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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.

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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

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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?

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It was surreal and engrossing. The atmosphere had a dreamlike quality about it. Mere mortals were absorbed in the sheer specter and stunned by the prevailing environment that was beyond idyllic. The unbelievable sight and the scenes unfolding were a snapshot right out of an immaculate painting that was conceived somewhere in heavens except for the fact_ it was so real and tangible yet so pure, heavenly and unbelievable.

Every living and non-living form had lost its individuality and succumbed to the overwhelming homogenizing invasion of thick and deepening snow blanket that lent a delicate white glow to the world around us. The effect was not just blinding but captivating to the extent that touched and mesmerized our every sense rendering a state of virtual trance.  

Tranquil and calm, and thanks to the incessant orchestrating display of dancing and rolling white specks of snow flakes that sailed and floated through the atmosphere in an enchanting dynamic formation, emanating from a uniform thin ash grey mist that stretched beyond horizon to the heavens unknown, a continous spray of white streak that lent its shade and painted everything white on its course, the world around us was virtually unreal.

We had just approached the scenic but desertedvalleyofKalamall draped in white and absorbed in dead calm after what had been an unbelievably exciting five hours journey from Mingora. The jeeps, almost a dozen in number, drove in close formation pressing, crushing and grading a thick blanket of snow piling heavy loads along the edges. As we entered the town, it presented an amazing look. The road, shops, hotels and resorts by the river that are abuzz and throng with tourists and life during the summers were all covered in snow and virtually lifeless. A thin stream of flowing river asserting itself amidst a huge overwhelming mass of surrounding snow was the only sign of life left in the valley. Following a steep descent that led our jeeps to a hotel by the river with its picket, parking and play area all sunk in snow. Drawing a sigh of relief, though still unsure that we had actually made it that far in such conditions, we disembarked while it was still snowing heavily. There we were served freshly cooked delicious lunch that we savoured in extreme cold.

The snow jeep rally, a peace initiative and an absolute fun filled adventure, was organized by Islamabad jeep club during the first week of Feburary. In all there were about thirty participants and a dozen jeeps that participated in the rally. We had started our journey in drizzle fromIslamabad motorway toll plaza almost a day earlier. Drive to Mardan and Mangora had been a smooth and pleasant one rendered even more enjoyable by the spell of rain that continued throughout the journey. Owing to the frequent military and police checkpoints that have been established after the Taliban insurgency in the area and rain, the journey was slow and it took us about six hours to reach Mangora. Hungary as we were, there we feasted ourselves with the tantalizing and delicious local specialty of chappal kababs and satiatied our taste buds. It was raining and quite cold in Mingora. Soon we were led to our hotel in Fizza Ghat and tired and fatigued we retreated into the warmth of our sleeping bags in utter cold.

It had been snowing heavily in Kalam for the last couple of days and the weather forecast predicted the wet spell to continue. That amounted to increased possibility of land slides and blockage of Swat Kalam highway and lent more flavour to the adventure. Taking into account the eventualities and the exciting challenge that were to be encountered, we took an early breakfast and start next morning. It was Sunday and still raining in Fizza Ghat when we left our abode aroundhalf past eight in the morning.

Hustle and bustle as we get ready to depart

The scenic Swat valley was awash with a fresh tinge of damp and lively green surrounded by hills all coated white by steadily descending snowline that was gradually approaching the valley. There was an air of freshness, charm and serenity about the atmosphere and it felt wonderful to be back to peaceful and calm Swat after a lapse of many years. 

The rally was led to a Military unit in Madyan where Lt Col Nadeem and his unit had hosted tea in the honour of president and participants of the IJC. The officers emphasized the point that the peace had been restored in the valley and the plans were underway to transfer the administration and management of the areas to the civilian authorities. It was noteworthy to assert that most of the natives wanted the tourists back to the paradise of Swat to stir up economic activity that would in turn benefit the local inhabitants. They were thankful to the participants of the rally as activities like these should help a good deal in bolstering the confidence of the visitors and the first hand experience and knowledge would trigger increased flow of tourism in the region.

Drive from Madyan was a lifetime experience, enchanting and besotting to say the least. As soon as we had approached the twin settlement of Bahrain, we were greeted by a fresh torrent of sleet. The showers of rain soon froze and transformed into the remarkable haze of snow. From thereon it was all a breathtaking journey in snow, with heavens and nature particularly generous and kind to have unveiled the most mind-blowing views and specters of its purity and raw beauty upon us. The road, more appropriately a gradually ascending trail along the winding and gushing river Swat, was all covered in thick layers of snow and the already thin traffic almost died out. Military excavators and graders were engaged in clearing the road along the slides at some occasional spots while we continued to tootle along through the beautiful scenery, pin-drop silence and utter calm.

