Friday, November 28, 2014

(Part9) Dilema of the Peaceful Keran

Keran Resort - at the Brink of the Geopolitical Fault Line

This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 9 
Click here for Part 8 Part 7 Part 6 Part 5 Part 4 Part 3 Part 2  Part 1

Day 14: Sunday, August 31, 2014
We Needed a ‘Break’ in Vacations!
Last evening we reached Keran Resort and booked a room for three nights. After living in tough conditions for two weeks the time had finally come to change gears to the relaxation mode and Keran was the right place to do that.

Relaxing at the Edge
Located at the river bank, and easily approachable from Muzaffarabad through a metalled road, Keran is a peaceful and laidback place perfect for a leisurely holiday – but with a twist. That part of the free flowing River Neelum is Kashmir’s version of Berlin Wall, or the Line of Control in the local context.  On the opposite side of the watercourse, right in front, lies the Indian Occupied Kashmir at a stone’s throw away. The heavy presence of the two most antagonistic armies, both of which do not think before exchanging heavy artillery fires, could not be a good omen for a laidback picnic. However, thankfully, there has been peace in this ‘sector’ of the LoC for last few years benefiting both holiday seekers and locals.

Keran Resort – Highly Recommended Even for Most Picky of the Tourists!
Managed by a local tourism outfit, Valley Trekkers, Keran Resort is the most sought after lodging facility in the area. We also found that pretty livable with well maintained building, good range of facilities, spacious and adequately furnished rooms, hospitable staff, and aesthetic location. The backyard fruit orchard at the riverside needs special mention; apple laden trees, lush green scenery, and a tranquil ambiance makes the whole experience quite pleasurable. In short, I would highly recommend the place. The best would be to go there in the off season, avoiding the months of June and July mainly because of the high demand. From my personal point of view the only missing element was the lack of authenticity as the arena was fenced and out of bound for locals. Still then I made up for that by inviting inside and joining a bunch of cricket playing local teens!

For the rest of the day we did nothing special except for lounging out, fruit picking, and eating chicken karhai while the kids found enough place to run and chase around resort’s pets. Because of the weekend there were quite a few tourists, highest number of visitors we saw during the trip, however, the resort was far from being full. Most of the groups we interacted with had no plans to go further and were there for a 2-3 days break. The young Lahori bunch of friends was complaining about the low ground clearance of their car – Vitz. But they were enthusiastic about attending Imran Khan’s dharan on the way back.

Back to the Real Ugly World
That was the first time after so many days that we had access to the television, which was hysterically showing the political developments in Islamabad. Like everyone else, we also glued to the idiot box and kept doing that for the whole night. It was absolutely mayhem on the streets as the protestors started marching towards the red zone while the security forces had been firing live rounds to bar them from doing so. We wish we could go back to Taobat where there was no TV!

Day 15: Monday, September 1, 2014
For most of the previous day, or in fact all, we confined in the resort’s premises to chill and relax. To break the monotony, we ventured out firs thing in the morning. Outside, there was nothing much to do, or maybe we got enough of the trekking and hiking, except for a small rip-off dhaba where we had breakfast before returning back. Adjacent to the Keran Resort, there was another guesthouse maintained by the government which we found worth exploring. It looked in good shape with a lush garden in the center and a playing are with swings which kept kids’ interest alive in the trip.

The Fault Line; But Whose Fault Was That
On the backside of the guesthouse, there was an access to the fast flowing river in the shape of a pebbles beach. On the opposite side of the river, in the Indian occupied territory, we could see signs of life. The landscape was as green and had no difference as compared to our side although the cottages looked quite worn out and most of them looked abandoned. Cron was cultivated on the steps of the hill slope with fruit trees in between. The most obvious thing was the mosque where the moizzin was reciting azaan on the loudspeakers for Zuhr prayers. We could also see some locals walking around and kids waved hands at them too but it was probably too far for them to notice us. Hopefully, the conflict line could be abolished in the future so that Kashmiri people on both sides of the river can once again meet each other without any hassle.

When we got back to our room, the couple from Karachi whom we met the previous day was leaving. The place looked empty as other groups had also departed except for a family who were going to visit the nearby Upper Neelum village. We also wanted to explore that but then cancelled the idea and instead chose to relax more!

