a set of steps that lead down to a restaurant housed in a smart wooden building with a beautiful garden.
Madyan, Swat Valley, Pakistan.
The Trout Park Hotel and Restaurant was spectacularly sited on an outcrop by the river side. The garden was cool, green and criss-crossed by gurgling irrigation channels and behind the hotel the mountains soared skywards, thickly covered in Indian Deodar trees. The meal I had was good and the bottles of Sprite were so cold that they had small lumps of ice in them. It was exactly the sort of place I had day dreamed about as I had sweltered in my hotel room in Multan. I was joined by two Pakistani tourists who were about to return to Peshawar after a holiday in the Swat valley. They invited me to have some of their tea and we had an interesting conversation. One of the two men was a civil court judge in Peshawar and I had thought that perhaps with his knowledge of the area he could tell me if the Khyber Pass and the gun village of Darra Adam Khel would be open to tourists or not. He said that the Khyber Pass would probably be open and that Darra Adam Khel definitely would, in fact he said that the village was totally safe. However, he confirmed the advice given in my travel guide that visiting the areas of the Swat valley north of the little town of Kalam (where I was heading next) was not safe without a trustworthy local guide.I thanked them for the tea and continued my walk up the valley. I was very cautious throughout my walk, aware that the inhabitants may not have been friendly as I came upon each little group of houses. As it turned out, I had no need to worry, the Pathans who lived in this part of Swat were all extremely friendly, and by the end of my walk it seemed like I had said hello to, or shaken hands with, almost everyone who lived there. The short trek was idyllic as I made my way first up one side of the noisy rushing river, then the other, through the green fields of maize. The mountains above were still forested, and small wooden houses clung to their lower slopes. When I reached the furthest point that I could get to that would allow me time to return to Madyan before nightfall, I checked the altimeter on my watch. It was showing a new record for the journey of 5,580 feet. At this point I took off my boots and socks and dangled my feet in the river in a deep pool that was refreshingly cold. I could have stayed there for hours but nightfall was getting closer.Walking up Madyan Khwar, Swat Valley.The waterfall at the highest part of my walk.The light begins to fade, Madyan Khwar, Swat Valley.On the way down I was totally relaxed and completely lost in my thoughts, when suddenly I was brought back to reality by a sharp pain in my shin and I looked down in time to see a large stone bounce away into the grass. When I looked up I saw the group of kids who had thrown the rock standing out of my reach on the other side of the river. There was nothing I could do as they picked up another large rock and hurled it at me. Luckily it fell harmlessly away to my right. I waved my fist and shouted at them before deciding that my best option was to run for it. Following this unfortunate incident the rest of the walk back down was peaceful, I walked at a relaxed pace and paused occasionally to dip my face into small waterfalls, which was always cooling and invigorating.Back at Madyan, I bought some mineral water and shampoo and went back to the hotel. After nightfall I stood on the hotel balcony and watched one of the most incredible lightning storms I have ever seen. Long bolts of lightning forked sideways from one wall of the valley to the other, illuminating the whole of the town.
