sharda is not primarily a tourist destination, offering more of a residential and local vibe. We enjoyed local cuisine at one of the small Sharda restaurants, particularly relishing the best beans and rice, a quintessential Kashmiri dish in the area.

We favored Sharda over Keran for its larger size, providing a richer experience of local culture. We spent a night in one of the guest houses in Sharda. As mentioned earlier, our original plan was to stay in Keran and then drive to Kel. However, we changed our plans, and fortunately, we found a guest house as it was the off-tourist season, resulting in fewer tourists around.

Sharda Peeth a Historical Overview

The next day, we dedicated our time to exploring the area. In the morning, we visited the ancient Buddhist university ruins known as Sharda Peeth. Historically, Sharda Peeth is believed to be an ancient Buddhist university established during the reign of Ashoka of the Maurya Dynasty in 273 BC, a renowned Buddhist ruler whose influence extended across Ladakh, Himachal, Tibet, and Nepal.

Sharda Preeth Ruins

Sharda Preeth Ruins

Was Sharda Peeth a Temple or University?

Despite its Buddhist origins, the present structure of Sharda Peeth was built in 724 AD on the ruins of the older university site during the time of Emperor Lalit Aditya. It is thought that this temple was constructed to counteract the Buddhist influence in the region. Today, Sharda Peeth is revered as one of the most important goddesses in Hinduism.

The India-Pakistan Conflict: Understanding the Kashmir Dispute

The ongoing India-Pakistan conflict includes debates over the status of Sharda Peeth. Hindus desire to open this Hindu temple, once a center for Vedic culture, akin to Pakistan’s opening of the Kartarpur Corridor for visa-free Sikh pilgrimages. Pakistan’s perspective is that the temple is abandoned, non-functional, and non-worshiping ruins, as per the 1873 J&K Gazette.

Presently, the site encompasses ruined ancient Buddhist university remains, a fort, and Hindu temple ruins. These ruins stand as testaments to a once-great civilization. Strolling through the area imparts a serene and calm feeling, particularly during off tourist season when it was not crowded.

We spent a night in Sharda and then proceeded to Kel with a tour guide. Choosing to hike with a guide proved beneficial as it offered assistance in navigating the area and the added convenience of having a Sherpa to carry our large backpack. This was especially helpful as we were planning to stay two nights at the summit of Arang Kel. Arang Kel, which turned out to be the highlight of our five-day Neelum Valley visit.

Sharda to Kel and Arang Kel Drive, Distance and Elevation

The following morning, our guide led us to Kel, a picturesque village in the Neelum Valley, Pakistan, nestled at an elevation of approximately 6,900 feet above sea level. En route to Kel, we made a brief stop at Dhani waterfall, recognized as one of the highest waterfalls in the Neelum Valley region, standing at around 15 meters (49 feet) tall. This waterfall is a popular spot for picnics, particularly during the summer when it is enhanced by melted snow water, creating a spectacular view.

Dhani Waterfall

Dhani Waterfall

We took a break for tea and snacks, soaking in the surroundings, before continuing our journey to Kel. Although our stay in Kel was brief, we proceeded to Arang Kel, a small village situated roughly 3 kilometers from the base village of Kel.

Arang Kel is renowned for its pristine landscapes, meadows, and tranquil village life. The presence of waterfalls, wooden lodges, and grazing animals captivates visitors, offering a serene and captivating experience.

Kel to Arang Kel Trail Distance

The Kel to Arang Kel trail spans a distance of 3 kilometers and typically takes around 3-4 hours for the average hiker. However, given our experience as regular hikers, we completed the trek in just one hour. Our guide informed us that non-trekkers usually take 3-4 hours for the hike. To lighten our load, our porter carried our backpacks and other belongings.

The hike posed a moderate to difficult challenge for us, as reflected in the statistics provided here. If the link does not open, you can use Google Maps here. It’s worth noting that although a cable car or chair lift is available, it only covers half the distance, and reaching Arang Kel still requires a hike.

The Best Time to Visit Arang Kel

The tourist season typically runs from mid-May to September, but we visited during the off-season from October 24 to 29, 2023. The weather in Arang Kel was cold yet sunny.

