Day 1, 10:00 am: “Hey look! That, over there, could be India,” says the person sitting in front of me, as he excitedly directs his friend to look towards the densely forested slopes across the valley. I am in Azad Jammu and Kashmir – or simply Kashmir, as it is colloquially referred to on our side of the boundary – in a bus brimming with young people, whose appetite for natural beauty is not satiated by the breathtaking view currently on offer, and are thus yearning to lay their eyes on the Ratti Gali Lake.
This is my first time in Kashmir – a region that I have, over the years, heard much about in the news. Other than the politics, however, the region’s natural beauty is also much-fabled; my elders have often used the phrase jannat ka tukra in the same sentence as Kashmir. And this naturally caused me to be fascinated with the area, yearning since a long time to see its wares for myself. Thus, when I learnt that the LUMS Adventure Society was planning to head to the region for a trek (at the end of last summer), I decided to hop onboard.
Day 1, 4:00 pm: I had my last meal, consisting of butter-laden parathas and daal fry, just before dawn, having covered half the route between Islamabad and Lahore on the G.T Road. That hearty meal sufficed for the remainder of the journey to the small town of Keran – onwards from Islamabad, the journey was punctuated with frequent stops, given the large size of the group, and thus took us almost ten hours.
However, now as I sit on the hotel’s lawn, I cannot fully take in the magnificent views in front of me – the turquoise hues of the Neelum River and the late afternoon skies are juxtaposed against the sparsely forested hills that are dotted with tin roofs shining ever so slightly against the setting sun – for there are too many distractions. Unlike the rest of the town, the spot where I am currently seated is a busy one since passersby include not just those people whom I have travelled with and others who are stationed at the hotel, but also chickens, rabbits, geese, turkeys and sheep that are strolling about the lawn, in a circumambulatory fashion. Secondly, since I am sitting so close to the river, there is a steady wind blowing, and this is, much to my delight, causing still-green apples to fall off some of the lawn’s trees.
Lastly, there is my hunger, which has risen manifold in intensity ever since I was told that chicken karahi will be the sole thing on the lunch menu. And one thing I have learnt from my travels across Pakistan is that, often, the safest option on any menu is the chicken karahi – so hard to get it wrong, in Pakistan at least.
Day 2, 1:30 pm: After a breakfast that consisted of boiled eggs and cereal, we left the confines of our rest house at day break, boarded our bus to undertake the hour-long drive to Dowarian. From there, a jeep ride snaking through the valley for a little over an hour brought us to the point where we would start our trek.
Right now, though, I am sitting on the grass, soaking in the sun, in awe of the scenery around me. I am naturally tuned to compare this view to landscapes I have come across in Pakistan’s picturesque Gilgit-Baltistan (G.B) region – how could a discussion on trekking in Pakistan be complete without the mention of G.B! When I do compare the two, I realize that the grassy, slightly forested slopes with flowers sprouting here and there make for a more inviting atmosphere. Make no mistake, one can as easily feel at home in the G.B region. I say inviting in the sense that, even to a novice like me, these peaks seem much more climbable, given how they are not craggy at all.
A mere three hours of trekking, across easy to maneuver terrain entailing a gradual ascent, have brought me here; I am told that pushing further for another hour, across slightly steeper terrain, will get me to the Ratti Galli Lake.
Day 2, 3:00 pm: The Ratti Gali Lake spreads out in front of me. Caged in on three sides by rocky peaks – just the sort of crags that dot the G.B region, and the lack of which I pointed out earlier – the lake is well and truly a sight to behold. Despite this being the end of the summer season, there is still some snow in this rocky backdrop, the reflection of which on the serene turquoise surface of the lake adds so much character to the setting. I have to admit, though, close contenders for my attention are these red flowers that are sprouting seemingly everywhere – it is the ubiquity of these flowers that gives the lake its name, our guide tells me.
Given the sharp ascent at the end, it takes half an hour for everyone in the group to collect at the lake. The group spends an hour marveling at the lake, recuperating. There is a flurry of pictures. One of the group members sings a song. Everyone is overjoyed; regardless of whatever happens hereafter, this sighting (of the lake) alone will enable everyone to mark the trek as a successful one.
Day 2, 9:00 pm: We reached our campsite an hour ago, a little after dusk, after descending for three hours. All I can think of right now is the meal I shall soon have. It has been a tiring, but immensely satisfying, day. I am sitting hunched in the corner of a small shepherd’s hut, with no ventilation other than a narrow door barely four feet high. My breathing is labored due to the smoke from the burning wood; the presence of at least ten other people in the hut is not helping. My eyes – keeping them open is also proving to be an uphill task, courtesy of the smoke – are fixated on the flame, which one of the porters is constantly tending to, so that the canned biryani heats properly.
This biryani I shall savor; the pistachios I have been carrying in my backpack all this while, which I plan to follow up dinner with, I shall also savor. But other than that, from here on, everything else will be downhill, both literally and figuratively. Tomorrow, we shall complete the rest of the descent to Dowarian on foot – the trek leaders have decided against taking the jeep ride. And beyond that, I wonder, how exciting could the journey back home (to restart the daily grind) possibly be?
 Locals told me that work on extending the jeep track till this point – the one where I am seated currently - had long been underway, and that the track might become functional this summer. They said that once the construction work is complete, a 2-3 hour jeep ride could get tourists here from Dowarian.
 Locals – probably the best source of information on the region, even better than guide books – tell me that due to excessive snow, access to the lake is deeply hampered during the winter which stretches from late October to May.
 After the trip, during discussions with friends over the etymology of the word ‘Ratti’, I am told that ‘ratta’ means ‘red’ in potohari and ‘ratt’ means ‘blood’ in Sindhi. I suspect the Potohari influence to be greater, given the proximity of the Potohari region to Kashmir.
Ammar Khalid is a recent LUMS alumnus, who has been lucky enough to travel extensively across Pakistan's Northern Areas. He tweets @paharibakra.
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