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Chitral and back in a jiffy

Arriving in Chitral with a missing bag and roads cut off. Yet, managing to escape the demonic spell of rain just in time

Chitral and back in a jiffy
A view of Chitral. — Photo by the author

It was the week before the end of the month of fasting when PIA told me there were no seats on the Chitral flight until August 19. I said fine, I’ll take one on the following day. They said, sorry. There had been a mistake and there were actually no seats until September 26.

Back in September 2010, I needed to fly to Chitral 10 days after eid. I was told I could not until six weeks later. I knew this was a lie: it was the end of summer, there were no tourists headed to Chitral and there was no way planes could be flying full. I requested my friend Khalid Shameem Wynne’s help. I got the in and out seat ‘on the Ministry of Defence quota’ and flew.

In the plane I counted eight adults and two children. And I had been told there were no planes! That was the time when the government was trying to shut down PIA in order to make a private airline fly.

So this time around with Khalid having long since retired, I asked another friend who had spent his life serving PIA. On Monday I told him how desperate I was to get to Chitral not for some fun and frolic in the mountains, but to do a job. On Tuesday I was given a PNR and told to get my ticket for the next day, Wednesday!

At Islamabad airport as I read, I saw from the corner of my eye a gentleman approaching me. He came up and said, “We’ve met on one of your travels.”

Sure enough we had met. It was none other than Siraj ul Mulk, ex-Piffer and Army Aviation who for many years also flew for PIA. When he retired from the airline, he came home to Chitral to set up Hindu Kush Heights, a first-class hotel (5-star, I think). Sitting high on a hill north of town, the hotel overlooks the airport and the rest of the valley all the way to Lowari Pass in the south and a good way off to the north. It is a truly Shangri La sort of setting.

We chatted a bit and then Siraj asked me to come meet the family. He was travelling with a couple of grandchildren, one daughter and two sons-in-law. One was Gahtan Vahidy who I knew from a few years ago; the other was Shah Kublai Alam whose father was a general I had served under at Kharian.

Being ex-PIA, Siraj knew everyone worthy of being known in the airline and he said the weather over Lowari was fine and we were going to fly. We did, albeit an hour late.

Upon arrival at Chitral I found my bag missing. And I was not alone. There were a dozen other travellers whose baggage failed to turn up. The PIA man took down our details and said the stuff would arrive the day after. That was patent rubbish because there was no flight the next day. The man was simply lying through his rotten teeth.

My problem was that I was in Chitral for just two days, due to fly out to Peshawar on Friday when the plane was supposed to bring in my bag. I had no idea how I would get my bag off and on the plane then. I knew there would be some sort of kerfuffle in that process.

Taking a taxi into town I checked in at the PTDC Motel and purchased the necessary tools for the morrow’s ablutions, namely, a shaving razor, comb and a tooth brush. Then I set to getting in touch with Islamuddin, the markhor horn ring maker who spoke no language other than his native Khowar. And I am shamefully ignorant of Khowar. And what a tortured meeting it was on the next day.

Later in the afternoon, Gahtan called to say I had been invited to dinner at Hindu Kush Heights and that he was coming to get me. That sounded very fine for I have had the good fortune of partaking of Ghazala and Siraj’s very generous hospitality a couple of times before as well. When he arrived, Gahtan said I should collect my stuff because I had been ordered by Siraj to stay at Hindu Kush Heights.

I balked. This was a paid trip and my bills were to be reimbursed, but I did not want to seem to be taking advantage of my sponsor. Gahtan would have none of it, however. Khalid, the PTDC man, was very kind not to charge me for the few hours I had spent there.

I had heard stories of how a group of people were taking advantage of Major Langlands and had machinated for the ousting of Carey Schofield from the school that is now named after the major. Now, Siraj filled me in on the finer details and I felt sorry that an effort begun with faith and sincerity should go this way. Incidentally, the school was originally named Sayurj (Falcon in Khowar) Public School and had only in the past decade or so taken on Langlands’ name when he was the principal.

In 2013, Schofield replaced Langlands when the latter finally retired at age 95. She did extremely well giving the school new direction, but when she rightly expelled some faculty members for conduct unbecoming, there began an invidious campaign against her. This year when Schofield went home for vacations, the government refused to renew her visa. It is alleged that the KP Chief Minister as well as the Minister for Interior both being Aitchison alumni, where Langlands taught, were co-opted into the conspiracy largely because of their ignorance of the real issues.

Carey Schofield was denied her visa and Major Langlands long past the best years of his life is stumbling about.

As we sat outside in the lovely garden of the hotel, the sky was rent apart by sheets of lightning. I had turned in when the rain came down. Easy at first, it soon turned into a torrent. In all my years of inclement weather in the mountains, I have never ever seen it coming down in such sheets. In the high country, it does not rain, it only drizzles. It is the persistence of the fall that turns the streams into spate.

From the balcony of my room overlooking the valley, I watched the rain teeming down and wondered what it would be like in the morning. At 7am, there was no transport to be had into town and I walked. From the bridge across one stream I looked down at what was not flowing water, but mud. Dark, almost black, mud came down the stream in ugly surges. It seemed somewhere someone was periodically removing some blockage to let the mud surge as it did. I asked a local man and he said this particular stream always flowed like this after the rains.