Essential Hiking Gear Recommendations

  • Water
  • Food/Snacks
  • Warm Layers
  • Rain Jacket
  • Sunscreen
  • Hat
  • Hiking Poles/Sticks
  • Comfortable Hiking Shoes
  • Suitable Hiking Pants

Arang Kel Weather

Summer days in Arang Kel are generally pleasant, but the nights can be cold, requiring appropriate clothing. Given the higher elevation, it is always advisable to carry warm clothing and rain jackets to avoid any inconvenience and maximize your enjoyment. Furthermore, layering with warm clothing is recommended, as temperatures may feel warm during the hike, but they can drop quickly after the sun sets.

Sunset at Arang Kel

Sunset at Arang Kel

What to Expect at Kel and Arang Kel

As you embark on your journey to Kel and Arang Kel, here’s what you can anticipate for a unique and enchanting experience:

Starting the Adventure: We begin by bypassing Kel and heading straight to the trailhead. Our meeting point with the guide is at ‘Star Parking,’ conveniently located near the hiking trail.

Arrival at Arang Kel Meadows: After an hour-long hike, we reached the mesmerizing meadows of Arang Kel. The serene atmosphere, coupled with fewer crowds compared to Fairy Meadows, enhances the enchantment of this beautiful location.

Immersing in Village Life: Once settled into our guest house, we immersed ourselves in the tranquility of village life. We enjoyed tea and local snacks, take a leisurely stroll around the village, and relish the scenic sunset casting hues on the mountains.

Adventurous Hiking: We savored the tranquil atmosphere, witnessed the sunset casting hues on the mountains, observed birds returning to their nests in the evening, and watched kids playing on the streets.

The following day, our guide led us on a hike around the area and to the mountaintops. Throughout the hike, we encountered waterfalls, picturesque meadows, beautiful birds, grazing animals, vibrant fall colors, and much more. This turned out to be one of the most memorable hikes we’ve ever experienced.

Spending two nights in Arang Kel allows us to fully absorb the unique charm of the village and its surroundings. Kel and Arang Kel hold the promise of a memorable experience with stunning landscapes, captivating village life, and unforgettable hiking adventures. Please watch this video for a complete experience of life in Arang Kel village and its meadows

Lodging: Arang Kel Hotels and Guest Houses

For our stay, we chose the Wander Lust Chapter 1 guest house, which is part of a two-guest house setup including Chapter 1 and Chapter 2. Despite being well-constructed, the guest house, similar to others in the area, follows a limited hot water supply schedule using wood water heaters. It provides hot water for a few hours after 9 pm, making showers most practical during that period. Moreover, there is no heating inside the rooms. While a single comforter might suffice in summer, during our October visit, we had to request additional warm blankets and comforters.

The Wi-Fi was notably slow, and there was no cell phone coverage. In Azad Kashmir, they have their own cell phone SIM. In Azad Jammu Kashmir and Gilgit Baltistan, services were launched by SCO in 2004 under the brand name of SCOM.

Food: Restaurants in Arang Kel

There are several restaurants in Arang Kel where you can enjoy a meal, but it’s important to note that placing orders two to three hours in advance is necessary for them to prepare your meal. Most people stay in guest houses, which typically have their own kitchen facilities and are willing to provide meals. However, it’s essential to inform them about your food preferences and the timing of your meals in advance, allowing them to make the necessary arrangements.

Food with Locals

Got a Chance to Eat Local Food

Remember, Arang Kel is a small village that is inaccessible by vehicle, and supplies are brought in by hiking down to Kel. As a result, it’s advisable to give a 3-4 hour notice for meal arrangements. Food options include chicken, trout, beans and rice, mutton karahi, and biryani. During our visit, we were seeking local Kashmiri cuisine, but most places primarily served dishes popular among tourists, such as BBQ, Biryani, and Karahi—mainly Pakistani food rather than local Kashmiri dishes.

Return Journey and Unwinding

As we headed back to Muzaffarabad, we opted for a comfortable stay, perhaps at PC Hotel, to unwind. A leisurely evening stroll in Muzaffarabad and a scenic drive back to Islamabad concluded our trip.

Please watch this video for a complete mountain life experience in Arang Kel village and its meadows.

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