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Archive for February, 2011

It was a usual banter over a cup of coffee with a diversity of views pouring in from across the table; some plausible others seemingly baseless. Someone termed it an induction and injection of ‘controlled chaos’ to tame the pawns and puppets safeguarding the interests of the western powers in the Middle East_ The Frankenstein thus cutting loose beyond the script and pulling the rug from under the feet of those who had invented the monster in the first place.

 As the discussion progressed, it all led us, at least partly, to believe that the epicenter of the volcano that has erupted lies somewhere beneath the oil wells prospering not only the holy land but a host of foreign masters and stakeholders. Now, when Robert Fisk points his unholy fingers towards the kingdom of Arabia there is something to watch out for……

http://www.independent.co.uk/opinion/commentators/fisk/robert-fisk-the-destiny-of-this-pageant-lies-in-the-kingdom-of-oil-2226109.html

Robert Fisk: The destiny of this pageant lies in the Kingdom of Oil

The Middle East earthquake of the past five weeks has been the most tumultuous, shattering, mind-numbing experience in the history of the region since the fall of the Ottoman empire. For once, “shock and awe” was the right description. 

The docile, supine, unregenerative, cringing Arabs of Orientalism have transformed themselves into fighters for the freedom, liberty and dignity which we Westerners have always assumed it was our unique role to play in the world. One after another, our satraps are falling, and the people we paid them to control are making their own history – our right to meddle in their affairs (which we will, of course, continue to exercise) has been diminished for ever.

The tectonic plates continue to shift, with tragic, brave – even blackly humorous – results. Countless are the Arab potentates who always claimed they wanted democracy in the Middle East. King Bashar of Syria is to improve public servants’ pay. King Bouteflika of Algeria has suddenly abandoned the country’s state of emergency. King Hamad of Bahrain has opened the doors of his prisons. King Bashir of Sudan will not stand for president again. King Abdullah of Jordan is studying the idea of a constitutional monarchy. And al-Qa’ida are, well, rather silent.

Who would have believed that the old man in the cave would suddenly have to step outside, dazzled, blinded by the sunlight of freedom rather than the Manichean darkness to which his eyes had become accustomed. Martyrs there were aplenty across the Muslim world – but not an Islamist banner to be seen. The young men and women bringing an end to their torment of dictators were mostly Muslims, but the human spirit was greater than the desire for death. They are Believers, yes – but they got there first, toppling Mubarak while Bin Laden’s henchmen still called for his overthrow on outdated videotapes.

But now a warning. It’s not over. We are experiencing today that warm, slightly clammy feeling before the thunder and lightning break out. Gaddafi’s final horror movie has yet to end, albeit with that terrible mix of farce and blood to which we are accustomed in the Middle East. And his impending doom is, needless to say, throwing into ever-sharper perspective the vile fawning of our own potentates. Berlusconi – who in many respects is already a ghastly mockery of Gaddafi himself – and Sarkozy, and Lord Blair of Isfahan are turning out to look even shabbier than we believed. Those faith-based eyes blessed Gaddafi the murderer. I did write at the time that Blair and Straw had forgotten the “whoops” factor, the reality that this weird light bulb was absolutely bonkers and would undoubtedly perform some other terrible act to shame our masters. And sure enough, every journalist is now going to have to add “Mr Blair’s office did not return our call” to his laptop keyboard.

Everyone is now telling Egypt to follow the “Turkish model” – this seems to involve a pleasant cocktail of democracy and carefully controlled Islam. But if this is true, Egypt’s army will keep an unwanted, undemocratic eye on its people for decades to come. As lawyer Ali Ezzatyar has pointed out, “Egypt’s military leaders have spoken of threats to the “Egyptian way of life”… in a not so subtle reference to threats from the Muslim Brotherhood. This can be seen as a page taken from the Turkish playbook.” The Turkish army turned up as kingmakers four times in modern Turkish history. And who but the Egyptian army, makers of Nasser, constructors of Sadat, got rid of the ex-army general Mubarak when the game was up?

