Friday, November 7, 2014

(Part 3) Trekking and Trespassing Around Taobat

No Man's Land: Kishanganga Entering into Azad Kashmir from the Indian Occupied Territory
This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 3

Day 4: Thursday, August 21, 2014

First Night in the Countryside

I had a good tight sleep in the cozy timber cottage which kept it warm against the plunging mercury. On the other hand, Urooba found it hard to cope-up with the howls and barks emanating from the neighboring jungle. She was adamant that those were not just ordinary shrieks and there must have been some supernatural creatures around.

While discussing the possibility of bad sprits in the haunted surrounding and their impact on kids, we headed to Al-Waheed Hotel for the breakfast. Budhanilkantha experience?

پل صراط: The Hell Bridge in Heaven

The walk between Al-Waheed Hotel and our cottage was hardly two furlongs. A day before, on our way back, this trail gave a lot of tough time to our tired legs but then it was a lot more fun. First we needed to cross the bridge hanging and swinging over the fast flowing River Neelum. The bridge, like all other such structures in that area, defies every sort of safety requirement. Even a second of inattention can result in a fatal accident. But that was an integral part of the local life and a part of adventure for us!

Waterfalls and Streams

Afterwards, it was a long humpy trek along the river. On the way, there were a couple of unassuming waterfalls, where we could stop for a few super fresh sips! In addition to this, a stream was emanating every now and then from one side of the trek and was falling in the river on the other side. One of the gushes was so strong that locals had to build stilts for pedestrians.

Life on the Village Trail

The walk was also our first chance to get introduced to the local life. The passersby used to look at us amusingly. First I took their curiosity as a response to our tourist outlook, which was inevitable although we tried our best to blend in. But then I realized that the interest was due to the kids’ stroller. For locals, the pram resembled to a wheelchair; for them a possible repercussion of either a roadside accident or an artillery fire from the other side of the fence.

But we found people in Taobat friendly, kind, and responsive to salaam. Clad in their traditional dresses, their women also used to stop for a quick chat with Urooba. With black base, their dress reminded me of the one I saw in Kalash but it was not exactly the same. For kids, the most interesting sight was the free moving animals; goats, sheep, cows, hens, turkeys, and horses!

Al-Waheed Hotel was the Centrum of Taobat’s Daily Life

Outside Al-Waheed Hotel, it was a happening scene with jeeps and mules loading and unloading respectively! Jeeps were mostly plying as public transport to and fro Muzaffarabad or Kel. Mules were owned by Bakarwaals, the high-altitude shepherds, who use the crossbreed to carry their luggage to the grazing lands where they camp for the whole summers and raise their herd. Military also uses mules to transport the carriage to the forward posts at the Line of Control.

Visiting Ali Tuck Shop; Taobat’s Main Tourist Attraction

After having the first heavy breakfast of the trip – half fried eggs, omelet, paratha, and the strong milk tea – we chose to explore Ali Tuck Shop, the famous picnic point in Taobat, and asked the waiter for directions. It was another two furlongs walk across the river, through the countryside, past the other part of the village which is named as Taobat-2 by the army.

The River Confusion

Interestingly, the trek ended up at another river. I was baffled because there could not be two rivers in this small vicinity and that too flowing in the identical directions. It ought to be the same river beside which we were staying, i.e. River Neelum. But then what was flowing in front of Al-Waheed Hotel, where we had breakfast, because the trek from our accommodation to the eatery runs along that same river. It literally gave me the headache!

Somehow I managed to comprehend that there are two separate tributaries which meet somewhere so silently that we could not notice! It was Kishanganga coming from Indian Occupied Kashmir at Ali Tuck Shop while in front of Al-Waheed Hotel it was the Gaggai Stream. Actually it was so much water around that I got confused and the reason why India would never like to forgo the occupied territory!

Trespassing into the No Go Area near the Line of Control

From Ali Tuck Shop, we continued walking along the Kishanganga River in the direction of Indian Occupied Kashmir – ignoring the warning board. But we could not go on long partly because we got tired and mostly because we were afraid. It was the war zone, no matter how passive and beautiful it was, risks were real. One of the risks was the presence of landmines, at times disguised as toy bombs, which can travel also with the high tide. So we took a break around an old tree and tried spotting a Himalayan Bear before returning to the Ali Tuck Shop.

Taobat’s ‘Tourist’ Attraction

The tuck-shop is a nice picnic point where one can enjoy breathtaking views while relaxing besides the river. Because of the ‘view bridge’, the place has become Taobat’s main tourist attraction. The cabin which sells juices, biscuits, and other titbits also makes the spot picnic friendly.

Since we arrived in Taobat that was the first time we saw some visitors. One family we interacted with came from Khanewal, driving their own SUV, while the other was a bunch of young adventurers. There were other visitors as well; unlike us, they were all day-trippers mostly interested in making photographs and videos. A local lady who was taking care of the maize crop nearby also came to meet Urooba while Misha made friends with her daughter.

Our Travel Ridden Bodies Wanted an Easy Day Out

After the customary posing at the purpose built, or half-built, overhead, we descended down to have a picnic around river stones. From a distance, the water looked harmless but in reality it was fast, furious, and extremely cold – full of both kinetic and potential energies! What else can be expected from something coming from Hiamalayan glaciers in all its purity and puberty? These are the waters which hydrate the vast lands in the Central Pakistan and make the country one of the largest agrarian economies of the world.

Fearful of the water power, we shifted from rocks to a nearby meadow. The sun was out fully making it pleasantly warm with gentle breeze flying away stray clouds. Both the scenery and the weather could not be better for a much needed outing.

