Photo by Shehzad Maroof

The Frontier Province, as it was then called, had an excellent bus service in the 1950s and 60s, called GTS, short for Government Transport Service. It was a well-regulated service — cheap, comfortable, and efficient. It ran silver-colored buses, each with a seating capacity of about 30 passengers. No standing or ‘overloading’ was allowed.

The drivers and conductors wore a uniform, and the conductor carried a ticketing machine hanging over his shoulder, with which he punched tickets according to the applicable fare. And the buses ran on time.

The fare between my Mansehra (my town) and Abbottabad was nine annas, which was proportionally reduced if you boarded the bus somewhere along the way. (Sixteen annas made a rupee; it was before the decimal system was introduced). The bus ran between the two towns every two hours or so during the daytime. The 15-mile journey took about one hour. Fifteen miles was a long distance those days, with a narrow, winding, one-lane road and all the pick-and-drops on the way.

It wasn’t every day that you traveled to Abbottabad, especially if you happened to be a 15-year old. You went only if there was something important to do there. In my case, that something happened when I acquired a camera and needed to print a film I had used.

My first camera, Balda, Made in Germany.

I don’t remember how I had acquired the camera, but I do remember its make, Balda, made in Germany (I still have it).

When I finished filming the first roll, taking random pictures of whatever caught my fancy, I couldn’t wait to travel to Abbottabad to have the pictures printed. There was no photo studio in Mansehra.

I took the bus to Abbottabad, disembarked at the GTS stand at the southern end of the town, and walked to the northern end, taking in the sights and sounds of the town and its big, bustling bazaar with all kinds of shops, restaurants, and tea shops.

A visit to Abbottabad was always an exciting event, especially for a youngster from rural Mansehra. It was the capital of the then Hazara district, a charming town surrounded by high hills, beautiful civil and military buildings, and houses built in the style of colonial bungalows.

Most high-end shops and restaurants were located at the northern end of the town, which included, among others, an elegant restaurant called Kaghan Café, F. M. Paul & Sons, the tailors, a sports shop, and the famous Chinese Boot House, which made excellent bespoke men’s shoes for 30 rupees a pair. And, of course, the photo studio to which I was heading, probably Naveed Studio. I’m not sure though.

I gave the film to the man at the shop, who told me to come back after a few days when the prints would be ready. On the given date, I again took a GTS bus to Abbottabad, collected the prints, and eagerly examined them. They were badly composed and some were out of focus but that didn’t matter. I was delighted with my first experiment with a camera. I paid for the prints, don’t remember how much, and hurried back to the GTS bus stand to catch the next bus to Mansehra. But, to my dismay, I discovered that I wasn’t left with enough money to buy the bus ticket. I was short by a few annas. What was I to do!

I didn’t know anyone in the town. I hadn’t even informed my parents that I was going to Abbottabad. Telephones were rare and inaccessible those days. And I couldn’t walk back 15 miles — not in one day.

But then a thought flashed through my mind. If I walked 4 or 5 miles, I thought, and then boarded the bus, I could probably pay for the ticket with the money I had. That was it! I decided to walk.

I was hungry but it didn’t matter. “Never tell a young person that anything cannot be done.” I don’t know who said that but it is so true.

It was early November — the fall season — and a sunny afternoon, with a light breeze.

I walked past the Junior Burn Hall school, past the park known as ‘Ladies Garden’, past the Combined Military Hospital (CMH), to the suburb that was and still is, known as “Supply” probably because of the nearby army supplies depot. Here, the road forked, one prong leading to the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) and the other going to Mansehra.

Instinctively, I knew I hadn’t walked far enough to be able to pay for the bus ticket. And I wasn’t tired — yet. I continued walking towards Mansehra.

From “Supply” onwards it was all quiet, with few cars, an occasional bus, and hardly any foot traffic. On both sides of the road were poplar trees for as far as one could see, their golden yellow leaves trembling in the breeze reflecting the afternoon sun. It was a beautiful sight. I had seen these poplars even before, several times, but always from a moving bus or a taxi. This time, I walked past those trees, observing each one of them.

I also noticed the well-appointed bungalows, or kothees as we called them, behind the line of poplars on the right-hand side of the road, built by the well-to-do who found Abbottabad a pleasant place to retire to or to spend summers in. On the left-hand side, it was mainly the line of poplars and, beyond that, the hills.

I walked past the kothees, past the Senior Burn Hall School on the left, and past the army stables, and walked still some more until the point where the line of poplars ended. By then, I must have walked 5 or 6 miles. I was tired and hungry. I did a quick mental calculation and concluded that the change in my pocket was probably sufficient to pay the fare from that point onwards. I wasn’t sure, though. Rather than walking any further — I was too tired by then — I flagged down the next GTS bus I saw coming.

The bus stopped, its rear door opened and, timidly, I entered the bus. The passengers inside scrutinized me as they always did a new entrant. The conductor approached me with his ticketing machine and punched a ticket. I waited for him to tell me the fare. If it were more than the money I had, I would have to disembark with all the passengers staring at me. The embarrassment would be too much to bear.

“Six Annas”, the conductor announced. I had slightly more in my pocket. I paid the fare and slumped into my seat, relieved and happy. Happy is a rather weak word to express my feelings of relief. The bus moved, the passengers stopped staring at me, and I spent the remaining journey looking at the blurry, badly composed photographs I had taken, as did the person sitting next to me peering over my shoulder.

Looking back at that little adventure, what stands out in my memory, surprisingly, is not the fear and anxiety of being left stranded in Abbottabad, nor being hungry and tired. Not even the photographs — I don’t even remember what they were about. What is etched in my memory is the long line of poplars, miles of them, and their golden yellow leaves, trembling in the breeze and reflecting the afternoon autumn sun.

It has been many years since — far too many — and I have traveled to many places within and outside the country, but I haven’t been able to walk away from those autumn colors.

Postscript: Abbottabad is no more the town it was. Like the rest of the country, it has expanded haphazardly. The poplars along the Mansehra Road are gone, cut down to widen the road. The stretch of the road from “Supply” to the Army Stables and beyond has become a crowded bazaar with unsightly “plazas” and flashy neon signs. The hills on all sides are covered with an ever-growing, ungainly sprawl.

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