Islamabad: Thousands of tourists remain stranded in Naran and Mansehra after rain, snowfall and landslides cut off the area from rest of the country. The scale of problem and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government’s sluggish response prompted Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif to take notice and direct federal institutions to extend assistance to the provincial government.

Thunder and showers have brought down temperatures in most parts of the country, turning weather pleasant in plain areas. But heavy downpour at some places has also brought troubles to some areas. Chief Meteorologist Dr Muhammad Hanif said intermittent rain will continue on Monday in upper parts of the country. He said the winter season has formally set in and it is expected that winter will be longer this time.

Dr Hanif said there are reports of snowfall in Naran, Kaghan and Gilgit Baltistan and snowfall in Gilgit, Hunza, Skardu, Ghanche and Chitral is also expected on Sunday night. He added that there was possibility of land sliding in different parts of Kashmir and Hazara. Rawalpindi, Islamabad, Lahore, Multan and several other cities in Punjab have been receiving light intermittent rain since Saturday evening turning the weather cold, according to Met Office. Different parts of Lahore, Rawalpindi, Islamabad and surrounding areas received light rain with thunder and lightning in some areas late Saturday and throughout Sunday. The weather forecast officials said 3.5 millimeters of rain have so far been recorded in Multan, with temperatures falling from 32 degree Celsius to a chilly 19 degrees. Peshawar and other areas of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa also received heavy to light rainfall on Sunday.

Heavy rain in Islamabad and Rawalpindi paralysed flight operations at Benazir Bhutto International Airport resulting in cancelation of as many as 17 flights both domestic and international. Thousands of passengers were stuck in the capital resultantly. According to reports an avalanche hit the area killing two people and injuring 16, near Baisar village in Naran Valley. Eighteen miners, mostly from Kohistan area, were caught in the avalanche, Provincial Disaster Management Authority (PDMA) was reported as saying.

However, the situation is most pressing in Naran where over 1,000 vehicles are stuck due to closure of Naran-Balakot road after heavy snowfall and landslides at various points. The stranded people were facing shortage of food, intense cold weather and lack of space to spend night. Those who were in populated areas of the scenic valley were being charged much higher than usual by the hotels and other service providers until Sunday when the local administration directed the hotels to accommodate visitors free of charge following a strong criticism of authorities on social media. The prime minister has directed the NDMA to coordinate with the provincial government for evacuation of stranded tourists, said a PM House statement here. The national disaster management authority would start the evacuation operation as severe weather subsides.

The authority had arranged four helicopters to airlift the tourists from Naran and Mansehra areas, the statement said, adding that the National Highway Authority (NHA) has already started clearing roads of the snow. There is snow everywhere, hundreds of cars are stuck on road, supplies are becoming thin, women and children are suffering badly, was the message which jolted social media and soon it was viral. The users strongly criticised KP government for not doing anything to end the miseries of the tourists. Some even used derogatory remarks against the provincial government. The people complained that the roads were blocked and the local shopkeepers and hotels were fleecing them, and there was no government to rescue them. Soon after some of the tourists shared their sufferings on social media, it became viral. They shared that some of the families spent Saturday night in their cars as they were unable to pay high room rents.

Sensing the swinging mood of weather, some of them packed their bags while others preferred to stay. Those who stayed later regretted their decision. Due to blackout many were unable to charge their devices and handsets. The electronic media soon picked up the issue and the local administration had to announce free accommodation. But tourist believed free stay was not enough and their resources and supplies were drying up fast. “They have offered us free stay but we have to buy food from the local market and they are selling one egg for Rs60,” a tourist, Khalid Shah, told The Nation over phone.

“At 9am I started my journey back to home but we could hardly travel some hundred meters, visibility was very poor, weather was becoming chilly, and my kids were crying. Finally, we gave up, we left the car on the road and came back to hotel we were staying at,” said Khalid Shah. Not only Shah but most of the others on the move too did the same. The abandoned vehicles jammed the road and hindered road opening operations.

The eye witnesses said that the FWO started to clear the roads Saturday afternoon with heavy machinery but due to extreme weather and cars parked on the roads, the operation could not be started. On Sunday morning everyone wanted to leave the valley and go home, which resulted in blockage of roads, up to many hundred meters. The Naran-Kaghan road was packed with cars, said Ahmed Khan, another tourist residing at one of the guest house. According to local administration clearing of roads would start this morning and by the evening they would clear most part of this road, the only link of Naran to the rest of the country.

No official data of exact number of stranded people was available with local administration. Eyewitness said that among tourist there were a large number of women and kids. According to Nawai Waqt correspondent Khawar Abbasi, more than 50,000 locals and thousands of tourists were stuck in the valley. He said there are more than 70 hotels in Naran, with an average accommodation of 10 rooms, in addition to a tent village which can accommodate up to 400 tourists.

Naran is the most scenic valley in Mansehra district of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, at an altitude of 8,202 feet. Every year a large number of tourists visit this beautiful place. The valley attracted a large number of enthusiasts last weekend also. Till Saturday evening their excitement was at peak after they witnessed an early snowfall. It was after 35 years that Naran valley received snowfall in October. Locals said that due to Muharram holidays all the hotels had 100 percent occupancy on the weekend.

Riaz, a PTDC official in Naran said that during Muharram holidays the hotels were jam packed as a large number of tourists, mostly riding their cars thronged the valley Thursday night and the number continued to increase till Saturday evening. Abbasi said that the snowfall started from Village jaraid, which lies between Kaghan and Naran. He said the locals cultivate pea and potato in Naran and other adjacent areas in summer but they migrate to Mansehra and adjacent areas for four months and return in March. He said the local population was now out of stock as the people were planning to leave the area within a week or so and the snow disrupted supplies from Mansehra.