Friday, August 17, 2012

Return Journey - Fairy Meadows to Karachi in 50 Hours

This is Part 5 of 5 of Kalash and Fairy Meadows 2012 Travelogue
To see Part 4 of 5 please click here
 To see Part 3 of 5 please click here
NATCO - The Pearl of Northern Areas
May 23, 2012
At Fairy Meadows, we enjoyed the best of the both worlds; first a classic view of Nanga Parbat under the shiny summer sun and then a couple of mild spells of the end of the season snowfall. A dream combination, thanks to the Mother Nature and to the One who created it. Subhanallah!

In fact, the whole last two weeks were like an extended dream for me; leaving the hot Karachi in the midsummer then passing through the giant cave-like Lowari Tunnel then attending the colorful spring festival at primitive Kalash valley and trekking all the way to Pakistan’s last village then continuing to the mighty Karakoram range cutting across the Hindukush through the legendary Shandur Pass and finally concluding the trance journey at the footstep of the world’s ninth highest mountain. Surreal, it looks now.

DIY - Do It Yourself

We planned and executed the journey ourselves without joining a pre-organized trip. We did not either book things in advance and relied solely on the online information shared by the fellow travelers and our instincts.

In fact this is the emerging traveling trend now. There is so much real time information available freely on the internet that one can plan a journey sitting at home. Exploring the world has become easier – and cheaper – than ever, thanks to the information revolution.

For those who would like to follow the footsteps, I would recommend the following two resources; one local and one global:

Downward and Backward
Trekking Down from Fairy Meadows
Unfortunately, the dream had to be discontinued as we had to start the journey back to the real life; first descending the Himalayas to the Karakoram Highway’s main junction Chilas, then to Rawalpindi and finally back to Karachi. We wanted todo that by road and without any stop as we did at the start of the trip so it had to be a 50 hours marathon again once again.

First part of the challenge was to make it to Chilas to catch the Rawalpindi bound bus in the following three steps (timeline: maximum 8 hours):

Step 1 - Trekking down to Tattu village: Unlike the way up when it took ~3 hours, the downard trail took a little more than 1 hour because of the slope. 

Although we were first thinking of carrying our backpacks ourselves – to save porter charges – but eventually decided otherwise, as it had got quite slippery due to the rain and snow. In fact when we woke up, we saw an unusual crowd downstairs our hut as if a jirga was about to be convened. Actually, they were locals who wanted to do the porter role.

As per the prevailing practice, first we negotiated the price for our backpacks (PKR 300 x 2) through a mediator and then the potential candidates picked draws to decide who would be the lucky one.

Looking at the crowd who wanted to earn some hard bucks, at first I thought sympathetically about those villagers, however, in reality they are in fact the luckier ones, as compared to the dwellers living away from the tourist trail. Some of the porters were young, in late teens, and quit their education to make money. This easy money also brought associated issues such as drugs, etc.

Step 2 - Further down to the Karakoram Highway at Rahikot Bridge: From Tattu village we had to take the same jeep which we took to come uphill; that’s the rule actually and onus was on the jeep owner. We did not even need to pay for both of the journeys (PKR 6,000 round trip) unless we were brought back to the highway.

Around midway of the 10km bumpy ride there had been a land sliding last evening which partially damaged the already fragile pathway. A bunch of labors were busy in removing the last of the debris with the latest available technology, i.e. shovels, pickaxes, and hands! Fortunately it took only around one hour and the ‘road’ was partially cleared, enough for one jeep at a time. Not to mention, the ‘handmade’ crossing was quite adventurous at a height of several thousand feet! 

Eventually we touched the Karakoram Highway at Raikot Bridge safe and sound around noon and paid our dues with a deserving tip for the brave driver.

That exhausted 3 hours leaving us with 4 more hours to make it to Chilas.
Landsliding on Fairy Meadows Jeep Trek
Landslide Cleared With the Latest Technology
Can You Locate The Jeep Trek?
Raikot/ Rakhiot Junction

Step 3 - Raikot to Chilas: The third step – from Raikot bridge to Chilas town where we had to catch the Rawalpindi bound NACO bus – was the least craziest, however, it was the trickiest of all because there was no proper bus stand at Raikot, or Rakhiot.  

The plan was to wave hand to the passing vehicles to make it to Chilas where NATCO buses take a formal stop and we would have higher chances to get a proper seat for the next 20 hours of road journey. In the meanwhile, a carriage truck offered us a free ride but the gentleman at the jeep stand warned us that it would take us ages with these slow moving locomotives so we missed our first hitchhiking opportunity.

After a bit hanging around, a scrambled Shitial bound Toyota Hiace found space to pack us inside on top of already 16 stuffed up passengers, mostly labors (PKR 200 per head). Amid the circumstances, those two uncomfortable hours were the biggest luxury we could wish for at that time!
Chilas Town - Karakoram Highway
We made it to NATCO bus stand of Chilas past 3 pm; quite comfortable as there were two buses expected from Gilgit each next hour out of which we opted the later one, at 5 pm, as it was supposedly a better bus – Executive Liner – and then we needed sometime to refill our completely empty bellies as we started the journey early in the morning without even having a proper breakfast.
NATCO Chilas Office
NATCO Chilas Contact Details
It might be interesting to share that people in the town misled us when we asked about NATCO bus station and instead sent us to another bus service – a small coaster – driver of which pretended that we would be big losers if we would miss the ready to depart bus. However, the trap had already been experienced from a friend last year and I did not want to repeat the horror story at any cost. When it comes to Northern Areas, the most logical choice for long distance traveling is NATCO.

