The Silk Road, China

Wednesday, 11 July 2007

Chitral - the Kalasha valleys and lunch with the Finance Minister

After Billo had left Gilgit for his marathon week of traveling / partying (involving a 16 hour bus journey to Islamabad, a flight to London, a flight to Glasgow, Greg and Morag's wedding, another flight to Spain and another wedding!!!) I decided to head into North West Frontier province, which borders with Afghanistan.

NWFP is a mixed bag. Peshawar, Chitral and the Swat valley are perfectly safe for travellers. The Tribal Areas (about a quarter of the province), on the other hand are not: they are run according to local traditions, and - while overseen by a government intermediary - Pakistani laws do not apply and the government has no authority. Consequently, they are closed to foreigners (and non local Pakistanis) except for a few roads like the Khyber pass for which you require an armed escort.

Not so for Chitral, fortunately; the only thing that betrays the fact that you are in NWFP is the need to register with the police literally 10 times en route from Gilgit and again upon arrival. Chitral's attraction is its isolation until very recently; by road it can only be accessed via one of two 3000m+ passes, both of which are impassable in winter. Like many of the other places we have visited on this trip, the spotlight of the 'Great Game' also shone on Chitral about 100 years ago, when Britain saw it as a possible bridgehead for a potential Russian invasion of India.

Getting there was quite an ordeal. On the way there, heavy rain in the preceding days had quite literally obliterated the road; it was not even possible to see where it had once been. I had no choice but to leave my jeep on one side, roll up my trousers and wade through the freezing thigh deep water. After walking a few kilometres on the other side, I was lucky enough to hitch ride in another jeep all the way to Chitral. In total: two full days to travel perhaps 400 kilometres.

Ominously for the return journey, it poured with rain when I arrived in Chitral. This made what is a not particularly picturesque administrative centre even less inspiring. I quickly made plans to explore the Kalasha valleys.

The Kalasha valleys

The Kalasha people are a proudly non Muslim tribe. Their worshipping ceremonies differ by having dance as an important component and their women wear a head dress of brightly coloured beads which is perhaps more reminiscent of African tribes than anything I have seen in this part of the world.

The people farm wheat and millet and live in dark, multi storey mud houses which are set into the hillside. Women have a quite a different status to Muslim women in Pakistan: they are allowed to leave their husbands at will in order to live with another man (although they are not allowed to take their children with them.) As a visitor, the contrast is marked: the women approach you and greet you with a warm hand shake and "Schpata!"; most Muslim women in Pakistan on the other hand - even if accompanied by men - never initiate conversation nor should you do so as a strange male.

The Kalasha also have a bizarre belief that chickens will bring the demise of their people. Consequently, no Kalasha person keeps chickens, although eating chicken or eggs seems to be acceptable!

I planned to walk up Bumboret valley - the most picturesque of the three - to stay the night in a Kalasha guesthouse. The following day I wanted to trek up to two 3000m passes and drop into the top end of another Kalasha valley where I would spend another night before returning to Chitral. This was relatively ambitious - I would be climbing the passes in one day instead of the recommended two - but very doable if I started early and had a guide. Getting lost with Afghanistan only 4km away and the in midst of the Hindu Kush would not be ideal.

I enquired at my guest house and was presented with a kind local man who spoke no English. I was comfortable with this so long as he was clear on where I wanted to go before we left. All we needed to do was climb and end up in the Rumbur valley - how hard could it be?

Very hard in fact. Things didn't look good when my man didn't seem to know the way out of the village. A man called down to me in English, "use your eyes - you know better than him!" This did not inspire great confidence in him. He kept trying to descend and I kept insisting we at least traversed the hill to find the route to the pass, if not climb. He caved in far too easily for my liking, but seemed to know where he was going after asking a number of loggers along the way.

The climb up to the first pass was long, extremely steep and rather sweaty, but it was cool at the top with a cloud sitting amongst the craggy peaks. The views down into the valley were magnificent.

But it was the descent that was to prove so much harder. After a few false starts down the mountainside (retreating back up the hill because it was too steep), in my frustration (I was the one carrying a rucksack up and down!) I suggested we descend slowly anyway. Once again, my 'guide' was lacking in any better ideas.

Unfortunately, the mountain got steeper rather than shallower as we descended. It was actually quite dangerous and I narrowly escaped serious injury twice. On one occasion, the mountain was simply too steep and I began to slide down the scree towards a steep gully... my guide finally came in useful by helping me me off the face out of harms way. On the other, I had to climb across a rock face (not ideal with a rucksack) in order to avoid a large cliff. In the end, the most effective way down the steep, slippery slopes proved to be half running, half swinging - Tarzan style - from handful to handful of fortuitously placed thick green plants...

The descent

It was an enormous relief to reach the bottom!

Towards China

If the journey to Chitral had been testing, the trip back to the Karakorum Highway was another story. I walked out of the village and hitched back to Chitral, only to find further complications with the road. There is distinct catch 22 in these mountains: if it rains the roads are washed out, but if it is hot (it had been for two days) the melting snow also washes the road out! There were no buses back to Gilgit.

I took a minibus as far as I could go, before hitching a ride on a jeep, perched on top of some wheat sacks. I have discovered that this is infinitely preferable to the cramped and sweaty interior: the sun is relaxing, the air cooling and the views simply stunning.

The journey to a the half way village called Mastuj took twice as long as it should have: we picked our way along hair-raising tracks around landslides which seem to have hit the road every few hundred metres and waited an hour or so for a tractor that literally had to be pushed around the hairpin bends of one hill.

Mastuj was the end of the line for now. The water across the road ahead was apparently too deep to cross either on foot or by vehicle - at least until a new causeway had been built. Luckily for me I met another likeminded English guy called Jamie who was in the same predicament: he had left the Kalasha valleys the same morning and also needed to get to the border in order to meet up with someone. We kept either other sane (and played a lot of chess) while watching an entire day drift by with no news on the road. However, we were looked after very well by Khalid, the young guy who ran our guesthouse, and shown around the beautiful orchards and gardens of the village.

The following day our luck changed. We were waiting at the roadside to hitch a lift and a convoy of smart 4WDs pulled up. We eyed them covetously. Within a few minutes we had been introduced to the Finance Minister of Pakistan, his grandfather (a Field Marshall) and offered a ride in the security Landcruiser at the back of the convoy (complete with AK47 on board). He was on holiday with his family and heading over the Shandur pass towards Gilgit.

The 3,800m Shandur pass is famous for two reasons. First, when the British took Gilgit in 1892 and encountered local hostility into trouble a relief force hauled cannon over the pass through waist deep snow to save the day. Second, it is home to the world's highest Polo field and the annual contest between Chitral and Gilgit - something which appeared in Michael Palin's recent Himilaya documentary.

Frustratingly, the polo tournament was due to start just four days after we passed through. Nevertheless, we were able to stop and soak up atmosphere of preparation and the stunning scenery and were generously offered a picnic lunch with the Finance Minister's entourage.

Our luck continued when the party stopped at a hotel for the night and we were able to continue onwards with one of the many local police escort cars that was heading in our direction! In all, it took three and half days to make it back the 400km to Hunza, but it was an experience I would happily repeat.


1 comment:

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