Tuesday, November 18, 2014

(Part 6) Taoabt to Kel Jeep and Kel to Arang Kel Hiking

Rainbow Welcome in Arang Kel
This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 6 
Click here for Part 5 Part 4 Part 3 Part 2  Part 1

Day 9: Tuesday, August 26, 2014

Bye-Bye Taobat

After spending six days it was the time to leave our first Neelum destination – Taobat. We had to go back to Kel to hike to Arang Kel – which had created a lot of buzz in the local traveler community in the recent years due to its majestic landscape. Last night, Abdul Hai confirmed our seats in the Kel bound ‘public transport’ jeep and instructed us to be ready as early as 06:30 in the morning. Instead of two, we booked four seats, the whole row behind the driver seat, for convenience. (Cost: 4x250 = PKR 1,000 – ~USD 10).

When we woke up in the morning, before sunrise, it was overcast and then started drizzling also. The jeep arrived around 07:30, a bit late, most probably because of the precipitation. In the meanwhile, Abdul Hai arranged a raincoat and then helped us in transferring the luggage to the other side of the bridge where the jeep driver honked to report his arrival. Making our way through the front door, we squeezed in the rustic four-wheeler.

Reaching Taobat was not East Logistically but Leaving it was difficult, Emotionally

During our stay in Taobat, the easygoing Abdul Hai became part of our life. He was always available; smiling, helping, and trying to make it memorable for us – an absolutely dependable person. We all had wet eyes responding to his waving goodbye!

No doubt that reaching the heavenly dead-end village was logistically difficult in the first place, but leaving that blissful piece of earth was not easy either. It was one of the most beautiful places I had ever seen and the most satisfying experience ever.  The fresh unadulterated air, the pure mineral water, simple but chemical-free food, the stunning scenery, and above all the hospitality and friendliness of locals; we will be cherishing those moments throughout our life inshallah.

The Jeep Business

The jeep we sat in was plying on Gurez Valley road, i.e. Taobat – Kel, which was a tough trek, so much so that it were only four-wheelers which could be used as public transport. For a given day, around 4-5 jeeps make Kel – Taobat round trips in addition to the ones which only provide for the ‘standing facility’ in the open air trunk. Taobat – Muzaffarabad ones looked the most spacious, maybe because they also carry the load while coming back to Taobat. Muzaffarabad bound jeeps also cover more distance, taking it 3 days each for the complete round trip. Every evening at-least 3 jeeps depart Muzaffarabd for Taobat in addition to the occasional ones which leave in the daytime.

Regardless of the route they ply, all the jeeps were remarkably antique, at-least 30-40 years old models, or even older. As in the other remote areas of the Northern Pakistan, they are the lifeline of the local life without which it would be even more primitive and slower. This makes it the most important business of the area. Jeep owners generally belong to the more affluent, and influential, families. Even jeep drivers are revered upon highly not only because of their life-saving, or otherwise, maneuvers but also because they bring in the updated news, and rumors, from the outside world.

Life in the Jeep

Hilmat village was our first stop which was located next to Taobat where we recovered our National Identity Cards, CNICs, deposited at the military check-post. The town was more of a military base, probably the brigade headquarter, or something like that, overlooking the Line of Control around Gurez Valley. As the jeep moved ahead to the hamlets of Nikro and Karimabad we got a chance to see the local life more closely. It stopped at every village, and at times in between also, to swallow more commuters, and then some more. Although it was an ‘advanced booking’ system and was supposed to run ‘seat by seat’, the conductor could not succumb to the ‘demand’ and filled it to the maximum.

Soon he started eyeing our ‘empty looking’ seats as well. It was not decent of us to occupy that much space when our companions were literally sitting on each other, however, we did not want to make it any tougher for the kids, so I declined the advances politely. He did not pursue that further and the new normal was established inside the vehicle. The front seat was stuffed with three women and one teenager in addition to the driver, ustaad, who afterwards started instructing the newcomers to scramble at the roof! Among all that chaos, kids found it interesting to interact with local children jumbled up in their parents’ laps behind our seats.

