Surrounded by picturesque pastures, Chukail Banda is fast becoming a favourite travel destination for many tourists
Khyber Pakhtunkhwa’s Swat district is often referred to as the Switzerland of Pakistan for its scenic valleys and pleasant weather in the summer. Each year as the temperatures soar in the plains of the Punjab and Sindh, hundreds of thousands of domestic tourists head to the district to cool off in Malam Jabba, Madyan, Bahrain, Kalam, Utror, Mahudhand or hill stations in Upper Swat. Between 400,000 and 500,000 tourists onboard 197,000 vehicles visited Swat in the three days of Eid-ul-Fitr holidays in June 2019.
Realising the tourism potential of the province, the Pakistan Tehreek-i-Insaf (PTI) government in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) started exploring ways of promoting the industry. New tourist destinations were added to an already long list as the government opened spots in Naran, Dir and Swat, including the camping pods at Gabin Jabba.
Recently, a new tourist attraction named Chukail Meadows came to the limelight as Chief Minister Mahmood Khan and the Swat deputy commissioner, Junaid Khan, shared astonishing photographs of the vast green pastures on social media.
Reaching Chukail is nothing less than a challenge. Only specially modified 4-wheel-drive pick-up trucks can withstand the track that seems to disappear at every curve or behind massive rocks ahead. Tourists can hire the 4-wheelers either in Bahrain or Mankyal, which is situated at exactly the midpoint on the 34 kilometres long Bahrain-Kalam section of the N95 national highway. The fare is negotiable. One-way rent from Bahrain can cost as little as Rs 3,500.
The road up to Mankyal is smooth and the drive takes no more than half an hour on normal days. The real off-roading experience begins soon after leaving the Mankyal town as the approximately eight kilometres track, mostly narrow and winding dangerously over old wooden bridges, green fields and next to the noisy Mankyal tributary of River Swat through Serai and Badai villages take longer than an hour and a half before one arrives at Kamar Khwa.
The ethnic Gujjar population in Kamar Khwa are welcoming and hospitable. Even children greet the visitors and offer tea or a meal depending on the time of the day.
Hiring a local guide from Kamar Khwa is recommended. They are very handy in showing around the meadows and can be of help in finding a shelter or clean and safe drinking water. Besides, it provides the youth with a chance to make a daily wage of Rs 1,000 to Rs 1,200.
After leaving the village on foot, it takes about two and a half hours of a mildly steep hike, first through a rocky torrential flood-path, then, a dense forest to reach the top.
In the summer, a small water stream from the melting glaciers run through the right side of the path. After walking for about 35 minutes, the path leads into the forest featuring Deodar and pine trees that gets thicker with an increase in the altitude. Resting at proper intervals during the hike refreshes the visitors and allows them to listen to the melodious songs of a range of birds, including Pakistan’s national bird, the partridge, and the Himalayan Monal pheasant or watch playful monkeys jumping around from branch to branch. The locals claim seeing common leopards, wolves, ibex, musk deer and markhor in the jungle and the meadows above.
At 3,000 metres, the trees disappear all of a sudden and a sprawling stretch of greenery welcomes the visitors. Small houses made of stone and pine wood are scattered across the length and breadth of Chukail.
These houses remain empty for most of the year and are only occupied between the first week of July and early September when the residents of Serai, Badai, Balakot, Birna and Kamar Khwa villages take their cattle for grazing. The grass in the meadows is so dear to the villagers that they hire a young man from each of the villages to protect the green pastures from the cattle and wild animals during April- June.
The meadows offer wonderful scenery and peace of mind. One can spend a full day without wishing to move any further. Spending a night in Chukail is not a problem as visitors carry portable tents along. However, it gets really cold at night even as the rest of the country is engulfed in the extreme summer heat. Local houses can be used with permission from the local men.
Chukail meadows have a variety of wildflowers blossoming in May-July. At least 11 types of wildflowers cover the plains in various sizes and shades ranging from bright yellow to blue, pink, purple, red and white. The plains also have a number of streams that are fed fresh and cold water by the nearby melting glaciers.