Day 16: Tuesday, September 2, 2014
Riding the Rocket Bus, Again!
We had spent three nights in Keran and it was time to move to our final destination of this trip – Kutton. With all the backpacks we once again boarded on a Rocket Bus going towards Muzaffarabad. The bus was packed to the capacity but we compressed in somehow in the rear portion. As per the local etiquettes, ladies had the first right on the seats, while gents were standing in the alley. Good for kids and wifey! Commuters were mostly going to Athmuqam, an important town in Neelum Valley, where we reached in around twenty minutes. We had to get off at Kundal Shahi, which was another ten kilometers and took twenty more minutes. Kundal Shahi is the junction where one can hire fixed rate car like taxis for Kutton, which is more like a hill station.

Kutton’s Jagran Resort
Hiring a car at Kundal Shahi for Kutton was not difficult at all. It took me hardly ten minutes and we were in the old Toyota Corolla going up the hills. From Kundal Shahi to Kutton, it was a beautiful mountain road running alongside the furious Jagran Nala. On the way there were quite a few scenic waterfalls, on both sides of the road, coming through the thriving natural greenery. We were in the wild again. In about half an hour or so, we reached Kutton’s Jagran Resort, where we intended to stay for next few days. Usually one has to get advanced booking from their office located in Muzaffarabad, which was not possible for us, however, due to low season we got a cottage without much fuss.

In fact, we had the luxury of selecting a room of our choice, where we put out backpacks and rather than settling down requested the driver to drop us to the Kutton’s main bazaar to have a look around. It appeared to be a low-key locality as any other rural town in Pakistani mountains. The differentiating factor was the abundance of ‘ladies tailors’ in the market which I saw very first time at such locations! While doing the grocery I found locals friendly and hospitable. There was nothing much to do so we walked back to our room after having Daal Lobya from a roadside hotel.

At the resort, there were only two or three tourists groups staying one of which was leaving when we reached back. For the dinner, we ordered Chicken Karhai from the resort’s mess and called it a day after having that.

Continue reading Part 10

Keran Resort - the Mountain Village Behind is Located in the Indian Occupied Territory
Entrance of Keran Resort
Keran Resort's Main Building
Extension in Keran Resort
An Abandoned Cottage in the Resort's Premises
'Closed' Tourist Information Center at Keran Resort
We Had the Rooftop Breakfast at this 'Rip-Off' Dhaba Outside Keran Resort
Apple Laden Tree in the Backyard of Keran Resort
Most of the Apples Looked Unripe
Here I Found Some Ripe Ones!
Fruits if Hard Work
An Apple Loving Sheep
Another Apple Lover
You Guess!?
Beware of their Duck Brigade
Misha Enjoying a Scene from the Room Window
Indian Occupied Kashmir
A Mosque in the Occupied Area
Signs of Life on the Other Side of the Line
Government Tourist Resort
Lush Garden of the Government Guesthouse
Left Keran for Kutton and Reached Athmuqam
Athmuqam Bus Station
Work in Progress on the Neelum River Road Between Athmuqam and Kundal Shahi
On the Way to Kundal Shahi
Reached Kundal Shahi - the Gateway to Kutton
Kutton Junction at Kundal Shahi
Hired a Cab for Kutton
A Waterfall on Kutton Road
A Land Cruiser in Kutton Bazaar

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

(Part 8) Pilgrimage to the Buddhist Ruins in Sharda, Kashmir

The Rocket Bus - Pride of Neelum Velley

This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 8 
Click here for Part 7 Part 6 Part 5 Part 4 Part 3 Part 2  Part 1

Day 13: Saturday, August 30, 2014
Retreating Back to Keran and Kutton after Taobat and Arang Kel Adventures
We had spent 10 days in the remotest parts of the Neelum Valley; Taobat and Arang Kel and were fully exhausted by then; our legs were worn out due to the most extensive trekking and hiking of our life while the backbone was complaining of the tumultuous jeep rides we had undertaken in the past two weeks. The day before, I was assuring my better half – and myself also – that the hard times were almost over. We had already abandoned the Shounter Valley visit as we did not want to further test the endurance limits of the kids’ duo – who had done reasonably well till then – shifted the gear to the relaxation mode. For the splurge, Keran and Kutton – located in the relatively lower parts of the Neelum Valley provide enough with modern lodging facilities.

