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08. Jun, 2013

I am in Swat

I am in Swat

I had been waiting for so long to visit Swat and after years of wait, I am finally here.  The place is getting back to normal day by day. After facing major flood and a strong military operation, i can see hope in locals for getting back to their normal routine as it was in previous years.

swat 03 I am in Swat

I took a bus from Islamabad to Swat (Mingora) that took me 5 hours to reach with only one major military checking in between. The journey was comfortable. However, for the next major town called Behrain, i took an another van that took me 3 hours of bumpy road journey and where i had to prove my identity on several military checkpoints.


swat 02 I am in Swat

After staying a night in Behrain, i went to see Kalam valley, the famous of all and a major tourist attraction. The journey was again not welcoming with several military check points and a bumpy road but as soon as the valley started, i could not believe my eyes on surrounding beauty. The bumpy and dusty road turned into a smooth jeep track surrounded by green high trees. The road goes through a thick green forest with snow caped mountains of Hindukush all around. It ended at a beautiful lake called Mahidhaan (Mahudand) where i enjoyed the local trout fish, deep fried with traditional roti.

 

swat 011 I am in Swat

My curiosity to see swat was over but i realised that there are a lot of valleys and lakes still unexplored.

I sensed here that the locals are in great need to get back to normal. They want tourists here all year so that they can revive their economy back. So i would suggest all my dear Pakistani fellows, take some time out and explore Swat. It is not really that far from the capital. Despite of the under-construction road, you’ll experience countless beauty and hospitable people.

13. Sep, 2012

Sheikh Badin: The road less travelled

Sheikh Badin: The road less travelled

Tucked away to the east of the Pezu Mountains, a two-hour drive from Dera Ismail Khan, lies Sheikh Badin — a hill station that could serve as a proverbial oasis in the midst of the largely arid terrain of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa.
I discovered this hidden getaway while on a family visit to DI Khan. My cousin, who would often venture out to Sheikh Badin on a bike — there are no paved roads on the last leg of the journey — suggested that we take a day trip there. And, the very next day, we were on the road.
The resort lies at an altitude of 1,400 metres above sea level, and to get there the two of us took the Indus Highway from DI Khan to Peshawar, reaching the foothills of Pezu some two hours later. The road beyond the Pezu foothill has been inaccessible to vehicles other than motorcycles and four-wheelers, and locals seem to prefer travelling either by foot or on the sturdy 70s’ Toyota jeeps that serve as public transport.


From the foothills of Pezu, on our four-wheeler that took us up the rough and steep incline in about an hour before finally hitting a winding path that we trekked on foot. As we ascended the steep slopes, the city down below became a distant sight and the hot city wind turned pleasant and cool.
Going by the place’s name one would imagine that it lies somewhere in Sindh (since its name is the same as the district of Badin), but it has nothing to do with our southernmost province. It is said that the hill of Sheikh Badin was named after Hazrat Bahauddin Zakariya, the great sufi saint of Multan who travelled to this town in order to preach Islam. Others believe that the hill is named after Pir Sheikh Bahauddin, whose tomb is built on the hilltop and attracts devotees from the vicinity all year round. Later, the name was shortened from Sheikh Bahauddin to Sheikh Badin. And so a place that has nothing to do with Badin got a name closely resembling it.
Sheikh Badin is perhaps not on the radar of domestic tourists, who instead flock to the Northern Areas for a vacation. But the British, who were known not to have let any hill station go unused, spotted this unlikely town and promptly set up shop. They arrived at Sheikh Badin somewhere around 1861 and set up a cantonment to entrench their presence. It is said that the station did not have a water supply at the time, but the British weren’t going to let such a small detail deny them a hill station. They promptly built four small reservoirs with channels of mountain stream water feeding into them. And to chill their drinks for the essential summer retreat experience, they converted a well next to the pools into an ice storage facility. Apparently, they also came up with some 19th century technique of filtering the water, but that’s been lost to antiquity since.
The present-day town, however, is somewhat underdeveloped. Upon reaching the cool hilltop, I discovered that it has only one rest house, known as the Daak Bangla, which was built more than 100 years ago. It comprises a few rooms with a vista view of the mountains, but I opted to take in the breathtaking view of the Pezu Mountains from a charpoy laid out in the veranda. Antique furniture and other accessories are still in use but in a rather decrepit condition. There is only one shop set up by a local that sells cold drinks and snacks, not surprisingly at double the usual price. Drinking water is difficult to find, so it is advisable to take your own.
But perhaps where Sheikh Badin beats every other tourist destination in Pakistan is in offering you your first-ever (hopefully) lock-up experience. Fancy that? Tourists can actually rent prison cells for a night’s stay or camp out in the lawn by paying a small amount to the local caretaker. And they can take their pick from among six small and four large cells, and a jailor’s room — all still in reasonable condition!
I learnt on the journey that there is wildlife in a nearby jungle that includes leopards, jackals, wolves, pheasants and partridges. Locals say that the jungle is being developed into a Sheikh Badin National Park. But would the animals still be there when the park is completed? We’ll have to keep our fingers crossed.
Animals aside, Sheikh Badin is sparsely populated, with only 25 to 30 houses, one primary school for boys and girls and four mosques. They do not have paved roads, hospitals, secondary schools or other basic amenities. The oasis town of Paniala lies in the southeast, while a cement factory is located in the west. Locals complain that the factory spews out pollution that is damaging the local environment and will eventually affect the little tourism that there is.
While the remote little town charmed me, it was saddening that such places are not given priority for development and promotion by the tourism ministry despite their potential as major tourist destinations. Hill stations in Pakistan are mostly synonymous with Murree or Bhurban, places that have an infrastructure in place to receive and accommodate thousands of domestic tourists every year. Sheikh Badin needs improved infrastructure too, in order to popularise it among tourists. There is news that the ministry is planning to build a carpeted road and a Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation motel in Sheikh Badin, along with a chair lift facility from the village of Paniala. But given the government’s record in delivering services, these promises are best not to be taken seriously. In the meantime, the jail awaits.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 29th, 2012.