Bees, Bugs, and Butterflies

Beneath the lush grassy carpet there were all sorts of creatures and in that thin air colorful butterflies and a range of bees were flying freely, hopping from one flower to the other. Amid tranquility and peace all around, a creepy-crawly could not see us chilling out and pricked Urooba in protest causing the skin allergy. So we moved once again and lounged on the wooden garden chairs fitted around the kiosk.

Life in Taobat – 2

It was so peaceful out there that it took a while for us to think about returning.

On the way back, we first inspected a couple of enroute guesthouses, near Ali Tuck Shop, which were reportedly run by the army! Both of them were not in the best condition, however, I could imagine that rooms there would have sold like hot cakes in the peak summer season. From the roof of the guesthouse, it was a good peek into the village. Interestingly, wooden houses in that part of the community were installed with solar panels maybe because that side was not connected with the hydel generator.

Searching for Phone in Taobat – 1

After another long draining stroll we reached back to the juncture on the trail where the bridge connected it to our guesthouse but rather than going back we thought of continuing to the other side of the village, Taobat-1, only to make a phone call back home. Telephony is not a child’s play in this part of the world. In the whole village, there was only one telephone that connects it to the outside world! When we made it to the PCO, it was closed! Thankfully, a local realized our ordeal and called the shopkeeper from his home. He was having a post lunch nab!

Loved ones at home were concerned about our safety as there were news in the media about warlike situation at Kashmir and Sialkot peripheries. In the meantime, a flock of kids gathered around the PCO. For them, seeing us in the village was their version of sight-seeing!

Local Specialty

By the time we got back to our room huffing and puffing, the sun was getting ready to hide behind green hills. In the mountains, days are shorter than the gap between the sunrise and the sunset, which makes it so different from the city life.

For dinner, we requested Abdul Hai, the attendant cum chef, to prepare corn bread, مکئی کی روٹی, for us in addition to the routine meal. He arranged a couple of them from the village as it needs a special oven to bake this local specialty. We also needed fresh milk and free range eggs for kids – and again Abdul Hai proved the right person to contact.

The Puzzle of Midnight Shriek Solved

While I was sitting with Abdul Hai in his makeshift kitchen, an elderly man came to meet him. Weeping and crying loud, he was saying something in the local language – Shina. Abdul Hai translated his suffering for me; actually last night a bear attacked the corn field owned by the old man. Although the oldie had security dogs which also tried but could not resist understandably except for making a lot of midnight noises. That part of the turf was located behind the camping site – the place which we explored a day earlier. It was then I realized that Urooba’s morning grumble was not too senseless.

The Bear Legend

Abdul Hai had interesting beliefs about bears, especially about brown ones, that they were actually human beings in distant past, during the era of a Prophet.  Since they were not obedient, therefore, they had been converted to the beast form as a divine punishment. From then, they had been trying to take revenge from the mankind and thus they are an enemy to humans. According to him, their foe like nature is evident from the fact that they first slap in the face, when encountered by humans, and kill them despite that they themselves are herbivorous. The legend seemed popular in the locality.

Abdul Hai also narrated an instance when he was part of the group that killed one of the beasts as it was persistently destroying their hard grown cultivations. He told me that government’s wildlife department keeps a strict check on the population of this endangered species. Poachers kill them for their valuable fat, which – according to Abdul Hai – fetches more than hundred thousand a kg (USD 1,000) in the black market because of their supposed medicinal and aphrodisiac benefits.

While Urooba was preparing the bed for the kids, I told her the same story assuring that the bear could never break the cottage’s door – although I doubted that myself.   

Continue Reading Part 4

This Swing Bridge Connected Us to the Outside World
A Random View from the Swing Bridge
Our Room from the Other Side of the River
Trekking to Al Waheed Hotel for the Breakfast
Freshwater from a Natural Spring
Quick Chat on the Trek
Walking Over the Stilted Crossing

The Downhill Watercourse Coming through the Village
Corn is the Major Crop Around Neelum Valley
Greenery on the Taobat Trek
Getting Close to Al Waheed Hotel
Kids Followed Us on the Trek
A Jeep Unloading Farm Chicken at Al Waheed Hotel Taobat
Another Stuffed Jeep Arrived at Al Waheed Hotel
Ali Tuck Shop's Sign Board at a Pakora Kiosk in Front of Al Waheed Hotel
Hot, Spicy, and Crispy Pakoray
A Local House on Ali Tuck Shop Trek
A View of "Taobat - 2"
This is the Ali Tuck Shop
Where There is a Trek There is a Go; We Continued to the Prohibited Territory
Although the Risk was Real
So We Stopped Here
We Looked Around for Himalayan Bear! 

The Trek was Full of Wild Flowers
 Kids Having a Good Time
A Flower with Heart Shaped Petals
This One was  My Favorite
We Returned Back to the View Bridge at Ali Tuck Shop
Water Coming from Maqbooza Kashmir
It was Fast and Furious
And Extremely Cold
Guesthouses Near Ali Tuck Shop
Inside of the Guesthouse
Campsite Near Ali Tuck Shop
Walking Back to "Taobat-1" Searching for the Phone
The Abandoned PCO
Shop with the Only Phone in Taobat was Closed
Thankfully the Shopkeeper Arrived and So Did the Kids
A Kashmiri Girl
Angry Boy
Local Kids
The Jeep Trek Passing Through the Taobat Village
A Public Jeep Coming from Al Waheed Hotel
Going to Kel
Good News
A Mosque in "Taobat-1"
In Fact the Trek was Good for a Truck
Kids Found Some Amusement
A Peek into Taobat Village
Roof of a Local House
Saving Water
Harmony between White and Brown
This One Was Camera Shy

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