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Introducing Azad Jammu & Kashmir

Azad Jammu & Kashmir (AJ&K) – azad means ‘free’ – is pre-Partition Kashmir’s western third, administered by Pakistan under the terms of the 1949 UN ceasefire. Jammu, the southern end of the Jammu & Kashmir state that Britain assembled from former Sikh territories in 1846, is mostly on the Indian-held side. Most Pakistanis feel the Indians wrongly and unfairly took possession of the majority of the territory at Partition and that it has been occupied illegally ever since. This all-consuming and divisive issue remains the dominant feature of Pakistan-India relations.

Beautiful and tragic, AJ&K’s best feature is its natural splendour, exemplified by the forested valleys of the Lesser Himalaya and the Pir Panjal Range, which forms the southwest rim of the Vale of Kashmir. But beneath the beauty lie the destructive mountain-building forces that have recently brought so much misfortune to this already troubled region.

Pakistan’s 16km security zone along the Line of Control puts the most scenic parts of AJ&K – the Neelam Valley, the upper Jhelum Valley above Muzaffarabad, plus mountainous areas to the south – off limits to would-be travellers. How easy it is to visit the remaining regions – Muzaffarabad and the Nanga Parbat region, and the nonborder districts of Bagh, Poonch, Kotli and Mirpur – depends on the current military climate along the Line of Control, the whim of bureaucracy, whom you ask, and perhaps even what road you take to get there.