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Archive for the ‘Hill Station’ Category

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

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

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

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

WELCOME! LANDSLIDES THAT GREETED US ON OUR WAY!

WELCOME! LANDSLIDES THAT GREETED US ON OUR WAY!

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

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

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

More to come…..

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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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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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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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The bewildering 39 kms long trail that runs from Thandiani to Nathiagali and unveils the heavenly beauty of pine covered ‘Galiyaat’.

 
 

Dilapidated kitchen look alike at Dagri Bangla

 

Ruptured forest bangla at Dagri. Never repaired following the massive 2005 earthquake. The word is that the structure is going to be demolished soon.

 

A sublime sunset

 

Our sweet lil abode 🙂

 

 

A breathtaking view of Nathiagali from Miran Jani top; The heighest point of 'Galiyat' 9,561 ft ASL overlooking pine clustered Nathiagali

 

 

The poor natives; The unwashed masses

 

The quaint Church at Nathiagali

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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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The queen of hills as it is majestically known, Murree holds a unique pedestal amongst the hill stations of Pakistan. Established as a sanatorium for British troops, that soon developed into the summer headquarters of Punjab government, the town was built in the middle of 19th century. Most significant historical land marks such as church and the “The Mall” were constructed in 1857 and afterwards.   

Located at a distance of 65 km and nearly 90 minutes drive from Federal Capital Islamabad, thickly clustered alpine paradise exuding bewitching beauty, remains highly accessible throughout the year. Perched up at an elevation of about 2300 m ASL (7500 ft), the hills remain draped in white sheet of snow mostly during December to March. The annual precipitation is nearly 1500 mm, in all probability, the highest anywhere in Pakistan. 

Golf course and hill resort of Bhurban, having an elevation of nearly 2000 m, are also located in the vicinity of Murree. Development of Murree expressway recently has rendered accessibility even better. 

A few pictures taken during a damp afternoon are attached here: 

 

PC Bhurban on a soaked day

Though one of the most charming places to visit, the influx of tourists much beyond the capacity and development has taken its toll. Lack of planning, human intervention and haphazard construction without any strict control or codes have contributed considerably to the environmental and ecological degradation. The green patches are being ruthlessly ripped away while heaps of debris are becoming increasingly visible. At times, even a stink of foul odours overrides the fragrance and freshness of the breeze that is the trademark of the overwhelming atmosphere. 

We have to act responsibly to preserve the rapidly depleting beauty and aura of the place!

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