Wednesday, November 12, 2014

(Part 4) Touching the Heights of Taobat Bala

A Lawn Print Butterfly in Taobat
This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 4
Click here for Part 3 Part 2  Part 1

Day 5: Friday, August 22, 2014

Unlike last night, Urooba and kids had a peaceful sleep this time. The locals must have done something to hush away the bear which played havoc in their fields the preceding evening.

Chasing Sunrays
In the morning, I woke up early to have a stroll around. It was cold out there forcing me to chase the peeking sunrays. Nearby, at an army check post, a cadet was enjoying the fresh solar energy so I sat with him. Originally from Punjab, he sounded like a proud soldier and was pretty talkative. We had a nice chat discussing the life on the battlefield which was obviously tough and thankless. It gets tougher in winters especially on the forward posts, which are located at a height facing the Indian ones. It is so intense that sometimes it takes several weeks that they get a chance to talk to their loved ones back home. He also shared his experiences when he visited Karachi and worked in a textile factory before joining the Army.

Going Natural

In the meantime Abdul Hai arrived with the kettle. For this trip, we resolved to feed the children with the nutritious fresh milk rather than resorting to the packaged or powdered one. But unlike Karachi, or any other city for that matter, we did not find dairy shops around Neelum Valley. Instead, the milk had to be obtained from a household which was not easy without the local support. The milk tasted different, a bit sweeter and tangy, like flavored milk, probably because of the variety of shrubs and herbs the cattle could graze on. Luckily, not only both the kids liked the taste but their gastronomical system also accepted the change!

Hiking to Taobat Bala
By then, having breakfast at Al Waheed Hotel had become a compulsory ritual for us, although it involved a kilometer of trekking. After having a wholesome supper there we headed to Taobat Bala – part of the village which was located slightly uphill, as the name itself suggested. It was busy trek that continued to highland pastures and then further to Qumri Top, via Dudgai Nala, connecting Neelum Valley to Deosai Plains through rugged mountain passes. On this trail, we also spotted an artillery camp equipped with heavy guns in the ready state.

Meeting Bakarwals
Enroute we found and chatted with bakarwals and their families commuting to and fro from the grazing areas, called dhok in the local lingo. Their lifestyle makes them really interesting. They stay in tents around high altitude pastures along with their cattle, mostly goats, and move with their families with a distinctive supply chain system. Out of hospitality, one of the bakarwals presented us a bottle of yogurt drink, lassi, which tasted more like cheese. One of them was even ready to take us to their tents but it did not look humanly possible to accept their generous offer despite our desire. Near Taobat Bala, a barricade was installed by locals to stop bakarwals to carry on with their motorcycles.

Reaching the Cloud Nine
We trekked for a kilometer or so but got really tired as this was the steepest and the toughest of the hikes we undertook till then. So we took out our picnic sheet and lounged peacefully around a watercourse. It was tranquility all around; freshwater flowing besides us gently, colorful butterflies visiting us regularly especially those purple ones, dense alpine standing tall in the front, and the cool breeze which was well compensated with the lukewarm sun. We were in paradise.

Up in the hills, wooden cottages were scattered in between corn fields. Along some cottages, occasional sunflower plants were making the scenery even more surreal. Further up, men and women were busy in grass cutting which they store as a feedstock for their cattle to be used in harsh winters.

While we were chilling out there, and kids were busy in running around, Asadullah – the jeep driver who transported us from Muzaffarabad to Taobat – appeared from the trek. For me, meeting someone familiar in that wilderness was exciting. He was actually visiting Taobat Bala to report back to the jeep owner.

The Rain Brought Us Back to Earth

It was only when Asadullah left I realized the coming of a thunderstorm. What else could follow a Neelum Valley jeep driver? They were thick dark ugly clouds emanating from our right, the direction where we started the trek from and exactly where we had to go back. Underprepared for that situation, which arose from nowhere, we did not carry rain accessories except for a polythene bag which was only sufficient to cover up our daypack. We literally ran down the hill; Urooba carrying Mikael while I was pulling Misha along. Due to the rain the dirt trek got slippery and a bit dangerous with the river flowing on the left hand side. By the time we reached back Al Waheed Hotel, all of us were fully wet and shivering from the cold. Our stay in the heaven was cut short!

Life at Al-Waheed's Kitchen
At Al Waheed Hotel, we changed our clothes and sipped the hot tea, qahwa, a couple of cups each while enjoying the overcast views from the balcony. Balcony also got too cold forcing us to shift to the kitchen – the only hot shelter around. During such times, of rains and thunderstorm, cookeries in the mountains somewhat transform into a town hall. At Al-Waheed’s kitchen also, there were locals, drivers, commuters, soldiers in plain-cloth, etc all gathered to have a break. That was a male-dominated environment, but they kindly accommodated us, a family. Some of them were excited to know that we travelled all the way from Karachi only to see their village. It was Friday, so I wanted to attend Juma prayers in a local mosque but could not do that as rain did not stop by then.

