“Mountains are calling and I must go” are the words that keep whispering in my ears all along the year.
It’s not just a travel story, it’s an interface to bridge what I have experienced and what is undiscovered to the rest of the world.
My cousins and their friends were planning for a hike to the famous lake in Azad Kashmir, for the past two years. Last year when they were ready for the expedition, I couldn’t be a part of that trip. Though I wanted to go with them badly, but couldn’t because of some other important stuff. Conditions weren’t perfect. Sometimes in life, you have to sacrifice things for the better. Anyhow, when I heard about their next plan for hiking and a camping trip to another lake in the same region, I was pretty excited, and made up my mind. I knew that very moment that I was going to be a part of this trip, no matter what.
Let me first tell you about this lake. Chitta Katha is located in Shounter Valley, of Tehsil Sharda of Neelum district of Azad Kashmir at the altitude of 4100m (13500 feet). According to locals, “Chitta” means white and “Katha” means water reservoir (stream) in local language. Surroundings of the lake are very calm, peaceful and quiet. It is also called the lake of Mount Hari Parbat, which is considered sacred to some of the local people there. Chitta Katha can be approached from Kel city by a 20 km jeep trek to “Domail Bala” and then 5 km hiking trek to the lake. It is only accessible in July and August.
We, almost a group of 15 people, were ready on 1st day of Eid-ul-Fitr, July 7th 2016 to start our trip. I must tell you that there are so many tour/group operators out there who are doing their job well. But this was the kind of place, we wanted to explore on ourselves. I’ll elaborate the reasons later. So all the preparations were complete before the Eid. We booked a high Roof Hiace & decided to take our car along. We bought the necessities, and packed our bags. We left Lahore city at night around 1:00 AM. It was 7th July, first day of Eid. We reached Islamabad early morning around 5-6 AM. Our first main stop was for breakfast at Muzaffarabad. It almost took 04 hours to reach Muzaffarabad. Our destination for the day was to reach Kel. After having breakfast, we started moving towards Athmuqam. Most of the time, I was driving the car. So I could just drive and listen to the songs. Hiace was constantly following us. After reaching Athmuqam, we started moving towards Keran. Before Keran, you come across a police check post where you can see the border. I mean across the river is the land that belongs to India. So we were literally staring at the other side of the river like we were looking at India. Lol!
Caution: Anyone who wishes to visit these areas, must bring one’s CNIC because there is a border of Jammu and Kashmir at various places, throughout Neelum valley, where there is a strict checking. In Neelum Valley, taking pictures is restricted, no cameras are allowed, at bridge, check post and army camps. But you may take pictures after seeking permission from the locals or any army officer.
One more thing, Mobile Network service is available up to a certain point from where Athmuqam is only one hour away. So from that place onwards you will not get any Mobile Network service except SCOM. SCOM sims are easily available in Muzaffarabad and other regions as well.
We stopped at Doarian for Lunch. Near maghrib prayer, we reached Sharda after crossing Keran and Doarian. We were tired, so took a break. Actually the road is not that good. So we decided to leave the car, as it wasn’t feasible to take it further. We booked a jeep along with our Hiace. Sharda city is a real nice place to visit with your family. There are campsites along the bank of Neelum River. We had to leave, so after a long tiring journey, at last we reached Kel.
After having dinner, we moved to our rooms in a local hotel. I was excited about the next day hiking. We made our arrangements for the next morning like breakfast and hiring of jeeps to take all of us to Domail Bala from Kel.
The next morning, we got up early, had breakfast and were ready to leave. We had to look for jeeps again because there was some problem with the earlier ones. After wasting time, finally got the jeeps. Track was very rough. Around 1:00PM we were at Domail Bala.
Domail Bala (referred as Utli Domail by some local people and maps) is like a campsite. This is the place from where you start hiking towards the lake. You can find here place to live (camps), food to eat, jeeps to go back to Kel. Next important task was to find porters or horses to carry our pile of stuff including food, tents & other utilities. It seemed that there were no porters at all. After waiting for around 2 hours, we found a horse and a donkey along with two porters. We started our journey from there. Excitement was at its peak. Because now we were going to experience all the wilderness on the way ahead.
The actual trek starts from a small village with the same name Chitta Katha. As we got dropped at the main road a couple of kilometers short of Upper Domail village, we had to take a gentle walk up to the Chitta Katha village, which took around thirty to forty minutes. From the village, there were two options to reach lake, as we were told. One was along the Chitta Katha Nullah and was pretty steep as well as narrow at certain points. It could be dangerous and difficult for inexperienced trekkers, as told by our porters/guides. But this was the shorter of the two.
The other one was a bit longer, and was mostly used by locals when they had to move their livestock. In an attempt to experience the steep one and to reach through the shorter way, we decided to go through Chitta Katha Nullah.
