A Wrong Turn in the Foothills of Himalayas

A great anonymous someday, somewhere very aptly said, “Jobs fill your pocket, adventures fill your soul”. The anonymous must be a naturalist and might go on adventures to feed his soul. But we are IT professionals, I mean people with souls coded into their bodies by their bosses. Well, no pun intended. Unlike the great anonymous, we couldn’t have adventures to fill our Java-coded souls. But this was a very strange weekend when we were given Saturday and Sunday off — we IT people usually work on these days as well since it is a dowry which comes free with our graduate degrees. We took this opportunity as a holy grail to crack our souls and encrypt it with some nectar of adventure. We planned our itinerary in a well-documented form consisting of brief historical descriptions of every attraction spot, day to day and even hour to hour activities. Our main targets were Soon Valley and the famous attractions of Islamabad. However, we turned our Suzuki Wagon-R back halfway through Soon Valley due to timing issues.

Coffee break at M2 Motorway. From left to right, Faraz, Ali, Anwar, and myself. Thanks Ashar for the pic. :)

We were not expecting Islamabad to offer us much to fill our emptied souls. But contrary to our expectations, we realized that Islamabad really had the potential to dazzle us into elation. We also observed on our first stop at Shahdara Gardens that monsoon season in Islamabad woos many people to get out of their comfort zones to wallow in the diversified lushness and stupefying scenery of Margalla Hills. This hill range is the part of the foothills of Himalayas located within the Margalla Hills National Park, north of the Capital city.

Shahdara Gardens, situated 10 km from President House Pakistan, 7 km from Barakhao and 15 km from Faizabad, is a small valley surrounded by a lush green belt of mountains. The magnet here is a small stream which passes right behind the Quaid-e-Azam University and has of lately become a very convenient picnic spot considered precisely a paradise for both tourists and families. We took baths in the stream and relaxed for a couple of hours before we headed for the lunch.

Shahdara Gardens
View the vista behind.

As per plan, we stopped at the Saidpur’s Peshawari Namakmandiesque restaurant notoriously called Charsi Tikka. We ordered the traditional Namkeen tikka, Namkeen Karahi, and the most ‘secret’ tikka. Yes, you read it right! Patta tikka which translates into ‘secret or hidden tikka’ was our real take. We saw these bite sized pieces of liver rubbed with salt and garlic and wrapped in a thin layer of stomach fat being grilled on skewers over open flames. The tikkas were served piping hot on the skewers to preserve the texture. The crunchy layer of fat and the soft chewy inside perfectly gave us the oomph of delish dope!

Charsi Tikka at Saidpur Village, Islamabad
From left to right Patta Tikka and Namkeen Tikka being grilled on an open spit

Our next ambition was the city’s highest tourist spot, Pir Sohawa located 17 kilometers from Islamabad on top of Margalla hills. Being part of the Murree hills, this exquisite range contains very stunning escarpments along Pir Sohawa Road. We paused for a brief photo session on Daman-e-Koh, a viewing point located in the middle of Margalla hills. Then we resumed our steep drive towards Pir Sohawa. Massaging our eyes with the pure tonics of natural panoramas, we reached the resort at 4:00 PM sharp quite in a state of trance and transfixture. The scenic views of the canyons on Margalla hills at 4800 feet above sea level left us mesmerically spellbound. We parked our vehicle facing a road towards the mystical Nelan Bhotu, our next station of the day. We strolled along the attractions and took various shots of winsome views and vistas of Tilla Grani, 3874 feet high peak beside Pir Sohawa. After a lot of footwork, we went on rooftop of a hashery surrounded by stunning scenes of the Tilla Grani crest. We slurped the most astringent, aromatic, and milky-malty tea at this place.

Brief stay on a beautiful spot near Daman-e-Koh

While relaxing on the rooftop, we caught a glimpse of a rhesus monkey down in the woods. The brief appearance of the monkey caused a stir among us and we decided to go down to make some whoopee — with bells on! Unfortunately, we couldn’t see that monkey again but the verdure of the wilderness took us a few steps further down — where what went still gives us a sensation of wallop and wow! However, Ali was reluctant to go further down. So, we left him atop.

Down on a dense trail we came across an army base with some soldiers sitting around their camps. One of them shouted at us, “Where are you guys going?”. Well, without responding to his question, we asked him, “Where does this trail goes?”

“To Islamabad at the Bari Imam shrine”, he retorted. Our excitement reached fever pitch and we unanimously said, “We’re heading towards there”. He scowled angrily and said, “It is getting dark now and there are cheetahs on this trail”. “Humph! I couldn’t help going down now?”, Ashar blurted.

No wait. It is not even close to Ashar’s Urdu version. Let me imitate … “Ub Tu Hum Zaroor Jayega”. By the way, Ashar is a Pathan and you can imagine his words now. Hysterics!