 And democracy – the real, unfettered, flawed but brilliant version which we in the West have so far lovingly (and rightly) cultivated for ourselves – is not going, in the Arab world, to rest happy with Israel’s pernicious treatment of Palestinians and its land theft in the West Bank. Now no longer the “only democracy in the Middle East”, Israel argued desperately – in company with Saudi Arabia, for heaven’s sake – that it was necessary to maintain Mubarak’s tyranny. It pressed the Muslim Brotherhood button in Washington and built up the usual Israeli lobby fear quotient to push Obama and La Clinton off the rails yet again. Faced with pro-democracy protesters in the lands of oppression, they duly went on backing the oppressors until it was too late. I love “orderly transition”. The “order” bit says it all. Only Israeli journalist Gideon Levy got it right. “We should be saying ‘Mabrouk Misr!’,” he said. Congratulations, Egypt!

Yet in Bahrain, I had a depressing experience. King Hamad and Crown Prince Salman have been bowing to their 70 per cent (80 per cent?) Shia population, opening prison doors, promising constitutional reforms. So I asked a government official in Manama if this was really possible. Why not have an elected prime minister instead of a member of the Khalifa royal family? He clucked his tongue. “Impossible,” he said. “The GCC would never permit this.” For GCC – the Gulf Co-operation Council – read Saudi Arabia. And here, I am afraid, our tale grows darker.

 We pay too little attention to this autocratic band of robber princes; we think they are archaic, illiterate in modern politics, wealthy (yes, “beyond the dreams of Croesus”, etc), and we laughed when King Abdullah offered to make up any fall in bailouts from Washington to the Mubarak regime, and we laugh now when the old king promises $36bn to his citizens to keep their mouths shut. But this is no laughing matter. The Arab revolt which finally threw the Ottomans out of the Arab world started in the deserts of Arabia, its tribesmen trusting Lawrence and McMahon and the rest of our gang. And from Arabia came Wahabism, the deep and inebriating potion – white foam on the top of the black stuff – whose ghastly simplicity appealed to every would-be Islamist and suicide bomber in the Sunni Muslim world. The Saudis fostered Osama bin Laden and al-Qa’ida and the Taliban. Let us not even mention that they provided most of the 9/11 bombers. And the Saudis will now believe they are the only Muslims still in arms against the brightening world. I have an unhappy suspicion that the destiny of this pageant of Middle East history unfolding before us will be decided in the kingdom of oil, holy places and corruption. Watch out.

But a lighter note. I’ve been hunting for the most memorable quotations from the Arab revolution. We’ve had “Come back, Mr President, we were only kidding” from an anti-Mubarak demonstrator. And we’ve had Saif el-Islam el-Gaddafi’s Goebbels-style speech: “Forget oil, forget gas – there will be civil war.” My very own favourite, selfish and personal quotation came when my old friend Tom Friedman of The New York Times joined me for breakfast in Cairo with his usual disarming smile. “Fisky,” he said, “this Egyptian came up to me in Tahrir Square yesterday, and asked me if I was Robert Fisk!” Now that’s what I call a revolution.

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    Picture Sourced from internet

It was a cold day in early December. There was a biting chill in the air with familiar over cast conditions. I was returning to the town after a lapse of nearly six years. The overwhelming aura of the place and its enchanting environment had preserved the childhood memories not letting the tide of time wipe or wash them off. I could vividly remember a similar damp day, years ago, during early summer when we had departed and left the town one late afternoon.

The car was moving up a gentle steady ascent along the road that tore through the profusely green environs. Winter and cold had sucked the life out of rich grassy patches rendering them lifeless and fiery amber. Trees were abundant but no longer bore the burden of fresh leaves that wilted and dried away only to be scattered in irregular patterns here and there. A deserted trail of straight, tall and bare poplar trees filed like a continous row of defeated soldiers on either side of the road. An array of fields, spread everywhere in a delightful terraced arrangement stretching as far as the vision ensued, waiting for the days when the whole landscape would be daubed in an undulating vibrant coat of mustard.

