by Kamran Rifat
An account of the travelling experience with friends to Neelam Valley, AJK
|In professional life the long weekends are blessings and in Pakistan you get this honor quite a few times. At the start of every year the employees start calculating the long weekends they will get during that particular year and the same was done by us. But as compared to the last year this year the long weekends were very few. Fortunately in March there was an opportunity and since it was months since we all, colleagues and friends, went out for some much needed outing. Farhan, our tour guide, being an avid fan of travelling could not have asked for more to envisage a tour plan from 19th March to 23rd March, 2010. Like our last tour of Banjosa Lake and Tolipir hilltop in Azad Jammu Kashmir, this time around the plan was to explore the Neelum Valley in Azad Jammu Kashmir. |
He efficiently planned the tour itinerary – from Lahore to Muzaffarabad via Islamabad and Murree, Muzaffarabad to Athmuqam, Athmuqam to Sharda, Sharda to Kel and from Kel to Keran and back to Lahore. It was a four day exciting and fun plan and the ten eager enthusiasts (Farhan, Irfan, Kamran, Usman, Murtaqa, Imad, Saad, Atif, Ghazzanfar and Reshma) left from Lahore on a High Roof Hiace towards the destination on Friday night. While Bilal could not make it as his father fell ill, Tariq skipped because his fiancé didn’t allow him to, Affan ditched us to attend his friend’s wedding and Rafey missed out to enjoy his last birthday as bachelor with his in-laws. No wonder they let pass the opportunity of a wonderful trip and it is also a painful reality that none of us noticed their absence.
We set out on our adventurous journey and had hardly reached Sial Service Area on Motorway when Ghazzanfar disclosed that he no longer wanted to continue the tour, the news was shocking for us but then Ghazzanfar explained his misery of backache and requested us to drop him there as he wanted to go back and for our surprise he already made some adjustments on phone. Consequently, we dropped him there and continued our journey.
Early next morning we stopped at Phagwari, Murree to have a cup of tea – a break that was badly needed. Farhan, our navigator, was dead tired as he was up all night chatting with Gul Rose, our driver, so that he doesn’t sleep. And upon seeing a Charpai (hemp woven bedstead) he just rushed towards it snatching the woolen shawl from me, to protect him from the cool breeze, and laid down to take a power nap ala Prof. Viru Sahastre budhhe (ViruS). The tea was served with few tea cakes and we all gulped it but some of us didn’t eat the cakes in anticipation of the breakfast which we were to have in Muzaffarabad.
After a brief stopover of 20 minutes, we restarted our journey towards Muzaffarabad. Finally, after a few hours of travel we got there and everyone expected a breakfast. But to our shock and utter disbelieve, Farhan revealed that as we already had breakfast at Phagwari we would have lunch at Athmuqam. Agonized by this disclosure, we looked at each other seeking solace as there was nothing we could do about it except wait to reach Athmuqam. At Domel, Muzaffarabd we saw the Neelum River streams joining river Jhelum.
We continued our march towards Athmuqam, the district headquarters of Neelum Valley, with the estimated travel time of six hours. And when the breakfast has been denied it becomes rather more difficult to travel that long distance on any empty stomach. So Usman suggested playing cards in order to pass time and as it turned out it helped a lot. The road which led to Athmuqam was not in good shape rather there was no shape. Much of this was due to land sliding over the last few years especially after the October 2005 earthquake; and there was some development work in progress there, making it pretty obvious that the movement will be slow. But it never occurred to us that how slow it would be. Anyhow we remained patient. We were moving alongside the river Jhelum. We were about 5-7kms away from ‘Nosehri Sadda’ when the land sliding once again killed our steady advancement and this time round it was worse. And we were told by the Pakistan army team that it will roughly take about two hours to get the road clear again for traffic. It was a classic case of rubbing salt on wounds; we all were really hungry and anxious to reach Athmuqam to have lunch. Just before that point we stopped over at a waterfall and what a wonderful view it was. Although the sun was shining bright, the water was pretty cold. I drank the water to quench the thirst and then we had a photo session with the waterfall in the background. Farhan and Irfan experimented with their cameras and took some beautiful solo pictures of the waterfall which turned out to be too good. When we reassembled in the bus and complained about being hungry, we were given toffee size Cadbury chocolates supposedly to regain some energy.
