Friday, June 1, 2012

Karachi to Kalash Nonstop - a 50 Hours Marathon



Rakaposhi, 7788m - A Glimpse of my Past Northern Areas Trip
In the past, I have got the opportunity to visit the majestic Northern Areas of Pakistan – which have been recently renamed as Gilgit-Baltistan – a couple of times; once all the way to Hunza valley and Khunjerab Pass and later a little eastward to Skardu, Shangrila (Kachura Lakes), and Deosai.

The only bad thing is that these lush mountain valleys are too far from the coastal Karachi but this was not the enough excuse for me to not explore the beautiful valleys once again.

This time the plan was to kill two birds with one stone; first was the Kalash valley via the masterpiece Lowari Tunnel to attend the Kalasha Spring Festival – Joshi and the second was to then cross through the high Shandur Pass all the way to the lovely Fairy Meadows – the footstep of killer Nanga Parbat, the world’s 9th highest mountain. This was my first time to both of these places so obviously I was very excited about that!

It had to be a strenuous trip as we wanted to squeeze all that in two weeks. The idea was to use public transport (road + train) all the way from and back to Karachi. We planned the trip ourselves, i.e. without joining a package, mostly through traveler friends and internet forums.

The Troupe
This time, the group was rather small and consisted of 3 people; Zeeshan, Nadeem, and myself. Zeeshan had already reached Chitral a couple of days beforehand to pay a long due visit to a remote pharmacy funded by the NGO he volunteers for. Nadeem and I continued to Shandur to go all the way to Fairy Meadows while Zeeshan returned back Karachi after accompanying us in Kalash.  

So this post is about the first part of the trip which consisted of nonstop traveling from Karachi to Kalash: Karachi – Faisalabad – Rawalpindi – Chitral – Kalash

May 12, 2012
Karakoram Express: Karachi to Faisalabad
Yes, Trains are still running in Pakistan!
Although friends thought that it would be too crazy, owing to the bad perception of Pakistani trains, we opted for the Karakoram Express, which is considered the best of the league, for the first leg of our marathon. Just to make sure that it will be a low budget start we bought the Economy Class (i.e.  without AC) ticket with the sleeping berth.

Gone are the days when the premium trains used to get fully booked a couple of weeks ahead as soon as their reservation window would open. This actually made it convenient for us to get the booking done only a few days in advance. Nadeem made the arrangement swiftly through one of his frequently traveled friends so that we could even avoid the hassle to go to the train station for shopping. Although Pakistan Railways (http://pakrail.com/) has a website, which is handy for routing, ticket prices, and to find out remaining seats in a given train, however, online booking still seems a dream despite the impression that it can do that.

Good Luck
It was basically our lucky day as there were many pleasant surprises: 1) that was not the hottest of the days saving us from regretting the Economy Class decision, 2) the train departed on time, i.e. at 4 pm sharp, and kept running uninterrupted the whole night, 3) atmosphere of the train was contrary to the popular perception; comfortable berths, neat bogies, appropriate lighting and fans, electric outlets for charging gadgets, and clean washrooms and then 4) there was even a nice dining car attached with the train, food of which was quite reasonable both in quality and price! (Tea: PKR 20, Meal” ~100-150)
The Clean Alleyway of Karakoram Express
And the Dining Car was Neat!
A Cup of Tea from Train's Dining Car
These New Bogies are Made in China
A View from the Train Window: Kotri Barrage
Why Faisalabad and not Lahore
Usually if one is going to Rawalpindi from Karachi through a combination of train and bus, Lahore seems to be the obvious choice for changeover. On the other hand, going via Faisalabad cuts at-least 3-4 hours from this long journey, therefore we opted to route it through Pakistan’s Manchester.
May 13, 2012
Marathon Continues: Faisalabad to Rawalpindi and beyond
The train kept running all the night and reached Khanewal – a major train junction in the heart of the country – in the morning, only about an hour late of the schedule. (Yes a couple of hours are not even considered late for Pakistani trains!).

The Inevitable
It was past Khanewal when we are only 2 hours from our interim destination – Faisalabad – the inevitable happened; lube seals of the train engine developed leakage and the train was stopped at a remote station, right in the middle of the ready wheat crops – to avoid a bigger loss. While the contingency arrived, which took around 4 hours, I passed my time while observing the crop picking and talking to the train guard. According to one of the staff, the engine had to be changed at Rohri – a major junction in the southern part of the country – which could not be done because of the paucity of the locomotives and instead a chance was taken which eventually backfired.

Our major worry was to make it to Rawalpindi before 8 pm to catch the Chitral bound coaster alternate of which was a bit scary; i.e. changing over local and extremely uncomfortable buses from one town to another.

