Tuesday, December 29, 2015

United States of America - East Coast Itinerray

Map: We visited White Mountains (New Hampshire), Boston, Washington DC, Orlando, and New York

Pending the detailed travelogue, here goes the brief itinerary of our recent, first time, family trip to the United States:
December 8, 2015
Left Karachi through Emirates. Luckily, got a good fare and that too at the last minute!

December 9, 2015
Reached New York's JFK Airport. Took AirTrain to Manhattan.
From Manhattan caught Megabus to Boston - 5 hours. Pre-booked online.
Reached Boston, Massachusetts. Stayed with Noman's family.

December 10, 2015
Did day trip to White Mountains, New Hampshire. Drove through the scenic Kancamagus Highway - courtesy Noman.
Stayed with Noman's family.

December 11, 2015
Roamed around Stoneham and Boston, Massachusetts.
Took overnight Megabus to Washington, DC - 10 hours.

December 12, 2015
Reached Washington DC. Visited the White House.
Stayed with Katie's family (Couch Surfing).

December 13, 2015
Visited the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History and the Capitol Hill.
Took overnight Megabus to New York City - 5 hours.

December 14, 2015
Reached NYC early morning. Took NJ Transit to Newark Airport, New Jersey.
Flew through JetBlue to Orlando, Florida - 3 hours. Pre-booked online.
Stayed with Ryan et all (Couch Surfing).

December 15, 2015
Day trip to Wikewa Springs, Florida - courtesy Ryan.
Stayed with Ryan et all (Couch Surfing).

December 16, 2015
Visited Disney's Magic Kingdom. Stayed there till 12 am!
Stayed with Ryan et all (Couch Surfing).

December 17, 2015
Rested after a long day at Disney.
Stayed with Ryan et all (Couch Surfing).

December 18, 2015
Took Uber (first time) to the Daytona Beach, Florida.
Stayed at Day's Inn Daytona. Booked through booking.com while on the way to the beach! Got a value deal!

December 19
Took taxi to Orlando airport. Took JetBlue to Newark, New Jersey - 3 hours.
Stayed with Salman Mirza's family.

December 20 
Reached Middletown, New York State - courtesy Salman Karimi.
Stayed with Maria Karimi's family.

December 21
Did half day trip to Newburgh, Hudson River - courtesy Maria Karimi
Stayed with Maria Karimi's family.

December 22
Reached Queens, New York City.
Did Staten Island Ferry to see the Statute of Liberty.
Visited 5th Avenue, Rockefeller Center, Times Square for Christmas decorations and Light Show.
Stayed with Salman Karimi.

December 23
Visited Manhattan in the morning then headed to the Bronx Zoo.
Stayed with Salman Karimi.

December 24
Did morning walk on the Brooklyn Bridge and then some shopping!
Return flight from JFK Airport through Emirates.

December 25
Half of the day evaporated due to the time difference while rest of it spent in the plane and airports!

December 26
Arrived back at Karachi Airport safe and sound Alhamdolillah after two weeks of fun.
Comments on the Itinerary:
With some unwanted to and fro, I accept that it was not a perfect itinerary; did not get enough time for planning. For the starting point, I booked the return flight: Karachi - New York - Karachi. Usually I prefer 'open jaw' but Emirates fare for the simple return flight for this sector was too lucrative. Otherwise, landing into Boston and flying out of Orlando would have been a good idea, logistically speaking.
One of the targets for this trip was to take kids to Disney, Orlando. Therefore, I booked JetBlue for Newark - Orlando - Newark. There was not much thought behind choosing the Newark Airport except for that it was close to New York.
Washington DC came in late into the itinerary otherwise Washington DC - Orlando flight would have been a saner option than Newark - Orlando one and could have saved us from the hassle of taking bus from Washington DC to Newark via Manhattan!
Still we managed to squeeze White Mountains, Washington DC, Magic Kingdom Disney, Wikewa Springs Florida, Daytona Beach, Manhattan, Bronx Zoo, etc into our first ever trip to the US - again a big thanks to all the friends who supported us in making it possible.