The Breakneck Jeep Journey was Mesmerizingly Beautiful Also

The journey continued with all the twists and turns of the trek which was gaining and losing height intermittently along with the winding river. The landscape was breathtaking with dense pine forests all around. After every few minutes, a waterfall was coming down the hills adding more beauty to the already spectacular views. Some of the waterfalls were on the other side of the river while some were right on the trek we were passing through causing sporadic splashes. After leaving behind a dozen villages – Phulwai, Sardari, Janwai, et all – we finally reached Kel at around midday.

Arrived at Kel; the Boring and Harsh Reality

I found Kel an unimpressive sprawling dirt town, which only turned uglier with the rain converting the mud on the road into a filthy sludge. Or maybe I was dejected over leaving the dreamlike Taobat. In any case, we wanted to climb directly to Arang Kel without staying overnight in Kel so we dropped off from the jeep at Arang Kel junction which was located at the tail end of the main road.

The weather was still overcast – a bad omen for the 3+ hours hike, which could get slippery and dangerous. That made us change the mind and we postponed the trek for the next day. Leaving Urooba and kids at the junction with the luggage I looked around for a decent room and finally ended up at New Sardar Sarhad Hotel, after peeking into a few other shoddy options. Located at the far end of the road, Sardar Hotel was not too encouraging too; claustrophobic rooms, gloomy corridor and obsolete décor.  However, it was the best of the available options. I negotiated hard before bringing in the troupe hoping that the weather would get better the following day. (PKR 1,000 per night for the double room)

The whole tiring episode of searching, negotiating, and shifting the luggage in the room took around 2-3 hours. In the meanwhile, we had belated lunch, Daal Lobya, from Sardar Hotel and then went out for a stroll around town. The town was actually a couple of furlongs dirt trek, one side of which was encroached by a messy array of even dirtier looking restaurants, grocery stores, and barber shops while the other side was occupied mostly by a military camp, which was the only neat structure on the ground.

It was a busy road, with all sorts of smoke spewing vehicles – jeeps, rocket buses, wagons, coasters, and even sedans – arriving and departing. In this muddle, we wandered around aimlessly for an hour; had soup from a roadside vendor for Rs. 10 – supposedly made of free range (desi) chicken, had tea from another hotel, refilled kids’ medicines from a well stocked military pharmacy, called back home from a 19th century telephone booth, did window shopping around souvenir shops, had more tea, and then returned back to our room, bored and tired to the core.

While going to the bed, we were discussing the upcoming challenge ahead; ~1,000 feet hike to Arang Kel which we resolved to undertake the following day.

Day 10: Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Arang Kel – the New Darling of Pakistani Travelers

Fortunately, the sky was clear when we woke up in the morning – a good omen for the hike. We had breakfast, re-arranged our bags, handed over one extra backpack to the staff for safe custody and left the hotel at 10:00 am. I checked with the hotel staff for the porter but they demanded PKR 2,000, which looked too much. We had one big backpack, one medium sized daypack, and a stroller for the kids, which we distributed among ourselves and reached the Arang Kel junction passing through Kel bazaar.

First part of the Arang Kel trek, from the junction on the main road to the army check-post on the other side of the river, was a jeepable track, however, we hardly saw any vehicles around. So we kept walking; first passed a government school where ninth grade students were coming out after their exams, then crossed a better looking tourist motel probably owned by the government, then descended down to the river which we needed to cross to start the ascent.

Registering with the Police and then with the Army

At the start of the bridge, there was a police check-post where a constable noted our details in the register after asking regular questions; where were we from and how many days we wanted to stay uphill, etc. He also wanted to retain my National Identity Card, CNIC, but I somehow managed to keep him away from that. He was polite and friendly otherwise. A bunch of kids spotted us and gathered there to watch the ‘show’! Out of hospitality, the policeman instructed one of the elder kids to carry the backpack, the big one, for us. That was like a boon from nowhere, as we were already tired even before starting the actual hike, but I was reluctant in availing the favor. The policeman insisted and assured that it would be helpful so we gave up.