As the journey progressed and the kaleidoscope of colour accompanied, the wide vista bounded by rising hills narrowed gradually. The road crossed over occasional streams of splashing water rendered brownish and muddy by the drizzle. Atmosphere was calm and the world was serene all around.

The mountains seemed to advance and step closer, their skylines jagged and jutting out at places, covered partially with snow; the higher ones veiled in a shroud of mist and clouds_their slopes rocky and steep at places blending with thickly clustered growth at others.

Once we crossed the bridge over Haro following the cantonment, POF and town of Hawailian, we were greeted by a series of spiraling ascents. The meandering curls led to elevated passage with steep curved face of the hills marking the boundary of the narrow road on one side and a precipice terminating into a deep ravine and stream on the other. The freezing cold breeze was getting heavier now. We could literally inhale the fragrance and freshness with every breath. A drape of green seemed to curtain and shield everything. Rampant clusters of trees sprawled across while occasional patches were dominated by sturdy pines swishing and dancing merrily in the wind flowing along the shelving slopes.  

There were orchards and fields and a series of graves dominating those fields wherever there were signs of settlement along the outskirts of the town. Wooden huts with gabled and corrugated glittering aluminum or asbestos roofs stood obliquely across the road. Their delightful colours and simple yet attractive designs and outlines together with eye catching placement on the ridges and slopes presented a splendid view. Thick timber doors hinged in the middle and painted in a variety of colours, braced and nailed with slanting cross bars added further to the beauty and simplicity of the glimpse of life. Mud and block construction diversified and augmented the captivating charm of the scenic beauty.

Amidst the draught of scented damp breeze, the road took a couple of sharp turns and entered a broad spectacular valley. Lovely multistoried buildings followed by a market and a fuelling station came into the view. A huge arena displaying a fleet of Bed Ford buses and wagons approached next. This was the crowded general bus stand and soon we took a busy road that passed before a variety of motels and hotels, Eid gah ground, Army Burn Hall School and the DHQ hospital as we drove through the heart of Abbottabad. Soon we drove before the lady garden and headed towards Mansehra road which is the start of the silk route leading to China. The maple leaves had died and fallen, their red glow making the world appear as if on virtual fire.  Verdant training grounds of Baluch and FF centre presented an absorbing view. Governor house perched up high, visible as a dot on the contours of pine covered Shimla hill stamped its mark like it always did. Road rose and depressed passing by the CMH and later we took the divergence leading towards Kakul.

The long boulevard bisected the scattered residential pockets, picketed fields, stone masonry walls and hedge bounded bungalows. We drove passed the dairy farm and polo ground as the road rose along a gradual grade on its way to PMA.

It was getting dusky and extremely cold after a splash of rain when we reached our destination. The weather was getting unbearably cold and dislodging our luggage, we retired to our room in the mess raving about our first dawn in the city of Abbottabad after many years.

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Knowledge & Bliss

A little knowledge they say is dangerous but is there a saying about the excessive knowledge ?

By that I certainly don’t imply that there can be an end to the everlasting healthy quest of curiousity, inquisitiveness or research and investigation that continously unravel new treasures and wealth of possibilities and facts for the benefit of the mankind. Any arrogant mindset or belief of the sort spells only stagnation, doom and virtual death.

But knowledge like every other worldly entity is relative. On our ascent along the learning curve it grows in bits and pieces. Sometimes steep while at others gradual, accompanied by inevitable effects as it surpasses a certain threshold.

Just wonder why the heavenly smile begins to fade into gloom, while the spontaneous natural purity starts dwindling as a toddler steps into the early boyhood. Is it the knowledge that meddles and tends to pollute and tint the spotless soul?