02. Sep, 2012

Memories of Mantu

Memories of Mantu

Mantu is like a samosa, not fried but steam boiled. I was first introduced to it while roaming in the bazaar of Chitral where I came across a boy selling mantu on the road side. Locals in singles and groups were sitting around, enjoying mantu and a good gathering.

The first Mantu, which i ate in Chitral, was not freshly made. However, on my second try, I discovered fresh and delicious Mantu in a small restaurant in Gilgit Bazar, right behind PTDC Motel. This is the only famous mantu shop in the city, with a chef that hails from Kashgar (southern China). It is not a very fancy place: there is a kitchen by the entrance, and a few tables on which to dine.

Mantu dumplings consist of a spiced mixture of minced lamb or beef, couched alongside onions and spices wrapped in dough that is then steamed in a special circular steel utensil. It is steamed by placing number of mantus in a row on a circular tray with holes which is placed in the utensil a little above from boiling water and is then covered. Mantu can be served according to your appetite. The taste can be enhanced by adding black pepper, vinegar and chili sauce. Once can easily eat a dozen of mantu in one sitting.

During ancient times, mantu was considered to be the food for travelers along Silk Route: they carried dried mantu with them and boiled it to eat at stopovers. Mantu is widely eaten in Asia, especially in Afghanistan, China and Turkey, though with some variations.

People in northern Pakistan, who are said to have received the dish from southern China, are fond ofeating it in small-sized mantu- but i also came across some Chinese engineers while traveling on the Karakoram highway who were seating a much larger version of mantu. Mantu-making is now a family activity in most parts of Gilgit-Baltistan, where a small utensil can be purchased from Gilgit bazaar and mantu can be prepared at home.

(The article was published in Herald by dawn, June 2012 travel edition)

 

23. Jul, 2012

Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Some journeys do not end up the way we want. There are bigger, unexpected plans that nature has for us.  I was staying in Chitral valley last summer and only place to see east side of Trich Mir (Highest mountain of Hindkush) can be from a town called Booni, some 2.5 bumpy drive from Chitral. I decided to photograph Trich Mir in a day trip. I got my van from main Chitral bazaar, the journey started with an inexperienced new young driver. Car broke several times on the way and a journey of 2.5 hours became of 4.5 hours.

Food has always been an integral part of my travel. I take Tea at every stopover. I decided to have my lunch after I reach Booni. For me, not having food from Booni was like disrespecting my journey.

 

Only for VIPs Only for VIPs. a travelogue

Before reaching Booni, the van started shaking and we realized the tire got flat. The driver pulled over at a town called Kuragh for tire repair. I could not resist sitting in the van waiting and started roaming around the bazaar in search for tea. I came across a restaurant with highlighted words “Only for VIPs” written on the main mirror door. This obviously prompted me to go inside and explore. May be I can have tea there. Although I wasn’t any “VIP” but I still wanted explore how VIP would that be in such remote locality where I can’t even get mobile signals. It was a small and very well organized restaurant from inside, clean but old furniture, beautiful cutleries and a television.

