Friday, November 21, 2014

Arang Kel - Where the Wheel is Yet to be Invented




Misha and Mikael; Halfway Down the Arang Kel Hike

This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 7 
Click here for Part 6 Part 5 Part 4 Part 3 Part 2  Part 1


Day 11: Thursday, August 28, 2014
Morning Walk
As usual, I woke up with the first light and after helping Urooba in preparing kids’ feeders ventured out for a carefree stroll. It was a beautiful morning with the clear sky. Views on all sides were simply stunning. The sun was shining on the lush plateau providing it with the much needed solar energy. Sunflowers were standing tall to make the full use of the opportunity after a cold night. Because of the height, ~8,000 feet, and the wind-chill it was freezing even under the sunlight.  

The green flat terrain was cultivated with neatly fenced corn fields and was surrounded by a circular mountain circumference behind one part of which was the Indian Occupied Territory. Low lying mountains were occupied by the dense alpine and separated by the glacial linings. Mushrooming wooden cottages in between the cultivation were the only sign of the human presence although they were not looking out of place. It was peace and tranquility all around. I was wandering aimlessly absorbing the feel of the place and listening to the rhythmic resonance created by the breeze hitting the surrounding mountains.

Lost in the fantasy world, I could not even notice that there was someone around probably talking to me. When I looked back, there was no one actually. I took that as a confusion and ignored it. But after a few minutes I felt the whispering once more. And again there was no one around except for me. For a moment, it added to the fantasy feeling but then I fathomed that it was actually the echo effect produced due to the bowl like formation of Arang Kel. The sound was actually coming from cottages, which were placed reasonably far, where locals were preparing to start their day.

In Kashmir, School is a Must!
Local children, of all sizes, clad in clean uniforms were pouring down from the village trails and congregating around the plain land behind the single storey school building located adjacent to our cottage. Lined up for the assembly, they sung Iqbal’s famous poem in the chorus which sounded like a divine message courtesy natural echo and the dreamlike surrounding. It was such an inspiring moment that I quickly grabbed my kids from the cottage who were just ready for the breakfast walk. Arang Kel was essentially a rural locality, however, school was the essential part of the local life. Generally, I observed that people in Kashmir, no matter how far they live, take pride in educating their children and do that seriously. A good omen for their future!

The Musk Deer Resort - Arang Kel; Cozy with Rude Staff
Last evening, the young manager of Musk Deer Resort excused us about the unavailability of the chef, meaning that we had to walk to the army canteen for the breakfast. Seeing Pakistani soldiers once again, Misha’s Taobat born patriotism got reenergized. Cadets were also impressed with her emotions and out of courtesy showed us the guns while the hot breakfast was in the making. Incharge of the canteen offered to rent us the guestroom also which looked well furnished and clean. We noted the offer – in case we would elongate our stay in Arang Kel beyond two nights – which did not happen eventually. From the tuck shop, kids and wifey restocked their snacks quota before we walked back to our room.

On the way back, Urooba interacted with a few local ladies but found them not that welcoming either. Back at the cottage, we had nothing much to do except for hanging and meandering around. A few months back my friend, Nadeem Siddiqui, visited Arang Kel and trekked to the nearby glacier with his family. I also wanted to explore the same which was unfortunately not possible as the glaciers had been retracting due to the summers and went out of reach for us. Sialkoti guests had also departed and there were no travelers there except for us. The staff boasted about how full their hotel was during the summer season. Owned by some professor turned civil servant, whom we could not meet as he mostly resided in Muzaffarabad, the Musk Deer Resort was actually a nice place for the overnight stay except for the lazy and unresponsive staff.

In the meanwhile, I met another oldie, equally cunning to the one we met the day before, who introduced himself as the brother of facility owner. He was taking pride in his village’s booming popularity but at the same time was complaining about the attitude of tourists. During the discussion, I found out that the unavailability of the chef was only a lame excuse as in reality the staff did not want to open up the kitchen for only two of us. For me, that was rude. It looked like that the heavy and the sudden influx of tourists in the recent years corrupted their minds. From the menu rates, it was also evident that they were only interested in fleecing money from visitors rather than any other thing.

