On top of the world

The unique features of the Baroghil festival make it more attractive than the infamous Shandur festival

On top of the world

Around the time when the political marchers were besieging Islamabad with their call for civil disobedience, I called my friend Shahzad Hassan to join me for a trip to the northern tip of Pakistan, Baroghil, where an unusual festival was being held. Hassan met me the next morning on Motorway near the Mardan interchange, without informing his wife. The prodigal husband had taken his first step towards disobedience, civil or otherwise would be determined on his return!

And so, on August 21, we embarked on our journey to Baroghil. Near Reshun, on way to Mastuj from Chitral, on a typical grey top mountain road, we came across a huge roadside boulder that is neatly cut into two. Legend has it that at this spot a jinn blocked the passage of a wandering fakir. In the clash of the titans, the fakir drew his sword and struck the jinn -- and that the sliced boulder is what remains of him.

Another myth is that if a crow flies past this point towards Mastuj, it would be chased back to Chitral by a bunch of magpies.

This local myth may be explained by the laws of physical geography -- that the altitude defines the upper limit beyond which the falling temperature is not favourable for crows to roost, and the fierce competition between the two bird species for food and roosting places is a common occurrence.

By the time we reached Mastuj, Baroghil had become an enigma -- some said it was a 10 hours back-breaking journey, others suggested 20 hours, with an overnight stay at a camp near Sosht. But a late night call from Shahzada Sikander of the royal family of Chitral, offered some relief. He assured us his last visit to Baroghil had taken seven hours, and that all the bridges on the way were jeepable.

Next morning, on August 22, the first 90 minutes of the ride out of Mastuj were through natural wilderness, almost like an early morning walk in the woods -- golden orioles and magpies could be heard chirping in the orchids, where the juiciest apples, peaches and grapes were dangling to be picked.

About three hours on, we met a student of grade 10, who was sure that we would reach Baroghil the next noon. Others we met on the way were unsure how long it would take to reach our destination, as none of them had ever been there despite living so close to it. Even though, they were aware of the Baroghil festival, they did not feel the need to attend it.

After crossing many rock precipices and hairpin bends, covering more ground vertically than horizontally, for seven long hours, we were relieved to spot a lone signboard that indicated that we were about to enter the Baroghil National Park. Beyond this signboard, we saw the huge Darkot glacier that dominates the entire landscape, and the corresponding pass leads you to east into Yasin valley in Gilgit Baltistan.

George Hayward, the 19th century mysterious traveler, was aiming to cross Darkot pass to explore Baroghil pass, and Wakhan and Pamir regions, as a possible route for the Russian invasion of India, as scripted by the Great Game strategists. However, his own prophesy of dying "with cold steel through his neck" shortened his life before he could leave Yasin. Treacherously murdered in 1869 by Mir Wali of Yasin, the henchman of Maharaja of Kashmir, Hayward was posthumously awarded a medal by Royal Geographic Society of London and was buried in the Christian cemetery in Gilgit.

After crossing the last ridge, we finally got the glimpse of the Baroghil valley, sprawling majestically with tiny white dots indicating various camps, where colourful flags fluttered and football, basketball and polo matches were in full swing. I felt the tennis ball T-20 cricket was totally incongruous with the surrounding geography and should not have been made a part of these festivities.

We were welcomed by Colonel Sarfraz of 145 Wing, Chitral Scouts, who shared the details of this three-day festival being held at the roof of the world. Teams from all the surrounding valleys were participating, including one from Ishkoman, which is in Gilgit-Baltistan. He explained the difficulties Chitral Scouts faced in organising this event. It reminded me of Derawar Fort in 2005, when I had to face similar hardships in organising the first Cholistan Jeep Rally. Meager resources, harsh geography, lack of response from sponsors, and sheer distance from the nearest city… But the effort was well worth it, for the surrounding Wakhi tribes had not witnessed such festivities in the past.

The unique features of the Baroghil festival make it more attractive than the infamous Shandur festival -- many people may have seen polo played on horses but not yaks and donkeys. We watched yaks gallop to the finish line with riders trying to steer the animals in straight lines.

Polo was wild but Buzkushi even wilder. Two teams of eight riders each competed to drag the slaughtered lamb to the central point. Soon it got chaotic and their respective supporters joined in too. With no set of rules to govern them, around 50 riders dragged the lamb beyond the ground, across the stream until they disappeared behind the ridge, though excited screams could be heard. Finally, a contingent of guides was sent to disengage them with the promise that the match would be drawn.

Also, the Wakhi cultural dance in traditional costumes was a special treat.

In the morning of August 24, which was also the concluding day of the festival, I met a Wakhi-speaking boy, leading the donkey polo team from the Lashker Gas valley. He was a student of grade 5 and wanted to excel in polo.

During the festivities at night, a solo dance performance by a Chitrali man, Hameedullah, in a cowboy hat was a joy. His effortless and graceful movements were a delight to watch. He is an employee of the Border Police and is on guard duty in the deputy commisioner’s office. This Clint Eastwood of Chitral could easily get a role in a western film.

Then I met, Khalid bin Wali, the ‘Chota Wakil’ from Chitral, who played polo with a broken leg, and Amir Shah, SHO of PS Garam Chasma, who was sent on additional duty to maintain law and order during the Baroghil festival. But, since the Wakhi crowd is known for peace and calm, he used his presence there to share his knowledge on agriculture. He lectured the local farmers on modern farming techniques, including sowing of hybrid peas instead of the local wild variety to increase their yield.

The final polo match was enjoyed by women as well, all dressed up in colourful costumes. I chatted with them through an interpreter. None of them, except for one, had seen motorised vehicles in their lives. This festival had connected them with the "outside world". They had set up a stall for traditional dishes for the guests and I being one from the ‘other’ world tasted the local cuisines for the first time.

The most interesting character I met had an unusual passion. A thin young man in late 20s, he would offer you a toffee and humbly request that while you may enjoy the sweet the plastic wrapper be returned to him. He would then carefully place the plastic waste in his cotton rucksack. Rehmat Jafer Dost is one man army running Chitral Heritage and Environment Protection Society (CHEPS) in Chitral. His resources are meager but his commitment is strong.

Every year at the end of polo tournament at Shandur, the crowd disappears leaving behind dust, dung and heaps of plastic and tin garbage. But Dost and his few volunteers stay behind to clean Shandur valley of the trash. Like all good souls, he will remain an unsung hero in Pakistan.

If the Baroghil festival continues with the same vigour in years to come -- which it must with support from the government -- more and more excited visitors will turn up to witness this event and enjoy adventure tourism.

On top of the world