Faraz leaving and warning us near army camps

The trooper echoed, “Go on your own risk! You’re going to chase rainbows. Remember, a rainstorm and a coalition of cheetahs awaits you!”. Anwar eased us saying, “He’s frightening us. Don’t worry, I know this trail I have been to it some six years ago.” “Seriously, six years ago and you still remember the turn and twists of the way”, I sputtered.

“I’m not going with you guys, I have back problems. So, good luck champs!”, Faraz gave his verdict. Now the balls came into my court, I rummaged my backpack for the emergency light that I bought from AliExpress only few days back. “Gotcha! Let’s move to mountains. They’re calling us, we must go.”, I roared out. Faraz went back to Ali to drive themselves down at Bari Imam shrine.

Starting point of the descent

Totally unplanned and unequipped, we flung ourselves into the descent of Bari Imam trail — a tortuous, steep, and full of sneaky canyons. Laden only with one backpack, three Red Bulls, and a tiny torch, we, the ternion, kicked our trek off. In the start, serendipitously, we met a hefty mule who was also going downward. The mule was smart and knew every detail of the path. We kept following him and our trek was smooth and full of gossip until we lost him near a village downward. Some fiendish kids in the streets beat him back to the top. Now we were to follow our own hunches. “Keep moving and look for the arrows on the rocks” said Anwar reassuringly.

View of overcast Margalla hills from a dilapidated alpine hut

After two point five hours later, the awe-inspiring hills of Margallas covered with appalling pitch black clouds and it started raining cats and dogs within no time. Luckily, we were near a dilapidated alpine hut and sprinted there immediately. There was a mud house as well and the residents of house invited us to take shelter. These were laborers and worked in the capital city to meet their ends. All of them were very friendly, hospitable, and chatty as well. We gained a lot of knowledge about their lifestyle and their views on the politics. We kept chattering about different things until rain started to dwindle. They kept insisting on spending the night with them but we politely refused. After discovering about the remaining distance and the correct way down, we resumed our trek.

Interior of the mud house of very friendly people who invited us

Trekking down under drizzly overcast hills was a roller-coaster experience and honestly we were in transports of delight. Enjoying ourselves along with scenes of nature, we put our cellphones and DSLR in a shopping bag to avoid any scene to them.

“Hey, look down at this tree trunk, there is deadly scorpion.”, I shouted and requested for the camera which Anwar rejected instantly. With a dismal face, I kept walking and walking. The trek was extremely wet and full of sharp rocks. At some patches, we also hit some slimy rocks to test our trekking skills. There were some very beautiful scenes which I missed to capture due to rainy conditions and the continuously approaching darkness.

“Oh, thump!”, I cried in pain. Yes, I slipped while showing my skill to come first on passing that creepy rock. “You must be eating the pain”, sympathized Anwar. “This is nothing, you’re doing well my boy”, patted Ashar. After a couple of minutes, we decided to take some breath under a dusky, dreary, desolate tree. This was where I took out my cellphone to shot a small video of the location. It was half past six then and we stopped no more than three to four minutes there.

A view of Islamabad city from an artery of the Bari Imam trail.

“Mates, have you watched the movie ‘Wrong Turn’?” asked Ashar. “No, I believe”, I said curiously. “What was so special in that film?” questioned Anwar. Ashar hesitated while walking towards a small artery, “It doesn’t look like a trekking trail.” “Hmm! Then why are we heading towards it”, I exclaimed. “All arteries from one side or another meet the same trail”, said Anwar upliftingly. “Yes, you’re right. Let’s race through it.” affirmed Ashar. The night had almost befallen upon us.

Now, rain was playing on the crease of Margallas’ like Misbah-ul-haq — tuk, tuk, tuk. We were enjoying the trek — gossiping, narrating accounts of previous adventures we had in our lives. And then all of a sudden, we encountered a big 10-ft boulder in our way down and there were other small boulders covered in thick slime. There were many scorpions crawling on these rocks.

That dusky, dreary, and desolate tree.
The “Wrong Turn”

“There must be snakes as well, it is raining and all reptiles go out of their burrows” Anwar said frighteningly. Strings of chills went down our spines as we saw a water pit under that big boulder. “We should go back and search for the correct way down”, I said worryingly. “No, we will find a way down once we get past this boulder” assured Ashar. He went down first by the help of thick bushes along the boulder. Then I tried but slipped and he braced my legs. Anwar pulled me up. Now, I was in fear of falling into the water pit — where scorpions and snakes were in ambush. But I tried again and this time following Ashar’s instructions. “Push your legs first not your torso, place your hands firmly and move slowly keeping yourself in balance” advised Ashar. I did the same and succeeded. Anwar did the same and succeeded.

“What now?”, I ranted seeing Ashar grinning like a Cheshire cat. “There is another boulder twice the size of the first”, said Ashar callously. There was a moment of pin drop silence between me and Anwar. Then Anwar broke the ice, “Don’t worry there must be a link towards the main trail down from this boulder”. “No we should not take risks like that, it is dark now and going back would be wise” I pleaded. “We cannot go back as we would have to hike that boulder and ascent is difficult than the descent”, Ashar responded. There was a point in Ashar’s statement. So, we decided to go down again with the same tactics and succeeded with great struggle. And yes, this time I did fell into a not so deep water pit. Pity me!

