So this summer, it was time to head north, again. As it was a family trip, there was some tedious planning which was ought to fail in the end. We reached Islamabad via Motorway, hoping to take the first flight to Chitral — but flights to Chitral are as reliable as the London weather. So, after missing the flight for two consecutive days, we finally decided to take the high road to Chitral.
Happy to be on the road, we took the Motorway to Peshawar and after passing through Mardan, crossed the mountainous Malakand pass. We left the road to Swat, and entered Lower Dir, after crossing river Swat at Chakdara. Driving along the scenic Panjkora river, we reached Timergarha, the headquarters of Lower Dir in about five hours from Islamabad.
Timergarha is a scenic town on the banks of Panjkora river and is a preferred spot for a stay over if you are enroute Chitral. We took a short midway break at the scenic Dir Scouts mess, overlooking the valley and river, before it was time to leave for Chitral. A friendly Colonel Nasr of Dir Scouts assured us that we should feel relaxed while travelling through Dir as it is trouble free now as compared to before.
We started for Chitral in the late afternoon and were amazed by the scenery all around. By the time we reached Lowari Tunnel in Upper Dir, it had closed down and we had to cross the Lowari Pass by first ascending the Lowari Top and then descending the Chitral Valley. Sounds simple — except, this was a steep spiral ascent and took around two hours to ascend and descend. It was freezing cold at the top with absolutely no views as it was in the middle of the night. Once the Lowari Tunnel is complete and is open round the season, life would become much easy both for locals and tourists — but the magic of one of the most beautiful mountain passes shall be lost forever!
Throughout the way we were stopped by scouts or police and our identities were checked, at times through digital satellite-linked gadgets. I was indeed impressed by the dutifulness of officials in the middle of night. It was probably due to the Taliban menace in the area as well as the proximity to Afghan border.
We were in two vehicles, and the vehicle in front was being driven by a very experienced Pathan driver, who was perhaps an aspirant for a lead role in the movie Fast and Furious. He made driving easy for me, for I followed the two red brake lights of the vehicle in front and, tried to match its speed, without caring for the frequent small bumps.
We reached Chitral after an eight-hour long journey from Timergarha and took our place at the well maintained Chitral Scouts Mess.
It had been a long day and the good food and comfortable rooms were all we needed.
Next day, we woke up late and had a hearty breakfast at the late 19th century Scouts Mess. We were indeed impressed by the delicate dinner bell, circa 1938, and names of officers long gone away. I have seen some books on the traditions of these paramilitary forces like Khyber Rifles but I wonder if anything has been written on the history of scouts, a mix of British officers and local tribes that together saved the day for the Crown long ago.
Visiting Chitral and not going to Kailash was simply incomprehensible. I was told it was fine to drive on one’s own to Bamboorat which is the main valley in Kailash. After crossing the historic Ayun village, we were on a jeep track with mountains on one side and deep gorge with a raging stream on the other. At times, we had to cross vehicles from other side and there were very few places where a crossover was possible so a lot of reversing and adjusting needed to take place along the way. I cursed myself for accepting the advice from the locals to drive myself to Bamboorat. The government should license experienced local drivers for this route as such a decision shall not only prevent any unnecessary risks but also boost local economy. It takes around three hours to reach Bamboorat from Chitral.
We pitched in the Chitral Scouts Mess in Bamboorat. The mess was tastefully decorated and beautifully located along the raging stream surrounded by lush green mountains. We hired a local guide who then took us inside the traditional Kailash village. We visited the central community place and walked through the narrow but clean streets and got our postcard photographs with local Kailash children.
Kailash are indeed beautiful people and are very peaceful and welcoming. Our guide told us that the indigenous population is now only around 3000 and a lot of conversions are taking place in the area.
Besides the village, a visit to centuries’ old Kailash graveyard is also recommended, where Kailash used to bury their dear ones by leaving them in wooden boxes. There are numerous such wooden boxes lying around in the graveyard, some even showing decaying bones.
There is also an unfortunate guest in the Kailash graveyard by the name of Jordi Magraner!
Jordi was a Spanish researcher who lived in Kailash for 15 years trying to track the mythical snowman or ‘Yeti’ and during his research he travelled to neighbouring Nuristan province in Afghanistan. He was apparently stabbed to death by one of his own Afghan guide in August 2002 and is buried in Kailash.
We drove back to Chitral thinking about Yeti, Jordi, Kafirs of Kailash and their reported links to Alexander the Great.
While in Chitral, one must visit Garam Chashma and enjoy bath in sulphur springs besides visiting the Markhor sheep breeding sites in the Chitral Wildlife Park. An overnight visit to historical Mastuj or Yarkhun valley is also highly recommended.
Chitral has few good options to stay, including the historic Chitral Scouts Mess and PTDC Motel, however, if you are willing to cough some more money, Hindu Kush Heights, a five star boutique hotel, is well recommended.
I have enough reasons to go back to Chitral to stand on the Lowari Top in broad day light and peep into Afghanistan or spend a night in Kailash and Mastuj listening to the roaring mountain streams.
So good bye Chitral till we meet again!