“What are you doing on a bicycle? No one brings a bicycle here.”
That was the first response Aurangzeb (a local shop owner) gave to us as we cycled through Neelum valley all the way to Muzaffarabad. The inhabitants of Neelum valley were not accustomed to seeing bicycles, let alone three boys in shorts riding them through the mountains.
Neelum valley is quite simply a piece of paradise. The mountains are accessible and everything in the valley; from flora to fauna, from the people to the forests, has a softness in it. When the river gushes down the incredible green slopes, time slows down and everything has a calming effect on the senses.
|Our humble vehicle.|
|The road from Taobat to Kel.|
Our journey began from Taobat, the eastern most place on Neelum valley. It is a small outpost with three very small guesthouses, surrounded by a pine forest. Perched on the mountainside and overlooking the Neelum river, it is one of those spots which makes it to postcards.
The road to Taobat is almost nonexistent. The only way to get here is by jeep or by a bus, and not without constant bumps. This proved to be the toughest part of the cycling journey, as it started raining as soon as we left Taobat towards the town of Kel, 43km away. The constant rain on the dirt tracks slowed us down as we had to cycle through heavy mud.
Our journey was cut short in places when the rain would pick up and we had to find shelter. The rain clouds had covered the top of the peaks, and there was no sign of respite from the constant downpour. But that did not dampen our spirits; the scenic views and fresh mountain springs were too inviting to resist. So onward we moved, with the weather wet and chilly, and our rain jackets on.
After a few tough hours of cycling, we managed to reach Kel in the evening. Kel is a picturesque small town surrounded by snow peaked mountains. There is a bazaar where we enjoyed hot chicken corn soup, a welcome respite to our sore legs after the six-hour ride. The road from Kel onwards becomes better, but it was not until Sharda (another 20km) when we get to see smooth asphalt roads.
|The scenic Kel.|
|A shack next to a glacial stream.|
We passed Sharda in the evening and we stopped the night in Keran, a town 37km from Sharda. Keran is a slightly bigger place with a number of hotels and access to ATM machines. A cozy room will cost between Rs3000-5000 a night here. Keran is easily accessible by car as the roads are well-maintained. The weather is pleasant, but when in the mountains, it’s better to keep a jacket close by. As we were absolutely drained from all the cycling, we welcomed the rest and the food.
After a serene night in Keran, the next morning, we moved onwards, our cycles squeaking relentlessly. Given their protests, we decided to stay over in Athmuqam, a town one hour away from Keran. The hospitality of the Kashmiris, plus their curiosity of why anyone would attempt such a task, bought us a free lunch and dinner in some homes. We even had time to go on a hike up the mountain and look at the valley from above.
|Neelum river in Keran.|
|Neelum river in Keran.|
One of the cycles had to be fixed in the neighbouring town, Kundal Shahi, where we had arrived after dark. Kundal Shahi is a town perched on the side of a mountain, and the lights from the houses make it look something out of a storybook, like elves living in a giant tree.
By the time we started our return journey, the whole valley was bathed in silver moonlight, and the river was gleaming. Throughout the entire journey, I felt as if I was traversing through some untold fairy tale, perhaps one that needs to be told more and more often. It is hard to describe the magic this land possesses.
|View from the top of Athmuqam.|
|Another view of Athmuqam.|
|The river in Athmuqam.|
The next morning, we left for Muzaffarabad. The road kept climbing uphill and then downhill. Much to our dismay, every joyous descent followed an arduous and painful ascent. But every time we felt out of breath, there was a cool, fresh mountain spring and a refreshing breeze to rejuvenate our spirits.
They are constructing a dam at the end of Neelum valley, where there is also a hotel that supplies food to the people working there. That hotel made us the best fried roti.
|Athmuqam in the valley below.|
|Leaving Neelum valley.|
As we approached Muzaffarabad, the sight of a mountain cut by a knife startled us. This is the after effect of the 2005 earthquake – a stark reminder to us of the Nature’s bold and humbling strength.
That image, we carried with us as we got on a bus to Islamabad. That mountain sliced like cake, and a calmness we will not forget.
—All photos by author