Thursday, November 26, 2015

Hosted German Travelers Crossing Pakistan in their Car

This month, we hosted two German boys who are on the way to Nepal from Germany. They are driving their Volkswagen 4W Van and visited Russia, Central Asia, Iran etc before entering into Pakistan via Baluchistan.

To me, it is quite an impressive endeavor but interestingly they made it look so easy!

Here is the English translation (a little broken but still fathomable) of Karachi part of their travelogue, if you feel interested:

Original Version

Friday, October 30, 2015

Family Camping at Kund Malir

Our Beachside Campsite at Hingol

Recently, a friend asked the reason why my travel blog has been quiet for some time. Mikael’s admission to prenursery and me switching the job kept us so busy that I could not even share the Ranikot dash we planned earlier this year with friends’ families and the Ormara leisure retreat we did in May – courtesy a great ex-colleague. 
After the adjustment pause, and with the change of weather, came two back to back adventures; first a 2 days family camping at Kund Malir followed by a 3 days ultimate voyage to the Astola Island! (Stay tuned for the enthralling details of the later of the duo)
Although we have been to the Makran Coastal Highway a many times, however, a family camping trip had been longtime due and needed someone like the generous Ghori Family for that to become a reality.  
It was the wee hours of October 17, 2015 when we (Mikael, Misha, Urooba, and I) left the home. Car’s trunk was stuffed with the required essentials; clothing, water gallon with stand and tap, extra fuel can, snacks and juices, a big chatai, popup mosquito net, medicine box, etc. At the meeting point, around SITE, ice box and the camping tent was also added to it while the rest of the stuff including food was already loaded on the rooftop carrier of our travel companions’ Hi-roof.  
We witnessed the sunrise on the RCD Highway after crossing Hub city and before stopping for the anda-paratha breakfast at a better looking truck hotel just short of Windar city. The next milestone was Hingol Bridge River where we reached well before noon with three brief stopovers: 1) Zero Point (the junction between the RCD Highway and the Makran Coastal Highway); 2) Bismillah Hotel where Ghori Sb had to hello-hi an acquaintance; and 3) at Coast Guard’s Chor check post. 
The Coast Guard post was the only security check we had to pass through in the whole journey, which was opposite to my earlier experiences when there were more checks. Even those guards were not much bothered and did not ask for the routine register entry. To me the low security was the sign of improving law and order situation, or maybe I’m a bit over optimistic. What do you think? Thankyou Raheel Sharif!?
At Hingol River Bridge, we had a much needed drinks break at Al-Hasan Hotel – my favorite stopover situated at the other end of the river – before making a detour to visit the primitive Hinglaj Temple situated inside the Hingol National Park. There is a paved road from the highway all the way to the site. With the construction of a bridge the pathway has become more convenient so it took us hardly half an hour to reach there. We parked the car inside the vicinity and walked to the cave encapsulating the cubical sanctuary. Signs of development were also visible – most notable of which was the paved walkway to the cavern which to me did less service to the pilgrims than did the disservice to the ambiance of the naturally scenic location. 
Contrary to my previous pilgrimages, when I found the temple – aka Nani Mandir – deserted, there were signs of life. A group of Hindu yatris was visiting from the Interior Sindh. Some of them were towing barefoot toddler sons for divine blessings. Inside the main temple, the busy Maharaj was seated beside the orange figurines in his typical posture. He took out time for us and elaborated about the commencement of the 9 day festival which is the second in importance, according to him, after the one happens earlier in the year. Besides feeling lucky to get the entry as the premises was then closed for non-Hindus due to the ritual, my mind was also trying to make a connection between Muharram and this ceremony, which is also linked to the lunar calendar. Just to make a point, Aashura has got tremendous significance in the Muslim history which goes all the way to Hazrat Nooh and Hazrat Adam, the reason of two days fasting, in addition to its connection to the sacrifice of Imam Hussain. 