Day 46 - Sunday 18th August.Early in the morning I boarded a wagon which took me further up the valley to Kalam. On the wagon I met Said, a Pashtun from Madyan who was the manager of the Benazir Hotel in Kalam and he suggested that I stay there during my visit.When we arrived in Kalam, the Benazir Hotel was one of the first buildings that we came to, perched on the side of the river with a large veranda built on stilts above the brink of the raging torrent. Said lead me to my room, which had to be one of the most incredible places I had ever stayed in, owing to the fact that it faced the river and by sitting on my bed I could look out through the open door and see only icy water thundering past. After I had left my equipment in my room, I was taken back to the opposite side of the hotel which faced the road and shown into the sitting room which doubled as a reception. It contained a large table which was covered in flies and these would suddenly rise in a great cloud if I made a sudden movement. Shortly another older man entered from outside, and I was introduced to Abdul Khaduz, the cook, and he promptly disappeared somewhere to cook me a massala omelette for breakfast.Said at the Benazir Hotel, KalamWhen I had finished breakfast, Said told me that for Rs 300 I could take a jeep ride north of Kalam and up into the mountains to Lake Mahodand. His offer meant I had to make a difficult decision. My travel guide stated in no uncertain terms that the area north of Kalam (known as Swat Kohistan), is dangerous because it is populated by armed tribesman who do not welcome outsiders. They obey only their own tribal law and the law of the gun, the influence of the Pakistani government and police in the area is practically nil. Furthermore, the guide advised that trekking or camping in the area should not be attempted without an armed escort. In a way the area is more dangerous for westerners than the tribal territories on the border with Afghanistan since you need a permit to enter them, and these are seldom granted to foreigners, whereas anybody can wander into Swat Kohistan with no protection whatsoever. Against this grim advice I had to balance the other facts: the guide did say that the road up to Lake Mahodand should be reasonably safe and that visiting the area would allow me to see the most spectacular scenery on offer in the whole of the Swat valley. In addition I would be travelling with a local guide who would be aware of the dangers, and I would be in a jeep and therefore would be spending much less time in the area than someone walking through. It did not take me long to come to a decision, I would take the jeep ride and hope for the best.Said and I walked up to the bazaar to find his friend with the jeep and once he had agreed the price of three hundred rupees, we set off. I was seated in the front, while Said was in the back.The muddy track lead out of the bazaar and quickly entered a dense wood of pine trees, which reminded me of the Naltar valley. Shortly after this we came across the first Kohistani tribesman, armed with an AK-47, but he stared blankly into space as we passed. The air cooled down rapidly and I soon realised that, in a T-shirt, I was not exactly equipped for travelling to a high altitude (we were now easily above 6,000 feet). Soon the pine forest gave way to a beautiful valley of carefully tended, terraced fields and small groups of neat houses. I was amazed to see an irrigation system which used thin hollowed out tree trunks to carry water down from the mountain. The wooden viaduct was supported on wooden stilts about ten feet high, and wound its way down over the fields and across the road. We passed through the village of Ushu where the road really began to climb up towards the lake. At one point we were stuck in front of a convoy of jeeps coming down the valley and it seemed like an eternity before they moved out of the way. I looked at the countryside around us, it was full of trees, boulders and forests - in short it was a snipers paradise. Anyone who had wanted to could have taken a pot shot at us while we sat there waiting for the road to clear.As we climbed higher, the engine of the jeep straining all the way, we could see jagged peaks and pure white glaciers along the side valleys. We drove through the last village, Matiltan, and from there the road climbed very dramatically, snaking to and fro along the side of the gorge. Rounding a bend, we could see that up ahead there was a river with a small tea shop next to it, and that immediately in front of the river were three youths, each one armed with an AK-47. One of them was aiming his Kalashnikov across the road, and the rest were staring at our approaching jeep. It was a tense moment, I didn't know whether they would be hostile or not, so when our jeep stopped I got out and shook hands with them. Luckily, like the vast majority of Pakistanis, they were very friendly and they even let me take a photograph of them as they posed with their machine guns. We all went over to the tea shop, and Said and I sat down to have a drink. The seating area was a wooden platform which had been built over the river and it was fantastically refreshing to sit there drinking tea and listening to the crashing of the water.Armed tribesmen of Swat Kohistan, Swat ValleyUnfortunately, Said had some bad news, he had learnt that the road was far too dangerous beyond the tea shop and I would not be able to travel any further towards Lake Mahodand. There was no choice