As light permeated the early morning hours, the dark spell cast by the night withered away as though a veil had slowly been lifted. Thunderous clouds and rain from only a few hours ago had lost the vigour, and the prospective glare in the eastern sky promised a blazing sun for the day. While everything seemed to lead to a normal summer morning, I desperately awaited the rise of the sun from behind the mountains in the east, to relieve my cupped hands from the freezing torture they had to endure.
There is something about the summer chill of higher altitudes. This morning, at 14,000 feet above sea level, summer did not seem like summer. In fact, despite being utterly cold, for me this place seemed more about the world that surrounded me. Perched up on a col, I gazed down, finding way below the opposite scree studded mountainside the last vestiges of tree growth in the shape of lonesome juniper shrubs, styled from branches so untidily tangled up as to appear as marvels of bizarre art. As I looked up, an utter silence pervaded every bend of the naked and sheer jagged cliffs below a surreal blue sky — wrecked only by an avalanche or a rock fall smashing into precarious scree beneath.
This is the Golain valley, set in the Hindu Raj mountains of Chitral. The route to Golain branches off from the Chitral-Buni road around 20 kilometres north-east of Chitral city. What was once a secluded and frightful driveway, ascending terrifying and yet spectacular cliffs is now a busy thoroughfare, as work is underway on a 107 Mega Watt power project in the middle reaches of the valley. It is in these lower and middle reaches of the Golain valley that the villages of Golain Payeen, Bubaka, and Izhghor, lying in the folds between stupendous mountains, are circumvented by the raging waters of the Golain stream.
It is also here that the early spring apricot blooms are most spectacular.
The curious part of Golain though is neither its blossoms nor the waters raging down its torrent bed. What makes it unique is its seasonal connectivity through very high altitude mountain passes with multiple valleys of Chitral. Most of these passes offer trekking routes across towering mountains. From here access is possible to Shishi Kuh valley in the south and Koghuzi and Jughur valleys in the west. Reshun Gol in the west and Phargram valley in the north are accessible from passes at the terminus of Golain valley. Towards east, along the snow-clad and glacier-laden mountains, runs the Bashqar valley which is accessible through Shachiku Pass. Astride these passes run massive, steep ridges with scarcely a blade of grass on the treacherously loose assortment of rocks and boulders on their shoulders — that too only where the rocky surface is not shrouded by immense fissure laden glaciers.
It is amongst these granite towers that Pakistan’s national animal and Chitral’s signature specie, Chitral’s Kashmir Markhors, survive. This is also where you’ll find Himalayan Ibex, atop jaw-dropping crags, Snowcock echoing in the misty blue pre-dawn of spring and the rare waterfowl, recuperating in any of the few high altitude lakes after a tiresome flight across mountains.
It is in the lower and middle reaches of the racy cold waters of Golain stream that one will encounter the free ranging trout, introduced to Chitral for the first time by Major Cobbs, a British officer who served as the assistant political agent of the district in pre-partition days. Slightly above the village of Istoor, in a dense concentration of juniper bushes, the endangered Pallas’s Cat was once killed about a decade ago. Since the turn of the century, this is one of the only two confirmed sightings of this rare cat in Pakistan, the other one also coming from a remote corner of Chitral. Higher up, the banks of this stream are lined by disjointed tracts of willow forest as it crisscrosses a broad, luxuriant meadow at jungle; a junction of sub-valleys of Golain.
The sub-valleys of Golain derive their names primarily from the Khowar language. Roghili sub-valley thus derives from the Khowar terminology for Deodar tree (Rogh-Deodar). Roghili’s dense Deodar thickets defy all sense and sensibilities: arising out of nowhere.
The valley of Chhato Dok literally means “the high lake plain” in Khowar. The constricted bed of Roghili and broad bed of Chhato Dok flow from the water bodies beneath massive screes. In Roghili, an arduous climb over large rocks reveals two lakes bedded in a deceptive bund of gigantic boulders. In Chhato Dok, a pond is set beside a carpet of yellow blooming wild flowers.
Such are the sights Golain will offer to the intrepid explorer.
I had neither the months nor the technical training required to scour Golain. A moment of silent introspection back at the col left me feeling incapacitated by my limitations. Shortly, a burning sensation in the skin replaced the freezing torture, as I found the summer sun an arm’s length above the ridge. Fearing sunburn, I slowly angled my feet down the col through melting snow, slippery earth and loose shingle to reach home soon. Nothing could be compared with the blissful tranquility of a freezing summer morning on a mountain in the Golain valley of Chitral.