After much deliberation we decided to have lunch at Nosehri Sadda instead of Athmuqam in order to save time. We left three people with the Hiace to safeguard our belongings and promised to bring food for them and the rest reached a small hotel (Dhabba) at Nosehri Sadda. It is always a safe bet to eat either maize or any dish of chicken while on tour of Northern areas, so we did the same and ordered Chicken Karahi. By the time the lunch was served, quite surprisingly our other three friends along with the driver also reached the Dhabba. Thanks to the Pakistan Army for clearing the road so quickly. The lunch was served after sometime and we heartily ate the scrumptious Chicken Karahi. Quite interestingly Nosehri Sadda is actually the starting point of the Neelum Valley and there are two LOC sectors in the Valley one is at Chiliana which comes after Barrian and the second one is Tithwal. Neelum Valley is distinct in its own respect as it forms a shape of arc on the map of Azad Jammu and Kashmir. The lowest point in the arc is Nosehri Sadda, while the highest point is Taobat.
We started our journey once again but not before asking the local people how far Athmuqam was from there. We were happy to hear that it was just about two hours drive from Nosehri Sadda. The remaining drive was supposed to be less than an hour, but in order to be certain we pulled over to ask. To our dismay, a local confirmed to Gul Rose that another 2 hours remained in our journey. But this didn’t end here, and it was pretty obvious that the locals had made it a point to agonize and terrorize us by increasingly our travel time every time we asked one. We all were desperately waiting for someone to tell us that we have reached Athmuqam but no one came to our rescue and once again we were told that we needed to go another 35 miles to reach the much awaited destination. Eventually, after toiling for so long we reached there and such was the mood that no one really took notice of it but I did make the ‘hail Athmuqam’ gesture. At that point Farhan announced a change of plan. We will not be going to Sharda that day as it was another two hours from there instead we would stay at Keran which was at a distance of 5-7km from Athmuqam.
We reached at the rest house in Keran after a 40 minute drive from Athmuqam. Azad Jammu Kashmir Tourism Department has constructed some very beautiful rest houses to promote tourism. The rest house was spacious and had all the necessary facilities, but the only thing it lacked was electricity, the supply of which was disrupted for the past 2-3 months due to the extreme weather conditions. But to their credit, they had made an effort to overcome the crisis by installing solar energy devices. As we were all very tired after the laborious and adventurous journey, so after freshening up and having a sumptuous meal everyone hit the bed. We were told that not long ago (about three years) the road to Keran was blocked because of the cross border firing. The Indian part of Kashmir was on the opposite side of the Neelum River and we could actually see the settlement on the Indian side from our Rest House. Imad was really surprised on this revelation, in fact he was quite excited to know he had slept and stayed under the shadow of India.
The next morning, after breakfast we set on course for Sharda – a drive of two hours from Keran. On our way we saw some beautiful scenery where peaks were covered with snow and it reminded us of winter snowfall. We came across some scenic sights and many springs and waterfalls as the snow was melting on the top of the mountains. At one spot we saw a spectacular triple story waterfall which was quite amazingly originating from a single source. That is why Neelum Valley is also nick named as ‘Aabshara’. It all added to the splendor view before us. After two hours we reached Sharda guest house to meet the administration and to inform them about change of our plan – we had decided to skip our stay at Sharda. They understood, but we got the feeling that they wanted to host us and show their hospitality. So they voluntarily requested us to take them along to Kel – our next destination, we agreed. The administrator enlightened us about the Neelum Valley from the map and then took us to the Sharda Fort which used to be an old Budha University and was built by Kinshak-the-first, Prince of Nepal, from 24 AD to 27 AD. In the era of Kinshak-the- first, Sharda was the biggest educational institute in Central Asia. In addition to the regular education of Buddhism, the subjects of History, Geography and Philosophy were also being taught there. The university had its own Script – Sharda, which resembled with the Deo Nagri Script, and the current village Sharda was named after it. However, this building has now turned in to ruins due to negligence. Its importance of being an educational and knowledge hub looked more of a distant dream now. The majority of the people these days are unaware of the chronicles of Sharda Fort and now all that is left is the myths and stories told by the locals about this historical educational institute.