Across the bridge, the same drill repeated at the Army check post. They registered us, asked same questions, wanted to deposit my CNIC which I once again avoided, and seeing our sorry state instructed another ‘cigarette-smoking’ teenager, who was already on his way up, to carry the other backpack. Resultantly,  we were only left with two kids and the stroller. Even with the reduced load, I thought of throwing away the pram which was only adding weight to it. In addition, I was steering Misha also who was enjoying the adventure. But Mikael refused to walk anymore so Urooba had to carry him along. As a result she exhausted soon but thankfully one of our porters had mercy on us and carried him on the shoulders.

The Hike Got Steeper and Greener

A furlong ahead, we left the wide track and entered into the jungle trail following our porters. It was that point where the slope increased sharply making it tougher for us. On the halfway there was a beautiful stream coming down from the dense jungle. We took that as an opportunity for the much needed stopover while one of our porters fired his cigarette. The smoker guy was the friendlier of the two while the other looked rather quiet and jaded.  It was already two hours that we started the trek and we only covered half the distance. Pulling ourselves together we again resumed the hike which was getting steeper and greener with every passing turn.

Arang Kel Chairlift; A Case of Kashmir Government’s Failure

Far in the sky we could see a hanging yellow cubical. It was the much touted Arang Kel chairlift which we had been hearing about for last couple of days. Unfortunately, it was out of order and that too right from the day when it was commissioned. Talk of the town was that Sardar Atiq, the former Prime Minister of Azad Jammu and Kashmir, while passing through the area in his helicopter, spontaneously gave orders to construct a cable car over River Neelum. That would have helped locals, as well as travelers, by cutting down the distance between Kel and Arang Kel. Sardar Sahab, with the mindset of a Mughal Emperor, ordered to complete that within one month. The bureaucracy showed the required efficiency and hired a contractor from the KPK province whose only experience was construction of a meager ropeway on Swat River, which is called douly in the local language. Khan Sahab completed the task within the stipulated timeframe, for a few million Rupees, even without a proper feasibility.

The result was obvious. The ropes could not bear the shear and resultantly one of the supporting wires broke in the test run. From then, fate of the chairlift had been hanging and was well reflected in the shape of the omnipresent yellow cubical. There were rumors that a new contract had been awarded, this time to a proper engineering firm, so let’s keep the fingers crossed. In my opinion, replacing the tough trek altogether with the machine ride may reduce the Arnag Kel fun, however, if this infringement can cut down the initial part only, i.e. the river crossing, it would be the most effective solution.

We were not Welcome in Arang Kel

At the hill station, we wanted to stay for two nights, or more. For the night stay we did not book a room in advance and was instead relying on the information I collected through friends and PakWheels. At the start of the trail we crossed a chap who claimed to be the owner of a cottage, Awami Guesthouse. He apologized, as a mark of hospitality, that he could not accompany us but assured us that he would inform his assistant at the top who would come down to pick us up. The assistant, Younus – a very cunning looking local oldie, only showed up when we were already there, resting near the tuck shop right at the entrance of the plateau. He was only interested in taking us to his place and did not want us inspecting other options. He even misguided us as there were a couple of well furnished rooms available behind the shop, which we only got to know when it was too late.

We did not like Awami Guesthouse and instead settled at the Musk Deer Resort located nearby. Staff at the resort did not look supportive either except for the young manager, who belonged to Muzaffarabad. He excused us about the unavailability of chef and suggested to bring food from the same tuck shop, which was located at a distance of a couple of furlongs and was actually an army encampment. We were expecting much more hospitality and friendliness but got disappointed with the cold shoulder, or maybe our threshold had been raised by the treatment we got in Taoabt.

On the other hand, one of the porters also started bugging me. Although they were tagged with us for gratis but I did not want to be a slave runner and offered them Rs. 400 each, based on my Fairy Meadow experience a couple of years back. The quiet guy was asking for 1,000 instead and gave me quite a headache before getting lost. The other one, Tufail, was satisfied whom I politely suggested to give this money to his mother rather than wasting on the smoke, but I doubt he would have heeded that.

We were not only tired to the core but disappointed also with the behavior of locals. With the day passing fast, it was getting cold, making us to think about shortening our stay and leave the next morning. We were not even interested in the beauty of the place anymore.