There was a hysterical laughter this time on Ashar’s face. “Another boulder?”, asked Anwar. “Yes, and this is certainly not a trail it is a water canyon and its water must be going into a stream. We’re blocked very badly here.” said Ashar thinking for a solution. It was 8:00 PM then and I took my torch out. “There is no other way out, we should go back and try to climb those two boulders. We can do it” I said commandingly.

Time had come to test our nerves. We were trying to stay clam and cool as if nothing had happened. But then came the horrifying part, we started climbing the rocks. Ashar first holding the torch light, then myself, and Anwar in the last. Bracing each other, pulling and pushing each other, we somehow got past those bloody boulders. But our fate was in some other mood that day. Wherever we went to find the correct way out, we ended up in some chasm or the like.

No way out. No arrows on the rock. No signs of humans. However, faith played a very important role on that day and came like an afflatus that we were not going to stay here and our brain followed that. We were struggling to find a way out but none of us had thought to give in. Though Ashar had some plans to find a flat place to spend the night awake. But we kept climbing until we spotted a light far from us. We followed that light without stopping.

“Wait, there is fourth person walking among us”, said Anwar coldly. Chills went down the spine. “Are you okay, don’t pay attention to anything else, just keep climbing”, countered Ashar. After an hour or more, we were at the light source. It was a mud house. But before we made any attempt to call for help, five dogs fiercely approached us. We fled from the scene but the barking of dogs had awakened their owner. He sent his kids to investigate. The drizzle had been stopped long before but we were completely drenched in sweat till then. We asked the kids to guide us the way towards Pir Sohawa…yes uphill.

“Climb that way” shouted one boy. “No, that way is not correct. Take that one”, explained the other boy. We requested them to call their father or some elder person. The boys thought that we were thieves…. seriously did we look like muggers that day?? Anyway, their father came but before he uttered a word, a man with quite daunting moustache came down to us.

“What’s matter?” asked the sturdy man. “We have lost our way.” we said in one voice. There was broad laughter on his face.

“I have lost mine too” he said laughingly. “I’m local resident but don’t know how I lost my way today. But don’t worry I’ll take you guys up.”, he further comforted us.

“Allah has made you lost your way for us”, I quipped immediately. The owner of the house and the sturdy fellow talked with each other as they somehow happened to be relatives.

“What’s your name?”, I asked politely. “I am Jahngir.” he told me with a bright smile on his face. “So, who are you guys and where were going when you lost your way?” asked Jahngir. We told him the whole story and he was quite impressed to see us alive. He told us that bloody rill is very rocky and ends in a rivulet in Rawalpindi. He also appreciated us that we were only 15 minutes away from our destination where we took the “Wrong Turn”. Jahngir was a very congenial and talkative person. He kept us amused with his accounts of adventures in these hills and yes he also confirmed the presence of cheetahs.

“How much more …?” I asked giddily. “Keep climbing we’re still 2 hours away from our target.”, said Jahngir. “Seriously, two hours??”, I screamed.

I was feeling dizzy and Anwar sacrificed his Red Bull for me. I and Ashar had already taken ours. Along the way, we met our first mud house fellows and shared the whole story…and they smiled, appreciated, and again insisted to stay for the night. Seriously, we were amazed to see their sense of hospitality.

“Adieu! Dear fellas. We’ll visit some other time and surely spend a night here.”, we bade farewell to fellows of hospitality.

We kept climbing and stopped for no moment until Jahngir told us about a fountain where Prophet Muhammad (SAWW) rubbed his feet and a small fountain broke out. We paused there for a couple of moments and yes we drank plenty of water from that fountain. The water was crystal clear, cold, and sweet. Although we didn’t try to discover about the authenticity of the fountain and kept our focus on reaching the peak. Jahngir also told us that he worked in FBI and you know what Ashar also had a relative in FBI. So, our trek was quite interesting and yes exhaustive as well.

With Jahngir, extreme left, at Pir Sohawa.

With the help of Allah Almighty and his sent angel — Mr. Jahngir, we reached at the same point where we started our descent.

A burst of dazzling light exposed us as we approached the army camps.“Hello! What happened guys? You were going to Bari Imam??”, shouted a trooper with a smirking face. There was a burst of laughter in their camps and we were expecting such reaction. We told them our story in a brief account.

“You guys can now do any trek here.”, applauded a trooper.

All that happens actually happens for good. This whole adventure actually filled our empty souls with mental strength and reinforced our faith in Allah Almighty. This adventure taught us to always look for the solutions and never lose hope, always keep unwavering faith in Allah. We plan for ourselves, our Creator also plans for us; and He is the best planner. This trip has galvanized us to do more adventures and infer the meaning of life through the mind of nature. How beautifully John Muir summated in one of his quotes, “ The clearest way into the Universe is through a forest wilderness.

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