We all trekked towards Sharda Fort but because of my tortoise speed I failed to match their pace and was left behind. Trekking on a mountain path is a challenge, and I’d been very careful with my walking, but I had a lapse in concentration. It happened when I was coming down from the trail where the stepping was a bit slippery. I carefully moved my right foot but as soon as I brought my left foot forward – I stumbled and lost my footing and rolled over about 4ft down on a rock bed. Humpty dumpty had a painful fall. I was really fortunate not to tumble any further and Thank God I just twisted my ankle, for it could have easily been much worse. In the immense pain I limped back with the help of my friends to the hotel where we had lunch. The pain was slowly aggravating and luckily there was a medical store in the vicinity from where I bought some balms and pain killer injection. The services of Usman, who is a Doctor as well, came in handy as he gave me the pain killer shot for an instant relief. At first I was a bit incredulous but the professionalism Dr. Usman showed while injecting and even when emptying medicine in the syringe was a proof enough to convince me that he really is a doctor and the Dr. is not a mere prefix before his name. It may sound ironic but it’s a fact that only a day before the incident, upon seeing the crape bandage in the first aid repository he was carrying, I asked Farhan why this and his reply was, “you don’t know its importance” and believe me I couldn’t have known it better.
After the lunch, we kicked off yet again towards Kel along with our three companions from Sharda. The whole journey was a feast for eyes with exotic and picturesque scenery, snow covered mountains with a hint of greenery, some glaciers, springs and the Neelum River. It was pretty cold as well. The exquisite landscape really fascinated us and when Farhan played the old is gold songs collection of Kishore Kumar and Lata Mangeshkar, it was matchless. The serene environment, the arresting and majestic view and the awesome lyrics of the songs magnified our captivating experience. There was one interesting site we saw while travelling, the road was carved through the mountain with the rock face hanging on the road. We all were astounded to see that and Gul Rose excitedly ask Farhan to take his photograph on the location, perhaps he wanted to proudly share this incredible view and his feat with his friends and family. The view which first left us speechless suddenly started to intimidate us as it looked like it could fall anytime. We simply captured this moment and settled in the van to move on.
After travelling for about two hours we reached Kel. Our rest house was at best the centre piece of the bowl covered by snow; the rest house was actually surrounded by snow covered mountains which presented breathtaking view. It was cooler than we assumed and the doorstep of the rest house still had 4ft of snow left and the snow was only cleared from the entrance. The rest house once again was pretty good and luxurious. But the only downside was the unavailability of water but the work was in progress there and would be complete in another two months or so. We had already planned a movie night in Kel in the tour itinerary and also arranged the necessary equipment for that from Lahore. So after the dinner we all gathered in the spacious lounge and Farhan, Murtaqa, Atif and Irfan got busy in making the multimedia and the speakers operational. While the multimedia was ready in no time, it was the stereo sound speakers which refused to start. Almost everyone pitched in with their input, hit and trial method was used but all in vein. We cursed and let go off the stereo sound speakers and instead used the normal speakers to enjoy the movie night. After two hours or so the movie was over and we all bunched up except for Murtaqa to play Cards. A few minutes later, when I looked around I saw Murtaqa using all his experience to set up the speakers and everyone was taken by surprise when he finally succeeded.
The next morning we had a plan of trekking towards Aarang Kel but due to weather conditions the plan was changed to Machal. Since I was injured I could not go with them but when they returned, they told me that it really was a wonderful experience and I missed it. They went to the Machal camp of Pakistan Army and were moved by their hospitality and could not stop from raving about the Pakoras and tea they had there. In the afternoon we left for Keran but not before we enjoyed the rain and the exquisite view of the mountains where the snow was falling instead of rain and it was a bit hazy as well. We dropped our guests at Sharda and reached Keran in anticipation of a planned Bonfire and Bar B.Q night. We were disappointed to hear that the staff of the rest house was unable make the necessary arrangements for it and ruined our plans. Nevertheless they made up for it and had cooked Biryani and Karahi. When the Karahi was served a new debate started on the table and it continued for about 5 minutes as to whether the food we were about to have a chicken Karahi or beef Karahi. The confusion was caused by the size of the pieces and the color as well; it had more of a beef Karahi look than anything else. But then few experts intervened and gave the verdict of it being a chicken Karahi – to the relief of a few. We were told that around that area chicken were normally over aged and weighed about 4 kgs – one quarter of a goat. This is because the locals cannot purchase anything including meat or chicken during the winter months, due to harsh weather. So the animals in that area normally fatten up during winter.
This was our last night at Keran as well as in Neelum Valley – the paradise on earth. In the morning we left for Lahore with some fond memories. The return journey was not as adventurous and exciting as when we started. The one more thing we probably could have done on tour was the bonfire and water fight but it never materialized. Although it denied us ‘the icing on the cake’ but we could hardly complain since the cake was a treat in itself. It was 3 A.M. on Wednesday when we reached our home town Lahore after a seventeen hour long journey. Indeed it was one memorable experience of my life and I am sure the others feel the same way. And I don’t think we would ever be able to forget the generosity and hospitality we received from the people of Azad Jammu and Kashmir.