Knowledge renders our approach cautious stealing away the congenital impulsiveness and intrepid vigour and flare of the early years. While it instills and equips us with prudence, rationality and choice on one hand it invariably adds suspicion and skepticism to our character on the other to the extent that we all end up losing that priceless adorable lil child in us; the one we keep seeking in another generation in every sweet little soul that we encounter.

While peacefully wallowing in the blissful paradise of our notions in our own confined worlds, every morsel of information is intriguing and shakes the foundations of our perceived impressions. Sometimes I really wonder if contentment and complacence are the functions of and are inversely proportional to the mundane knowledge that we gain ? A shepherd dwelling and surviving high up in the mountains with his simplistic and next to primitive life style and beliefs, at least on the surface, with his limited needs and aspirations appears far more self satisfied than my restless and insatiable existence.

Am I wrong when I infer that it is ‘more limited knowledge’ and experience that I have gained over a few years that inevitably owe more to my being developed into a perfect skeptical cynic than anything else ? When you are able to look beyond the reflective surface of a prism with a penetrating sight, or so you believe, then witnessing that shattering of a beam of light into delightful rainbow spectrum torn into multiple hues with seven distinct identities may not always be a pleasant experience. That is probably what happens when you know more than the obvious bit, and in vain, try to reconcile your breached or wounded soul or battered ego, by chanting the idealistic optimistic maxims. That is where the bitterness creeps in and you begin to question and suspect every happening under the sun.

While you are still convinced and believe that positivity is the way forward, the rampant absurdity of the contradictions and blatant dichotomy in words and practices mock at you. You begin to question the basics and wonder if there is anything such as absolute that exists.

Absolute right or absolute wrong?

Absolute good or absolute evil ?

As you learn and grow, you are confronted by a barrage of half truths and selective prejudices masked in highly innocuous justifications for grave realities. If everything is relative then you are perhaps the only one wrong while struggling to swim against the conventional currents. In that case it is time to set the bearings right and drift with the tide forgetting everything about the conscience and integrity.

But on second thoughts, I can’t be convinced that this is what seeking knowledge and learning is all about!

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Despite all that potential bashing that our baRey Khan Sahib invited at the hands of patriotic and sensitive Pakistanis, I highly feel tempted to echo his views on Dhoni and Indian team. There is a difference between being realistic and patriotic just as between being emotional and rational. Sometimes the games are won by sheer passion but only once in a while.

With increasing technological breakthroughs and professionalism coming into play, cricket is transforming into a strategic warfare. Physical and mental toughness, accuracy, flexibility and versatility, strengths and weakness of the individuals and limitations as a collective lot, weather and surface behaviour and conduciveness of the conditions and environment are analyzed to the last shred to devise a strategic game plan for each opposing outfit. How much room does that still leave for the cliche ‘cricket by chance’ to govern is anybody’s guess!      
So when Ian Chappell analyzes and picks up the five prospective world cup champions and Pakistan figures NOWHERE, I feel despondent but not surprised at all. If I sniff an element of bias and malice in the claimed rankings that may well be intended against England for obvious reasons but certainly not towards Pakistan.

He is very right when he says that tournament is potentially the most open since the inaugural world cup in 1975 and not anymore the case of ‘Who’ll meet Australia in the final?’

Once again India riding a high tide with a lethal and mesmerising batting line up, braced by its seasoned and calm leadership, that makes up for its ordinary bowling resource comes out as a favourite. The question remains whether the co- hosts would be able to sustain the immense pressure and expectations of home crowd to belie the maxim that ‘the home team never lifts the world cup’?

Australian team looks far from the best. Ponting, with his drooping shoulders, is not the near invincible captain that he once used to be. Michael Hussey, the most accomplished and gifted lower middle order batsman, is a great potential loss. With a prospective mouth watering quarter final clash against the arch rivals England, even with a recent one sided one day series win against them under their belt which they swept away 6-1, it won’t come as a surprise if the howling lions seeking their fourth consecutive trophy are shown the exit doors at such an early stage.