Whatever scant number of locals that had decided not to migrate during the extreme winters, were well informed and eagerly awaited their guests and greeted us as we drove along the sole snow covered road that bisects the Kalam bazzar. Notwithstanding the hostile spell of falling snow, even in acute cold a sizeable number of locals had thronged the plane at the exit of the Kalam where the rally was scheduled.

The jeeps approached the arena and the drivers came up with enormously bold, daring and deft maneuvers and feats as they drove and waded their way through hip high layers of snow. Locals particularly enjoyed the spellbinding performance of various drivers. It was heavenly to roam and lumber through the heaps of snow in that sublime and pure atmosphere amidst a cluster of tall alpines all cloaked in white.

 

After a couple of hours as the darkness began to descend upon and engulf the peace of picturesque Kalam valley, we drove back to the comfort of our hotel rooms (if it may be termed so considering the lack of any heaters but a few LPG stoves that sweated miserably to make any impression in the freezing cold that penetrated right through the bones). It was still snowing while we had a delicious dinner together and cake cutting ceremony afterwards. We survived through the extreme of that deadly cold night, half asleep and half awake somehow to find a lovely morning greet us with a promising dawn.

 It had stopped snowing sometime late in the night but our jeeps, courtyard and surroundings were all sunk in thick layers of snow and frost. The conditions were still overcast and it was a perfect morning to take a walk and explore the heavenly surroundings. Valley and bazaar of Kalam was unbelievably calm and all buried in meters of fresh snow. As far as the vision could penetrate, all we could see was a uniform undulating sheet of heavenly white spread all across filling every trough and crest alike.

 

After the breakfast, the prize distribution ceremony was arranged that was attended by an ex-nazim of the area and a few military officers in addition to the participants. It was time to depart as the sun finally peeked from behind the clouds leaving us dazed with excitement as did its reflections dazzled our sights.

 (More snaps and details on www.ijc.com.pk & www.pakwheels.com  under Snow Cross 2012 )

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Are we eventually not back to the square one? The ever so familiar situation repeating itself every so often _ the civil military stand off and the government and judiciary finding themselves at loggerheads yet again feeding ample fodder to the insatiable milling machine of media thankfully to sensationalize and spice things up to their liking, churning out conspiracy theories by creating an unnecessary hype at times while acting irresponsibly by neglecting the imperative developments and details at others to mislead ( read to keep informed) the public at large but to keep their business and entertainment (talk) shows going round the clock. 

The history is perhaps tired of repeating itself over and over again but we are not. While the cynical circular spectrum of events continue to go round and round statically with no linear development over the six decades, interestingly the question remains who is actually at fault? 

Was the judiciary at fault when ZAB riding the crest of a mammoth tide of popularism was hanged? Certainly! Was the judiciary at fault when the over zealous Sultan Muhammad Nawaz Sharif stormed the supreme court overwhelmed by his lust of power? Certainly not! Is the judiciary at fault now when it is taking government to task over a couple of security and political issues? Anybody’s guess! 

More? Was it democratically elected Nawaz Sharif at fault when he dismissed the then COAS Musharraf or was the military takeover a logical reaction to Sharif’s voracious desire for omnipotence while undermining the freedom of various state institutions? 

While it appears deceptively simple to single out Army as the most criminal force and factor in the equation that has arguably rooted out seeds of democratic culture that have been sown time and again but haven’t the democratic institutions failed time and again and caved in owing to their intrinsic weakness, imbalance, disharmony and reckless measures? I am certainly not for khakis to step in or marching boots to trample the constitution at their own free will. There are far too many lessons to learn from the autocratic Islamic revolution led by Hazarat General Muhammad Zia ul Haq and later, in stark contrast, the radiant era of “Renaissance” unleashed by enlightened moderator Mush__ both reminding us of the ages of darkness ironically in one way or the other. But the fact remains that unlike the rest, Military is the only disciplined and organized institution of the state with supposedly far less public dealing and external influence. In all fairness, doesn’t Military get more than its due share of blame for the failure of state or democratic process or institutions? Again, even if for the argument’s sake, Military is the mother of all ills, isn’t failure of a major state institution to understand its due role and to overstep its limits or jurisdiction blatantly time and again be deemed as the failure of democracy or system itself? 

If so, this brings us back to the million dollar question, how in the world do the tenets of western democracy offer the best solution to our typical political, social and economic problems that have failed to grab roots in sixty four years?

 If going to the polls with 35 million bogus registered votes every now and then and casting our vote in the favour of the candidate solely on the basis of birardari or “kinship” as Anatol Lieven ( Pakistan a hard country) puts it earns us the licence to be a democratic state, who are we fooling by expecting a change to take place simply by sticking to this ritual? Not to undermine our society, but have we got the literacy, awareness, religious and social freedom and justice, tradition and maturity to inculcate that culture of expression of freedom, tolerance, mutual respect, equal rights for all human beings that constitute the spirit of democracy together?   