but to do what can only be described as a hair-raising three point turn on the edge of the cliff and set off back down to Kalam.On the way, I asked our driver to stop at each point where I had seen the mountains and glaciers so that I could take some photographs. At each stop I was worried that both myself and the jeep were easy targets because we were no longer moving, and so I leapt out, took the photograph as quickly as possible and dived back into my seat.Mountains near Matiltan, Swat Valley.It was as we neared the bottom of the valley that I spotted the three tribesmen by the side of the road and in an inexplicable way I immediately knew that we were in for trouble. I saw one of them turn his head towards us and as soon as he spotted me he reached for something under his wide shawl (patu). In what seemed like slow motion, he pulled out a sharp, long metallic object - a bayonet, and attached to the bayonet was an AK-47. He raised the machine gun slowly and deliberately to his shoulder, and with his finger resting on the trigger, aimed it straight at my head. The jeep took an age to drive past, and all the time I could see that the Pashtun kept me in his sights. At last we rounded the bend so that we were out of his line of fire and everyone breathed a very audible sigh of relief. I believe that his intention was only to scare us, probably in the hope that such acts would discourage any more tourists from venturing into Swat Kohistan. After all, the tribesmen of north Pakistan train to be a deadly accurate shot from childhood, improving their technique by shooting birds with catapults. Only after a boy comes of age (or on the untimely death of his father) does he graduate to the use of the AK-47; a weapon which fires a 7.62 mm round with enough power to take a man's arm off. If the tribesman had actually opened fire and had really wanted to kill me, or anyone else, he would not have missed from that range and I wouldn't be writing this now.Back in Kalam, adrenaline still racing through my body, we visited Said's brother’s shop (where I was given a bottle of Pepsi) and then made our way back to the Hotel. After a pleasant meal of rice, curried vegetables and nan bread we went back up the road to see one of Said's friends in another hotel. As we made our way there through the bazaar we heard a long burst of automatic gunfire coming from high up in the hills; perhaps the result of the frequent blood feuds between the tribal families.Returning from the other hotel, we sheltered from a rain shower under the covered outside seating of a nearby cafe. Said and Abdul Khaduz had work to do and soon set off back to the Benazir Hotel, leaving me to sit there and think about how extraordinary the day had been. When the rain had subsided slightly, I went a bit further down the road to a small general store. It was here that I met Engineer Hikmal Ullah Shinwari (Engineer is used as a title in Pakistan, in the same way that Doctor is), a Pathan of the Shinwari tribe from the Khyber Agency. We had a very interesting chat about Swat Kohistan, and he told me that tribal law did indeed apply up there and that it was enforced in the traditional way by a jirga, which is a council of elders. He said that the police did occasionally venture into the area but that they did not have much authority. I didn't manage to find out what an Engineer from the Khyber Agency was doing running a general store at the top of the Swat valley, but he did tell me that he used to work in a mine somewhere between Gilgit and Skardu, which held deposits of topaz, tourmaline and apatite. I couldn't begin to imagine what conditions must have been like in that job, tunnelling under some of the most geologically unstable and earthquake prone terrain in the world. After our chat, I bought some supplies and went back to the Benazir Hotel.Later on, I went up the road to the Hotel Ali where, unlikely as it may sound, most of the staff were watching American WWF wrestling on the television. I only went there briefly to get a pot of tea, before returning to the Benazir, where Abdul Khaduz had prepared a delicious omelette for dinner, which we ate by gaslight.
Me at Kalam, Swat Valley. The Benazir Hotel is in the background.
Day 47 - Monday 19th August.All of the locals that I had spoken to in Kalam and Madyan had said that they thought it would not be possible to travel from Kalam, over the Lowari Pass and into Chitral in one day, but the details of the local transport in my guidebook suggested that it could be done. I had decided to try the journey, reasoning that if it took longer than a day I could always stay overnight in one of the small towns on the way, and for this reason I said goodbye to Said and Abdul Khaduz and left the Benazir Hotel early in the morning, on board the first wagon bound for Mingora.The sun had not climbed over the mountains when we set off and it was very cold, particularly because I had become acclimatised to the heat down on the plains. Eventually we emerged into brilliant sunshine just above Madyan and it was great to feel the temperature slowly rising as the day began. At Mingora I changed wagons and boarded one heading for the small town of Timargarha. We descended to the lower Swat valley, using the same road as before, reached Chakdara and then travelled north. One of the passengers on the wagon spoke a little English and pointed out Churchill's Piquet, a famous landmark. The small stone sentry hut sits atop a low khaki hill and is one