We got back to the Al-Hasan Hotel for lunch and decided to stay for an extra hour post lunch waiting for the sun to go down further. Mid-October sun was still hot however the air was cool and refreshing. The moment I shared the idea of having a nap in the cool backyard with Shahzad Ghori, Mikael’s echoing screeched filled the whole surrounding. He fell over and got a cut on his forehead with blood flowing on his face. Initially it looked needing stitches but luckily, Alhamdolillah, it was not that serious and Urooba made use of her medical college training and managed that with the medicine box.
Soon we were back on the highway and finally made it to the camping site, Karachi – 249, leaving the Kund Malir beach around 10-15 kilometers behind us. Kund Malir has been gaining popularity among Karachiites which was visible at Al-Hasan Hotel where we met several tour groups coming from the chaotic metropolitan. It was a good sign, but there was a flipside also; the once virgin beauty was cluttered with the haphazard construction. However, one could still find clean stretches a little ahead.
At the last accessible beach from the road, also called Melan, we decided to setup our temporary abode. The sun was preparing to set behind the ocean encroaching hill on our right when we were erecting our camps. It was a clean secluded sandy beach slightly downhill from the highway. Cars were parked so that they were visible from the campsite. Ghoris knew their business and within minutes everything was ready; from encampments to the makeshift kitchen and from fishing equipment to the LED lighting system. Our kids were somewhat perplexed in the beginning, since it was their first time camping. Especially, the idea of responding to the nature’s call in the open nature was completely alien to them. 
But soon the excitement of freedom overwhelmed all feelings. While the Bihari Boti Karhai was in the making, kids had good fun running around unrestrictedly and playing with the abundant sand. As a father, seeing kids enjoying the liberty of it was a moment of satisfaction for me. I was also hoping that the unpolluted air, the antiseptic sand, and the Vitamin D from the early morning sun would strengthen their immunity to fight the unavoidable viral infections every school going child is supposed to suffer from. 
Following the sumptuous dinner, the much awaited bonfire started. Luckily, the air calmed down making it more convenient and pleasant for us. It was only us and the nature; gentle sea breeze, rhythmic sea waves, noiseless surrounding, and a glittering sky. On top of it, the aroma of chargrilled sweet potatoes and corns was making it all so surreal. 
Beams of spotlights and soldierly shouts brought us back to the real life. It was the Coast Guard patrol up on the highway who finally noticed our presence in the wilderness. It was not unexpected and Dr. Ghori knew how to deal with them. We took that more of a sign to go to the bed, or in fact to the camp. Trying to squeeze besides kids’ mosquito netting the last thought popped up in my mind was the outrageous tsunami prediction I read on some tabloid a couple of days back! 
Fortunately, the prophecy proved to be a rumor and we woke up to a beautiful morning. The sun was about to rise on our left from the ocean; a lovely setting which we observed with family! In the meantime, the breakfast was also being prepared as Shahzad wanted to wind up before the same serene orange ball would convert into a hell sphere. We were back in our cars by 8 am praising him as it was already getting hot with scorching sunrays directly hitting our faces. 
Return journey was eventless and after making brief stopovers we reached back home at around 1:30 pm, with sunburns and lifelong memories. 