That brings us to another prospective winner. What about the chokers? As strong and balanced as ever and one of the best on the paper, do the Proteas have the temperament to deliver? They have the potential to beat every side and can never be underestimated to emerge from the wings to break the myth.

The Sri Lankan tigers can may well prove to be the dark horses yet again. Having already one a world cup on subcontinent soil, they have every capability to repeat that feat again. Not to be forgotten, the match winner in Muralitharan can tilt the balance with his quest for glory during the farewell series.

England has come a long way from the ordinary and ‘bits and pieces’ side of yester years. It has finally evolved and forged into a team well worthy of winning their maiden world cup. Their chances may hinge on their capability to overcome their traditional weakness i.e to counter spin bowling. Although in the one day version of the game the balance is skewed highly in favour of the batsmen, the spin still can sometimes play a role on subcontinent’s surfaces.

The rest of the teams including Pakistan can, at best, be given an outside chance. What goes in our favour is a recent surge in the form and blending into a team with better cohesion and co-ordination as a singular unit. The conditions are better suited to our liking and spirits will be at all time high while performing before the Indian crowds. Fitness and fielding remain nagging issues and Pakistan will have to count highly on one factor that it is conventionally and most known for_ its unpredictability.

Unless that unpredictability pops up repeatedly with some consistency against the top notch sides, Pakistan’s  chances to fare well during the world cup remain slim.

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Before I open my mouth (read punch my keyboard) on the sensitive subject, let me clarify I am not one of those who take to streets feverishly every Sabbath wearing resplendent shalwar kurtas with solemn vanity  _or come any opportunity_ chanting pro religion slogans. Neither do I sport a black and white, or for that matter, a dyed overflowing beard with or without a moustache. Any resemblance thereof to an anti American creature, living or dead, is thus purely coincidental or unintentional.

Having stated my case humbly and before I take any position, I don’t need to emphasise that a lot has been said on the subject already while rolls and rolls of print continue to be churned out day in and day out. There is a lot of controversy shrouding the mystery and the things for sure look complicated.  

While the stand of religious parties and anti American sentiment coming to surface was highly predictable, what I find shocking is the reaction of a certain so called liberal element of the society. The way the individuals representing a typical diseased mindset go overboard and get carried away presenting an irrational case to defend the killings is as inexplicable as those victims carrying the unlicenced guns or the accused killing the guys from behind and pleading for self defence.

It is the human blood that has been spilled which in any civilized society should carry substantial weight. The matter is sub judice and the case for diplomatic immunity is yet to be established. Horns are being locked at diplomatic levels and we are beginning to see the tightening of screws and arm twisting by US in this regard. One just hopes that the matter is settled fairly, as per the demands of justice, in the light of domestic or international law.

The outcome is hazy but what is disgusting is to see the complexes and bias blinding a certain apologist mindset nurturing in our society that is willing to go to any length to justify the American cause or interest.

Shame on you!

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Health and sports go hand in hand. What makes us so proud as a nation is our indulgence in games traditionally. Talking of traditional games, we have come a long way from historical bouts like kabbadi and gulli danda in our backyards giving in to modern versions. Nevertheless, tug of war (during these days of war) remains very much in vogue and continues to dominate our domestic and international playing fields.

Game playing is so popular in our environment that everyone loves to play games indeed. An art we have mastered to perfection over the sixty odd years. A nudge here, a push there, a bit of pulling and tugging at the right strings and bingo! There you go. Right to the very top at the helm!

Speaking in collective terms, there has always been a mention of a national game. Just like our identity, an entity that faded and fizzled into obscurity many moons ago. However, when probed ferociously, the evidence of its one time existence still figures somewhere in the annuls of history. Before it was all upstaged by the glamour and match fixing miracle of cricket, the game once played with sticks and a ball was called hockey. Not surprisingly, it met the same fate that it deserved much like squash and the glorious Mughal era. To put it simply, the game died its own death.  

