A Karachiite in Chitral

February 23, 2020

A journey entailing magical sunrises, steaming cups of chai in front of warm bonfires, enlightening conversations on random topics and memories that will last a lifetime

Enroute Gol National Park, Chitral.

It’s a blur. Stressful, disorienting, and toxic, is what life in a metropolitan city seems to be like sometimes. Having been born and brought up in Karachi, being in a big city is the only way of life I have ever known: the constant hustle, the ceaseless movement, always in a rush to reach further, achieve more, compete and be better, better, and better. It is a hunger that is insatiable and a life that continues to be just a little blob of haze.

To escape this very blur that appeared to be feeding on my sanity, I took a leaf out of Elizabeth Gilbert’s famous book Eat.Pray.Love. One fine day I just quit everything and within the next three minutes had booked the very next trip to the north of Pakistan that came across on my newsfeed – to the Hindukush range with a local tour agency.

A six-day tour to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s largest district Chitral and the ethereal Kumrat valley unveiled to me a way of life that was entirely foreign.

Kumrat is what my core destination was, while the thought of Chitral never intrigued me. It was simply part of an itinerary planned by the tour agency, but imagine my surprise, when this gorgeously green town managed to take my breath away within seconds of entering it.

It is almost a 12-hour bus ride from Islamabad to Chitral. En route, you get to cross the newly constructed Swat Motorway, the picturesque regions of Upper Dir and the Lowari Pass. The Lowari Top sits at 10,230ft and connects Dir to Chitral. Once you get through the 8.5kms long tunnel, you emerge to find yourself face to face with one of the most brilliant views of the Hindukush range along with the multiple twists and turns of the road.

This district of KPK offers many attractions, including an ethnological museum, the historic Chitral Fort, Shahi Mosque, views of the Chitral river, festive polo matches and some heartening chapli kebabs and mantu (or is it mamtu?), but it was the Gol National Park that topped my list.

Gol National Park was one of those hidden, unheard-of adventures that I hadn’t anticipated, nor had I bothered to do any research on. Within a 2.5 hour long 4x4 drive across a fairly bumpy and dangerous terrain (the best cure for anyone with a height phobia), our elevation rose drastically from Chitral valley’s 4,000 ft (approx.) to Gol National Park’s 8,000+ ft above sea level.

For a Karachiite like myself, the definition of a ‘park’ is generally quite different (and much less grand). I reached this park only to find myself surrounded by the most majestic of cedar trees, a striking backdrop of the Hindukush layer after layer, boasting of naturalistic grandeur with a series of unique rock formations and a variety of flora and fauna illuminated perfectly as golden sun rays filtered through the forest’s countless tree branches.

The famous Tirich Mir, which is the highest mountain outside of the Himalaya-Karakoram range, is also visible from here, along with the Birmoghlasht Summer Fort, which was built years ago for the old Mehtar (ruler) of Chitral.

A place worth visiting, the Gol National Park is surprisingly well-developed and tourist-friendly, albeit with a typical not-so-pleasant bathroom situation. Signboards are placed at regular intervals giving off details of the kind of plants and animals that can be found there, and instructions on the proper garbage disposal and warnings again lighting fires in the forest.

The next leg of the journey is what I had waited for the most – the enchanting Kumrat valley that stunned me. I was greeted with clear blue skies with all the shades of red, orange, yellow and green displayed on mountains graciously towering over tall pine trees and a serene forest floor covered with crunchy fall leaves and sticky pine cones, randomly strewn about. The water trickling from emerald green streams created aerial poetry as I breathed in the musty scent of pinewood and fresh, mountain air. There is something about this forest that is magical; ‘profound’ is the word I think I’m looking for.

Pro tip: Carry a tiny portable speaker with you with Vital Signs’ Aitbaar playing on full – you’ll discover a whole new meaning to ‘jungalon main bhi raastay toh hain, humein bhi koi mil he jayega’.

To reach Kumrat valley from Chitral, one has to pass through Lowari once again, before moving towards Thal via Dir. Beyond Thal, it is an entirely off-road situation till Kumrat valley, and a 4x4 is a necessity for the lack of paved roads. Expect a kind of bumpy ride, where holding onto your phone to take a picture without dropping it is a major feat!

