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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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As this restless girl Shivya, who manages her fabulous travel blog The Shooting Star, hopping from one continent to the other, nominates me for the 7 link project__ a wonderful initiative of  Tripbase , to be fair and honest, it comes as a bit of a shock. Not because my ever boasting self doesn’t consider myself much of a wanderer but principally because it brings home the realization that time really flies! 

7 link project is a sweet gentle reminder that I have been updating this personal blog for 7 months now and have piled up a mindless collection of more than 7 times that number. (Thanks to the readers for bearing with all those delirious outbursts). 

As I delve into the posts and statistics, I run into a number of surprises. First and foremost being, guess what!? the most visited page of the blog, barring home page, has been the “About” page. Lets still keep it as the ‘8th post’ as we search for the 7 (arguably) unique posts for the 7 link project. So lets plunge into the blog and dig out some pieces. Here we go! 

  1. My most popular post 

As the stats reveal, my most read and popular post turns out to be Imprinting footprints on virgin snow. Whether it is the charm of the virgin or the snow that caused all the pull and attraction is anybody’s guess!? 

  1. My most commented post 

The most commented happens to be the post about the pictorial journey that takes you through the captivating beauty of the mountain trek I love trailing through over and over again. The post is titled The Annual Pilgrimage  and it is downright sacrilegious not to comment on the post. 

  1. My least commented post 

Totally unexpected. My only piece of fiction on the blog weaved round a living character in the romantic backdrop of pulsating nature. Seems like, it all turned out to be a lame attempt that ended up in confusing the reader with contrasting metaphors. No comment so far, so to speak! Tangible Dreams 

  1. My nostalgic post 

About the idyllic and serene hill station I was brought up in. And that before it earned the overnight global fame hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons on May 2nd, 2011. Yes the one notoriously associated with OBL now, Abbottabad. The City That Once Was Mine!

    5.   My adorable post

One of the earliest posts on this blog; The one I dedicated to one of my closest friends. A walk down the memory lane, treasuring sweet memories, whereby, I shared a wonderful experience and enjoyed scribbling it. Exploring Mountains In January  

  1. My post on love and expense of universe 

Is love the binding force that is holding this disintegrating universe and its endless expense together? You decide! A Truth About My Universe……! 

     7.  My post on relationships & expectations 

As I understand, a simplified and isolated view and my two pence on the delicacies and intricacies of something as complex as human sensitivities and feelings. Emotional Bank Account  

Phew! Done with the selection bit. Now comes the hardest part. Handing over the torch for the next round of 7 link project.  As they say “Play the game in the spirit of the game.” Thus, the 7 people I am going to tag in line with the spirit of the 7 link project are Leenah with her blog Touching With Fingers The Naked Body Of Dreams. Valerine with her blog The Verbal Fiend. Mahlaqa managing her blog Mind And Beyond. Nadia Masood who operates her blog with her name. Umair with his blog Dashtnavard. Ugly Shoelace  managing her Ugly Worn-Out Shoelace and last but not the least Natasha Suleman operating her blog the spicy Green Chillies and then of course……we all miss Eva’s blog.

Done with my bit. Over to you guys now!

Cheers!

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It has been one bewildering week. Soaked in freshness, permeated in raw beauty, bathed in exuberance. Loved every minute and moment of it_ Like being transported to a surreal land and heaven of fantasies, dreams and fairies_ And it all felt so intoxicating and unreal; So out of this world! 

 

Felt like reaching out to the skies and touching the naked face of vertical cliffs and majestic mountains. A cluster of glorious peaks encompassing the mere mortals, from one end to the other, making everything look so ordinary and microscopic in comparison with the grand scale of the surrounding universe.

 

  

More to follow. Until you begin to get a feeler and a vague idea what the experience must have been like!? And just wondering, if you can figure out and name the places, I have been most fortunate to set my foot on. Lets see!?

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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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In contrast to one of those momentous narrations & ostentatious bragging about scaling some monumental peaks or heights that go on endlessly, this is a recount of one of my recent preposterous misadventures. It was the last day of our sojourn at one of the newly established cosy hotels in Donga Gali during last August.