Advent of democracy harboured a fresh lot of popular games in our playgrounds. Being a sportsman himself and a plump and healthy one too, a former prime minister introduced one of the most spectacular games of the current era. It involves direct or indirect trading of one of the exclusive species found in our legislative bodies adorably recognized as a horse. Some, however, insist that they are downright asses. Although there is no consensus but the assertion cannot be dismissed mildly.

Reverting to our discussion, the game was introduced at the healthy environs of Changa Manga. For convenience and security, the venue was later shifted to the palaces of Raiwind. But not before, benefiting from its popularity, the game was duly appreciated and patronized by the arch rivals during the no confidence motion against the then prime minister. Thus, serving such wide range of common interests, thanks to the auspicious democratic galore, the sport flourishes and nurtures to this day.

While some games have lost their luster and have been swallowed by merciless currents of time, there have been others that have just begun to ride the crest of a popular tide. It would be outright insulting with malafide intent not to mention an upcoming sport having a sweeping global appeal on the occasion. Its mesmerising simplicity and freaking spontaneity earned it a blind and loyal following from US to UK to Pakistan overnight, not to mention the heaps of praise.

Perched high on the charts, the sport is commonly recognized as shoe hurling. Talking of rules, there are hardly any rules known. The only rule that prevails is to target those who flaunt the rule of law.

To acquaint you with the mechanics of the popular game here is a glimpse. The level playing field comprises a highly well guarded security cordon encompassing our prized victim and high value target. Somehow, our gallant player manages to sneak in and advances within the striking  distance. Emotionally charged, he (yes I am resorting to gender discrimination for  the sport has featured just the valiant male volunteers so far) unlaces his shoe, picks it up deftly and hurls it upon our man just like a baseball ball all in one go. Our awe stricken president, current or former, being at obvious disadvantage for not holding a club or wearing a helmet for that matter has to duck or twist to dodge the face seeking projectile. Unfortunately, there are no miss and run options nor is there any second chance. Soon the striker is carried away by the authorities and the game is over.

With the kind of craze and awe the game is inspiring worldwide; it doesn’t take an Einstein to predict the prospective future of the sport. While the targets have been smart and reflexive ensuring a zero success rate, the world eagerly awaits the victorious moment when the first exclusive scalp is acclaimed.  

My personal take is chances are much brighter if the weaponry constitutes rotten eggs and tomatoes instead of a heavy shoe. What do you say!?

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To what heights can I not rise!?

2009 was an unusual year featuring prolonged winters and heavy snowfall followed by a wet monsoon spell during the early July. That’s when we decided to trek from Saif ul Muluk to Lalazar in Kaghan valley across the Dhadar pass. Northern areas were under a continual wet spell. There were frequent land slides and traffic suspensions occurring beyond Balakot. Considering the inclemency of the weather, we deemed appropriate to travel on public transport instead of personal cars.

Daewoo bus and shuttle service provides convenient and reliable means to commute between Lahore and Mansehra.   Breeze was refreshing but it was a damp and unusually cold morning in Mansehra even in July that gave us only the slightest taste of the medicine that we were going to have. Pecking at the bits of information from here and there, amassed at the large bus stand (unfortunately there was no horse or his mouth in distant sight to disgorge, spew or vet the accounts), we embarked upon the first van that volunteered to leave for Naran.

The news was contradictory. But one fact was confirmed. The torrential rains had instigated heavy landslides causing wiping of road and blockades at certain points along the highway. There was even a word, of tourists and families getting stuck in Kaghan and Naran, in the air.

Only a few ventured to travel during such uncertainty, and those too, mostly the natives. The weather was lovely and the rain accentuated, washed and purified the natural green aura of the valleys and hills. During the course of the gradual journey, the panorama exhibiting a bonanza of natural beauty and charm kept creeping along. While, the roaring muddy water of Kunhar river made the landscape surreal.  
Munching a couple of pulpy pears during a brief stopover was a thorough delight. Their taste was exquisite that we graciously relished as they dissolved and melted away sweetly in our mouths. We were passed Kiwai now and approaching Paras and Mahandari. That’s where the dreaded proceedings commenced.


