THE HIKE TOWARDS JAHAZ BANDA FOREST
Near Jahaz Banda Meadows – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
The feeling of being one with the Forest! I really had no idea there was a specific term in German language for this. “Waldeinsamkeit” or more simply the feeling of being alone in the woods. You see, I was not that insane after all, or at least not alone in my insanity; because when I first started contemplating the idea of exploring the distant, untouched and almost forbidden beauty of Kumrat and Jahan Banda- considering the fact that these areas came under state writ not too long ago – I most definitely thought I had lost it. But at times it is rather easy for some of us to decide that we are too tired of feeling alone in a crowded room full of known faces, and thus it’s high time to travel around 19 hours on dusty roads, at times dangerous and tedious at their best, to finally be able to feel alone in the woods, to feel one with the forest, the stoic trees of which and dense foliage have been standing silently for decades, teaching us a thing or two about solitude.
So it happened that I left Islamabad the beautiful for the fabled exquisiteness of Jahaz Banda and Kumrat valley at around 3 in the night on 27th July 2017. As the vehicle took turns on motorway towards KPK, my heart sank from fear of the unknown. Maybe there is a German word for that too…. What if it’s too remote, what if the hike is too hard, aren’t all woods the same, how different it could be from the trails on Margalla and Galiyaat? It was apparent that I was simply trying to ask myself what if it’s not worth it, romancing the Forest! What if it is as unattainable as the feeling of being one with a beloved? When a dashing city like Isloo is not enough to fill your soul with inspiration what chance does a remote pasture and woods have? I could see the faint hint of morning hue setting across the horizon. Isn’t it hard to tell a setting sun from a rising one?….I slipped into sleep finally.
When I woke up at around 6 in the morning we were crossing through Mardan, some bazar amidst this well-known city. One thing struck me as a matter of fact instantaneously: the locals were not used to tourists particularly tourist women. I found them staring at me more wide eyed than me in their city. Maybe we both were taken aback at the unexpected state of events. My head was aching sweetly from motion sickness by now and the mediocre view outside did little to cure me. Unlike at KKH and road to Kashmir, the view did not turn scenic for hours. We crossed Malakand at 8 in the morning and the heat was making it hard for me to slip back into sleep. From then onwards was the lunch break at Timergarah around 10 o clock. The rest of the landmarks were crossed in a hurry via Sharingal, Kalkot, Patrak to Birkot and finally reaching Thal at around ten in the night. (Given the delay caused by a broken truck for around one and half hours at least)
It was an early breakfast call at Jhal the next day, and due to the underdeveloped state of tourist facility we had to walk from our hotel to eat at a truck dhabba nearby. Now my fascination with trucks and truck driver’s journeys has been incurable since childhood, yet I never actually thought to be dining with truck drivers one day. The pleasure of being a nomad, of being a nobody, and the pain that comes with the first sip of the fatally sweetened cup of tea! But who would have thought it will only broaden the smile on my face. Ah! The things we do for love…. Particularly for the love of the mountains. Everything reeked of the tiredness from long journeys and the temporary nature of the traveller’s stay there. I made me think of life, it smelled like life.
We were told that a jeep will be carrying us a little into the mountains from where we can start the trek towards Jahaz Banda. My friend and I suddenly realized we needed a chappal to survive camping up at Banda top, as our trekking shoes may be the death of us if we keep them on for too long after the hike. The locals were hospitable to an embarrassing degree and refused to take money from us for the bargain. A reasonable deal of Rs. 150/- for each chappal was struck after much “nahi baji, nahi behn, app mehman hu,” and “O bhai rakh bhi lou meri jeep nikal jaegi!”. The jeeps dropped us a bit short of the desired point due to a minor yet potentially fatal slide on the track. It was a few minutes’ walk from the village at the feet of the mountain we were meant to trek.
The locals at Lamotahyi village again were much hospitable offering us water, chai, directions to keep us from straying off the trail and precautions on rain. The sun sweat us down mercilessly when we finally started the trail for Jahaz banda top. It was steep and jagged and was surrounded by lush green grass with stray colourful flowers, amidst which a narrow stream of clear and cool water was flowing. Elixir for our frequently parched lips, the stream went broad and narrow at its own accord throughout the steep ascend but disappeared as soon as we entered into the dense part of the forest. Before entering into the wild I took a peek behind and saw the magnificent spread of wood, grass, flowers, criss crossing of the streams and moss covered rounded stones beneath. A sort of cleft was formed down there with mountain rising on both sides and amidst the centre a streak of bluish grey water sparkled under the sun. It was hard to say goodbye.
Forest on Jahaz Banda Trek – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
The trail now was shadowed by a dense forest of close knit pines and evergreens, towering above us to impossible heights, leaning with alluring curves, their rough barks and thick trunks made them look like giants. The dimly lit trail had pieces of wood and dried foliage dusted away from surrounded trees, I could hear myself breaking them under my foot as I walked. It had been a long time since I had heard myself walk, here is the thing with nature: some other senses come into play when you are surrounded by it. I realized the rush of fresh air drenched in wooden scents fill in my lungs. My eyes could notice the several shades of green spread around me, every pine was different, every stem a piece of art, the intervening roots protruding from beneath the ground seemed like a sculptor: rounded and finished with perfection.