I woke up early in the morning only to find a chilly breeze and drizzle greet all of us. Unfortunately, no one was interested to saunter by. The atmosphere was too tempting enticing me to set off for the enchanting world stood waiting to be explored with all its besotting charm. Soon, I took the turn and started to climb the metalled ascent along the drive that runs through the historical buildings and hotels built in stone masonry and the vacation cottages with gaily coloured tin roofs and gables.

Along the highway from where the trek originates

Mushkpuri hotel; One of the oldest nestled in the hills

The mist was lowering veiling the breathtaking landscape in mild rain gradually. I continued to walk along the steep grade as the rain picked up.

Along the drive- One of the many views I found mesmerising

After a few minutes I approached the end of the paved lane marking the beginning of the thick forest. It had started to rain hard by then. But the mud track that lay before me bisecting the dense calm green was too irresistible. It was all unplanned and all I was carrying was my camera and cell phone- No backpack – No rain coat ; But as soon as I inhaled the moist heavy breeze laden with intoxicating scent of pines, I knew it was unstoppable. 

The ever gratifying encyclopedia courtesy Forest Department

Just in case you are inclined to hire the asses

As drawn by some invisible force, taking larger strides, I walked towards Lalazar and Mushkpuri top. Strolling along the face of the hill, looking down along the shelving dense green slopes covered with tall pines, for a short distance, I could make the diminishing signs of the meandering highway far below. Soon the trek disappeared in the dense jungle where I encountered all sorts of protesting voices, ranging from insects to monkeys, evoked by my unexpected foreign presence. 

Was I wandering in a fairyland?

 

It was a strange strand of intertwining and inseparable emotions, I was subjected to, being lost as a tiny speck in this wide expanse of wilderness. To be honest, I was sweating in rain and chill owing more to excitement and fear than exertion. But in the end the curiosity that had once killed the cat got the better of me and I continued. 

Once you start there is no looking back

 There was a huge log of a thick tree that fell across the narrow trek. Only way to cross the barrier was to climb and jump over the thick trunk. Having hiked for half an hour or so, there was a diversion and a sign reading Lalazar pointing towards a steep ascent. The grassy layers were subsiding making the steep trek muddy and harder to climb. Slithering, I tumbled upon one of the slopes and rolled on for quite a while discovering only much to my dumbness having recovered my senses moments later that the dearest wifey’s camera was all smeared in mud_ Lens, view finder, batteries compartment and all (how I went through the trial and painstaking process of detailed sapping interrogation is an adventure saved for another day) and its batteries gone and lost. The pair of jeans I was clad in was all daubed in mud as well and so was my sweatshirt. Not to worry about the joggers as those were already drenched and soaked.

In a shroud of haze

 

A drape of mist or green?

I moved on. My biggest regret and worry being, I would no longer be able to take photographs. But we all know, life can be so unkind at times. Nothing more eventful took place during the rest of the climb.

 On my return, I was consciously aware that it was cold and I was drenched and getting late. I hurried down the hill and jogging wherever possible. The last scare came from the barking stray dogs as soon as I stepped into the civilization again. But perhaps they soon realized that I was as harmless and astray as their wretched souls and they decided against it when I came to a complete halt.  

 I took a sigh of relief as I approached the hotel. But the shopkeepers looked at me with gaping mouths and bewildered eyes when I told them that I was just back from Mushkpuri. That didn’t count much. But what really counted was that I made it before the breakfast buffet was over and hungry as I was, I had the opportunity to unleash myself and devour all the food laid on the tables.

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As the spring sets in, everything springs up including our trekking plans for the year. To start the season, those who know of it, we go through the annual ritual and pilgrimage of walking through a breathtakingly beautiful trek that tears through the verdant meadows and alpine heavens running from Thandiani to Nathiagali. 39 kilometers in walking length, oscillating between 6500 and 9000 ft ASL, the warm up trek is known as a bed of roses amongst the trekkers of Pakistan. Forest rest houses provide lodging and camping options at Biran gali and Dagri, both 13 kms ( 8 miles )  apart. 

As it is not humanly possible to narrate the beauty and charm of the hike, a few pics taken during the last year’s hike taken by my friends ( all credit to them) , are uploaded to exhibit a glimpse of simplicity, purity and natural aura that pervades life in those mountains and valleys. 

A picture, as they say, is worth more than thousand words…….

 

 

As I relived all those moments, craving all the more to go through that remarkable experience all over again, how was your journey through the snapshots? Like to share a word or two?

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