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The afternoon was dedicated to the visit of Shaunter lake. A dirt jeep trek lead to the lake from the village. It was an enjoyable hour long walk along a gradually ascending grade. On our way, we crossed a couple of lively fresh water falls that bisected the trek along its twists and turns. Located at the verge of a vast plain along the base of high mountains, Shaunter lake is a surreal spoon shaped aquifer surrounded by abundance of colourful wild flowers that mark its bank and periphery.

Beautiful Shaunter lake

Flowery banks of the lake

Flowery banks of the lake

The hike to the picturesque Chitha Katha lake started from Domail early next morning. We crossed the bridge at half past six and took a narrow trek that descended quickly along the stream. Walking on a precarious mud path and loose boulders, a quaint bridge led across the stream to lovely green plains and fields. A crystal white babbling brook snaked and flowed along the green mountains lending even more charm to the atmosphere. Descending further, soon we crossed the third bridge amidst those verdant slopes and plateaus that brought us face to face with our first real challenge of the day.

Crossing the bridge

Crossing the bridge

What confronted us was a steep contour of a mountain with exuberant growth. We continued out walk along the trek that now clung to the steep recline of the mountain laid on a high grade. We trekked through swarms of shoulder high wild flowers, thick bushes_thorny at times, trees, birch forest and undergrowth that was immensely mesmerising. It took us more or less an hour to climb the mountain that got increasingly steep near the top.


The view on the far side was even more mesmerising. We had to descend to the same milky white murmuring brook at a wide plateau with a small settlement known as Duk I. Another small wooden bridge carried us across the stream at Duk I. After brief refreshments, we took the steep trek that ascends up the rocks. A continuous and more or less uniform climb made us gain the elevation quickly. Guarded by huge rocks, the trek snailing through the narrow gourges eventually opened to a wide expanse of a large plain surrounded by high mountains. Comfortably placed above the tree line with a stream bisecting the plain in the middle, rocks and stones_ big and small_ that keep rolling down every now and then responding to every call of thunder, slide, avalanche and vicissitudes of nature laid and scattered along the slopes marked our next milestone named Duk II.


As we crossed the fifth and final simple wooden bridge over the stream, it led us to the final and most demanding leg of the climb. All we could see was a strenuous ascent of the mountains dotted with precariously resting rocks and murmuring water courses. A couple of pearl white glistening water falls dropped down insanely, one quite high and the other almost midway between us and the upper one, their free fall only checked and resisted by the rocky protrusions and bed of the vertical cliffs that stood right behind the sparkling sheets of water. Perched high up in the snowy mountains, beyond the highest point that was visible_ still remote and not easily accessible, rested peacefully in its tranquil environs the divine chalice that overflowed and splattered its crystal aqua streaks through the mountains and valleys.


We took the spiral course that negotiated the rocky slopes of the mountains along its strenuous and demanding ascent. Low oxygen levels at high altitude coupled with the steep grade made the hike tiring and thoroughly testing. Nevertheless, the splendid broad vista that was visible from the heights was amazing. The demanding climb along the contour of the mountain continued only to get even tougher once we crossed the lower waterfall following an exhaustive effort. We were thoroughly tired but the tantalising appeal of the upper water fall that now seemed accessible rendered all the inspiration. Step by step, we trailed along the steep spiral closing on upon our next milestone. Looking behind from the precipice, the wide expanse of Duk II now appeared more like a distant turf spread way down along the base of the mountains. The relative distance and proximity of the upper water fall in comparison was motivating. Scrambling up the steep recline of the mountain almost adjacent to the water fall, we were ultimately successful in moving over the highest rock one after the other. But by the time, we were able to negotiate those cliffs and heights, it had started to drizzle.

Ascent along the mesmerising water fall

Ascent along the mesmerising water fall

Over the final rock it was a whole new world and landscape. There were relatively wide plateaus that spread over the top with protruding rocks and a stream marking the edge along one end. Although the grade had flattened a good deal but since we were already drained and our energies were sapped, it was still quite challenging to continue to walk in the drizzle in that cold. The snowy peaks and glaciers now stared down from relative proximity. Trekking easily at an approximate altitude of 4,000 meters or beyond at that instance, even the mild slopes rendered us breathless after every few yards. Progressing and elevating slowly, the trek led us to a wide plateau. As we approached the end of the plateau what lay bare amidst those majestic peaks was truly breathtaking. We were simply awe struck by the sight of the vast shimmering crystal clear water sheet that stretched there in such serenity and grace. The divine splendour of the place was heavenly and entrancing beyond words.