Best was Yet to Come

But as they say, best things in life come free and without notice. So first arrived the same Sialkoti group – whom we met at Taobat and then a fully fledged rainbow showed up right behind our cottage. It was a wow moment for us; all the frustration and fatigue vanished quickly and we all were screaming and shouting our lungs out with the full energy. It was a stunning, crystal clear, full arc in front of us which stayed there for more than an hour till around sunset. That was the most beautiful moment of our whole trip, or maybe of the lifetime. The tough hike and the expenses, all was paid off! We were in complete ecstasy.

Getting Lost While Chasing the Rainbow

When I came back to my senses, I noticed a group of confused looking young travelers who looked in search of something. I was more intrigued by their typical Karachiite accent, which I heard for the first time after 10 days. They looked in trouble. They told me that they started the hike very late – again a typical Karachiite trait – from Kel and somewhere on the trek they got a glimpse of the rainbow. Mesmerized with the sighting their group scattered and started chasing the rainbow leaving the original trail. So they were looking for their lost group members and were afraid because of the looming darkness. Running short of time and light, they decided to go down to Kel, where they planned to stay overnight, and to wait for their friends there. Hopefully they would have regrouped without any loss.

Bonfire with Sialkoti Friends

With the sunset, the Silakoti group started the bonfire and invited me to join as well. They were long time friends and had been traveling together every year. It was a nice chatting session; we shared our traveling stories, introduced our personal life, and had random discussions especially on politics. They were interested to know about the political situation in Karachi, especially about MQM and target killings, which I tried to explain based on my views, while I was interested in the political situation on ground in Punjab, especially about Imran Khan’s popularity.

Around the wood fire, the discussion continued with a frequent pinch of pun followed with a loud burst of laughter. Contrary to the daytime when every second on the hike looked so long, time had been passing unnoticeably. It was the perfect environment – exactly what a traveler would crave for. The aromatic firewood was adding more flavor to the ambiance but at the same time it started irritating my bronchi forcing me to say goodbye to that unforgettable company. 

Getting Ready
Jeep View: Leaving Taobat Early in the Morning

Jeep View: Sunflowers in Front of a House Looked Like a Fashion

Jeep View: Stream Gutting Down to the River After Passing through the Jeep Track
Jeep View: A Typical Guraiz Valley Hamlet
Jeep View: The Tough Guraiz Valley Road
Jeep View: River Neelum Flowing in Guraiz Valley
Jeep View Passing Sardari Village
Jeep View: The Furious Nala Coming from the Mountain
The Jeep Crossing an Enroute Bridge
Jeep View: A Millitary Camp Nearby
Jeep View: The Staircase
Jeep View: The River Getting Wider Close to Kel
Jeep View: A Welcome or Goodbye Depending Upon Where are you Coming from!
Jeep View: Goodbye Guraiz Valley
Jeep View: Tent Houses at the River Bank
Jeep View: Just Outside Kel 
Jeep View: Almost in Kel
Ustaad - The Jeep Driver
A Closer Look into the Interior
Yes This Boy Traveled Half Outside
Usad Exchanging News on the Road
Helping a Broken One
We Dropped Off at Arang Kel Junction
Work in Progress, Forever!
The Arang Kel Junction
Parbat Hotel Kel - Not the One We Wanted
Brother and Sister
Bakarwal in Kel
Lahori Hotel Kel - Again Substandard for Us!
Sardar Sarhad Hotel Kel; Just Bearable
A Pharmacy in Kel
Peeking inside Kel Army Camp
First Part of the Arang Kel Trek
Kel Suburb was Better than the Bazaar
Tourist Motel Kel - We Missed That
Mikael's Group Photo with School Kids
We Descended Dowo to This Bridge to Start the Hike
Waterfall on Arang Kel Trek
The Wooden Bridge on Arang Kel Trek
Our Guides on Arang Kel Trek
Taking Rest Halfway on Arang Kel Trek
The Dysfunctional Arang Kel Chairlift Hanging in the Middle of Nowhere
Dragging the Stroller Proved Useless
Looking Back on the Steep Hike
Misha Feeliing Tired Finally
Looking at Kel from Height
Plantation in a Broken Tree Trunk
Awami Guesthouse Arang Kel - Not Good Enough
On the Way Between Musk Deer Resort and the Army Canteen
The Bonfire

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