Sunrise on the RCD Highway
Makran Coastal Highway Zero Point
The Uninterrupted Landscape
Al-Hasan Hotel at Hingol River
Entry Pont of Hinglaj Temple
A Camel in the Middle of Nowhere
Road to Hinglaj Temple Photo Courtesy Nasreen Ghori
Bridge on the Way to Hinglaj Temple Photo Courtesy Nasreen Ghori
Prepartaion of Festival at Nani Mandir
Inside of the Nani Mandir
Home Cooked Lunch reheated at Al-Hasan Hotel Photo Courtesy Nasreen Ghori
Mikael Enjoying the Tractor Ride after the Incident
Coming Back from the Buzi Pass
14 This is where we Camped - Karachi 249

The Campsite with Cars Visible on the Road

Our Home for a Night
The Sun was about to Set
Darkness was about to meet the Wilderness
Crescent of 4th Muharram
Crab's Hard Work Photo Courtesy Nasreen Ghori
Getting Dark
A Beautiful Morning Photo Courtesy Nasreen Ghori
Sunrise at the Beach
In the Desert, Camels Always Have the First Right of Way!
Trip Overview
Days: 17-18 October 2015 Saturday – Sunday
Cars: Suzuki Cultus – 2 adults 2 kids. Suzuki Bolan – 5 Adults 2 kids
Fuel: ~35 litres. 50% with AC (Cultus)
Distance Covered: ~600 km
Day 1 – October 17, 2015
05:00 Left Home; 0km
08:00 Breakfast at Windar; 85km
08:45 Reached Makran Coast Zero Point; 120km
10:45 Reached Hingol River Bridge – Al-Hasan Hotel; 242km
11:30 Left for Nani Mandir; 257km
13:00 Back to HIngol Bridge – Lunch at Al-Hasan Hotel; 273km
16:00 Resumed the Journey to reach Buzi Pass; 315km
17:30 Reached the Site and Setup Camps – Karachi 249; 332km
19:30 Beach-side Dinner and Stargazing
Day 2 – October 18, 2015
05:30 Woke up
06:30 Breakfast
08:30 Left the Beach
11:00 Reached Bismallah Hotel before Zero Point for stopover
13:30 Reached back home – safe and sound Alhmadolillah; 613km
Links of My Earlier Makran Coast Blogs
Makran Expeditions: http://mozumbus.blogspot.com/search/label/Makran%20Coastal%20Highway
Survival Tips: http://mozumbus.blogspot.com/2012/02/karachi-to-gwadar-survival-tips.html
Great Canyon: http://mozumbus.blogspot.com/2012/02/great-canyon.html
Chicken Karhai: http://mozumbus.blogspot.com/2010/10/chicken-karhai-on-makran-coastal.html
Karachi to Gwadar and Beyond: http://mozumbus.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/one-road-two-thousand-kilometers-in.html
Day trip to Kund Malir and Rock Formations: http://mozumbus.blogspot.co.uk/2010/09/makran-coastal-highway-day-trip-till.html

Monday, April 6, 2015

(Part 11) Goodbye Neelum Valley: Kutton to Karachi Nonstop

Neelum Valley Farewell Shot: Kutton - Kundal Shahi Road

This is Neelum Valley Travelogue Part 11 (Last Part)
Click here for Part 10 Part 9 Part 8 Part 7 Part 6 Part 5 Part 4 Part 3 Part 2  Part 1

Day 21: Sunday, September 7, 2014

Finally we could see the sun in the morning after four days of complete cloud cover. With that, the merciless rain spell came to an end, but there was no guarantee that it would not resume. Homesick and desperate to get back home, we took that as a window of opportunity to get down from the Kutton hill station to the Neelum Valley road. It would have been only the first out of many steps towards the long backward journey.  

At the resort, most of the remaining staff also left as there were no guests accept for us. Even the cook was not there so we helped ourselves for the breakfast using the resort’s big and well equipped kitchen. Interestingly, I bought a whole dozen of free range (desi) eggs from the market last evening and we had no option but to finish them all before leaving the place!

Our return journey consisted of many stretches. The first was getting down from Kutton to the main Neelum Valley Road at Kundal Shahi town. From Kundal Shahi, the second step was to make it to Muzaffarabad – the capital of Azad Kashmir. Part of the hilly road from Kutton to Kundal Shahi was already wiped out in the floods. From Kundal Shahi to Muzaffarabad also, landslides were expected. With minimum telecommunication facilities, there was no reliable information available and we were at the mercy of our luck. It had already been three weeks out of home with two kids in the tow. So despite all the uncertainties we decided to take the risk and embarked on the journey back home.

