A road less travelled

March 8, 2020

A journey through the tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa

Prang Sam, a village in Khyber district is located at a distance of 17 kilometers from the Jamrud bazaar. Placed in a narrow gorge, it is surrounded by mountains that are partially covered by greenery. Olive trees and elderberry shrubs among them are the most visible. As the name hints, Prang – the Pashto name for leopard – mountains encompassing the village, serve as a sanctuary for wildlife, including leopards.

Wild animals like foxes, jackals, porcupines, wolves, and wild lizards are a common sight. Chirping and shrieking of the birds that can be heard all day, is disrupted, occasionally, by the roars of leopards echoing in the mountains. The villagers share anecdotes of encounters with the leopards while wandering in the nearby mountains. “We do not sleep outdoors during summers, even in the confines of our houses, the clamorous roar of leopards can perturb anyone,” a resident says. “On sunny afternoons, people are flustered even indoors by the screaming and yelling of monkeys, climbing up the rooftops and the trees.”

Hearing about thriving wildlife, the sight of monkeys roaming around, and echoes of leopards’ roars might be surprising for those whose imagination of Khyber district hardly goes beyond the historic Khyber Pass or Torkham border crossing between Pakistan and Afghanistan.

Close to the Pak-Afghan border, Khyber district has monuments of colonial times, forts built by the Afghan ruler and then by the British forces and defensive posts scattered across the mountainous region. The latter was built by British forces during World War I anticipating an offensive from the Czars’ Russia. A 58-kilometer-long railway track was also laid in the colonial era.

It passes through 34 tunnels and 92 bridges all the way from Peshawar to Landi Kotal, making the journey an enjoyable ride. The narrowest point in the mountainous path has a site having religious sanctity, Ali Masjid. Beside the mosque is a shrine, which is counted among many shrines that have been attributed to Ali (RA), the fourth Caliph. (One such shrine, Mazar-e-Ali is located in Parachinar, Kurram district as well). Here, a rock nearby carries the mark of a full hand which as per the local beliefs is the hand of Ali.

Apart from that, the region possesses sites for tourists’ attraction, like the Tirah valley which is shrouded in greenery and is pleasant for the most part of the year. There’s also the Shalman river and the valley surrounding it, and the long Bara river that originates from the snow-clad mountain locally referred to as Morgaa. The river has two points – one in Tirah, and the other in Bara – where it is joined by other streams. This point of embrace is locally referred to as Dwa Toyaa. The tribes settled on the riverbanks include Mamanrey Kalay, Barrkai Kalay, Ashakai Kalay and Habibano Kalay.

“Tirah can be a frequently visited place like Swat and Murree if the government constructs road infrastructure and helps locals in setting up hotels and resorts for the visitors. Spots like Saran Sar (Khojali Tambo), Peer Mela, Butaan Sharif (Shahid Afridi’s birthplace), Batti, Morga hills, and Arhanga, are some of the most beautiful places of this region.” Bilal Afridi, a local from Tirah Valley says.

Those fascinated by these details may ask if the region is easily accessible for non-natives and if the overall environment there is tourist-friendly or not. Answers to these questions might be unsatisfying, as the region has yet to rebuild or construct the required support network for tourists and visitors. Presently, only an acquaintance can be the key to access and living there.

Those fascinated by these details may ask if the region is easily accessible for non-natives and if the overall environment there is tourist-friendly or not. Answers to these questions might be unsatisfying, as the region has yet to rebuild or construct the required support network for tourists and visitors.

The locals are not unacquainted with tourism. Back in the old days, when these territories were not plagued by the presence of militant gangs involved in violent crimes, Khyber Safari train would bring in tourists, locals, and foreigners to Landi Kotal. Those who were more adventurous would also visit and live at the villages with their local hosts.

Irfana Bibi, a homemaker from Malakdin Khail, an Afridi subtribe, hails from Prang Sam. She reminisces, “A firangi (local word for foreigners from the west) couple visited our village, and stayed there for many weeks. The male would be in the hujra while the female, his wife would be staying with us inside. They would be roaming all day, taking pictures and playing with kids and would return in the evening to have meals with us.”

Her octogenarian mother, Gulistana Bibi, adds, “The foreigners would come more often, back in the past. The couple who lived with them would use face gestures and hand signs to interact with the locals. Only two people in the whole village, a schoolteacher and a former Levies man could understand English and would be acting as interpreters”.

In recent years, after the peace was restored, Khyber district has been undergoing political reforms. Tribal areas are now called Merged Areas. Laws regarding political administration, rule of law, and those for the promotion of tourism in the province have been extended to these districts.

Among many plans by the government for the promotion of tourism is the bid to encourage local people to open their houses and hujras for tourists and visitors. The idea of peer-to-peer tourism (where locals will host tourists/visitors) is not new and has been practiced. The government will provide financial assistance in the forms of grants and loans, and hospitality training to the people, so the facilities provided to tourists meet the defined standards.

A series of reforms by the provincial government to broaden its revenue base make the tourism and hospitality industry one of the top priorities. The government has come up with legislation for setting up integrated tourism zones (ITZs), the establishment of the Provincial Tourism Strategy Board and the establishment of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Culture and Tourism Authority. There is a greater focus on the sector in terms of allocating of funds for discovering new tourist locations, developing infrastructure that leads to these locations, and holding events to draw attention towards heritage sites and promote religious tourism and provide facilities at locations where different festivals are organised.

Many festivities are held during winter like the Savilakehari event at the annual Chawmos festival celebrated by locals in Kailash valley, Chitral and winter sports festivals after the snowfall in Malam Jabba, Swat, and Galiyat, Nathiagali is organised by Tourism Corporation of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (TCKP).

With the Merged Areas coming on the radar for tourists attraction, the annual festival of Nowruz in Kurram valley when local population join millions across the globe to celebrate the arrival of spring and the beginning of Persian new year with festivities like traditional Attan dance, and special dishes cooked on the occasion, could be an interesting event for the visitors.

A shrine located there is also attributed to Ali (RA) and is locally called Mazar-e-Ali. It is the center of religious festivities during Nowruz celebrations. One local, an elderly man, remembers the time when Aziz Mian Qawwal visited and had a Qawwali event there. Visitors will be fascinated by locations like Shalozan, Terimengal, and Koh-i-Sufaid in Kurram district.

Tirah Valley in winter.

In Bajaur, though, tourism is mostly local or from the adjacent districts. But increased access and development of infrastructure and facilities would result in people from more distant parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and other provinces traveling there. Bad-i-siyah (The Black/Cursed Breeze), Barkhalzo in Mamund tehsil is an evening picnic spot, but its popularity has been fading out for a while now.

Warra Mamund has some scenic streams and green hills near the Pak-Afghan border but isn’t that popular and requires proper promotion. Nawey Dhand (The Bride’s Pool) in Khar tehsil is the most accessible and popular tourist attraction in Bajaur. It has several restaurants, which make it a food point as well. Gabar Cheena in Salarzo tehsil is also famous for its cool weather in summers.

Every merged district has such locations of its own, local talk about it and pictures posted on social networking sites. A hefty amount of Rs 9 billion is reserved for exploring tourism potential in the Merged Areas and a committee is tasked with identifying tourist destinations.

A coordinated plan may bring these sites to the limelight and result in increased economic activities due to the growth in the hospitality industry. New legislation in the province and setting up a Tourism Strategy Board and a Tourism and Culture Authority will make sure that the natural beauty and heritage value of these sites is preserved, and environmental degradation averted.

A road less travelled: Exploring tribal districts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa