(Dedicated to my dearest and adorable friend Mani!)
A news clip invites my attention. There has been light snowfall in Murree yesterday evening that triggers my journey down the memory lane.
Three years ago I called Mani up in Islamabad in mid Jan. We were in the middle of an uncharacteristic prolonged wet spell. ‘Pull up your socks dude; I am on my way to Isloo and we are driving as far up the mountains as we can on your jeep this afternoon’ I told him. ‘But I just came back from Murree yesterday’ He interjected. ‘Why does it matter?’ I exclaimed and finding my argument implicit and thoroughly convincing, he innocently gave up.
Later that afternoon, we were in a haste stashing and stowing all the junk food in Mani’s ol’ Pajero from a Kohsar super store. It was raining and pretty cold by Islamabad’s standards. The incessant rains had caused the temperature to fall close to the freezing point.
Anxious to make the most of (whatever was left of) the daylight, we left Islamabad. Furtively, Mani was on a bunk and officially I was eager to conduct some surveys along the highway _ just an odd case outta my ever growing tally of mixing pleasure with business trips. For those who claimed it was the other way round, I was always blamed to be on a paid vacation. But who really cares for a jealous and snoopy lot or their big spouts and long sniffing noses!?
It was my maiden journey on newly constructed Murree expressway. Being in company of Mani was a bonus. In mist and drizzle, we enjoyed our drive. The most exciting part was the steep climb up the winding curls during the last kilometer or so, where the highway was temporarily connected to the Mall. Fortunately, the rain had washed away the layers of ice on the surface, it had received previous night. That’s precisely where Mani got the unyielding opportunity to demonstrate his driving antics and his vehicle’s mettle to my heart’s content.
Instead of turning towards Murree, we decided to move on. As we curled round the Murree from Jheeka gali, we discovered the layers of snow to be quite thick along the adjoining face of the mountain as opposed to the far side that we had approached earlier. The visibility deteriorated considerably and we began to encounter sleet and light snowfall.
We took the divergence from Kuldana towards Nathiagali. Temprature guage inside the jeep fluctuated between -2 and – 3 deg C as the altitude meter registered almost continous ascent following Barrian. The layer of the ice beneath the tyres got thicker causing whatever negligible of the tootling traffic had left to stop. Virtually, we noticed the last car give up at the toll plaza before Khaira gali.
But not our daring Mani or his well groomed Pajero. He switched the gears and literally tore through the underlying blankets of ice negotiating the sharp bends along the steep ascents. The engine roared, growled and yelled as if pleading for mercy following the unrelenting dictates and commands of the driver. Atmosphere was enchanting and almost dreamlike while I was watching those hills and mountains lost in reverie. Shrouded and veiled in a white drape of snow, everything looked beautiful. Trees, ground, leaves and mud houses had concealed themselves in a white spotless uniform alike.
Advancing resolutely, we approached the highest point along the road. Daisy dot hotel and the makeshift shops and restaurants at Changla gali that buzz with life during the normal days were desolate and peacefully locked.
Fortunately for us, a rickety temporary kiosk across the road was the only sign of life ushering in the wilderness. The look of the thing vehemently opposed and belied what it signified or stood for. Thanks to mild contemplation and a good guess work backed by excellent judgment on our part, we were finally able to assume and establish slight similarity with endeavouring wanna be single room restaurant. The corrugated aluminum roof sheets were uprooted at places and the walls were caving in. A set of creaking chairs and a small rusted table augmented the ambience and decor of the partially open to sky novel concept. A blazing tandoor struggled to assert its warmth against the extreme cold and precipitation trickling down the perforated roof. The inhabitants comprising the chef and the helper were at least as disbelievingly excited to see us as were we. The feeling was mutual.
Chicken karahi and the cup of tea look-alike were the only things on the menu. They were accepted gratefully and ordered gracefully. It would take the ailing stove the best efforts and some consistency to prepare the meal in hours to come.
Meanwhile buoyed by our insatiable thirst to explore the nature at its very best, we took the jeep and decided to have a short round. No sooner did we approach the descent, the vehicle started skidding. Despite some daunting maneuvers by Mani, we soon found ourselves reposed and conveniently dumped against the steep face of the mountain along the edge of the road. The rear wheels were partially buried in a shallow ditch of snow. At this point Mani’s engineering sense was maliciously incited and provoked. “Down you go and push the vehicle from behind” came the instructions. As the only soldier in the ranks, I dutifully obliged. Defying the laws of physics, my senseless power coupled with the engine’s horse power only helped vehicle sink deeper in the ditch, somehow. The only consolation came in the form of sludge showered and sprayed upon me as the wheels rolled on the snow.
While we were still mulling over upon what we had just landed ourselves into, luckily for us, a local jeep came by. Well equipped to counter such uncertainties, they offered us help and we readily settled for the meager amount they asked for. Shortly, our jeep was towed and pulled up the hill. The chain provided beneath the tyres helped a good deal.
Soon we were back to the den where our hosts were impatiently waiting for us and as hungry we were, we devoured the karahi to the best of our chewing abilities. We were hardly in the middle of our tea when an unwarned and sudden hue and cry was raised. A jeep with closely packed, painfully compressed and loaded dozen or so captives came whining and wailing down the road honking all the way. It turned out that it was the last jeep to Nathiagali for the day. On its way, it was supposed to drop our hosts at their village. They quickly wrapped everything up and locked as we paid the bill.
Our return journey started in the lingering twilight. It was still mildly snowing and there didn’t seem to be a soul around. We carefully set off well aware of the fact that there was hardly any margin of error. Another blunder could easily translate into spending the night in the jungle. Not an enviable proposition by any means!
Gradually we were able to graze pass the high risk zone. The ice sheet on the road was getting thin progressively. Following the late ascent, we reached Murree after an hour or so. The Mall was frolicking with life and the people, families with their kids and even infants were enjoying themselves. We drove to the Kashmir point and sipped espresso in light falling snow. Following a brief stopover, we headed back and reached Islamabad late in the evening.
It was a memorable trip suffused with fun, excitement and adventure that will always treasure my memories in the days to come.