160km! Really!!
Finally the Engine Failed Here. Surprised!?
Having a Gupshup Session with the Guard
Ready Wheat Crops in the Fertile Punjab
خوشہ گندم
All Is Well That Ends Well
Finally we made it to Faisalabad just in time to hastily aboard the Rawalpindi bus which was ready to depart from outside the train station. Originally we had the plan to go with Sammi Daewoo which runs the best intercity bus service in Pakistan had the train arrived on time. But nothing lost as we made it to the Pir Widhai bus station of Rawalpindi once again just in time and managed to grab two less uncomfortable seats in the Chitral coaster. There was more than one coater services running for Chitral from Pir Widhai but we headed straight to the one operated by Haji Beg, which was located right beside the Caltex fuel pump besides Darbar Adda, because of its fame on internet travel forums.

The characteristic journey had to start beyond Rawalpindi when the smooth motorway had  blended into a narrower hilly road. Late in the evening, when we did not even reach Malakand, the coaster had stopped at a heavily armed check post near the enroute town of Dargai guarded by the regular Pakistan Army.

The apparently harmless looking security check turned into a midnight saga as a device held by one of the personnel kept beeping especially around the center of the vehicle. Passengers of the corresponding seats were ordered to come down for body search but to no avail. In the meantime, crew of the bus had been pushing commuters to temporarily handover things in the hand held bags – as the main luggage was sitting on the rooftop – which can annoy security gadgets. That included cigarette lighters, fragrances of all types, nail cutters, and even medicines!

Gradually the tone of the guards became harsher as they were quite unsatisfied either from something in the bus or from their own gadget. Eventually they instructed the driver to take the bus a bit off road in the dark to their facility where they ordered us to come out of the car and line up for a detailed body check. A moment came when I got really afraid thinking that there might be something, maybe an explosive, in the vehicles and I started recited kalima and other prayers. At the climax of all this I heard a mumble which was followed by everyone getting back to their seats and the bus moving back to its route as that nothing had happened. That was a complete drop scene to me as they did not find anything, atleast to my knowledge, and just let the bus go as that nothing had happened. Obviously everyone else in the bus was happy without any apparent second thoughts!

Rest of the journey was smooth while I was trying to manage between my own naps and Nadeem’s overburden whenever the coaster takes a turn on the hilly road.

Faisalabad's Train Station
Going from Faisalabad to Rawalpindi
Chitral Booking Office at Pir Widhai
Announcing the Chitral Service Loudly and Proudly
Inside of the Grave!
Near Dargai: Where We were Stopped for an Extended Security Check
May 14, 2012
Lowari Tunnel; a Ride in the Real Life Amusement Park!
Chitral is a bit disconnected from the rest of the country and can traditionally be reached overland, weather permitting, from either of the two harsh mountain passes: Lowari Top in the south or Shandur Top in the northwest. During winters when these passes had been filled with snow, people used to take the unconventional route via Afghanistan but gone are those days too.

In order to make it more reliable, a 9 km gigantic burrow called Lowari Tunnel is under construction which connects Dir to Chitral and cuts the travel time by around 3-4 hours. Although the tunnel is yet to be finished yet but it is partially opened especially during days when the pass is inaccessible. The tunnel is open or not, was the most favorite discussion among our fellow travelers who were scared if the answer would be a negative.

Just after the sunrise, when I woke up fully and could see outside, I was astonished to see the scenery which transformed overnight from rather plain landscape since we left home to a heavenly setting with lush green valleys and snow clad peaks. This was the rather ignored – from the perspective of tourism – district Dir which neighbors Swat and Chitral valleys. No surprise why it is so stunning!

In Dir, the bus took a sojourn for the early morning breakfast and then continued a couple of hours more defying the twists and turns of the uphill trek until it reached near a big big hole in the mountain. That was Lowari Tunnel; a 9 km throughway located at an elevation of 10,500 ft, a masterpiece piercing through one of the most rugged and highest terrains of the world.

The tunnel was complete to the extent that one can make it to the other end if they can drive in ‘pin drop’ darkness and asphalt-less trek. That half an hour was a chilling experience! Imagine crawling in a dark cave underneath billions of tons of rocks without any sort of rescue! The difference was that we were on the wheels and those wheels were actually crawling on a bumpy surface with Stone Age walls and an intimidating roof! That was too scary but an experience necessary for a traveler’s portfolio!

Unfortunately, we could not capture both the exterior and the interior of this masterwork as it was strictly and loudly prohibited. At one time I dared to take a couple of snaps with my mobile camera but our travel companions – some of whom were themselves serving in the forces and going back home for vacations – advised against that suggesting that if caught all our cameras will be confiscated! So if you want to experience that, do something more than reading this dumb blog and go see yourself!!

We finally reached Chitral town at around 11 am where Dr. Zeeshan was already waiting us at the bus station after which we had a wholesome brunch of rich Kabuli Pulao before heading to our final destination, i.e. Kalash valley.