Jahaz Banda Forest – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
Almost an hour into the trek led onto the outer curvature of the mountain, where at one side the muddy edge of the hill gave way for a dangerously narrow path and at the other was a dauntingly steep cleft. Given my fear of heights I had to look away and used the trekking stick to keep balance at the outer edge. My slightly cramped legs and mildly aching back failed to lure me into rest and as the trek entered yet again into deep forest: I saw wild mushrooms, wild flowers and thick moss grown close to the trail sometimes even covering it. I had to take a break now. Thick cascade of trees and a few stray strands of skies and sunlight were visible from here, wild crickets and yonder birds broke the silence abruptly. So beautiful it was, to take a break for no apparent reason but to feel the beauty of this darkened corner of woods, I could feel my mind relax and focus on how brilliant the yellow of the small flowers was, just how deep and pigmented. I was pleasantly surprised by the fact that these tiny flowers were actually made up from several delicate petals and if you held them for too long they left an itch on your fingers. Why do we stop noticing minor details of utmost importance while we rush through life? Ending up lost and bruised from negligence.
I was able to make way through this dense forest into a less secluded part of the mountain. The trail beneath was slightly visible from here, in the form of a carpet of green and occasional yellow spread far and below.
Green and Yellow Carpet of Jahaz Banda Trek – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
Another curve and we were led into a small village where children of the most beautifully coloured eyes held out hands, marred with mud and child’s play, beaming at me. Aren’t all children the same? Innocent, thoughtless and wild. By now I was convinced that I was walking through a Vincent van Gogh painting.
Beautiful Village on Jahaz Banda Trek – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
The contrast between the deepest green and the brightest yellow almost hurt my urban eyes. I found it hard to look away and stumbled upon stones on the trail. Now this village was right at the foot of the pasture ahead where stray cows and their beautiful golden and pale white calves grazed silently, their delicate hooves making small noises on the grass with the sound a nearby stream played music to the ears. Though it was invisible due to the cleavage it flew in yet the sweet scent of dampened mud and grass by its side could be smelled mixed with the scent of damp wood and leaves easily. I had lost the count of how many breathtaking views I had already seen on this 3 hours trek. One twist of the mountain path and I landed in another, even more beautiful a dream.
Up ahead the remaining trail was steep with surrounding peaks visible through the clouds: kissing promises in their ears. The dreamlike quality of the scene made me feel dizzy or maybe it was the fact that we had been hiking for about four hours now. The peaks were black and rocky, unlike the pasture I stood in and all of a sudden it dawned on me: I was surrounded by beauty on all sides, balanced with careful proportion of water, mud, grass, trees, foliage, rocks, faunae, mountains and flowers. Sitting down on a fallen tree trunk I listened to an old Vital Signs song, “Barish ki her boondh main bheegi meri yaad tu aati hugi” and felt the irony of the moment where I missed absolutely no one. Beauty after all is an impressive cure!
Everything seemed larger than life there, at the trail towards Jahaz Banda, tangible and unfeigned. Although the trails of Margalla and Galiyat were my first love, being raised in Islamabad leaves me a bit of a sucker for hiking: nevertheless the magnitude, sheer contrast and brilliant mix of pasture, woods, faunae, high mountain tops with glaciers resting above them visible occasionally, simply gave me chance to experience being inside a Forest, how many of these are left by the way?
These forbidden lands, haunted by silence and beauty beyond comprehension. Although it was obvious that a descent will be made the very next day via the same course, yet I felt a dramatic sombre grow over me. Too old I was to fool myself that this moment in its full glory, as has been felt by me shall pass me by ever again. All things pass and that is the only miracle and the true tragedy of life. I got up to finish what I had started. It had been four and a half hours of trekking to this part of the mountain and ahead was a steep way paved with grass and high rocks, beyond which was meant to be the gigantic spread of the Jahaz Banda meadow.
As I spent the very last of the remaining spirits to reach the edge from below, little did I know that the view ahead would leave me dumbstruck! The meadow lay spread like a lover silent and subtle yet exposed in a maddeningly detailed manner: clad in uniform of green grass, with grazing cattle spread amply across it, a few stray abodes of the nomads adding to its surreal state. The breadth of its curvature was much larger than I had expected. Across this, stood stone grey and black mountains with their tops hooded by clouds. Amidst these silent giants a clear white streak was visible: a gushing waterfall making its way into the abyss below.
Deep Valley View from Jahaz Banda – Kumrat Valley, Upper Dir, Pakistan
Credits: Noorulain Naseem
It took me a while to take the next step! Being too in awe with the view I found it hard to catch my already abrupt breath. Our camps were dug a bit farther into the plain, where we had to cross over a wooden bridge broad enough to walk upon: below it a clear stream made its course from the glaciers on the high mountains yonder. As I lay outside the camp to give my feet and back some rest and just try to comprehend the magnitude with which the beauty of this piece of heaven and the struggle to get here has struck me, I reached at a simple conclusion. In the end if nothing works out, as I try and make way through the recklessness of youth to find some peace: the savage mountains are always a good place to go mad. I wish you go see for yourself: what it’s like to feel, being one with the forest that lies beneath the dark eyed mountains of Jahaz Banda.