If not, then why are we obsessed with the secular models of western democracy that will never work for us or has never gained roots in the sixty four years of the existence ofPakistanas a state? 

My dear friends and intellectuals who cannot see beyond the dazzling virtues of democracy and exist as if only to keep on harping about it, let us be honest and analyze is democracy the only system that has brought about change coupled with social and economic upliftment round the globe or region? We may snub China for poor human rights standings but what has brought about that magnificent rise in its economic power and splendour? Democracy? Why forget the Asian tigersSingapore? While the state has remained a kingdom with no natural resources of its own (even the drinking water is to be imported from the neighbouring Malaysia), who can deny the remarkable turn around in its stature and economic fate that has earned it the informal title of the ‘Most orderly state” in the world just in a few decades? 

Call it our mindset but name a single mainstream political party that has nurtured democratic culture within its rank and file. Does passing the leadership on to the next generation or the memebers of the family like personal fiefdom or heritage does not negate the spirit of the democracy itself? Or is it perfectly cool to build on a monarchy of  Sharifs, Bhuttos, Zardaris & Madaris while harping about democratic traditions and process?

To cut it short, there may well be countless virtues and democracy may still be the best form of governance but what good is it if it does not deliver but rather dis-enfranchise the masses to the point where the state is brought to the brink of its existential threat?

To me, democracy is after all a means or mode to deliver! 

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  • First of all, I seek an apology in advance for resorting to stereotyping and generalization. But then my dear friend this is a reactionary mindset you are so proud to associate yourself with_ stemming out of your psychic need to ridicule anything remotely related to religion & Islam in particular or to mimic or appease the gods who rave in abusing and humiliating the religion.
  • Thus it is your apologetic mindset and twisted logic steeped in prejudice and inferiority complex without substantial knowledge that develops your personality as a pseudo liberal ( Aadha teetar aadha batair)
  • You are not clear in your mind and have a dual personality. Flaunting a spirit of false intellectualism, you complicate the things by living in a haze of contradictions and dichotomy.
  • Your reactionary approach is no less myopic and extremist than that of those sickening fundamentalists who are out to blast everyone & everything around including their innards for the love of seventy two virgins.
  • You hail from an intolerant and ignorant lot who just believe in exploiting the words and deeds originating from the opposing half of the divide or spectrum. You have no solution to offer and being a part of a problem, just add to the polarity and tension with no sense of moderation, fraternity or reconciliation.
  • You don’t practice religion but deem yourself a master at that. Thereby, quote the teachings and commandments out of context or quote them selectively/partially to convey or make convoluted misleading interpretations for your own benefit. That just adds fuel to fire worsening the already fuming & intolerant socio-political landscape. And who does it help? Not you; Not me; Not our country!

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And this time around it was just not a hike. What spiced up all the fun was what followed shortly. On our way back to Abbottabad from Nathiagali we took the new partially completed alternate road being laid. On its winding course it leads to a lovely water fall locally known as ‘Aab Shaar’.

Aab Shaar ( The Waterfall )

 The narrow road bisects the thick heavens of pine jungles unveiling the idyllic beauty of the mountains, villages and lush green fields. Permeating raw beauty and purity that suffused the environs reminded me of the childhood trips on now much developed and commercialized Nathiagali Abbottabad road being brutally stripped of its natural treasures.

Guess what! The best part is yet to come. Upon his insistence, we decided to stop at the native village of one of our mates near Bagnotar who was accompanying us on the trip. As it turned out, the lovely mountain village perched on top of a hill sat romantically across a hundreds of meters wide and at least one thousand feet deep ravine. The only alternate access, other then crossing the stream on foot, is rendered by means of an innovative generator operated cable car look-alike installed by one of the domestic investors.

‘Galiyaat Cable Car’

 Just like the sighting of the Eid crescent ,the instantaneous sighting of the queer conveyance gadget without appropriate warning triggered a couple of immediate in volunteered reactions. As expected, I went berserk with thrill and excitement, adrenaline pumping high. To an equal or even greater disappointment, the mates refused to take the risk of the ride. It took the best of my negotiations and motivational skills, some oratory, eloquence and rhetoric, rich incentives and good emphatic fifteen minutes of coaxing to finally win all the votes if not hearts.

The ride, eventually proved to be much fun. No less thrilling than the cable car ride to Santusa islands from Mount Faber in Singapore or a long delightful ride to Genting heights near Kaulalampur. The village was a blend of colours , revealing a glimpse of gay rustic lifestyle and culture with increasing infiltration of modernization and urbanization. Adobe houses are paving way for concrete construction, the slanting tin and asbestos roofs being ruthlessly replaced by flat roofs. The arenas are getting bigger and wider whereas the households are shrinking to smaller numbers progressively diminishing the sense of sharing in all probability. The simplicity and naivety is losing its irresistible spontaneity, although the exemplary hospitality, warmth and open heartedness prevails and I sincerely hope it lasts as it steadily has for centuries.

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