We had no option but to stay at Al Waheed Hotel and enjoy the warmth of the wood-fired oven until the rain stopped. Abdur Rehman, the young chef, was preparing the traditional Daal Lobya for his customers. It was our third day there, so for him we were more than just customers. When he got frank with us, he had no hesitations in confessing that he did not like being a chef and that too in a remote area. It was his father – Sadiq if I remember the name correctly, who was also there with his old but helping hands – who made him work as a cook. Youthful Abdur Rehman wanted to go to a big city, like Muzaffarabd, to explore new horizons and to find a future.

Attaining 100 Years of Age is not Uncommon Around Neelum Valley!
I also wanted to meet Abdur Rehman’s centenarian uncle who reportedly gave birth to a child when he was 80! Before the trip, when I was planning and searching around the internet, I came to know that Neelum Valley enjoys international reputation for longevity. Around the valley, it is common for a village to have a dozen or so old people, with ages of more than a century, and still they are not dependant on others for their routine life. The secret was all obvious; primitive lifestyle, hard work, pure water, pollution-free air, and fresh and natural food! So if you’d like to add a healthy year to your life, do think about spending a week in Taobat!

After having late lunch and another couple of cups of qahwa, we walked back slowly to our cottage. Thankfully the rain had stopped by then but the cloud cover still persisted. It could have been the coming of monsoon, I feared, meaning it could force us to stay back in the cottage for the coming few days, but luckily it was not. Due to the clouds, it was getting darker and colder, so we decided to go to the bed earlier, and did that without even having dinner.

It kept thundering and lightening for the whole night.

Day 6: Saturday, August 23, 2014

Attack of the Creatures
Last night it rained intermittently with a lot of rumbling and grumbling in the sky. The thunder subsided the ruckus created by bears and other beasts. Or they could have been looking around for shelter from the downpour Instead of playing havoc in the corn fields.

When I woke up in the morning I also noticed creatures all around the cottage probably taking refuge from the rains. But they were a rather harmless kind. Some of them were even colorful and beautiful. It was actually a variety of moths and butterflies which found dry wooden walls a better escape. They must be hiding away from the rains and looked hibernated. Mikael found them pretty appealing and was not afraid of touching them. Soon it turned into an interesting game for him; the little monster running before the screaming elder sister and Mama with a butterfly in his hands!

More About Life in Taobat and Around Neelum Valley
Since it was still overcast therefore we chose to stay back at the cottage for the day and requested Abdul Hai to prepare us the breakfast, paratha with desi eggs, and hot water for the laundry. Yayha Shah – the property owner – was also around. He had to do some repair work in the guesthouse but had to postpone that due to the bad weather, which gave me a chance to sit with him discussing the life around Neelum Valley, especially in the far flung areas.

With amicable demeanors, he was a good conversationalist and a great source of knowledge about the surrounding. Basically, he was the prayer leader, imam, as was his late father. Contrary to the popular perception about the clergy, I found Yahya Shah open-minded and frank. During our one week stay in Taobat, I noticed that he enjoyed a lot of good reputation around Taobat and beyond. My observation was further confirmed in the later part of the trip when I interacted with other travelers who also stayed at his guesthouse – Al Syed Shabistan.

What Happens in Winters?
To start the discussion, I asked about weather - the most sought after aspect of the picturesque Neelum Valley. In summers, it was so livable and lovable, but what happens in winters? I was curious. How do local inhabitants survive the harsh weather or do they migrate to the low altitude areas? Yahya Shah had answers to all my questions. No, they don’t evacuate and instead prepare for the rainy days during summers. Men go downhill to find petty jobs – driver, attendant, security guard, etc – while the remaining ones and women take care of the cultivation and the herd.

Preserving firewood and food, both for themselves and for their herd, are important for their survival in the harsh weather. Their houses are also purpose built with storage area on the ground floor while the living area located upstairs. Modernization is also catching up. Wooden roofs – which are tapered to get rid of the snow – are now being replaced by metallic ones to make it further convenient.

With the onset of snowfall roads start getting blocked and by January it gets fully landlocked for next 3-4 months. That should have been extremely difficult to survive, I thought. But the reality was otherwise! According to Yahya Shah, which also makes a lot of sense, winters is the most relaxed part of the year for locals because they don’t have to do anything but to chill, literally! And have fiesta. This is also when their social life thrives and community gatherings become a routine. In case there is an emergency, mostly medical, then Pakistan Army, which maintains heavy presence in the area, comes handy. At times, patients with critical condition are even transported through helicopters to hospitals in Muzaffarabad. He was describing all that so vehemently, and it was so different from what I perceived, that I started craving for a winter trip. Who knows!