Absolutely brethtaking

Absolutely brethtaking

In my dreams

In my dreams

As we stood there transfixed and motionless, it transpired that it had been such a worthy and rewarding effort. The absolutely draining and demanding hike of seven hours that elevated us by more than 4,000 ft etched itself vividly as a life time moment. We pitched our tents and roamed along the banks of the lake relishing and absorbing the magical aura of the fairy land. The pristine calm, majestic grandeur, rapt and dreamlike quietness and the fantastic natural charm, raw and original was absolutely stunning. Soon it began to rain and we got busy in making soup, coffee and noodles. It got very cold and savouring a hot meal in the cosy warmth of our tent and sleeping bags was soothing and delightful. Rain continued intermittently during the deeply quiet length of the night giving rise to a beautiful damp and chilling morning. The early morning view of the heavenly lake and its idyllic environs was even more sublime and priceless. We packed our things collected and disposed off the waste carefully, took our breakfast and tea hastily and set off in the drizzle under overcast sky wondering at the unique sight and gift of nature. Feeling spirited, having accomplished another dream, soon we were drifting down the damp and slippery slopes as the mountains and rocks echoed and thundered at one point or another bidding us farewell while the rain jolted and triggered a sudden landslide or disaster within the immense folds and expanse of these splendid mountains.

We left Ath Muqam just after 3 o clock in the afternoon. The drive was immensely scenic. Road though narrow was metallic to start with interspersed with springs and water falls that bisected it, every now and then. The roaring river Neelum flows all along, it’s boundaries marked by lush green thickly forested slopes. Heavily guarded, we encountered the Military check posts and structures frequently. At the scenic spot of Karen, the divided states of Indian and Pakistani Kashmir converge together with only the narrow strip of river separating the two. The picturesque villages, fields, houses and mosques were clearly visible across the border as the drive along the line of control continued for quite a few kilometers. Just when the glittering and pearl white murmuring stream flowing down the hills near Dawarian intersected our course, it reminded us of our climb across the pass from the far side a few years ago. The more we travelled, the more we were enchanted to the sublime atmosphere and the raw beauty of the valley. What adds to its rapt charm is the typically quaint and colourful architecture and embroidery that is evident even deep  in the heart of the valley. This delightful architecture is the hallmark of the remarkably attractive valley of Sharda along with its camp cities that were visible once we crossed a wide stream just before the town. Sharda is typically known for the remains of an ancient university that have stood the test of time and survive to date.

The lovely corn fields that swayed and greeted us

The lovely corn fields that swayed and greeted us

Amazing valleys of Kashmir

Amazing valleys of Kashmir

A quaint mosque across the river in Indian Kashmir

A quaint mosque across the river in Indian Kashmir

Yes! You have to cross that on wheels just short of Sharda

Yes! You have to cross that on wheels just short of Sharda

 

The scenic valley of Sharda

The scenic valley of Sharda

 

From Sharda onwards, the road became increasingly bumpy and muddy but equally mesmerising. Located at just about 23 kms from Sharda, it still took the jeep more than two hours to reach Kel.

The valley of paradise! Kel

The valley of paradise! Kel

Nestled between the lush green mountains and plateaus_slopes rolling down from everywhere, all the way down to the twisting serpentine of gushing river Neelum that bisects the verdant meadows and Military setups and checkpoints sprinkled here and there, marks this stunning small paradise of Kel.

Having negotiated the worst of road and weather conditions, when the jeep approached the lovely settlement, it felt truly unbelievable. What rendered the whole episode dreamlike were the unbelievable sequence of events that had unfolded during the course of the day, one following the other, while at the same time we were overwhelmed by the pristine beauty and simplicity of the town and the engrossing atmosphere that was prevailing. Tiring, cold and rainy as it was, we took a simple but delicious meal, rented a room in a small hotel and went to sleep.

Crossing the river bridge downstream of Kel

Crossing the river bridge downstream of Kel

The jeep that took 2 dozen people to Domail (Like a herd!)

The jeep that took 2 dozen people to Domail (Like a herd!)