We crossed the foot bridge on Nullah and followed the trail ascending up and remaining at the right side of the rocky face of mountain. This rocky face is one of the places around Domail where ruby gemstone is found and used to be extracted from. There was a steep ascend for about a couple of hours. We were continuously having short breaks and moving ahead, because the path was very steep. One porter named Zulfiqar was with us, guiding and appreciating us. The other one along with the animals carrying our stuff used the other way. This was so steep that the animals couldn’t cross it.
Anyhow we managed to cross this steep part, after which the track opens up in a wide valley at the base of Hari Parbat peak. There are two campsites, named Dak1, & Dak 2 respectively in this open wide valley. We reached Dak 1 but didn’t want to camp here for the night. We still had time to move to Dak 2 and rest there.
So we moved again, after a continuous hike an hour, we were near Dak 2, but couldn’t reach it, due to a wide glacier on the way. It couldn’t be crossed. We decided to camp there. We were extremely tired. But the excitement of spending the night was very high. Soon the other porter with our stuff reached the place. We sat up our camps. Soon there was darkness everywhere. Weather is too unpredictable in these areas. Suddenly, it was raining cats and dogs. After the rain, we managed to have some food. Ready to eat food, was all we could have there. At night, the sky was full of stars, I tried to capture the milky way, but suddenly there were clouds and rain again. I couldn’t.
Freedom to choose not to stay at Dak 1, would be the very first reason why would I wanted to experience this place on our own, and not with a tour operator. Reasons are very simple. They have their own rules and schedules. They have to cater to every one going on the trip. Most of the tour operators do not stay at the lake for night stay, mostly because of the unpredictable weather at so much height. But spending the night on the lake was one of the very reasons to visit this place.
The very next day, we were up early. After breakfast we had to move again. Today’s aim was to reach the lake early. So, instead of crossing that impassable glacier, we had to climb up the left side mountain, reach its top, and then descend back through the other side, so actually bypassing that glacier, and reaching the base of Mount Hari Parbat. Mount Hari Parbat was fascinating and beautiful streams were flowing from the top of it. The total journey takes around 5 to 6 hours for experienced trekkers, whereas it could be more than that for the new ones. And yes, it was far more than that for us. Lol!
There are a couple of settlements here at the starting and ending points of this open valley. From the settlement at the end of this valley, just below at the base of Hari Parbat, the path ascends again steeply. This is a nice place to camp for the night if you do not want to return in the same day. This is a campsite actually. You can rent out a camp to spend the day or night. The path that ascends again steeply, was the main challenge, but we had to do it. Anyhow, after a tough ascend of another hour or two, we came across a flat surface from where Chitta Katha Lake was accessible in less than an hour.
Finally, after crossing the snow and glacier, we reached there. Yes, Finally! I just moved further, reached the corner, and started staring at the lake like I had never seen something like it before. It was magical. The look of the lake with turquoise colored water and snow covered mountains, the background was making this lake extremely fascinating. I forgot all the tiresomeness and difficult hike. I picked up my camera and sat there for an hour, while others were resting and finding a place in the camps or something to eat. It was an unbelievable experience. I cannot simply put in words.
At night we were sitting outside our camps around camp fire. The sky was full of stars. Everything was natural and perfect. I would never ever be able to describe in words what an amazing and mind blowing experience that was. I mean spending the night in camps at 13,500 feet above the seal level, surrounded by mighty mountains, a breathtaking majestic lake in front of you, silently communicating to you. It feels like nature talks to you there. I feel the presence of Allah there, which gives me the real kind of peace. It was all about inner happiness and peace. And, tonight was the night; I was lucky to shoot my first milky way which I am going to share for sure.
The next morning, we gathered out stuff and started our journey back towards Domail Bala. To tell you the truth, people assume that ascending is tough only. Descending was very difficult because we climbed so high and steep. Descending & carrying our stuff and our own weight was a challenge again. After a long hike of around 7 hours, we reached back there at Domail Bala. Booked a jeep and reached Kel after two hours of jeep track. Next plan was to reach sharda and stay the night there. So we reached Kel, took our car, and finally reached Sharda. Along the river bank, we found reasonable camps, had great food i-e chicken karahi, prepared by one of us. Seriously, that was amazing.
Next morning, we left Sharda. On way back I was driving again. It was driving me nuts because I was extremely tired, but I had to do it. On our way back, I along with my fellow photographer / cousin did some photography, which you can see by his name. On the way back we actually experienced the people and a bit of culture there. These Kashmiris are really sweet, innocent & hospitable. While at Dak 2, we were offered milk and lassi by some local people. I must say they are very hardworking people. I still remember the faces of those innocent children carrying woods on the top of their heads, heading to their homes. The Kashmir region is extremely beautiful. Neelum valley is one of the beautiful places of Azad Kashmir. Let me share some of the pictures which would surely be a treat to your eyes.
I achieved what I went for. On the way back, I took home memories of time spent there, and most importantly that inner peace and happiness. This place is worth watching again.