Chitral valley -- a reminder that all good things are wild and free
If you are in Chitral the names Hindu Kush, Trich Mir and Pamir do not necessarily mean a mountain range, a lofted peak over 25000 ft, and the highest plateau of the world in that order. These are the names of some of the best hotels in Chitral town.
The heydays of tourism have been washed away in the surge of war across the border in Afghanistan and its subsequent fallout. The only brief period when these and other lodging facilities are filled to capacity is the week when Shandur festival is in full swing; otherwise one would find them looking deserted.
This is how I found them when I visited Chitral recently in the week following the conclusion of the Shandur festivities.
As this mood prevailed over the valley, my family made the mistake of inviting a few friends for lunch at one of the best hotel which is located in the outskirts of the town from where one can enjoy the lovely view of the vale of Chitral.
The dining room was locked with not a soul in sight. A little later we were met by a surprised but a well turned out attendant who also served as the waiter, and was slightly deficient in hospitality. The kitchen, he told us, was operative but the lunch had to be ordered before 10am, so dictated the rules of the hotel management. Snacks were limited only to two items -- of his choice only
The order for dinner had to be placed before 6pm but the menu was fixed for each day by "his management" and the fortunate diners, travelling all the way from Peshawar, would only find out what they were going to eat once it is served.
Next morning, we headed for the Lutkoh valley commonly known as Garam Chashma because of the famous hot springs of Chitral. The road to Garam Chashma is typical of mountain roads in our northern areas. Curving and curling along a roaring stream and gradually gaining altitude. The metalled road sometimes disappeared into shingle track but nevertheless easily assailable for even the soft tourist from down country.
In a narrow gorge where the wind was howling, the vehicles stopped and the fishing party threw down the lines. A couple of locals were using a fishing net, but the efforts bore no fruit. Half an hour later the fishing kids were advised to move to another upstream point, some minutes drive from this defile where the valley spreads out and so does the stream. But the change of location did not change our luck, though the water remained ice-cold and blue. After another hour we left the place ‘trout-less’.
We continued our upward journey along the track and stopped briefly at a natural spring popping at the road side. Locally known as Khonza Uts or the ‘Princess of Springs’, its water is cooler than ice and is considered good for health. A neighbouring kiosk offered chilled variety of packed juices and soft drinks
Sometime later we drove through a sizeable bazaar along the road where the shops looked like a medieval emporium. This was Garam Chashma town. Saleem, the local MPA, told me that a decade ago it was difficult to cross the bazaar in summers as it used to be jam-packed by Badakhshani traders from Afghanistan. These traders had a booming business as caravans of mules and horses would bring pelts, carpets, rugs, dry fruits and a few other indigenous goods from Afghanistan and would return laden with provisions like wheat, blankets, cloth, used shoes, and machinery of different sorts.
At the time when Afghan Jihad against the Soviets was at its height, this town was an important place for supply of arms to the jihadis. However the current ‘War on Terror’ resulted in closure of the borders and the bazaar of Garam Chashma mourns the loss of Badakhshani traders.
We drove straight up the valley as the sun was warming up and the chance of catching a trout was reducing. Another scenic spot was chosen near Parabiak village which is among the last places where the lingua franca is Yad-gha, an ancient language only spoken in a few villages in the upper reaches of this valley.
Besides a wooden bridge, the family decided to cool their feet in cold water while the fishing enthusiasts led by Khalid, the ‘Wakil Sahab’ from Chitral and Basharat, the young Assistant Commissioner ventured slightly upstream to throw their fishing lines. Two local anglers also joined the party with their fishing nets. A little later the sun broke through the cloud cover and stared straight over our heads reminding us that it was time to move back to Garam Chashma for a hot bath. The fishing party could only manage a single trout which soon landed on our lunch table.
On the way back Daniyal, my son, was invited to a small orchard where he helped himself plucking mouth watering cherries from a tree. Local hospitality was at its best. He also brought these delicious loads for us which prompted Taniya to put on an old cassette and suddenly Frank Sinatra’s voice reverberated in the valley: "Strawberries, Cherries and an angel’s kiss in spring"
On our way back we re-crossed the bazaar and a polo ground filled to capacity with children of all ages playing football till we reached C&W rest house. This is known as the ‘Governor’s Hut’ and is located in close proximity of the famous Hot Springs. My friend Kashif Noon visited this rest house years earlier when he met an old chowkidar who told him that the rest house was build in 1972 on the orders of President Z.A.Buhtto and was then known as the ‘President’s Hut’.
After a refreshing hot bath, Khalid told me the reason for dissuading us from taking hot bath in the spring -- polluted source. The Garam Chashma oozes from different but adjoining black muddy puddles. I later visited the place of the hot spring’s source and found it in a depressing condition except for two privately owned public baths and a small concrete place where the womenfolk were washing clothes. The spas on hot springs that I had visited in Hokkaido Island (Japan) were a major tourist attraction even in freezing winters. The overall environment at Garam Chashma was neither hygienic nor picturesque.
We left Garam Chashma late in the afternoon and crossed the Droshp Fort which is ideally set against lush green fields in the foreground and jaded mountains in the backdrop. The evening shadows were lengthening when we reached a spot called Sher-i-Sham where the Chitral-Gol National Park is just on the opposite bank of the thunderous stream.
A lonely game-watcher stopped our vehicle and invited us to make use of his binoculars. On the bushy slopes across the stream was a large herd of Markhors busy nibbling leaves or gulping water from the stream. It was an incredible site. Markhors are extremely shy of human presence yet this herd was unmindful even of the vehicular traffic which continues to flow on the road.
Preservation through "trophy hunting" programme, under which the prize money is distributed to the whole community or is spent on the welfare of the entire valley, had worked well for the dwindling wildlife population. This reminds us that all good things are wild and free. And let us hope it remains so!