Our jeep track to Domail

Our jeep track to Domail

When we got up next morning, it was still overcast and damp. Our next destination was upper Domail. Under normal circumstances, there is a probability that one can hire a jeep right from Kel. However, the heavy rain had dismantled the makeshift wooden bridge located a couple of kilometers downstream. This necessitated taking about half an hour long walk along the Shaunter nala while we marvelled at the amazing beauty of the valley. Since we crossed the quaint bridge and moved to the far side of the stream in the morning, the probability of finding a jeep was higher. Fortunately, we were able to find a jeep parked there that took about another hour to amass the passengers and initiate its journey. From there, it was nearly twenty kilometes long jeep ride that took more than two hours as the jeep tootled along the twisting ascends while literally exposing the virtual heavens to the travellers. The bumpy mud and rocky track laid on a steep gradient eventually led us to upper Domail_ a lovely mountain village located near the confluence of two mountain streams. We pitched our tent, hired the porters for the next day and took our lunch. The scented breeze was immensely refreshing and invigorating whilst the serene charm and intoxicating aura of the isolated narrow valley trapped within the towering peaks far from the reach of civilization was truly fascinating.

More to follow…..

It was challenging from the very onset. Approaching from the Garhi Habibullah’s side,  bus came to a halt at a sharp turn a few kilometres short of Muzaffarabad. The near vertical fragile face of the mountain was bleeding. A slurry of mud and rain water flowed across the eroding muddy road channeling its way into the river deep down.

In a steady down pour and a welcoming moist breeze on a very pleasant August morning, we wore our raincoats and backpacks and began to stroll. Once we were able to cross the heaps of soft mud and make our way watchfully across the landslide, the road became more stable. A couple of hundred meters ahead, walking on a higher platform, the beautiful valley of Muzzafarabad met our eyes surrounded almost completely by the roaring serpentine of river Neelum.

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Few minutes walk down the road accompanied by the scenic views of the valley washed by the rain,we were offered a lift by a random UN vehicle that was gratefully accepted. The roads were noticeably vacant and the traffic was understandably sparse but what was most revealing and shocking was the fact that the bus stop was completely vacant. It had been raining heavily and incessantly for days and all the approaches to Muzaffarabad were reportedly blocked. There was no public transport entering or leaving the town.

Determined and not prepared to let our plans fizzle, after much deliberation, we finally convinced and negotiated with the sole rent a car driver to take us a few kilometres further to the verge of landslides blocking access to the Neelum valley. Twenty minutes later the driver dropped us pointing towards a series of weeping and melting slides containing abundance of water and mud but equally considerate to the innocent desire and cause of an occasional stone or a piece of rock that hastily wanted to find its way down the slopes. The driver greeted, shook his head in disbelief but then thought the better of it, charged his bill dutifully and drove back.

WELCOME! LANDSLIDES THAT GREETED US ON OUR WAY!

WELCOME! LANDSLIDES THAT GREETED US ON OUR WAY!

Walking in the rain, keeping an eye on the weeping mountain while balancing ourselves, we began to cross the series of intermittent land slides that spread for a couple of kilometres. It all went smoothly supposedly until a couple of slides later, we were halted by a man on duty. He was supervising the clearance of the road while the machinery was at work. We were advised to wait until the reach was clear and no one was allowed to walk across.

As one testing ordeal followed the other, much to our delight and hope, the approach was cleared shortly and we were allowed to stroll further. Soon we realized there were heaps of mud and gravel scattered along the road with vehicles and bikes stuck in between. Some of the guys who had gone through some miserable conditions over the past couple of days had a strong warning to utter. However, our resolve kept us going.

Short of Khori, when it all looked highly improbable, with a stroke of luck, we were able to negotiate a deal with a pick up driver who agreed to give us a ride till Ath Muqam. We embarked on our next leg of journey. There were intermittent slides posing serious challenge but the driver full of commitment managed to cross every barrier skilfully. The landscape became increasingly scenic while the rain lent even more lively tinge and glow to the exuberantly rich and green panorama. Even though we were thoroughly wet and the torn canvas spread over the top of the vehicle was also leaking, the bewitching beauty and atmosphere of the valley was truly gripping. As much as it seemed improbable, it took us three hours to be transported to Ath Muqam. Not surprisingly, the place was equally deserted. The bus stop presented a sorry and disappointing look with no signs of conveyance visible. Just when it seemed, it was over for the day & possibly the trip, the invisible divine hand came to sort things out for us mortals again. Lurking behind the torrents of rain, there appeared the owner of one of the two jeeps parked in the deserted compound of the bus stand. Spirited by his unexpected offer to take us to not Sharda but even Kel in that inclement weather with a lot of premium understandably led to some heated negotiations under the thundering . He finally settled for a demanding price but hoped to drive us to Kel in another four hours by the sunset. Hungry but much conscious of the precious time that was lapsing, we settled for the sizzling pakoras, the only relishing delight available that we could lay our hands on, at the deserted bus stand.