The next stream I crossed was a flood of somewhat lighter coloured mud. But mud it was. These two and countless more of their kind flowing into the roiling Yarkhun River on my left had turned it the colour of graphite. Also, it was flowing much higher than the evening before.

By the time I was done in Chitral and returned to the hotel, word was coming in from all around about roads being cut off. Amjad Noorani and his son Ali visiting from the States and looking forward to some good hill walking could not go to Garam Chashma because a bridge had been damaged. Ditto for the Kalasha valleys in the south and the road north to Buni and Mastuj.

Siraj confirmed that he too had never seen it coming down so hard in Chitral and was deeply concerned, but we all thought this was all that could go wrong. I told Siraj of the flows of mud I had seen in the streams and he said it was because the hills had all been denuded of forest. Without trees to anchor the soil, erosion had set in in earnest. Despite his exhortations to common people about reforestation there was simply no effort to that end, he said.

The day was bright with fleecy cumulus drifting across the blue sky. Later that day, the clouds began to build up a bit. However, Siraj said if we had a thundery afternoon, it was likely to clear up during the night to permit the plane to land on the morrow. Again we all sat chatting on the lawn watching the lightning tear the sky to bits when all of a sudden at exactly 7pm, it opened up. Everyone grabbed their chairs to haul them into the shade and that was all we were able to do. It poured down in buckets again. And it continued for a good five hours.

But the morning dawned clear with no clouds to be seen above the Lowari heights. Siraj called someone in PIA and told me the captain that day was Azhar Khan, a gutsy flier, and there was every chance that he would come through even a light cloud covering on Lowari. But Siraj was tense. The turbine that supplied his establishment with electricity had been flooded by the flood in the stream running the generator.

Even before I could leave for the airport, we heard that two consecutive nights of rains had cut off Chitral from the rest of the country. That is, roads going both south and north were washed out, bridges lost. Amjad and his son Ali were stuck.

I was worried sick that the plane wouldn’t come and I would have to take the long, bone-jarring road trip over the Lowari. Siraj, with many hours of experience of flying in and out of his native Chitral, looked out across the valley and said the Pass was clear of clouds and the plane would come.

As he drove me to the airport on his way into town, Siraj paused at the shed housing the generator. They had taken out the switchboard all covered with dark muck and were raking out mounds of mud from the interior. I was surprised such a tiny room could be stuffed with so much of it. The power plant was clearly out of action for a couple of days at least. And the worst thing was that the hotel was expecting about 20 guests that day.

The plane was an hour late. But I got out to Peshawar all right. And here’s why I got out to Peshawar and not to Islamabad. The plane flies Islamabad-Chitral-Peshawar-Chitral-Islamabad. Now once the plane gets into Chitral, only the very worst kind of weather will keep it there. It has to get out. So, if you want out, you bloody well get out to Peshawar.

If you don’t, it is known that the flight from Peshawar back to Chitral en route Islamabad not having a sufficiently large manifest is scrapped. PIA tells you they cannot fly to Chitral because of poor weather and take the plane back to Islamabad. In reality it is simply too much trouble for too few passengers. And if you thought you were smart waiting to be flown out of Chitral direct to Islamabad, you are done in. The better thing therefore is to get out to Peshawar.

I got out just in time because the demonic spell of rain begun on Wednesday July 15 refused to stop. It rained every day and it rained hard for 10 consecutive days. Chitral was devastated. Gahtan tells me there is no estimate but it is said anywhere between 300 to 800 houses have been swept away, much of the private system of water channels for irrigation and drinking is lost. While the government will soon move in to repair the infrastructure, I fear it will obstruct NGOs from doing their work for the people.

After the 2010 rainstorms we were told that the monsoon has moved west. If it there runs into a westerly, it turns into a demonic force. We have seen that happening and watched it unleash its power year after year. In our mad careen down the tube of environmental perdition we have done so much damage that Nature is now biting back. For years powerful oil cartels and ignorant, uncultured Arab oil producers teamed up to prevent ratification of the Kyoto Protocol to halt global warming. All they wanted was their petro-dollars.

Now they can eat their petro-dollars while for us it is payback time.

PS. I was fortunate my wife was in Islamabad during this period. She offered to go to the airport to retrieve my bag. I did not expect PIA to be so good, but when she called and put me through to this man I said to him, “This woman is my unlawfully wedded wife with whom I have lived in sin for the past 32 years. If you give her my explosive-laden bag due to explode in 15 minutes, I promise not to prosecute you.”

There was a moment of silence. Then the man burst out laughing. Five minutes later, Shabnam was out of the airport with my bag!

Salman Rashid

salman rashid-web
The author writes travel pieces and is a fellow at the Royal Geographical Society.

One comment

  • Respected sir,
    I hope you lovely enjoyed garden of the hotel Hindukush Heaights chitral with his highness sir siraj Ul Mulk.

    Amir Ali Shah chitrali, student university of the Punjab Lahore.

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