Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Trip to Kashmir's Neelum Valley; a Special One in Pakistan's Abundant North




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This year we explored Kashmir’s Neelum Valley. Surrounded with dense forests, Neelum Valley is a 250 km long stretch of amazing natural beauty that runs along River Neelum in the far Northeast of Pakistan. Importantly, from the geopolitical perspective, it is Azad Kashmir on one while mostly Maqbooza Kashmir on the other side of the river. (Azad = Free and Mazqbooza = Occupied)!

Why it was Difficult to Access Neelum Valley in the Past?
At some places the river even works as the buffer zone, or the Line of Control as per the diplomatic jargon, between the militarily separated land. Equipped with the ready artillery, armed forces are omnipresent at both sides of the defacto border. Thankfully, a cease-fire is in place for last some years before that the picturesque valley was not accessible without putting one’s life intodanger.  

For my Pakistani readers, it might be interesting to note that Neelum Valley mostly runs parallel to their most favorite Kaghan Valley, with harsh mountain passes separating the two; however, the former has not gained much popularity among local tourists mostly due to the accessibility issues in the past. Now the situation has improved and the valley has started attracting adventurists, especially in summers.

(Linguistic) Relationship Between River Neelum and River Nile
Linguistically speaking, Neelum means blue-ish which refers to the color of fresh water. Similar is the case with the great River Nile of Egypt, which is locally pronounced as ‘Neel’!

Caution: Driving Around Neelum Valley is not a Child’s Play
Logistically, Neelum valley can be separated into two zones; the first is the one with the motorable road while the second is mostly accessible through jeeps. Consequently, the latter’s infrastructure is underdeveloped for tourism but it is even more beautiful and untouched as compared to the first one. The landscapes get greener, water in the river gets clearer, surrounding forests get thicker, air gets fresher, and the frequency of waterfalls per kilometer gets higher as one gets closer to Taobat – the last village in the Neelum Valley!

With Kids in the Tow We Made a Flexible Unhurrying Itinerary
it was a family trip including Mikael (son – 2½ years), Misha (daughter – 4½ years), Urooba & I. Main purpose of the trip was to take kids away from the polluted routines of Karachi to the unadulterated airs of the North. While doing so, we also wanted to improve our own physical fitness through short trekking and mild hiking. We had no firm itinerary for the trip except for the understanding that we will spend more time at less places rather than hopping and ticking off destinations. Here is a brief timeline of our vacations:

18-Aug-2014: Left Karachi
20-Aug-2014: Reached Taobat – the last village in Neelum Valley
26-Aug-2014: Left Taobat and tracked back to Kel to visit the heavenly Arang Kel
30-Aug-2014: Left Kel. Visited Sharda’s Buddhist ruins and then reached Keran
02-Sep-2014: Left Keran and reached Kutton’s Jagran Resort
07-Sep-2014: Finally Left Kutton after getting stuck up due to floods!
09-Sep-2014: Back home, safe and sound Alhamdolillah

First Destination: Taobat – Where the Road Ends

Located at the tail of River Neelum, Taobat is a remote and small village of around 100-200 homes. This is the last formal human abode in this region, and our first destination, which can be reached through a jeep-able trek in summers. During winters it gets landlocked due to snow. The place is so far-flung that it still houses the endangered Himalaya Brown Bear. (Ref: http://bearproject.info/wp-content/uploads/2014/07/A-76-Status-of-the-brown-bear-in-Pakistan.pdf)

This astonishingly scenic village is surrounded by dense alpine forests overlooking neatly cultivated maze crops on both sides of the winding cold river. Colorful wild flowers, astounding variety of butterflies, wandering woodpeckers, typical multistory wooden houses, distinct lifestyle and the abundance of water streams is how this place can be summarized briefly! At Taobt, a tourist - who introduced himself as a judge - told me that our Prime Minister Nawaz Sharif also bought a property over there to build a summer house! Well, this sounds like a rumor but speaks a lot about the beauty of this remote place.

For road travelers, this hamlet is a dead end; the farthest point they could go and where their vehicle makes an inevitable u-turn! Beyond Taobat, there are vast pieces of highland pastures which engulf thousands of nomads, called bakarwals or gujjars, and their livestock silently.

Taobat: Last Village of the Neelum Valley
River Neelum Coming from the Indian Occupied Kashmir where it is known as Kishanganga
These Old Jeeps Connect Remote Villages to the Developed World
Colorful Creatures are a Common Sight around Taobat
One of the Many Wild Flowers around Taobat; Resembles Somewhat to Saffron!
This was the First Time in My Life that I Spotted a Woodpecker!
Trout Fish: Catch of the Trip!