of the places that Winston Churchill was stationed at while serving on the North West Frontier. During his time in the area, while writing as a war correspondent for the Daily Telegraph, he wrote the following famous account of a battle between the British Army and the Pathan tribesmen, which took place in 1897:"There was a ragged volley from the rocks; shouts, exclamations, and a scream. One man was shot through the breast and pouring with blood; another lay on his back kicking and twisting. The British officer was spinning round just behind me, his face a mass of blood, his right eye cut out. Yes, it was certainly an adventure.It is a point of honour on the Indian frontier not to leave wounded men behind. Death by inches and hideous mutilation are the invariable measure meted out to all who fall in battle into the hands of the Pathan tribesmen...... We all laid hands on the wounded and began to carry and drag them away down the hill. I looked round to my left.... Out from the edge of the houses rushed half a dozen Pathan swordsmen. The bearers of the poor Adjutant let him fall and fledat their approach. The leading tribesman rushed upon the prostrate figure and slashed at it three or four times with his sword. I forgot everything else at this moment except a desire to kill this man. I wore my long Cavalry sword well sharpened. After all, I had won the Public School fencing medal. I resolved on personal combat à l'arme blanche. The savage saw me coming, I was not more than twenty yards away. He picked up a big stone and hurled it at me with his left hand, and then awaited me, brandishing his sword. There were others waiting not far behind him. I changed my mind about the cold steel. I pulled out my revolver, took, as I thought, most careful aim, and fired. No result. I fired again. No result. I fired again. Whether I hit him or not I cannot tell.... I looked around. I was all alone with the enemy.... I ran as fast as I could.... I got to thefirst knoll. Hurrah, there were the Sikhs holding the lower one...We fetched up at the bottom of the spur little better than a mob, but still with our wounded, while the tribesmen, who must have now numbered two or three thousand, gathered in a wide and spreading half-moon around our flanks... The Colonel said to me, "The Buffs are not more than half a mile away. Go and tell them to hurry or we shall be wiped out...."But meanwhile I heard an order: "Volley firing. Ready. Present." Crash! At least a dozen tribesmen fell. Another volley, and they wavered. A third, and they began to withdraw up the hillside. The bugler began to sound "Charge". Everyone shouted. The crisis was over, and here, praise be to God, were the leading files of the Buffs."A little further on he drew my attention to a big stone archway on the opposite bank of the river that the road was following. This was the entrance to the Bajaur Tribal Area, beyond that gateway Pakistani law did not apply and every man would have carried an AK-47 as a matter of routine. However, this was as close as I was ever going to get to the tribal area, since no foreigners are allowed to enter without a permit and these are hardly ever granted. My travel guide revealed that according to Hugh Swift (author of Trekking in Pakistan & India), when the road we were on was built in the 1930's the builders had to make sure that it stayed out of range of the small arms fire that in those days frequently came across the river from the tribesmen. As we drove parallel to the tribal territory I saw a couple of the houses, which were built like miniature fortresses with high castellated walls and gun turrets to protect the occupants during blood feuds.The town of Timargarha turned out to be little more than a big noisy wagon yard nestled in a bowl shaped valley. I had to change wagons for Chitral here, but having loaded my backpack onto the roof of one wagon and sat inside for perhaps half an hour, a big argument erupted just when it looked like we might be about to leave. Suddenly everyone got out and loaded their belongings onto a different wagon, and I never did find out why we all had to change. I was given a seat in the cab, it had an American style seating arrangement so that I sat between the driver and another passenger. It was the perfect position from which to get a good view during what I knew would be a spectacular journey.There are only three ways into Chitral; the town can be reached via the Lowari Pass (10,500 ft), from Gilgit via the Shandur Pass (12,135 ft) and by air from Islamabad on board one of Pakistan International Airlines Fokker Friendship aircraft. The main road into Chitral runs over the Lowari Pass and the flights into town are frequently cancelled because of bad weather, and because of this Chitral is still quite remote. I was heading for the Lowari Pass, a drive which I knew would be rather hair-raising.The road to the Lowari Pass first wound through many small villages where great mounds of onions had been gathered at the side of the road, and their discarded outer skins had accumulated like pink snow drifts. Then we followed the river, the road clinging to the side of the valley in hairpin bends. We were overtaken by a car, and unfortunately our driver decided that he would try and catch up again. As a result he drove like a maniac, and I was amazed that our wagon, laden down with twenty people, managed to keep up with the car for several miles round those sharp bends. During this first stage of the journey the road did