Yes, it was Communism
The secret behind their survival is self sufficiency in food. Corn, potato, and red beans are their main crops which they preserve instead of selling it. In fact, in the far flung valleys the concept of trade is still one way, i.e. they do buy grocery from cities but do not sell anything that they produce themselves; be it staples, fruits, dry fruits, or dairy and share that among the community when there is a need. That sounded like an example of communism to me!

Fruit trees are a common sight around the whole Neelum Valley; apple, pear, plum, apricot, grape, walnut, and so on. Almost every household owns an orchid and also keeps a cow or two for their dairy needs in addition to chicken, turkeys, goats, and sheep! In short, the life there is still self reliant and primitive.

The War Zone

Taobat is located at the edge of Line of Control, the hot fence between Azad Kashmir and the Indian Occupied one. Due to this, war and its vagaries also becomes part of local life. It had been peaceful for last few years before that this beautiful valley was used to of fiery blasts and bangs every now and then. Yahya Shah vividly remembered those days when it was a norm to run to the nearby jungles as and when the mortars started pounding. It was not part of history yet as I talked to saw that peace as a silence before a storm.

Language Talk

As opposed to other parts of Kashmir and Neelum Valley, where the spoken language is mostly Hindko, inhabitants of Taobat speak Shina. In fact, the distinctive language is widely spoken around Guraiz Valley which spans from Kel to Taobat, at least. That was the most shocking fact for me as I always associated Shina with Kohistan and Gilgit, and could never imagine soft-spoken Kashmiris murmuring the hard dialect. Not only that, I always thought of Shina speaking people as unsophisticated but contrary to my misperception people around Taobat were mostly polite and placid.

I could not hide this disbelief from Yayha Shah, at the risk of sounding rude, which he responded with his flagship mannered smile but without a firm response. For once, I doubted them as settlers and that they might have been encouraged by the Pakistani establishment for the demographic advantage – in case there would be a plebiscite in the disputed Kashmir. That was the first time Yahya looked serious. He insisted that their forefather have been living around those valleys for centuries, way before the Partition, and that there are Shina speaking people living in the Indian Occupied Kashmir also.

There exists proximity between Guraiz Valley and Gilgit, although not an easy one, which provided me with the geographical missing link, however, the difference in the etiquettes kept baffling me. Maybe that’s the sweetness in the air and freshness in the water which caused that transformation, or maybe that was plain fault of my observation skills.  

Religion and Politics

But when it comes to the religious divide, especially along the sectarian lines, Kashmiri Shina share the rhetoric of their Kohistani counterparts. On the political front, most people we met in Taobat, and all around Neelum Valley for that matter, looked supportive of Nawaz Sharif and critical of Imran Khan.

Authentic Kashmiri Lunch

For the lunch we wanted to try something new and local. Abdul Hai suggested “Kuram” a vegetable which they grow alongside the potato crop. He took me with him to the backyard where we handpicked a few fresh leaves. Cooked deliciously in saag style it tasted like spinach. To make it more authentic, we had that with the Makai ki Roti. Yayha Shah also shared the homemade desert and the typical Kashmiri tea! It was my second experience with the salty version of the pink colored tea, which is called Noon Tea in the local jargon (noon=salt). But for Urooba it was a shock and a completely alien concept so much so that she could not continue beyond the first sip!

For kids, Abdul Hai prepared chicken broth as both of them were showing signs of cold as a consequence of our hide and seek with the unexpected rain the day earlier. For the dinner he made Karhai with the same chick which we had soon after the sunset before calling it a day.

Morning in Taobat
Day Started with the Stone Throwing Competition!
Organic Milk
Bakarwals at Al Waheed Hotel with their Supply Chain
Going to Taobat Bala with Al Waheed Hotel at Our Back
A Bakarwal "Couple" on Taobat Bala Trail
The Artillary Camp at Taobat Bala Trail
A Bakarwal Going Down with his Kid
Shoq Ka Koi Mol Nahee!
Misha Spotted Something in the Cave Tree
A Lone House
Sunflower in Front of the Cottage
We Reached Taobat Bala

The Village is Located at a Height

Primary School of Taobat Bala
We Lounged Around this Watercourse
Front View
Dense and Lush
August September is the Season of Grass Cutting, or Ghaas Katai
The Grass is Getting Dried Up
It will be Preserved in the Store as Winter Feedstock
Sudden Rain Forced us to Get Back to Al Waheed Hotel
The Scenery Changed Suddenly Due to Rain
Sun and Clouds Playing Hide and Seek
The Much Needed Hot Qahwa

Next Morning Moths Attacked Our Cottage
Red and White
Next Day We Stayed Back at Our Cottage
Going Vegan: Kuram - the Local Favorite
Kuram Saag
Abdul Hai Arranged a Chick for the Soup

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