Crossing a portion of the river Kunhar
A wide portion of the road had been swept away by the rocky and muddy falls. The van could go no further. Those who wanted to continue needed to walk across with their luggage and hire vehicles that were offloading the passengers at the far end. That involved passing through a portion of the river balancing and hopping on slippery pointed rocks in the drizzle. As we did so, much to our bewilderment, the rocks started falling. The stones, small and large, came crashing down bouncing and rebounding like ping pong balls above our heads. We bolted and rushed with our haversacks as quickly as we possibly could. It was quite a terrific sight. Scampering through the water, rocks and mud as we breathlessly made to the other side, there were only a couple of jeeps ready to take a return journey. Not surprisingly, they discovered themselves in excellent bargaining position_an advantage they exploited to perfection to extract the last possible penny out of our pockets. At the same time, the food, fuel and supplies were getting scant and the transport was getting increasingly thin at this side of the divide.

It was extremely chilly and the journey proceeded slowly in the rain. We encountered a few more landslides and the usual glaciers but nothing noteworthy. After a tiring journey and a lot of uncertainty we were able to reach Naran during late afternoon.

People were trapped in the valley and the inventories were running dry with little hope of replenishment. Naran, located at nearly 8000 feet ASL, appeared quite different from its usual self as against what it normally looks like during this part of the year. Even the lower peaks and hills surrounding the valley were still snow clad. The brooks and streams flowing down the mountains into the river Kunhar were frozen for the most part. It was extremely cold and required proper heating and warm clothing to attain some comfort.

Our next activity was to check in the familiar seedy hotel and look for our friend cum host cum guide Naseer. This was part of acclimatization process aimed at gradually shedding away the luxuries of civic life. As usual, maintaining his track record and fulfilling our hopes and expectations, Naseer was nowhere to be found. However, his cottage stood firmly across the river on the mountain with a dead telephone line that we kept staring at wistfully and dutifully with intermittent breaks. His cell was not responding which was again not beyond the realms of our expectation. We devoured a lavish late afternoon lunch, just in case, to mark the occasion.

It was still raining and very cold when eventually we were able to locate and contact Naseer. Pleasarities were exchanged and smiles were extended, ear to ear, upon his arrival. Weather permitting, the brewing plans and the adverse conditions plus the challenges likely to be confronted on the track were discussed. The prospects looked bleak and there was a big question mark upon our intended departure next morning.

After savouring a delicious spicy dinner of nan and chappal kababs, we resorted to the safety of our sleeping bags instead of the beds and dirty linen. Thanks to Naseer, negotiations and departure plans were finalized with the jeep driver, hoping for the best for the following day. Essentials like oven, lighters, batteries, cans, milk, noodles, dates, tea/coffee bags, chocolates, mints, medicines and lemon were stuffed neatly in the ruck sacks.

Following dawn rose with a miraculous change in atmosphere. The sky was all clear, awash and turquoise, with golden glow of the sun rising across the horizon.  Rain had given way to snow at some point in time last night that now glittered along the contours and jagged skylines of the surrounding hills and mountains.

A refreshing morning view from the valley

The early morning jeep ride to Saif ul Muluk offered a unique and different experience. There was absolutely no traffic on the track that remained crowded during this part of the year. Never had I seen the surroundings of Naran draped in such lustrous white during July before. Snow line had descended to the levels that were unprecedented according to the locals and the glaciers had thickened, at places, virtually assuming the shape of ice walls.

A view from the jeep on road to Saif ul Muluk

View of a rivine and muddy jeep track

We reached the legendary Saif ul Muluk lake early in the morning that was the starting point of our trek. Surrounded by an indenting outline of snow all round, the breathtaking view of the lake was captivating to the core. The serenity and sublime charm of the reservoir made it appear dreamlike. In the morning rays and ripples induced by the chilly breeze, the stars danced and glittered on the mirror like reflective sheet of water reminding me of my earlier camping nights at the place. Grand peaks and icy slopes flowing into the lake captured their majestic and mesmerising  view in the trembling surface of water.