A man named Gul Faraz appeared from the kitchen door. He seemed in his late 50s wearing green shalwar kameez and yellow slippers, white hair, thin stubble and a well trimmed mustache.

I enquired “Aap ke pass chai hai?” (if you have tea)

Ji hai! Baithiye; he said while pulling the chair for me to sit, hence I felt VIP, so not like remote restaurants.

Tea was served nicely in a proper teacup and saucer as it is served in good high-end city restaurants. It was already lunch time and I had an empty stomach hence I enquired if there was any food in the restaurant. I have Shami Kababs, Pulao, Chicken Curry, salads and achar. Gul Faraz replied.

That sounded tempting and before I could order anything, the driver outside started calling out loudly. It was time to leave. I did not want to miss that food.  I said good bye to Gul Faraz and promised that I will return from Booni to have lunch at his place.

I love shami kababs and pulao. I can have it everyday if I am in the city and I never expected that to be available with him in that remote area.

While going to Booni, I forgot the snow caped peak of Trich mir and the pulao kabab started circling my head.

After reaching Booni, I made my photographs quickly after taking a short trip of the village. Trich Mir peak was dominating the hindukush mountains across a beautiful crop fields in front of me. I headed back quickly to the bazaar to get my van back to Kuragh. I realized it was last van of the day leaving for Chitral.

All I had in my mind was the food and “Little Star Restaurant”. I was confused if it’s worth taking risk of missing the last van. At last, Food took over my confusion. I asked the driver to drop me in Kuragh while he yet again warned me.

Little Star restaurant was locked from inside, I knocked and after a while, Gul Faraz opened the door and was happy to see me that I kept my promise. I ordered food without any further delay.

Gul Faraz outside his restaurant Only for VIPs. a travelogue

While Gul Faraz got busy in the kitchen to cook food, I watched tv to pass my time. Within minutes, he served me the delicious made pulao, kababs, salads, pickles and chicken curry. It was served again in the same well mannered way. He said he respect his guests and the food.

Gul Faraz informed me that the only way to go back to Chitral was taking a taxi and that would cost me a fortune. I realized I had no money left except for the lunch; neither there was any ATM in the area. I told Gul Faraz my situation of empty wallet.

Gul Faraz was a nice man. He offered me to be his guest for the night. I was a bit reluctant since I had no money. Somehow, Gul Faraz managed to convince me. Just stay, don’t worry and enjoy your stay. I am happy to have a company, said Gul Faraz.

We started with general conversation and within minutes, Gul Faraz was enjoying my stories and adventures of travels across Pakistan.  He showed me his well organized restaurant. He manages it alone. He is the only employer here and the only boss. He cleans it himself, cooks himself and serves himself. He has a house behind the restaurant while restaurant had only one guest room having two clean beds for guests and a well built wash room.

Gul Faraz offered me tea in evening which we had outside his restaurant lawn that too made by himself, observing the last beam of light on closest snow capped peaks.

Food1 Only for VIPs. a travelogue

He has spent his entire life working in major cities of Pakistan in 4 star restaurants as a cook and was best at it. Later he decided to return to his village and relax with his family. He runs this restaurant just for the sake of getting himself busy.

I asked Gul Faraz about the idea behind “Only for VIPS”? He added : I don’t like customers who pass by the restaurant, come over for a cup of tea, treat it with less manners, split, litter, smoke and unclean the tables. They go away paying few bucks for the tea and don’t realize how hard it takes to clean their mess. I don’t like it. That’s why my restaurant is locked and I only have specialized guests who know me well. Officers and elite from the surrounding valleys visit my restaurant, order before hand, and have food along with good time. That’s all I enjoy.

He added more: Luckily, the restaurant was open at your time. I was reluctant to serve tea to other passengers, but you seemed to be a decent guy from city. People from cities are well mannered and educated. I was happy to serve you and I am happy to have you here now. I like journalists.

I felt honored. But I told him I am not a regular journalist. This is my passion to explore.

“And your passion brought you here.” I am honored too.

Gul Faraz was a man of dignity and knowledge. We spent time together while he shared his stories from the city, his passion to cook and serve.