More to come…..

Political-Imran-Khan-23-March-Jalsa-at-Minar-e-Pakistan-Lahore-2077

To many it came as an unbelievable shock. For some it was an eye opener while for the rest it was a mere revelation and demonstration of the bitter reality that refused to blink and stared right back into the face.

To me and many others who had seen the environment deteriorate and the institutions, state and system ( if any ) to crumble to an extent whereby the echoes of a failed state were beginning to make regular noises, all the indicators were nose-diving whilst there was a continous hue and cry and red flags raised by the think tank and various experts, it was a prospect of a possible vibrant new beginning. It was at that point that sucked in by the state of chaos and uncertainty, the middle and affluent educated urban class was jolted to come out of its slumber and hibernation to wake-up to reality.

Whether the deck had hit the rock bottom, the only survival lied in the prospect of a change. Ignorance or avoidance wasn’t a choice any more. For survival, action was the only option. When the grounds of Minar-e-Pakistan were swamped and swarmed by the families, women, children, old and young by an electrified crowd of hundreds of thousands that cut across entire cross-section of society on Oct 30th, 2011 it was a flash point. It marked the eruption of lava from within that had been boiling for decades. Many of us who had been pulled to the venue by the mere realization of need of the hour had nothing to do with the active politics and were hence participating in our maiden political rally _ what emerged as a result was an unusually rich and unprecedented demographic, cultural and social mix that glued together into a cohesive whole for a selfless and common cause. Every soul was charged up and every one, young or old, man or woman, wanted to be counted.

For some it raised the alarm bells but for most it brought heaps of hope. It was a clear sign of a living nation who refused to budge and, if not over-emphasized, signaled a rude and rebellious awakening of a nation willing to stand and fight for its survival and rights that was put to a tranquil sleep for the loot and plunder to go on unabated.

Whilst the volcano had exploded, the aftermath and repercussions had to be enormous. The jaw dropping event and a series of others that followed shortly sent shock waves through the circles at helm. Sooner than later, it came as a bitter realization that non deliverance wasn’t an option any longer. Thus thoroughly threatened and under enormous pressure, the provincial government that had been sitting on its haunches for nearly four years ran into a state of panic that accounted for many of the gimmicks and questionable projects and initiatives that were forced down our throats while the elections were fast approaching.

But the winds of change continued to blow setting unprecedented examples and unsettling the competition that found itself more and more at loss with each shift. What we saw progressively was rise and formulation of a party structure from bottom to top on purely democratic principles; a mini revolution in this part of the globe in itself.

So when the captain stood in the shadow of the Minar-e-Pakistan once again on March 23rd, not alone but accompanied by thousands of elected representatives of his political party belonging to all walks of life, some of them hailing from very humble backgrounds, facing an endless ocean of people and waves of fluttering national as well as green and red party flags and declared with a beaming smile that the ‘change’ had arrived, he was stating the obvious. Below the stage, the emotionally charged crowd roared in frenzy waving flags and chanting slogans in sheer passion. Many of us were those who had ridiculed his intent and motives when he had started his unorthodox political movement as a novice in the same city about sixteen years ago. But it was his sincerity to the tune of devotion, determination, boldness, truthfulness, enormous love for his homeland and leadership qualities that convinced us to part ways with political inertness and rally under his flag. Most of all it was his consistency and habit of winning against all odds repeatedly and belief in himself, his God and the youth of his country that made the nation absorb new rays of hope.

Battling against the inertia, status quo and traditional politics the movement of justice continues its dynamic journey unabated. A mere morsel that began to roll down the hill many years ago gradually assumes the giant proportions of a snow ball that takes everything along in its fold. The challenge and erosion it poses to its competition is immense and grows with its dynamism and continuity progressively. Innovative and setting ever higher standards for the nation to guage, with a towering and gifted leader at the tip with a character to fill potential leadership void that has existed, it promises a better future to Pakistan and its citizens. It is a gradual process that demands decades for its materialization and consolidation. But the signs of challenge and evolution are significant. The will and determination is there. It is for the same reason that awash with rain, as if baptized and cleansed, amidst the soaring and unwavering tides of fluttering flags when the tsunami of impassioned enthusiasts listened to its leader, every soul and mortal stood its ground soaking up all the energy and verve in the air to imbibe the currents of the impending and inevitable change.