A breathtaking view of  lake Saif-ul-Muluk
At more than 10,000 ft ASL and already above the tree line, we started our walk. It was a gradual rise, snow covered almost from the start, narrowing down slowly into a gourge. There were occasional ridges and climbs on the way. Looking back and stealing a look of the lake from an occasional vantage point was fascinating.

In life and hiking there is no looking back….but when it is worth it!!!??

 

On our left lofty Malka Parbat, the highest peak of Kaghan valley, stared down with all its grandeur. The trek curled to the left along the mountain ascending steadily. To our right, a steep trail went up the mountains leading to Aansoo lake.

It was a bright sunny day and the sun was beating down with all its blaze. The rays were being reflected by the wide expanse of fresh and pure white snow and piercing our eyes and skin. Anything bare and exposed was beginning to feel the effects of sun burn. Chilly breeze, that blew across , made it worse. We walked steadily as the virgin snow crackled and crumbled under our feet. Our foot marks left a continuous trail on the paths unraveled. There was no sign of life left in the wilderness except for occasional herds of ibex that crawled like moving dots on the sheets of ice and slopes.  

The murmuring streams and brooks, weaving their way across to the reservoir downstream, were partly buried under the folds of ice and snow. Crevices were visible at certain points. Crest of ice was hard for the most part but softer layers made us stumble and flop. With thickening layer of snow underneath, it got progressively harder to climb. Our energy and strength slowly sapped.            

      

Considering the conditions, we had to jot down a realistic plan. We had been on the trek for more than four hours and to give ourselves a fair chance to camp somewhere at a decent spot before the sunset, there were another couple of hours available to cross the pass before we could start a speedy descent.

Not well equipped, we still decided to give it our best shot. The gourge narrowed and the grade steepened assuming the form of successive hills. Wading our way through the mass of snow, we climbed one after the other, narrowing in on the skyline.

Etching our foot marks on virgin snow

It was getting increasingly tiring and we were forced to take frequent breaks. With continuous gain in the height, the oxygen levels in the air depleted. Straps of our rucksacks penetrated into our flesh as we sweated profusely and got breathless. Our pace slowed down considerably as our strides became smaller. Still our motivation and drive kept us going.

Unfortunately we were lagging much behind the schedule now. Having been for  six hours on the trek, the top was inching closer but staring down upon us menacingly. There were still a couple of ridges separating us from the top. It was late afternoon and we were left with almost three hours before the sunset. With the darkness swallowing everything, it would get extremely cold in this wide expense of snow. Apparently there was no reasonable spot where we could camp with some degree of surety. The best we could do was to trail back and find a piece of bare land at some lower altitudes.

At that point, we eventually decided to get back. Retracing our steps, we commenced our descent marveling at the barriers that we had crossed and the height we had attained. It was steep and quite slippery making us tumble at places. Legs were stiff and heavy now, and once off balance, the body offered little resistance to fall. Still, it was quicker and faster to trek along the descent. With the sunset approaching, our progress was satisfactory now.

Finally along a wide curve, we were able to redeem that classic distant view of Saif ul Muluk from a higher pedestal. The shadows were lengthening and the breeze was getting bitingly cold slapping our faces and caressing our contours.

Pitching our tent
A brisk walk ensued. Before dusk, in dying day light we were able to find some narrow stretch of soil and rocky ground. Dead tired but relieved, we pitched our dome tent amidst those towering mountains. Washing our faces with the ice cold water was a refreshing and terrific experience simultaneously. Saving our plans to accomplish the trek on a better day in future, soon the cups of tea and servings of noodle made a round and hence a memorable day and an exciting adventure that we shall treasure for the rest of our lives drew to an end……

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