Damn those hellhounds! Damn them all to . . . well, hell, I suppose. With confirmed sightings of jackals and wild boars in the area, I was less surprised, but no less irritated, by the early morning doggie alarms coming from the house next door. Once again, I resigned myself to being fully awake and slid down the banister (it's tradition!) to read until the rest of the family arose and prepared for our outing to Murree. Even though the sun was brightly shining and it was a pleasant spring-like day in Islamabad, we bundled up in warm layers. We boarded the coaster my uncle secured for the twelve of us and were on our way (fun fact: Pakistanis call the hybrid mini-van/bus a "coaster" which seemed more like a roller coaster than a smooth and steady vehicle by the time one reaches the twisted, treacherous, nausea-inducing, narrow roads to Murree).

Approximately 40 miles (or 60 km for you metric-heads) northeast of Islamabad and over 7000 feet (2100 meters) high at the foot of the Himalayan Mountains, the Queen of the Hills, as Murree is allegedly known (competing with India's Darjeeling for the title), was once a 19th century hillstation, or resort, for British troops garrisoned on the Afghan frontier in Peshawar. Murree is now a popular tourist (both domestic and international) destination for people seeking cooler climes, beautiful vistas of the forested hills, and the possibility of sneaky clouds slinking through the windows.

We wound our way up the slender streets and watched the birds of prey (hawks? vultures? kites?) tilt and wheel at eye-level. We made a brief stop in Bhurban, about 9 km beyond Murree, to stretch our legs, visit my uncle's latest construction project, and take advantage of the panoramic view of the snow-capped mountains. After standing around and shivering for a while, we scrambled back into the coaster and returned to Murree to seek refuge and lunch at my aunt's father's summer house. Because most visitors come to Murree in the summer to escape the heat and dust and humidity of points south, the house had been unoccupied and therefore unheated by the time we reached it. Still donning our coats, hats, scarves, and the occasional gloves-sans-fingers, we alternated huddling around the free-standing heater and positioning ourselves to be in the path of the direct sunlight streaming in through the wide windows. We devoured the steaming prathas, curry chicken, and blessedly hot tea that we brought along. We took turns washing our hands in what must have been glacial water and then walked around outside to appreciate the eye-candy of the tall pine trees, the clear blue sky, and the Kashmiri mountain range nearby.

By late-afternoon, we drove down to the "Mall" which is Murree's popular strip of clothing stores, restaurants, and tourist shops. Half of our group ventured out to browse among the throng of people bustling along the sidewalks and main street while the other, more sensible, half remained cozily ensconced within the warm coaster. We raced the setting sun down the hills and reached Islamabad by nightfall.

Stay tuned for the next episode: Girls' Day Out.

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