The young manager of the resort, who was an outsider, was the only sane person among them. Soft spoken and knowledgeable, the lad was much more open and frank. He was also worried about locals’ stubbornness and shared his doubts about the sustainability of the business. Giving the example of the prevailing conservatism in Arang Kel, he revealed that locals don’t sell their land, even among each other, and absolutely no property transaction ever took place at their soil! According to him, some locals were even against the very idea of outsiders visiting their valley due to which a silent resentment had been developing in the area against tourists.

He looked to have good knowledge about the wild life in the area especially about those pricey herbs Neelum Valley is famous for – one of which I remember named Tripattra! During our chat, a handicapped looking teenager, who was wearing a heavy duty metallic elbow support, started lingering around looking for free money. His father had died in a road accident – a common unfortunate story around Pakistan’s mountainous – and the boy was left alone with his mother.

Watching Sunset in Arang Kel
Electricity system in Arang Kel was the same we found in Toabat; a small hydro generator installed by locals on self help basis which run during the nighttime only. So taking benefit of the leftover day we lounger around tree trunk seats outside the cottage and had an observation session. The weather took a turn in the late afternoon till then it was a clear sky. Stray clouds started gathering, and interestingly for the kids, they were doing so right in front of us at the same altitude. The sun was setting slowly in the ‘V’ shaped slit between the two mountains generating a plethora of colors on the sky.

For the dinner, I had to once again go to the army canteen to grab back the supper. At the end of the day, we were almost sure not to extend our stay in Arang Kel beyond that night so we packed up once again for the morning before going to bed.

Day 12: Friday, August 29, 2014
The Downward Trek
We had already decided to move down after spending two nights in Arang Kel so in the morning we quickly grabbed our backpacks, settled our hotel dues, and headed to the army canteen for the breakfast before starting the downhill trek. We wanted to descend in the first half of the day avoiding the imminent rain which could have caused the trails getting slippery and dangerous. During the night, it kept drizzling sporadically and at a far mountain we could even see the signs of fresh snow.

Based on the ascending experience and the fact that the descent is usually a lot less painstaking, we also decided not to take a porter with us. I carried the big backpack and the useless stroller along with steering Misha while following the better half who picked the smaller backpack and grabbed Mikael. It went well overall except for a couple of extremely slimy patched where I skidded thankfully without any physical damage. At one slope wifey also slanted but somehow avoided slipping which could have been more serious otherwise with the hanging Mikael. For part of the trek we luckily got help from a bunch of trekkers, belonging to Abbottabad, as they carried Mikael from the waterfall to the army post at the bridge. The most satisfying thing for us was Misha’s response as she undertook the ~1,000 feet hike mostly at her own, Mashallah!

The trek was pretty doable till the swing bridge after which it was a strenuous climb to the Kel bazaar – which looked almost impossible to continue after a couple of turns. It was our good luck that the attendant of Sardar Sarhad Hotel, where we stayed in Kel, had been meandering around in search of a ‘free range’ rooster, desi kukkar, for his demanding guests! I would have taken him as a life saving angel if he were not ogling at every passing by girl while murmuring cheap Indian songs! Nonetheless, he helped miserable us by hitching a jeep driver for the lift to his hotel.

Evaluating Options; Shounter, Keran, or Kel?
It was midday when we arrived back at Sardar Sarhad Hotel – completely exhausted and undecided what to do next. The trip itinerary came back once again to square one as we did not have any firm plans for the days to come except for that we were not going back home any soon. After a discussion among ourselves while having the same Daal Lobya, from a rustic restaurant across the road, we narrowed down the options; continue to Shounter valley for 2/3 days camping trip, pull back to Keran which was a 3-4 hours bus ride, or stay overnight in Kel and decide it later.

The first option, i.e. Shounter was the most intriguing because of its flagship Chitta Katha Lake and the spoon shaped Shounter Lake. The main hurdle was the absence of accommodation facilities meaning that we had to stay in tents which looked flimsy with the kids. At the Shounter jeep stand in Kel it was not looking encouraging either as the departing four wheelers were leaving the town stuffed up to the full. In the meanwhile, at Sardar Hotel’s dining area I met a young Lahori pilot duo who just came back from Shounter after trekking all the way to the Chitta Katha Lake. They also advised against taking the risk with the kids in the tow. So we satisfied ourselves from their fresh camera shots of the divinely beautiful lake and got settled in the hotel room to stay overnight in Kel before tracking back to Keran the next morning via Sharda.