Second Destination: Arang Kel – Living with Rainbows and Clouds

After Taobat, we visited Arang Kel, which is a lush plateau at a height of >8,000 feet. It can be approached by hiking from Kel – an important commercial and transportation hub of the valley. The 1,000 feet hike to this naturally gifted village is an experience in its own and was a reality check for lazy urbanites like us. It is steep, strenuous, and a bit risky especially if it is raining – but too full of delights Mother Nature has to offer.

For lucky us, there was a rainbow waiting for us when we climbed to Arang Kel. It was a full arch right in front of us with a distinct VIBGYOR band and a mesmerizing background. It was too stunning to be described in words and was enough for us to forget the vagaries of the 3 hours exertion! Other than the rainbow also, scenery around the village was awesomely breathtaking; green plains with scattered wooden cottages were encircled by timber rich mountains and glacial linings. On top of it, there was an echo effect due to surrounding hills making all that so heavenly. No surprise that the place is trending crazily among Pakistani vacationers. In fact, I could not disbelieve when a local exaggerated that this summer more than hundred thousand tourists visited their tiny abode.
Trek to Arang Kel is all Natural Beauty
Halfway on the ~1,000 feet Hike to Arang Kel
Nature's Warm Welcome; the Rainbow Came Out When We Climbed up to Arang Kel
From Arang Kel's Perspective, this is Just an Ordinary Scene!
It was Stunning all around Arang Kel
A Lone Cloud Wandering Around Arang Kel's Corn Fields
Arang Kel's Sunflower
Stopover: Sharda’s Buddhist Ruins

On our way back to Keran from Kel, we had a sojourn at Sharda mainly to visit the ancient Buddhist monastery ruins of which are still alive!
Details About Sharda's Buddhist Ruins
Sharda's Buddhist Monastery: The Ruin was a Gigantic Cubical Structure
Sharda's Buddhist Ruins: A Story of Survival!
Sharda's Buddhist Monastery: Remains of the Entrance

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Third Destination: Keran – Kashmir’s Berlin

Keran is located right at the bank of River Neelum. This is the farthest place in the Neelum Valley which can be approached conveniently without a four wheel drive and where one can find decent accommodation facilities, making it a good destination for leisure travelers and families.

But the main reason of Keran’s fame is its proximity to Maqbooza Kashmir, i.e. Indian Occupied Kashmir, which is just a stone’s throw away across the river. It looked too close, so much so that we could easily listen to the azaan from a mosque on the other side, but still too far. Thankfully, there is a cease-fire these days otherwise Keran is the place which gets affected first thing whenever there is a cross border exchange of fire.

Keran: Beyond the River this is Indian Occupied Kashmir
Keran: On the Other Side of the Line of Control; Landscape is the Same But Life is Different!

Keran Resort; A Clean, Peaceful, and Scenic Accommodation - Operated by Valley Trekkers
Apples Were Abound in the Resort's Backyard But Most of them Were Green and Sour!
Still I Managed to Find Some Ripened Ones!
Fourth and the Final Destination: Kutton’s Jagran Resort

Kutton is yet another picturesque town of Neelum. It is located off the river-road duo, uphill along Jagran Stream. Further up, there is 30MW hydel power plant called Jagran Power House. The company, from some Scandinavian country I learnt, built a housing colony for their staff at Kutton during the construction of the plant. Lately, this colony had been converted into a tourist resort; the reason why the place is more famous than its peers.

The colony cum resort is not only well equipped but it is well maintained also. There are innumerable fruit trees all around; apple, peer, walnut, plum, persimmon, figs, you name it! Among these fruits apples, peers, and plums were ready while the rest were supposed to ripe next month, i.e. October. And obviously, the surrounding scenery is as beautiful as it can get!

In Kutton, we got stranded due to rains, floods, and land sliding, but the place was worth the hassle. It was like being stranded in heaven! If it does not sound exaggeration, I would say that Kutton’s Jagran Resort is the best tourist facility one can find in Pakistan’s North! During peak summers, the place gets packed with VIPs leaving little room for ordinary tourists even if they have advanced and fully paid bookings. One of the staff boasted that a month ago Faryal Talpur, sister of our ex-President Mr. Zardari, also visited the resort with a big security protocol.
Jagran Resort Kutton; the Most Liveable Tourist Accommodation in Pakistan IMO
All Rooms in Jagran Resort are Cottage Style and were Well Equipped
Pear was Abundant in this Part of Neelum Valley
A Persimmon Tree in Kutton's Jagran Resort
This is one of the Hundreds of Mushroom we Found All Around Kutton's Jagran Resort
The Landslide Caused Due to Flood that Barred Us from the Return Journey for Two Days!
Coming Soon:
A detailed travelogue with even more photographs is in the making; in the meantime, I’ll be looking for your comments!