The NATCO Executive Liner arrived a little late than expected, half an hour to be precise. We could hardly find any difference in this pricier option and the normal service which arrived at the restaurant-cum-bus-station other than that it was half empty. Good for us!
NATCO Chilas Stand - Gilgit Baltistan Hotel
Chilas - Gilgit Baltistan Hotel
NATCO Bus from Inside
Soon after the journey started, the bus was stopped at the infamous Harban Nala by the local police. Not that there was something in the bus, the sojourn was in fact aimed to make a convoy of several buses, due to the law and order perception in the Koshitan area we were about to enter. Interestingly, the convoy broke within half an hour as there were no check and balance!
Making a Convoy at Harban Nala
Police Station Harban - Kohistan
Hit or a Miss
A random view of Karakoram Highway
An hour later the bus stopped again, this time for Maghrib prayers, soon after passing a heavenly enroute waterfall which I could only see from the bus window. However, we were too enticed and decided to rush back – on our feet – taking advantage of the prayer break. Unfortunately, it was way too long and then we lost the sight of the bus also because of a couple of turns on the road. The typically loud bus horn forced us to return back unsuccessful. We had to literally run back as we could see the bus moving! Fortunately, there were a couple of other leftover passengers also who were busy in extended prayers due to which the driver had to stop the bus although after covering a couple of furlongs; more running for our exhausted legs.

The rest of the overnight journey was rather uneventful except for the money making maneuvers of the bus conductor who kept himself busy the whole night in collecting unsolicited local passengers against the NATCO policy!

May 24, 2012
Morning Surprise
Our Backpacks at At Pir Widhai Rawalpindi
The driver was happy and expert, as one can expect from NATCO, and brought us to the Pir Widhai station of Rawalpindi around sunrise; earlier than we anticipated.

Taking advantage of the saved time, we first had traditional paratha-cholay breakfast before boarding on Faisalabad bound bus to connect to the Karachi night train.

It was already 25 hours that we were on the go but still about half way. Everything had transformed during the last night, from the culture to the language to the landscape to the temperature!

The bus experience added to the real world feelings. We were among the first passengers and they did not move until it gets filled up completely at the cost of punctuality. This effectively meant that the bus had to stop at every nook and corner to aboard travelers before continuing through the Motorway. What could we do when we had paid the ticket and when this is the norm. Alas! However, we had ample time to make it to Faisalabad thanks to the efficient NATCO driver.
Intercity Bus Service outside Faisalabad Train Station
Desi Restaurants outside Faisalabad Train Station
Zafar Hotel - A Reputable Hotel outside Faisalabad Train Station
Porters at Faisalabad Train Station
Millat vs Karakoram
Millat Express at Faisalabad Train Station
AC Berths of Millat Express
It was past 2pm when we made it to the ticket counter of the Faisalabad train station. The clerk their told us – with the typical indifferent tone – that we should buy seats in the Millat Express (4:30 pm) rather than in the Karakoram Express (6 pm). Both are the night trains with the same travel duration and the major difference is that the former originates from Faisalabad – reason of clerk’s interest – while the later starts the journey from Lahore and takes a brief stop at Faisalabad. 

The clerk’s advice made more sense as we could reserve the seat right at that moment while in the case of Karakoram Express we would have to buy that from the ticket inspector provided there would have empty seats. So we gave up with and as a tradeoff treated us with the pricier and air-conditioned Business Class berth of Millat Express (PKR 3,720 vs PKR 1,400 for the Economy). We could have easily saved PKR 1,200 with the seat-only ticket and could still get the legitimate free berth as the Business Class was too deserted!

As compared to Karakoram Express, Millat's bogies were old, albeit clean, and there was no dining car either. But who cares as we slept the whole night all the way to Karachi.

May 25, 2012
Morning Surprise, Again!
Windmills Near Karachi
The journey was completely uneventful and punctual as the train reached Karachi's Drig Road station at 9 am, even before the scheduled arrival time, a present surprise once again making the journey more memorable.

Back to the Civilization
Nadeem negotiated with one of the rickshaws outside the small train station and I decided to jump in also by offering the driver a reasonable supplement. We quickly changed notes with the driver especially about the law and order situation in the city as we were literally away from the civilization for last two weeks. As expected, it was not very encouraging. 

After dumping the backpacks at home, I further negotiated the driver to make it to the next destination, i.e. to my in-laws place to surprise Urooba and kids who were expecting me a day later!

So this is the end of the long, or very long in fact, trip report of the most enthralling journeys of my life. I hope you would have enjoyed that (if you are still reading!). Please do post your comments to clear my doubts that it was worth sharing.

I would be really glad to answer if you would like to plan a similar journey and have questions regarding that.