not climb to any great extent, which I guessed meant that it was going to be a very steep ascent later on.We stopped at Dir, a small town at the foot of the climb up to the pass, where we all had a meal of mutton and rice at a basic restaurant. After Dir, the climb up to the pass began in earnest; at about 7,000 ft the road was no longer metalled and was extremely bumpy. At one point we came to a small river which was tumbling down from the rocky slope above and spilling across the road. On the far side of the water the road climbed fairly steeply and was covered in loose stones. At first our driver tried the direct approach, we drove through the water but the tyres did not get enough grip on the loose stones on the other side, and we rolled backwards into the river and came to rest with a sickening bang. After that most of us got out, and the driver's helper distributed the stones on the far bank more evenly, filling in the holes and removing the larger boulders. It still took several attempts for the wagon to ford the river and climb up the far slope.On the rocky mountainside above the road, I frequently saw stone piquets which enabled the army to guard the pass. At 9,000 ft, the altitude alarm on my watch sounded, I had set it at that level because that is the height at which there starts to be a danger from acute mountain sickness (but only if you were to stay above that height for a couple of days). The terrain at this level was very bleak and the road clambered up the boulder covered slopes in wide switchbacks and hairpins. The top of the Lowari simply consisted of a gate across the road, which was guarded by a couple of sentries, there was no check point as such and we did not have to stop. At the summit, the altimeter on my watch read 10,040 ft which was not far off the true value of 10,500 ft; this was the highest point of my entire journey across the Indian Subcontinent. There was not really much of a view from the top, the mountains on each side were mostly obscured by cloud but I could see a patch of snow on one mountain to the west.Immediately after the summit the road plunged down the mountainside in a series of horrendously tight switchbacks and we made our way carefully down each of these. Occasionally one of the huge painted trucks (the sight of which I had come to dread on these sorts of road during my visit two years before) came clanking up the track towards us and we would have to wait on the edge of the sheer drop as it groaned past. We had not gone far when we came across an enormous traffic jam of these vehicles. The police were out in numbers trying to clear the way, their Kalashnikovs slung over their shoulders. We tried to squeeze carefully past, but at one point the road had subsided on the opposite side to the driver's seat and I don't think the driver actually noticed as we edged to within inches of the precipice. The passenger to my left shouted a very nervous warning which went largely unheeded. For a few seconds I was convinced that we would roll down the ravine, we must have been very close to the edge. As we wound our way down the mountainside we were afforded the sort of views that you would normally see from an aeroplane. To the front I could see the sky, while to the side the road was not visible at all, I could only see the green deodar trees far below.Descending from the Lowari Pass on the way to Chitral.A little further down we came to the control post, only I (being a foreigner) had to get out and fill in my details in the police book. On leaving the wagon, I was met by the sentry, who lead me into a small building and presented me with the large and tattered police record book. As I filled in my name, passport number and other details I was pleased to note that I was the youngest person to have crossed the pass on either of the two pages of names that were visible to me.Below the check point the road gradually levelled off, we passed the fort HQ of 2-wing of the Chitral Scouts who are responsible for guarding all of the nearby passes that lead across the border into Afghanistan. The highway remained at a steady height of about four and a half thousand feet from then on, as it shadowed the Kunar River. Occasionally we could see the end of the valley, which I knew was dominated by Tirich Mir (25,230 ft), the world's 41st highest mountain and the highest peak in the Hindu Kush range. Unfortunately, Tirich Mir was obscured by cloud as we drove towards Chitral.Just after nightfall, we stopped at a small roadside mosque so that the passengers and driver could say their sunset prayers. After they had finished, we were soon on our way again. By then I was beginning to wonder how much further we would have to drive, when suddenly we came upon the lights of Chitral and crossed the river on a modern suspension bridge which had been built with Japanese aid and assistance. Our arrival reminded me of how our trekking party had entered Gilgit two years previously, except that in this case the electric lights showed that the houses of Chitral were stacked up the walls of the valley, rather than being huddled at the bottom as they are there.I was dropped unceremoniously at the entrance to the Pakistan Tourist Development Corporation (PTDC) motel but it was full. This was probably just as well when I later learnt how much they charge for a room. I settled for the Dreamland Hotel which was just down the road. By now it was late in the evening and I was glad to get something to eat and go to bed.