Crossing the Daunting Land Sliding by Foot: Kutton Resort to Neelum Valley Road

The hotel manager sent someone out of the resort for brining the taxi for the first stretch of our journey. In the meanwhile, I cleared resort dues and had a goodbye session with the staff who took good care of us.

Kutton – Kundal Shahi Road was an otherwise 7km scenic motorable path running along the Jagran Stream but due to the floods it got damaged from various points. At one point, almost halfway, a part of the road was totally wiped off due to the heavy landslide. At that juncture, it was a complete rout; a mixture of mud, stones, and water was spread all over engulfing a furlong of the metalled road. The slide was not active but small stones were still making their way down to the furious water stream. That patch was barely walk-able so the taxi driver dropped us there instructing to cross that mushy slope by foot.

Even though the taxi driver was helpful and walked to and fro to move our luggage and kids, it was still challenging for us to crossover the narrow ridge. Fumbling and tumbling, we managed to pass the last test, and reached the safe zone without any serious damage. I was feeling lucky that we did not bring our car as the road did not look getting restored in the near future! From the other side of the mudslide, we grabbed another taxi to reach to Kundal Shahi. Afterwards, it was the eventless journey to the main Neelum Road except for a couple of photography stops. At the last waterfall, we stopped to say the formal goodbye to the Neelum Valley with mixed feelings. On one hand, we were relieved to escape from the flood hit stranded region but on the other hand all of us were heavyhearted on leaving that piece of heaven.

Finding Internet and Connecting Back to the Civilization

At Kundal Shahi, I found an internet café and got connected to the cyber world after a fortnight. I needed the connectivity only to see if there were any flights available from Islamabad to Karachi as we wanted to get back home asap. Unfortunately, all flights were booked, adding more uncertainty to the already uncertain plan.

Kundal Shahi to Muzaffarabad; Landslide Again!

From Kundal Shahi, we had to make it to Muzaffarabad. It was not very difficult to get a transport from there and around noon we were squeezed in a hi-ace going to the state’s capital. Kundal Shahi – Muzaffarabad road is part of Neelum Valley road, which runs along the pristine river. That was the most developed part of the logistic backbone connecting outside world to heavenly valleys. However, it was still prone to natural calamities. After an hour of smooth drive, we were stopped at another landslide. Luckily, the heavy machinery was already there. Even then it took a couple of hours to clear the road. I took that an opportunity to introduce kids from Caterpillar and its associates. For both the children it was an interesting sight, especially for Mikael who would relate that to his tractor book back home!

Back to the Plains

It was 5 pm, when the hi-ace dropped us at the chaotic bus terminal of Muzaffarabad where I checked for Islamabad options. We were particularly interested in hiring a Corolla but could not find one and then Qadri Coach, the best public transport between the two capitals, was ready for the departure. So we quickly jumped into the bandwagon and resumed our journey with a short break only enough for the children to get a nappy change. It was around sunset when the coach was climbing the Murree hills. The horizon was all filled with fascinating colors with cascading mountains – as if giving as a farewell and invitation to revisit at the same time.

The coach took a brief stop for meals downhill before making its way to the Skyways bus terminal located at the junction between Islamabad and Rawalpindi. Three weeks back, it was all silent due to Imran Khan’s dharna but when we reached back life seemed comparatively normal.

Airplane, Train, or Bus?

We reached the Islamabad terminal at around 9 pm and had to decide whether to stay in the Capital or resume the journey nonstop. We did not have many options. Flights were all full, even for the next morning. Bus all the way to Karachi, even if it were Daewoo, could have been too exhausting and was out of question. Taking train from Rawalpindi was not also reassuring especially when the TV channels were flashing big time floods in that region. Finally, rather than staying in Islamabad, we decided taking an overnight bus to Lahore.