I crawled below the mountain. It was mammoth and huge_with its vanity and head held high. The clouds kissed passed the peak and the summit. Posing an air of apparent indifference, it shuddered and felt insecure as the travellers approached. It stood tall but its  form changed perpetually as it succumbed upon each step.

On the far side there is a stream that sprouts from its very core. It flows down murmuring gently_distancing itself from the peak with every moment that lapses and ceases to exist. The stream watches the mountain getting smaller and smaller losing its grandeur.

The mountain is huge. It has multiple perspectives. To each it appears unique and different.

The mountain has many faces. Forming and deforming. They are all real…..yet all fake!

One year later! The quest and journey takes us back to where we were. And the nature decides in our favour _ miraculously unfolding the heavenly scenes yet again. It all seemed like a continuity of our journey; connecting from where we had left _ though much sensational and challenging this time round.

Since there can’t be words to express or describe, I’ll let the pictures do the rest of talking on my behalf :

And let you be the judge🙂 !

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For how long have you been standing like that babe!?  Overnight!

For how long have you been standing like that babe!? Overnight!

Get up boys! Its time to depart

Get up boys! Its time to depart

Oops! Looks like still got some work to do

Oops! Looks like still got some work to do

Who's gonna chain the monsters ? -6 degrees

Who’s gonna chain the monsters ? -6 degrees

Can I find my way out ?

Can I find my way out ?

The grueling start

The grueling start

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Carving the way out amid heaps of snow. Still 7 hours away from a semblance of civilization

Carving the way out amid heaps of snow. Still 7 hours away from a semblance of civilization

Read somewhere “The best way to learn about a country is through their food”. But what about the country that distinguishes itself by offering the exquisitely delicious tea produced along the most elegantly shelving exuberant slopes?

“Ayubowan!” You are curtly greeted everywhere with a curt smile, a humble gesture and a feeling that is as densely warm as densely green the country itself is! Hospitable, warm and welcoming is how you find the place and the people. Although cradling and nurturing centuries old heritage and traditions, you discover a tasteful blend of contemporary and colonial touch permeating into the history, architecture and culture. So where there a lot of ancient temples located in the neighbourhoods of major urban centres like Columbo and Kandy in particular, these places are also studded by delightful buildings and monuments imprinting a permanent mark of colonial era on the landscape and architecture.

The society is traditional but open and educated. On one end where it attaches high reverence to the traditional and primitive figure of a monk, on the other it embraces and adopts all the modern day changes thus yielding a near homogenous multicultural mix of various ethnicities led primarily by Buddhas and Sinhalese, followed by Hindus, Muslims and Christians.

Geographically speaking, Sri Lanka can be best described as a glittering isolated thickly green island exhibiting sparkling and lively turquoise tropical beaches and coasts and an undulating landscape with lush green hilly patches in between.

Forests, jungles and wild life parks are brimming with wild life. Enjoying elephant rides and watching them bath and eat is a memorable experience. The botanical diversity and spice parks come up with amazing herbal offerings.  Amidst all that exquisite bio diversity, how can one forget to mention the delightful produce and fruits!? ….Oh my God! The pulpy sweet thick bananas and the mouth watering varieties of it! Ever taste a red banana, the king of all!? And then there are coconuts and the heavenly lychees ; And not to forget the delicious yields of dry fruits and pumpkins.

Coming back to the opening statement, if one is bound to prove it that way; Sri Lanka offers such a relishing and mouth watering variety of local cuisine to satiate our taste buds with. Local delicacies like dosa, vada and samosa make you drool. With a heavenly variety of various aromatic local tea flavours, the combination becomes absolutely exclusive. The sea food together with the native hospitality is a treat to relish. Kothu, noodles and hoppers are simply delicious.

In short, Sri Lanka with its geographical and cultural diversity and traditional warmth and hospitality presents a most unforgettable tourism opportunity. It is a wholesome package throbbing to unleash its treasures only if you are prepared to unlock the doors to this land of wonders. Here! Do I see you wearing your backpack now?