Rocket Bus to Keran
Last night we already completed our packing so that we could hit the road with the first ‘Rocket Bus’ of the day. The plan was to make it to Keran, where we wanted to stay for a few days, after having an enroute breakfast and sightseeing stopover at Sharda. As opposed to the preceding evening, it was a clear sky and the sun had started peeking when I was going to the booking office to reserve seats for the next logistic adventure – the Rocket Bus.

That mammoth capsule looking structure, elaborated with the florescent patterns from all sides, cannot be ignored while traveling around the picturesque Neelum Valley. Don’t get confused with its amazingly obsolete outlook! The way it runs on the difficult Neelum Valley road, where even the four-wheelers find it difficult at times, is remarkable. Defying all the odds and doubts, it provides the inhabitants with the cheapest yet reliable transportation option, connecting innumerable towns and localities between Muzaffarabad and Kel. No surprise that locals nicknamed it as the “Rocket Bus” and throng it to the full capacity, at times not even sparing the roof.

Probably because it was the earliest departure of the day, the bus was not fully packed so we all could seat comfortably. Although plying between the remote parts of the country, it looked adequately furnished from the inside and was less inconvenient than the public transport in Karachi! The journey started with a lot of hue and cry from the coughing old engine which had to eventually give up in front of the ƚstaad and woke up despite all its protests and emitting a lot of dense smoke. I had mounted the backpacks on the luggage carrier located on the top of it. Soon the messy Kel became a chapter of our travel book and we were once again in the middle of the green landscape.

The Rooftop Adventure
Without riding it from the top it would have been an incomplete experience for me. So I dared climbing on the steel ladder fixed on the rear, while the heavy metallic chassis had been striding like a drunken monster. Somehow I managed to summit it and squeezed myself in the luggage compartment only to realize that it was not a child’s play! The ride was not steady as the bus was constantly wobbling and tilting; sometimes to the right hand side towards the pointed rocks and other times to the left towards the gorge! It was such a shear force that I feared being thrown down directly to the river flowing alongside the bumpy trek. A couple of times, I had to save my life by lying down upside down as the hanging rocks got too close to the structure. Had I not shown the knee-jerk reaction then, it was enough to make a mash out of me!

I was not even able to raise a voice as my vocal cords had already got silent due to the allergy I was having from last couple of days. The aromatic smoke of the bonfire wood was the main culprit which infected my ENT system so much so that I was not able to speak! Even though, in between those life saving maneuvers, I did not miss any opportunity to benefit from the surrounding scenery; which was simply out of the world. The river gained more strength as compared to the Taobat-Kel trek while the ravine got wider. Coming down every so often, each gush of water from the side stream was more powerful than the previous one, and noisier. I was like placed right in the middle of an action filled thrilling drama. The bus eventually stopped after half an hour to accommodate a waving lady, giving me the much needed chance to get down in one piece. For the rest of the journey, I seated inside peacefully enjoying the outside views and resolving to myself not to repeat the same mistake ever again!

Running After a Criminal!
It took the Rocket Bus more than two hours to reach Sharda from Kel, where we dislodged and settled at a roadside restaurant for the brunch. Back home, our gatekeeper Ayyub who also belonged to the Neelum Valley especially requested me to convey his greetings to his fellows in Sharda. I searched around the bazaar for Mutiullah, Ayyub's supposed relative, who was out of town for his routine. Nobody else recognized Ayyub but they directed me to Mutiullah’s son who was also not in the know. Later on, one of the persons at the restaurant confided to me that locals were afraid that Ayyub might have done some crime in Karachi and I was after him – the reason why they were reluctant in recognizing him!

Pilgrimming to the Buddhist Ruins
Out of courtesy, Mutiullah’s son guided me to the remains of the Buddhist Monastery, the town of Sharda is famous for. Leaving behind the family at the restaurant I accompanied him for the brisk walk to the ruins which were located on the other side of the river adjacent to, or in fact inside, an army deployment. I had to surrender my CNIC once again to enter into the camp before ascending ~60 extra large size stairs. The ancient looking staircase ended up at an elevated rectangular arena in the middle of which standing the tall cubical structure dubbed as the Buddhist University in the tourist information brochures. Overlooking the Sharda town, it was an impressive and authentic archeological site, providing rare insights to the largely obscure history of the region. The arches and the pillars of this heritage site must have witnessed the transformation in the human civilization while surviving somehow to the vagaries of war and weather. While paying homage to the genius, I was trying to decipher the echoing breeze to listen any of the lessons delivered then!

