Tuesday, October 28, 2014

In Search of Nature: An End to End Journey from Karachi to Taobat, Kashmir!

Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 1
The Jeep to Paradise - At Kel going to Taobat - Neelum Valley, Kashmir
First thing First: the Logistical Catch 22
When one starts from Karachi, targeting Pakistan’s scenic North in depth, it always has to be a long unending journey, unless one resorts to the air travel. Flying also solves the logistics only partially because there are no direct flights from Karachi to the Northern Areas so one has to fly to Islamabad before hitting the road inevitably.

For this year’s travels we chose Neelum Valley, which is situated in the far Northeast part of the country along the Indian Occupied Kashmir, and faced the same dilemma. Our aim was to first reach Taobat, the ultimate of the Neelum Valley villages, and then backtrack to the other scenic destinations such as Arang Kel, Shounter, Keran, Kutton, etc.

After a basic cost-benefit analysis, we tilted to undertake this ~1,900 km traveling by rail and road only – at least for one way! That shall not be a tough decision otherwise but with two kids in the tow we were a bit concerned.

The Eternal Journey had to be done with Four Intermediate Connections
1. Karachi to Faisalabad by overnight train (Karakoram Express) ~22 hours including taxi
2. Faisalabad to Rawalpindi by bus (Skyways New Subhan) ~5 hours
3. Rawalpindi to Muzaffarabad by coaster (Skyways Qadri) ~5 hours
4. Muzaffarabad to Taobat by jeep ~12 hours

Testing Our Limits
We had two options; either break the journey somewhere around Rawalpindi or Islamabad or bear the elongated commute. We decided to travel as far as we could, with kids in the tow, in one go and break that only if it is needed. Thankfully, it went well, better than what we expected, so we did not have to stop until we reached our ultimate destination, i.e. Taobat, after an end to end commuting of 44 hours!

Where There is a Will There is a Way
Other than tough logistics, we had to overcome a few more challenges; one was the political uncertainty as Imran Khan’s PTI and Tahirul Qadri’s PAT were out on the roads protesting for their demands and then I bought train tickets at a notice of only two days due to a tragedy in the family meaning too less time for planning and packing. Except for one-way train tickets, we did not book anything in advance, neither a hotel nor a transport, and instead made on the go decisions. Above all, our major concern was weather as monsoon had already started which could cause heavy flooding – and it did!

Day 1: Monday, August 18, 2014
So leaving these ifs and buts at home, we started the expedition on Monday August 18, 2014.

Kids Enjoyed Their First Train Experience
First we took the train from Karachi to Faisalabad. As a family, it was our first train experience and importantly both the kids had a good time. There was enough space and happenings to keep them busy; interacting with strangers, sneaking into neighboring cabins, climbing up to the berths, buying a packet of nibbles from every passing hawker, in short they enjoyed it fully!

Be Thankful to Pakistan Railways, and Khwaja Saad Rafiq, If the Train is only 2-3 Hours Late
We felt lucky when the train departed on time, 4 pm, but soon after leaving the station, Karachi Cant, the locomotive failed! It took a couple of hours for the new engine to arrive and the journey resumed. Other than this starting delay, the train kept running all night and only stopped at designated stations.

Is Train Travel Still Doable in Pakistan?
It depends mainly on which train one chooses. I selected Karakoram Express, for part of the journey, because in addition to being quicker, it used to have newer and better bogies. But this time, coaches were not that good, not too bad either. Toilet was a typical Pakistani-train squat, scary for the kids, but luckily it was not grubby. On the positive side, food from the dining car was fresh, wholesome, and reasonably priced. Overall, the journey was an okay experience and cost wise, unbeatable!

With the train, one could continue to Rawalpindi, but we planned to drop off at Faisalabad because from there it takes ~8 hours to reach Rawalpindi by train as compared to bus’s ~5 hours. The other, more popular, route was via Lahore which would have only added at least 2 more hours without any apparent cause.

Day 2: Tuesday, August 19, 2014
Quick, Smooth, and Eventless: Faisalabad to Rawalpindi/Islamabad through Motorway
When I woke up in the morning, the unending cultivations on both sides of the track were hinting that the train was deep into Punjab. The greenery continued until we reach Faisalabad at ~11am and quickly switched to the Skyways bus standing outside the train station ready for departure to Islamabad/Rawalpindi. I bought the tickets then and there and we boarded on.

Misha Broke Her Shoes
The Dawoo bus made one midway stop after ascending the salt range hills to cool the engine down. It was a busy motel where buses and other vehicles were coming frequently for a sojourn amid the hot weather. Urooba went inside to change Mikael’s diaper while I took along Misha to the play area. When she returned, there was a bad news for her! On the rides, Misha broke her shoes. I tried calming down the angry Mama and ensured that we will buy a new one as soon as we will reach the destination.