The Kumrat valley is a relatively new tourist destination. Although this works out well, since the rawness of nature here has not yet been tarnished by unsightly hotel buildings and other manmade structures.

As a Karachiite, this place felt like another world to me altogether, and it dulls everything else in comparison. The very first night in Kumrat gifted me with the most spectacular display of stars and galaxies I could imagine. In the wee hours of morning, before anyone else could wake up, I took my sweet time to gaze out at the universe, in the dense darkness of the unknown, menacing forest around me and the deafening silence — which exactly is the moment wherein the stark contrast between this and my reality back home in Karachi hit me. I had never seen shooting stars before, and that night I witnessed not one, but three, within a span of 30 minutes.

The Kumrat valley is a relatively new tourist destination. Although this works out well, since the rawness of nature here has not yet been tarnished by unsightly hotel buildings and other manmade structures. However, some basic amenities like gas and electricity supply are needed for everyday survival. Most of the tin huts serving as guesthouses here run on generators with limited fuel supply, while food is cooked over burning wood. Also, even in such a remote area, you will still find plastic trash floating around in water streams and random ads spray-painted on rocks, which does put a damper on the aesthetics of its natural surroundings. Having said that, this primitiveness is exactly what this valley offers – it’s nowhere like your city life, and your luxurious travel plans come to a halt right here, where you experience nature in its most rudimentary form. Safe to say, despite the intensely cold weather, I didn’t really want to leave.

It is imperative to reiterate how different life seemed to be in the mountains as compared to a big city, like Karachi. While in our everyday routine, we are always on the move to attain more and more in life, the locals take their sweet time for everything, absorbing every bit of their existence. While we expect timeliness and efficiency in all aspects, the people of the north delve on things that hold a more significant meaning for them – the experience. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not advocating hate for ambition, but I do advocate a need to search for peace in our homes, in our cities, in our surroundings, outside of the rat race we all are a victim of.

Autumn in the Hindukush

A little story: on one of our random stops along the journey, I was walking around alone taking pictures when I felt a tug on my sleeve. It was a little blue-eyed girl, barely five years old, pointing at my hand which held a can of soda. Instinctively, I held it out towards her, offering her the beverage, believing she was a beggar, but only when she frowned and turned away without taking it did I realize that she was on her way back from school and was only trying to silently greet me with a handshake. As waves of embarrassment rode over me, it took a second to understand why this was so unusual for me – because in my city, passing a smile to a stranger, saying hello to someone unknown or offering them tea would be subject to ridicule and suspicion, while here it’s a regular gesture of hospitality.

Another thing I found fascinating was the safety situation. While tourism is rampant in Gilgit-Baltistan, these regions of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa are still recovering from the after-effects of terrorist activities from a few years ago, and hence, the locals here are not used to seeing tourists, whether Pakistani or foreigners, roaming around on streets. Be prepared to get stared at left, right and centre, irrespective of your gender – but not because the onlookers have ill intentions, but only because seeing tourists here, including jeans-clad females, is still a bit alien to their limited exposure. When you get to converse with the locals, you find that they’re simply as fascinated by you, as you are with them.

Lastly, the locals showcase a kind of simplicity in their lifestyle that astounds as well as inspires one to the core. Their houses are simple, their aspirations are basic, and what’s 2-star service for us is luxury for them. Their restaurants don’t offer elaborate menus and even with living in constant fear of landslides, flooding and earthquakes, these people are proud of what they call home. I can bear personal witness to the fact that the locals can make a ‘mehfil’ out of anything with their unabashed singing and dancing at the end of their workday, without worrying about foreign onlookers.

Two life lessons I brought back from my experience in the Hindukush: first, I could massively succeed in life and feel proud of my achievements, but the vastness of nature will always humble me to the core. Second, I need to redirect my search for peace and contentment from unrealistic, material goals to the smaller more intimate moments in life. I have a newfound appreciation for magical sunrises, steaming cups of chai in front of warm bonfires and enlightening conversations on entirely random topics with strangers.

The writer is a business graduate and teacher with a passion for writing & travelling

A Karachiite in Chitral: Exploring Pakistan's northern areas