He also told me that he was building two other rooms for his restaurant. I was happy for him. I was happy for the fact that now I have another spot to go next time, a reason to meet this guy and stay in that valley.

He served dinner to me. It was same as of lunch. I was feeling embarrassed from deep down. I did not have money to pay for the dinner, the evening tea. I only could pay for the lunch I had. He said: don’t worry about the money. Money is temporary, human relations are precious and permanent.

Gul Faraz showed me the room and bed where I had to sleep. It was a clean well formed bed, just like home.  He gave me his clean clothes to sleep in. He didn’t go home just go give me company and protection.

I was living that moment. The unexpected turn life had taken within hours. I was living it. I couldn’t think over it then, in fact, I really liked the flow and the game that nature plays.

I had a good sleep. He woke me up next morning before sunrise. I was overwhelmed by his hospitality as he offered me good cup of bed tea. He said he has already called Booni to reserve a seat for me in the first van leaving for Chitral. I was happy, and relaxed. He went in the kitchen to make breakfast.

I was not finished with the tea yet when the van arrived and started honking. Usually they don’t wait for a passenger. Gul Faraz apologized he couldn’t serve me breakfast. As I was saying good bye to him, I approached my wallet and tried to give him whatever money I had. Bending his hands backward, he smiled and said “Guests are blessing sent by God, so that we can serve them” You have to pay Nothing. Have a safe journey ahead!

I asked again: not even for the food? Not even for the lunch I had?

Good bye Danial. Hope to see you again!

I rode the van and headed back to Chitral.

I sneaked my head out of the moving van, looked backwards and waved good bye to Gul Faraz, There was a sense of happiness. I was smiling all the way for no reason. All I was thinking about this amazing hospitality. What if Gul Faraz was not there? What if I couldn’t have the place to sleep? To eat? What if I was lost? Would it be more memorable if I had gone with the plan, had my food in Booni and returned back to my hotel in Chitral? I am happy that “Some journeys do not end up the way we want them to be….

(The edited version of article was  published in Herald by dawn, june 2012 travel edition)

29. Apr, 2012

The glacier i fell from : Chillinji

The glacier i fell from : Chillinji
Chillinji glacier 2 The glacier i fell from : Chillinji

Chillinji glacier from top of a mountain, Wakhan Corridor Trek

 

Chillinji glacier, as difficult as its name is. I would not call it my nightmare, but glaciers are famous for their panicky behavior. It acts totally wild and beyond your imagination. It will neither respect you nor take care of you.

It was my first encounter with any mighty glacier while doing a trek to Wakhan Corridor between Pakistan and Afghanistan that is only accessible through Pakistan. The glacier lies in between Chota Yasin valley and the camp site of Sokhta Rabad before you actually reach Karumbar Lake.

Chillinji glacier 3 The glacier i fell from : Chillinji

It took me at least one hour or so to cross it. The first look of the glacier from far away was a cave like structure producing weird sounds. Getting on to it, finding your path and getting lost in middle leaves you no other option except playing the maze game. If you are lost, you have to go all the way back from where you had started and find your own way out. Or shout as hard as you can so that your group members respond, and then all you do is follow their sound.

Crossing it was a big deal and the most difficult moment was getting off from it. There was no pathway, except an 80 degree dirty slippery incline. Falling from such a place is obvious and getting hurt was mandatory. The moment actually makes you realize the worth of your life. One wrong move and you are gone.

It is scary. It looks scary. It sounds scary. It acts scary. It really is scary. Glaciers are deadly, harsh but worth an adventure.

15. Feb, 2012

Life is short : live your dream

Life is short : live your dream
chillinji glacier Life is short : live your dream

A Trekker passing through Chillinji glacier in Wakhan Corridor Trek, Pakistan

 

Dreams? Should dreams be left as dreams or should you be doing something to make it real?

My dream was to travel & Explore. I am living it. I am finding out ways how can i live it more? But does that mean i am putting my family, studies, work and all at stake? The answer is No. It’s all about balance in your life. I am not traveling 24/7 and 365 days a year. But i never leave any opportunity to travel. Be it for work, a workshop, conference, talk, family visit or even for the sake of pleasure. The objective is to move. It’s all about balance.

The photograph above was captured in September 2011 while i was crossing Chillinji glacier on Wakhan Corridor Trek. It was my dream to go to that place, explore glaciers and live in wilderness. I did that. But not in a luxury way. I had to save, take time out, get out of my comfort zone and take the first step to move.