A further hike of about an hour and 40 minutes or roughly three kilometres through the green plains and a mildly steep hill takes the visitors to Chukail Kandao at 3,600 metres. The view at the top is amazing as the N95, Kalam and Byoun valleys lie beneath in plain sight.
From there onwards, people can continue to Khanaqo Dhand at 4,000 metres. The lake is a further three hours’ hike through a difficult track that is covered in snow till late July. The Khanaqo lake, too, is mostly frozen till the end of July and only a stream of water goes underneath it to form a towering waterfall that flows downstream towards Mankyal.
For those who dare, reaching the base of the famous Five Sisters peaks of Mankyal is another adventure. However, most visitors prefer returning to Mankyal via the same route to Kamar Khwa or through different paths to Badai and Serai.
Others push forward towards Pishmal, a small town on the N95 before Kalam. While the enthusiasts move still further before spending a night on the way to Byoun valley and later getting off the mountains in Kalam.
Talking to The News on Sunday (TNS), Deputy Commissioner Junaid Khan says that Chukail (Badai) is one of the four tourist destinations the provincial government has designated for the first phase of the World Bank-funded Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Integrated Tourism (KITE) development project.
“Competitive foreign investment bids are already coming for Thandiani in Abbottabad after comprehensive master planning was completed there. Chukail in Mankyal is next in line. Ghanool in Mansehra and Madak Lasht in Chitral are the other two tourist destinations the government wants to develop in the Integrated Tourism Zones (ITZ) in the first phase,” the DC adds.
The main reason for developing the area is to provide tourists with an alternative to Kalam. Currently, Kalam is a dead-end for tourists. It will remain so until the Kalam-Kumrat road is developed. “Tourists spend more time in dead-end valleys. It is over-crowded, extensive trade and sporadic infrastructure development are destroying the ecology of Kalam,” the DC says.
The aim of ITZ in Badai is to promote high-end tourism, meaning acquiring land, comprehensive master planning, tourism potential assessment and need assessment. “What can be done at that particular spot? A ski resort, adventure tourism, high standard hotel, high-altitude living or a base camp to Five Sisters peaks for mountaineers? Anything can be achieved there,” Khan who himself is an adventurous tourist, says.
After an area is declared an ITZ, at least seven legislations including Forest Ordinance 2002, River Protection Ordinance 2002, KP Environmental Protection 2014, Wildlife and Biodiversity Protection Act 2015, Mines and Minerals Act 2017 will have no jurisdiction in the said area as per Section 20 (2) of the KP Tourism Act 2019. Similarly, Section 20 (3) and (4) ends any authority of reserving an ITZ as a forest or national park.
The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa government has already imposed Section 4 (754) for the acquisition of 754 kanals of land in Badai where the proposed ITZ is to be established. The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Culture and Tourism Authority (KPCTA) has started the process of acquiring the land. Chukail is in dire need of an access road. The work order and tenders for a 22-kilometre approach road have been issued.
“Chukail holds a strategic position. It is a treasure in waiting. A new road will connect it with Mankyal and the entire Swat with the Indus Kohistan at Duber valley. A Rs 1.5 billion PC 1 has been approved for a 44-kilometre road. This is roughly Rs 40 million per kilometre. The cost might go up as new alignment, major cutting and high slopes are involved,” Junaid Khan says.
Mankyal is a comprehensive project. It is set to replace Kalam in the future as the most attractive tourist destination in the province. The provincial government has established a Kalam Development Authority on the pattern of GDA. “The KDA will manage, organise and outsource the Mankyal project. The municipality, ticketing, provision of services, tourism levy etc will be done by the KDA. The KDA will take over the municipality and building control functions from the Bahrain Tehsil Municipal Authority. It will replicate the best practices of GDA,” Junaid Khan added.
The writer is a Peshawar-based freelance journalist. He has worked for Voice of America and the ICRC