To Stopover or Not to Stopover
The bus had to take us to Faizabad, the interchange between Islamabad and Rawalpindi, where we had to catch the Muzaffarabad bound coaster. Despite the uncertainty in the bus’s air, due to those sit-ins in Islamabad, we reached Faizabad at ~4 pm. On the way, we witnessed a crane fixing a cargo container to block the road, but thankfully we were just in time.

At the bus stop, Muzaffarabad bound Qadri Coaster was ready for departure.  A couple of seats were available in the rare portions of the coaster. After a brief discussion, we decided to continue the journey, rather than staying in Islamabad, so that we could catch the Taobat bound overnight jeep from Muzaffarabad.

Dharna Effect
Dharna, Imran Khan’s sit in, caused us a delay in leaving the city, as roads leading to the other side of the capital were barricaded. The all-knowing bus driver made a detour, interestingly through Bani Gala, where Imran Khan resides, and soon we were out of the city. Afterwards, it was all clear, in fact clearer than a normal day.

Twists, Turns, and the Headache: Islamabad to Muzaffarabad via Murree
The coaster departed at ~5pm and reached Muzaffarabad at ~9:30pm after ascending and then descending the Murree Hills. The kempt hillside highway was full of twists and turns. We started getting tired not only because it was already more than 24 hours that we were on the road. Up the hills, it was cold, cooler than a winter evening in Karachi; giving us the hint of what to expect in the coming days. Surprisingly, the evergreen Murree was all silent, maybe due to the political situation down the hills. On the contrary, Muzaffarabad was livelier.

The Adventure Begun: Muzaffarabad to Taobat in the Overnight Jeep
When we reached Muzaffarabad, Mushtaq, the jeep owner, and Asadullah, the driver, was waiting for us anxiously. They both transferred our luggage to the rustic four-wheeler without wasting any further moment, as we were already late. As we squeezed into the antique jeep, it felt like moving back into some ancient times and with that the nonstop journey entered into the adventure zone!

That old Land Cruiser had to run the whole night, and some part of the day too, 200+ km and 10 hours in all, to reach Taobat – our final destination. Not to mention that Neelum Valley Road is infamous for deadly accidents. Mostly, the vehicles fell in the river and when the unfortunate happens it is almost impossible to recover anything, let alone saving lives. Roadside safety is also inexistent so one is fully at the mercy of the driver after Allah. Also, the road mostly runs along the heavily militarized Line of Control, where a heavy warlike fire can erupt at any point in time.

No Mobile Signals from Now
As it was not an enough adventure, Mushtaq informed us that there would be no mobile signals onwards, soon after we left Muzaffarabad, so I texted the family the last time. Then, my eyes were shutting down due to the exhausting journey while the spine was having chills due to the thoughts of the remaining one!

Jahanzeb is a True Gem!
We only managed to catch the Taobat bound jeep courtesy Jahanzeb, a fellow traveler and a great human being whom I contacted through Pakwheels.com where he posted his recent experience of traveling around Neelum Valley with his family. It was Jahanzeb’s personal efforts that the jeep driver waited for us patiently. He also gave us extra seats so that Misha and Mikael could sleep comfortably.

Memories of 2005 Earthquake
It was pitch dark outside and the beam from the jeep front was the only ray of light and hope. This was in the dark that we sneaked along the winding turns of River Neelum and crossed the towns of Chuliyana, Kundal Shahi, Athmuqam, and Sharda.

I had been to Chuliyana after the earthquake of 2005 to take part in relief activities. Then I formed an initiative with my university colleagues aiming to revitalize schools and to bring kids of the disaster hit area back to education. Chuliyana, which is famous for a flagged bridge separating Indian and Pakistani sides of the valley, was the farthest we could commute then. Beyond this, it was the unchartered territory for me, and this time I was towing the family along without much idea what to expect onwards.

In the meanwhile, mercury kept on dropping so much so that we had to fetch blankets from our backpacks for the sleeping kids.

Day 3: Wednesday, August 20, 2014
Of Lata, Rafi, and Kel
Sound system in the jeep was playing classical soundtracks. Later on, we observed that the whole valley was spell bounded by Rafi and Lata Mangeshkar’s sweet vocals. In between these soundtracks and Mushtaq’s interesting chat, both of us were trying hard to avoid forty winks. When we woke up fully it was early morning and we had reached Kel, an important transportation hub in the Neelum Valley.

Outside the jeep it was as chilled as a deep freezer! Trembling from cold, I hurriedly asked around for fresh milk, for kids, but could only find the packaged one, alas! Otherwise also, Kel appeared like a typical dirt town, a disappointment I would say. Thankfully, it was a brief stopover and we resumed soon to our final destination, Taobat.