Day 22: Monday, September 8, 2014

A Night on the Islamabad – Lahore Motorway

After a couple of hours, we were in the Skybus going to Lahore, through motorway. It was an eventless and smooth journey comfortable enough for the kids to have some sleep. We reached Lahore in the wee hours, found a rickshaw big enough to accommodate us and our luggage, and made it to Lahore Railway Station where Shalimar Express was ready for departure to Karachi. We again contemplated to stay in Lahore, after a nonstop journey of 18 hours but then we wanted to get back home as a first priority. So I bought a couple of berths in the AC compartment before nodding to a persistent coolie who guided us to our bogie.           

The Train Departed on Time!

The train did not look bad. Engine looked new while the compartments in our bogie were properly segregated and to our good luck we were the only passengers in our box. To our further good luck, the train departed on time, i.e. 6am!

Where Had All the Floodwater Gone?

I was particularly interested, or worried, about the floods that reportedly engulfed the Central Pakistan, which the train was about to enter. Television channels had also been reporting huge losses and submerging of transportation routes. For some part of our initial journey, especially between Lahore and Faisalabad, there was water on both sides of the rail track, however, not enough to disturb train operations. After Faisalabad, it looked pretty ok and unaffected, as if nothing happened, or we might be away from the flood path.

The Train Experience

Service in the train was also up to the mark. Ticket checker was a young boy and was accompanied by the other supporting staff of his age. All of them were busy in discharging their duties diligently and none of them look interested in taking bribes from free riders. It was contrary to what I had always experienced in Pakistani trains. One of them revealed that the new system is not liked so much among traditional cadre, for obvious reasons, who do not let go any opportunity to let it down. He further told me that along with the new engines Shalimar Express was allotted with new bogies, however, the same mafia managed to divert that to somewhere else; otherwise the quality of the service would have been even better.  We also ordered meal and tea from the dining car, and at one time visited the restaurant on wheels, and found that quite edible.

Murphy’s Law is All Too Predictable with Pakistan Railways

It was smooth sailing until we crossed Multan and reached further down to Samasatta Train Station at around 2pm. It was only then the inevitable happened. Electricity system of the train broke down. Since it was a private train, the resident staff at the station did not look very interested in fixing that up. They did give a try, with their 19th century equipment but failed and perhaps caused more damage. Sensing the situation, and non availability of a backup, the experienced train driver decided to change the sequence of the bogies, an exercise which took around two to three hours to complete.

Last of the event had yet to come. I was out at the platform, when the train driver disconnected half the train and took that to a nearby track. That included our boggy also! When I got back to the compartment, it was unbearably hot as the AC was turned off and fearing for her father Misha was crying with the loudest screams ever! More due to the heat and suffocation, that episode was the toughest of our whole trip.

Back Home, Finally

Thankfully it was the last happening and the train kept running and entered Karachi’s precinct past well past midnight. We reached Karachi Cantt Station at around 4 am, and instantly spotted a taxi driver right at the platform who took us straight to our home.

The journey ended, so did the memorable trip and its travelogue!  

Kutton's Jagran Resort; Cloud Cover Finally Opening Up
Part of Kutton - Kundal Shahi Road after the Floods
A Closer Look of the Land Sliding on Kutton - Kundal Shahi Road
We Crossed this Landslide by Foot
Jagran Nala; Still Furious Although Floods Had Been Over
We Took Sojourn Here at Kundal Shahi Before Resuming Our Journey to Muzaffarabad
Landslide on Neelum Valley Road
Caterpillar Removing Landslide from the Neelum Valley Road
Landslides and Road Disruptions are Part of Life Around Neelum Valley
The Chaotic Bus Adda of Muzaffarabad
Engine of Shalimar Express
Pakistan Railway is now Dependent on China for the Engines
Multan Railway Station
Traditional Blue Tiles at Multan Railway Station
Food of Train's Dining Car was Good
The Unending Greenery of the Central Pakistan
Green and Greener
Taobat Jeep Ticket
Sharda Rocket Bus Ticket
Sharda Hiace Contact
Muzaffarabad - Islamabad Skyways Ticket
Islamabad - Lahore Skyways Ticket
Shalimar Express Ticket