Before the trip, I also read about the Sharda Peeth, a Hindu pilgrimage discontinued after the Partition but could not dig that out due to the time factor.  We had to reach to Keran in the daylight so that we could find a suitable accommodation without losing the bargaining power which usually goes down with the sun. So after exchanging goodbye greetings with the guide, we boarded on the next Rocket Bus which looked relatively fuller as opposed to the morning one. This time I silently opted to sit inside for the whole two hours of the smooth journey rather than venturing again to the roof of the bus.

The Treat Started
Amid the drizzling, the bus had a midway stopover at a roadside restaurant and then dropped us right in front of the Keran Resort; one of the most lavish places to stay in the whole Neelum Valley. I believe it must have been a unique instance, or maybe the first time, that the guests had arrived at the Resort through a ‘Rocket Bus’! For the negotiation with the hotel manager I used the ‘season ending’ excuse and our commitment to stay for at-least three nights. The haggling went successful consequently the attendant shifted our backpacks to the premium ground floor ensuite which one could only dream about a couple of weeks back because of the high demand.

Bitter End of a Yielding Day
While settling in, Urooba reported a missing pouch from one of the backpacks containing her cosmetics. The zip was closed so it was definitely a case of theft. Our first suspicion was about the staff at Sardar Sarhad Hotel, as we left the bag in their custody while exploring Arang Kel. We were not happy with the overall attitude of people both at Kel and Arang Kel so it was not that surprising. But I still gave them the benefit of doubt and did not report the Sarhad Hotel’s management mostly because the bag was also lying unprotected on the roof during our Rocket Bus journey. Thankfully, that was the only bad taste experience of the whole trip.

Continue Reading Part 7

First Rocket Bus of the Day Departing for Muzffarabad from Kel
Way to Go Up
Luggage Compartment of the Rocket Bus - Almost the First Floor
'VIP' Seats!
Interior Designing
Sitting on the Rooftop was Difficult but Worth It!
White as Milk
Can You Spot the Waterfall? Hint - In the Center
A Rooftop Shot
Framing it through the Door of the Rocket Bus
Stopover at Sharda
A View of Sharda from Restaurant's Balcony - Buddhist Monastery Somewhere in Center Right
Sharda is Largest Town on the Neelum Valley Road
Keep Right for the Buddhist Monastery
An 'Online' Bank on the Way to Sharda's Buddhist Monastery
From There it was a 4x4 Walk!
Sign Board to the Sharda's Buddhist Monastery and the Warning
A Laundry Besides the Buddhist Monastery
Warning Again; No Photography of the Millitary Installation
The Equally Ancient Staircase of the Buddhist Monastery
For History Buffs
Centerpiece of the Monastery
Inside the Cubical
Carving on the Outer Wall of the Cubical
Close up of the Arch
The Buddhist Monastery was Located in this Rectangular Arena
Boundary Wall of the Monastery
A Roman Looking Pillar at the Entrance of Sharda's Buddhist Monastery
A Guesthouse in Sharda
Camping Site and the Under Construction Guesthouse in Sharda
Sharda's Eidgah at the River Bank
Sharda's Middle School
Signs of Another Ruins!
Tourist Village Sharda, Owned by the Tourism Ministry
A View of Sharda from the Swing Bridge
An 'Ideally' Located Hotel
Back to the Main Road: Toyota Hiace Booking Office in Sharda
Mutiullah's Hotel in Sharda
A Room at Neelum Abshaar Hotel Sharda
Mounting the Luggae Again on the Rocket Bus
The ~1km Bad Patch Betwen Sharda and Keran
Lunch Break Somewhere Between Sharda and Keran
Misha on the 'Window' Seat!
River Neelum Going Towards Muzaffarabad
Looks Like a Mosque on the Roadside
Oven Fresh
Reached Keran Resort
Another Hotel in Keran on the Main Road