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Even jaded city slickers find it hard to remain indifferent to Pir Sohawa. Located 35 minutes from Islamabad, the name actually refers to a village in the Margalla Hills in district Haripur, in Khyber Paktunkhwa (KP) province. But it can mean various things to various people.

To truckers bringing smuggled goods or fruit from KP to the capital, or to Hazara dwellers heading home for the weekend, it’s a lay-by for pakoras and tea. To diehard trekkers, it’s the end of an arduous climb from Saidpur Village. For those who know their pines from their oaks, it’s a fragrant getaway from Islamabad’s politics and pretensions. For lovers, it’s a place to hold hands, gaze at sunsets or pointlessly meander through the forest talking about nothing. And for all those who live in cramped flats in F-10 or with families in G-9, it’s a place where the kids can run without setting off reverberations in everyone’s heads.

Properly speaking, Pir Sohawa is the third picnic spot in the Margalla Hills. At the foothills is Marghazar Zoo; the second is Daman-e-Koh at an elevation of about 3,000 feet and finally, Pir Sohawa at 5,000 feet.

En route, you will find several lay-bys with rough-hewn wooden benches, some offering glorious views of the city below, others designed as meeting points for serious hikers. Closer to Pir Sohawa, you will also find quaint ‘guest houses’ offering continental and Chinese cuisines, clearly designed for the intrepid foreigners who want to get closer to the hiking trails.

However, for the casual tourists and newbies to Islamabad, Pir Sohawa is the restaurant Monal. Only a thousand feet short of Pir Sohawa, it commands spectacular vistas of the mountains, the city, its adjoining areas and the dam. Set out on seven terraces, Monal is obviously a favourite with families and foreigners looking for a reprieve from  the city’s suffocating summer or a glimpse of snow-clad peaks in the winter. The restaurant has also carved a niche for itself among those looking for a scenic setting for stodgy conferences. (The restaurant also offers the option of vegan and vegetarian menus.)

That said, the road to Pir Sohawa is not for the faint-hearted or those with no head for heights. The metalled-road wrapped around the Margallas has been hewn out of the hills and is a sharp ascent with serpentine turns. Added to this, the road is populated with scores of population-oozing Suzuki pick-ups, driven by people who imagine this is the preliminary for the Grand Prix. But if you can stomach the ride, the views are worth it.

A folk musician strings his rubab (Photo by Khurram Amin)

– Soha Ahmed

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First published on February 12, 2012, in the Real Estate Section of  the DAWN National Advertiser.