Kel Bazaar, Again
While I was having chitchat with the hotel owner and the contractor, Misha came downstairs shouting and declaring the emergency. Upstairs, Mikael had hit the wooden lath of the bed and was bleeding from his lips. He was crying frantically. Good for him, and us, that it was not a big cut and got under control with the home remedy; applying sugar around the wounds. The little rascal had to do that. Full of energy, he always had ideas how to ruin a day. As we had nothing significant to do for the rest of the day so rather than waiting for another disaster while sitting in the room we went out for a stroll around messy bazaar.

We stopped by at the restaurant, where we had lunch earlier in the day, for yet another cup of tea. There we met an army doctor who was posted in Kel’s military hospital way far from his hometown Bahawalpur. That was an interesting and insightful session about the life and its precariousness in such remotely located areas.

For the dinner, we could not resist the tempting roadside BBQ stall fanned by a young boy who was helped by both of his parents in preparing the meat sticks.  The guy first quoted me Rs. 50 for one stick, seekh, thinking of as another fat cat tourist. But then directly jumped to the local rate, which was Rs. 20, when he realized his ‘valuation’ error! He opined that even meager visitors like us brought at least Rs. 1 Million (USD 10,000) for the trip! With the Arang Kel experience, I could make sense where he was coming from. I enjoyed his assertions which were insightful of the mindset of the locals who were themselves bamboozled with the sudden influx of tourism in the area.

After having four rounds of half a dozen spicy and mouth watering sticks, we call it a day.

Front View of the Musk Deer Resort Arang Kel
Kitchen of the Musk Deer Resort Arang Kel
Musk Deer Resort's Furnished Garden
Expanding Business: Musk Deer Resort's New 'Building'
During Summers the Resort Staff had to Setup Tents to Cater the Increased Demand
Menu List of the Musk Deer Resort
Rooms at the Resort were Clean and Cozy
Sunflowers in Front of an Abandoned Cottage 
View from the Bathroom Window!
Sun Worshipers
Standing Tall and Yellow
Another Flower!
Arang Kel Middle School
Open Air Classes
Corn Fields, Mountain, Glacier, and the Stray Cloud
Natural Flowery 
Village Trail in Arang Kel
A Loner Amid Shades of Green
The Same Cottage from the Kitchen Window
Warning from Locals
The Omnipresent Masjid Ka Chanda! 
23 On the Left (Green) is a Mosque While on the Right (Blus) is an Under Construction Guesthouse
Labor Going for Grass Cutting
Free Range Chicken Wandering Around
Corn Was Almost Ready
A Local Vegetable
Mint
An Essential of the Rural Life
We Spotted This Again in Arang Kel
A Moth on the Outside of the Room Window
Another Creature On the Outside of the Room Window
The Seating Area of the Army Canteen
Fresh Snow Can be Spotted in the Center
A View of Kel from Arang Kel
Ready to Defend
Room at the Army Camp
Branding on Arang Kel Trek
The Black Goat Cut Our Path - Sign of Goodluck!?
Misha with Village Kids
Carrying Stones for Home
The Naughty One with the Naughtier Nose
A Lady on the Trail
Arang Kel Trail - This was Where We Descended From
The Rs. 1500 Rooster Cost!
Kel's Jeep and Bus Stand
A Big Coach Arrived in Kel
Kel - Muzaffarabad Coaster
The Notorious Rocket Bus Standing Besides a Coach
Kel Bazaar - Note the Variety of Vehicles; Jeep, Sedan, Hiace, and a Van
The Limo!
That One was Going to Shounter Valley
Ticket Office for Muzaffarabad - Also Note Stacked Pears
The Scary Guesthouse in Kel
Peers Were Selling Rs. 30 a kg!
Jihad!!
Official Menu List for Neelum Valley
Kel Bazaar - It Was All Happening
SCO - the Special Telecom Operator in Neelum Valley
Desi Chicken Soup Seeing is Believing
Kel Bazaar - It Needed Guts to Enter into Place
Kids Playing Cricket in Kel Bazaar
Fetching Herbs from Neelum Valley is a Crime
The Delicious Roadside BBQ!
The Dining Area of Sardar Sarhad Hotel Kel