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