The Climax Starts
The final ~50 km stretch started from Kel – another far-flung town which makes a fork for Shounter and Guraiz sub-valleys. Taobat, our ultimate destination, is located at the tail end of Guraiz valley banking around Neelum River.

Kel – Taobat Road is a Paradise for Road Travelers
The jeep covered those ~50 km in 4 hours! It was tough even for the four wheelers and at the same time mesmerizingly beautiful also. On the way, there were innumerable streams and waterfalls on both sides of the river making their way down through dense alpine. Throughout this stretch, my tired eyes kept wide open, to the maximum, and still it was difficult to absorb the spectacular beauty! It was the second best road journey in my life till date after that of Shandur Pass, which connects Chitral from Gilgit.

Security Checks
Throughout the journey, we had to pass through many check-posts, for the identity verification, and finally at the last check-post at Halmat village, the army took our CNICs in their custody and assured to give that back upon our return!

Jeep; the Lifeline of the Mountainous North
Between Kel and Toabat we traveled through villages of Janwai, Phulwai, Sardari, Halmat, etc. All of them had same setting; river flowing in the middle, colorful wooden cottages on both sides peeking through maze crops, lush surrounding hills, and a dirt trek being the only worldly nuisance! The jeep stopped at every other village, although there were no passengers except for us.

In these remote valleys, these land cruisers not only carry people but also play the roles of courier service and cargo carrier, the reason why it was having those breaks. Every time it stopped to unload the cramped up carriage on the roof we got a chance to interact with locals and observe their lifestyle. The life was getting more primitive and purer with every passing parish! In the meantime, sun started showing up, soothing up our shivering bodies which had been coping-up with the temperature shock, from Karachi’s 30 C to Kashmir’s freezing jeep night.

Finally we reached Taobat at around 10am….

To be continued

Traveling Expenses from Karachi to Taobat:
PKR 500: Taxi from Home to the Train Station
PKR 3,500: Karachi to Faisalabad train (Karakoram Express) – 2 berths and one half price seat
PKR 2,250: Faisalabad to Rawalpindi Skyways – 3 seats
PKR 1,050: Rawalpindi to Muzaffarabad Qasdri coaster (Skyways) – 3 seats
PKR 3,000: Muzaffarabad to Taobat by jeep – 4 seats
PKR 300: Quli
Total: ~10,500 


Pakistan Railways Reservation Office at Abul Hasan Isfahani Road, Gulshane Iqbal, Karachi
 
Train Timings: Karachi to Up-country

Ready for Departure
It was a Miracle that this Taxi Made it to the Train Station!
Karakoram Express Coming Out of Karachi Cant Station
Bye Bye Karachi!
Green Pakistan!
Breakfast from the Train's Dining Car
As Usual Mikael is Collecting the Food in His Cheeks
It was Hard for them to Sit Back in the Train
Kids with the Train Chachoo
Skyways Faisalabad to Islamabad
Midway Stopover at Lahore Islamabad Motorway
A Recent News in Daily Jang about an Accident around Neelum Valley
Taobat's Asadullah: a Proud and and Expert Jeep Driver
Final Stretch: Kel - Taobat Jeep Journey Starts
Repairs Works Underway at Kel - Taobat Road
Machal Waterfall on Kel - Taobat Road
Another View of Machal Waterfall
A Bakarwal's Herd on Kel - Taobat Road
An Old Kashmiri House on Kel-Taobat Road
An Uncharacterstic Neelum Village on Kel - Taobat Road; Maybe a Refugee Shelter
Random Beauty of Guraiz Valley
One of the Countless Waterfalls on Kel - Taobat Road
Enroute Kel - Tobat; a Small Hyrdo Electric Plant
On Guraiz Valley Trek Jeep is the Name of the Game
A Random Angle from the Jeep Window
The Jeep Enters into Janwai Village on Kel - Taobat Road and Meets the Motorcycle!
Just Another Waterfall on Kel - Taobat Road
Phulwai; the Biggest Village of Guraiz Valley
A Typical Kashmiri Grave Cot
Managing Water
Getting Closer and Closer to Nature and Taobat
Advertising a Tent Village on Kel - Taobat Road
The Tent Village Advertised in the Previous Photo
Yet Another Water Stream on Kel - Taobat Road
A Typical Guraiz Valley Hemlet on Kel - Taobat Road
A Natural Turn!
Sardari Village on Kel - Taobat Road
So You Can Bring Your Motorbike to Guraiz Valley
Past
Future
Connecting the Two Sides
Slowly the Modernization is Catching Up the Guraiz Valley
A Kargil War Memorial on Guraiz Valley Road
 At Times the Jeep Ran Right Besides the River
It was Almost Sailing in the River
There is a Karimabad in Neelum Valley also!
When I was Searching for a PCO around Halmat Village
Finally We Reached Taobat, Alhamdolillah!