For that we should have once again taken the public transport but Zeeshan had already arranged for a hired station wagon type car which actually proved sensible keeping in view the umpteen security checks ahead and our deteriorated conditions. It was around 3 pm when we finally made it to the Balanguru village of Rumbur – one of the 3 major valleys in Kalash and then had a brief and successful negotiation session with Yasir, son of Saifullah, a local Kalash who also runs a cozy guesthouse in the village. (PKR 1,000 for the room, 80 for breakfast, 150 for regular meal, 20 for tea)

We were more excited than we were tired and the sound of festive drum beats coming from far made us taking the due bath in a hurry before heading to the uphill arena where Kalasha people were busy dancing in celebrating their Spring Festival – Joshi, details of which will be posted in the coming blog entry Inshallah, so please stay tuned!

Take care by then!
Reached Dir in the Morning
And Then to Chitral After Pasing the Lowari Tunne
This is How We Made it Possible
Entering Rumbur the Valley of Kalash
The Private Taxi Which We Hired for Chitral to Kalash
Saifullah's Guesthouse in Rumbur - Kalash
The Cozy Twin Bed Room
A View of the Village from Room's Window

Tip of the Day: Do take your National Identity Card (CNIC) as you will not be allowed without one beyond Dargai. It would also be prudent to include a few copies of the CNIC in the packing list.

18 comments:

  1. Anxiously waiting for more...

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  2. literally the story mode is like awesome. waiting for your next post

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  3. It raises my desire to follow your footprint

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  4. Awesome narration!!

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  5. What was the discussion related to with the Train Guard. Security?

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  6. Nope! Train guard is not a security guard. Every train in Pakistan, and in India also, is assigned with a guard who works as record keeper, interpret signals from the ground staff, and decides whether the train is fit for continuing the journey. I was discussing with him about the contingent engine when ours went bad and that why it went bad in the first place...

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  7. Nice writing and public transport always have some delays

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  8. Hi mate :)
    You seem to had great trip, though some stuff can be quite stressfull like you explained well. I am glad to read that's possible to travel quite easily on public transport, that's really practical to know.
    But where are some women?
    I hope those beautiful valleys and local customs don't get destroyed... one way or other.
    I read in many journals how Kalash is popular among 'westerners', is it also for Pakistan people?
    Great Mountain Nanga Parbat is very well known in Slovenia, since few years ago famous alpinist had died there... so tragic, but inevitable in a way things turned.
    Vesna

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  9. wajji here,
    Hamesha Ke tarah Chaa gayar ho bhai tum ;;))

    kia safarnama hai, simply loved it.

    God Bless You!!

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  10. ghulam abbas here man,simply amazing,i wish if i were with you,i hope we both can ever have a shoestring backpacking but only with full of stamps on our passports lol

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  11. Muzzammil are you sure you took all these snaps and not downloaded from internet ;)

    In fact you have a specific taste in your subjects, you (and your friends too) can see what others do not. I remember one time I took a picture of four kittens in university and my best friend said "Nasreen You wasted one photo". It was a reel and negative camera and I wasted her one photo on 'Kittens".

    Keep enjoying, keep posting and keep collecting wealth :)

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  12. loved the 2 days posting and waiting for rest of the trip. MashAllah you guys rocks. we are planning a trip to kalash as well but after Eid.
    here is a link to our last year trip.
    http://www.pakwheels.com/forums/4x4-clubs-off-roaders-suv/171898-team-unimog-punga-2011-solitude-altitude

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  13. This travel has been nicely related. Muzzaummil loves Pakistan as he had been all the times thankful for what was available. Also, he was a bit soft where there were lacuna or even blunders.

    I must appreciate his fine English and nice photos which take a reader to a fantasy land.

    Our country is fine in natural sceneries in the form of snow-capped mountains, grassy hills, running brooks, giant falls and what not. It is absence of infrastructure i.e. roads, hotels and side-attractions.

    I have been to many places like Pyramids of Egypt. It was rather disappointing, nothing - only a few masonry structures. But there was a lot more paraphernalia like camel rides, road side cafés, variety shows, light-n-sound and man-made look-outs which can keep a visitor busy for the day.

    Hope Muzzaummil travel would encourage many to go to see own country in splendor but much cheaper for visitors.

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  14. I really really lovedd the way you narrated your journey! It's simply awesome!

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  15. I recommend to stay in Pamir River Side INN hotel for one night and PTDC Hotel in other night, Both are memorable places. The pamir River side hotel is actually annex of Walli Chitral old fort and cottages type rooms along river side. The PTDC is also like a five star in chitral. The rents are reasonable and beyond less to my expectations.

    The air routne is also a cheper and mamorable for chitral.
    I went last year first time from Karachi without knowing any thing. Wish to go again if any one planning.my id is tourguidepak at couchsurf

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  16. You did not mention how much did this Budget trip cost you?

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  17. In total it cost us 25k per person: Karachi - Kalash - Fairy Meadows - Karachi. I guess I have mentioned it somewhere..

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