What’s your dream? Are you living it?

22. Jan, 2012

Travel Meals are the best

Travel Meals are the best

hotel nashta 4 Travel Meals are the best

 Its strange but yes i have always loved meals during the travel. For two specific reasons. First it becomes part of my travel memories and secondly of course if you are traveling and hungry, anything will taste good.

This hotel, not so fancy but happened to serve us the best oil filled parathas, fried eggs and garam chai during our stop over while going to start Wakhan Corridor Trek. The best part of the place was its location, Behal Hotel and restaurant, located in Kaghan valley right after you drive down from Babusar pass towards Chilas. That is the only hotel available in that area hence you are bound to have your meal either thier or take your own food along.

 

What about you? Do you always look forward to stop over any restaurant while traveling to add that to your memory?

08. Dec, 2011

I love in flight meals.

I love in flight meals.
pia inflight meal I love in flight meals.

Inflight meal in PIA - Islamabad to Chitral

Be it the small airport destination like Dera Ghazi Khan or international ones like Karachi, in the middle of a desert like Bahawalpur or in the mountains like Quetta, Gilgit or Skardu, I have always enjoyed my journeys. There is an another charm in enjoying your journey other then the destination. Be it on road, on train or in the air. I would always wait for the train to stop at  railway stations so that i can have my food. I would always wait for the bus to stop at the hotel so that i can enjoy my meal. Similarly, I was always excited with in flight meal and would always wait for it. No matter if i already have had my meal at home or in the hotel or whereever, i would still wait for the inflight meal.

There is a different charm in having your cup of tea or coffee while flying. If its a day flight you’ll get to have your meal with spectacular views.

I have also found our PIA’s inflight meal to be better and tastier in every flight. With every different destination, i would get a different meal and then a different happiness to enjoy it.

How about you? Can you share how do you enjoy your journeys?

22. Nov, 2011

What keeps me alive?

What keeps me alive?
wakhan return What keeps me alive?

My Fellow trekkers returning back from unfinished Wakhan Corridor Trek

It is difficult to return from the trek of your dreams. I along with my other fellow trekkers did  return after covering nearly more then half of our journey in Wakhan Corridor, Northern Pakistan.

You come back with mixed feelings. When i say mixed, it means that when you go back, you are happy to be back to civilization, getting a good warm water shower, have eggs in the breakfast, meeting your family and friends. In simple words, back to normal life. But at the same time you are sad too. Sad because you are leaving the wild, the adventure and the closest to the nature. You are sad because you had an objective to accomplish but you couldn’t because of unfavorable weather (snow and rain). You are sad. More then you are happy. You had put a lot of efforts to get there.

But then there is lots of hopes you are bringing back with. Hopes to go back and accomplish whatever you couldn’t.

I call my travels Mixed feelings. Its not sad always, but not always happy too. But its always with full of hopes.

That keeps me alive. What keeps you alive?

12. Nov, 2011

Life is Unexpected

Life is Unexpected
mahtram das2 Life is Unexpected

Wakhan Corridor Trek

Life is unexpected. I always find inspiration in my traveling. But there are times when I don’t travel at all and then there comes a time I don’t get to see home for a long period of time, always traveling. I count it as a blessing. Its been almost 3 months i have been traveling. Inside Pakistan and outside. Exploring breathtaking places and living my moments.

Sometimes i really get confused what to share and what not to. Pakistan is more then beautiful. Beyond our imaginations. Sometimes i feel life is to short to explore this motherland.

My recent trek was Wakhan Corridor. I remember my friend Marco from Germany once told me if things don’t go in your favor while traveling, it gives you a good reason come back, explore more, experience more and live more. I realized that on my trek as it went unsuccessful. I am not going to call it a failure, but I can call it a new learning experience, have explored some new places, met new people and now i have a reason to go back there, once again. I feel lucky.

The trek was not completed because of unfavorable and unexpected weather conditions. unexpected rain and snowfall. We had to come back, keeping it unfinished, bringing lots of hopes back home to go next year. Its difficult to fight with the nature and its easy to go in a flow with the nature.

While I was stuck and lost in the mountains, I was more close to the nature that gave me the opportunity to go deeper inside and live some moments.

I am still traveling and that is why i have not yet been able to jot down all my experiences and share with you. But i am sure i’ll be sharing them all soon icon smile Life is Unexpected