Day 48 - Tuesday 20th August.I had wanted to lie in, but I had become accustomed to getting up early and was awake by about six. However, this turned out to be extremely good luck because I set off up the hill through the bazaar soon after, and when I turned around at the top I was rewarded with the most spectacular view of Tirich Mir. At this early time of the morning it was completely free of cloud; a truly magnificent sight. I found a place, by a small river, where there was a better view and took lots of photographs of the peak, before heading back to the hotel to change the film in my camera.Tirich Mir from Chitral.The fact that I was now seeing Chitral for the first time in daylight, allowed me to find out where my hotel was located relative to the rest of the town. It was at the end of Chitral that is furthest from the Lowari, in the section of the bazaar that had been taken over by Afghan refugees. They seemed to have set up two main types of business here: butchers shops and the running of passenger wagons. As a result there were two small wagon yards nearby, and opposite the hotel were a long string of wooden shacks festooned with grim looking pieces of meat. These people had fled their war torn homeland by crossing some of the world's most difficult mountain terrain, under threat of attack, and had arrived in the safety of Pakistan. Meanwhile the less fortunate had died in years of struggle against the Russians; their families murdered and their villages bombed into oblivion. If not killed directly in the fighting, they often died or were maimed as a result of stepping on some of the ten million anti-personnel mines scattered across Afghanistan.Back at the hotel I met Doug, an American computer specialist who was on a long journey through Pakistan and China. We discussed our travel plans and it was then that he told me some very bad news, he had been to Peshawar and was sure that the Khyber Pass was closed to tourists. I could only hope that the situation might change by the time that I arrived there. We soon realised that we were both planning to visit the nearby village of Garam Chasma which lies at the foot of the Dorra Pass into Afghanistan and is famous for a hot spring which is open to bathers. We agreed to meet up the next day to do the trip together.All foreign tourists in Chitral must register with the Superintendent of Police and so I set off through town to the police station to get the bureaucracy over and done with. Once at the station, I was lead down a long corridor to a dingy room where I filled in a form. This was then taken back along the corridor to be signed by the Superintendent. I'm not quite sure why the authorities in Chitral are so keen to know how many tourists are there at any one time, but I presume it is designed to deter people from illegally crossing the Afghan border.I went back to the hotel for lunch, and then went to have a look at what is supposed to be the best shop in town for buying hand made goods from Badakhshan province in Afghanistan. Unfortunately 'The Afghan Handicarft shop' (sic) was closed, but I looked in another one which offered some beautiful carpets, tribal jewellery and pieces of deep blue lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. In one shop two men were examining and haggling over some striking precious and semi-precious stones.
Day 49 - Wednesday 21st August.Early in the morning, Doug and I boarded the Garam Chashma wagon from the small yard near the hotel. There were about ten passengers including us, and we all sat in the back of the open topped vehicle on inward facing benches. Everything looked cramped but O.K. as we got on board, but as soon as we set off down the road I realised that we would be in for a very uncomfortable and painful journey. The problem was that the benches were metal and the back rests were only as high as the base of our spines. This meant that on the two and a half hour drive over extremely bumpy unmetalled road that lay ahead, the sharp edge of the back rest thumped into our backs at every jolt of the wagon. It was like being kicked repeatedly in the small of the back. In addition to this the hard seats made sure that my backside went totally numb long before my spine (mercifully) did likewise. The compensation for these hours of torment was the unbelievable scenery of the Lutkho Gol (the valley that we had to travel through to reach Garam Chashma). At one point we passed through a long defile and the cliffs on either side rose sheer from the valley floor so dramatically that it was only just possible to see their tops. The perspective was so alien that I couldn't even guess the height to which the barren rock faces climbed, it may have been several hundred feet or several thousand. The road followed a river along its whole length. When we started at Chitral the water was gray with sediment, but as we moved up the valley towards Garam Chashma it became a clearer blue and was only muddied where a side river occasionally joined it. Along the twists and turns of the river we saw one or two cultivated fields, appearing like ordered gardens among the jumble of rocks, water and sky. Presumably these had been reclaimed from beds of sediment, deposited along the curves in the river's path.From time to time we passed through sections of road where the cliff above formed an overhang, and we found ourselves sitting under many hundreds of tons of rock. It was always a relief to emerge from the other side of these, given that Chitral is prone to severe earthquakes and landslides.On arrival in Garam Chashma the local policeman (who had been riding the last few miles in the jeep) informed Doug and I that we had to register at the police station in the village. Doug was not very pleased with this because we had passed the police station half a mile earlier and would now have to walk back to it. However, in the end I was glad that we had to register, because Garam Chashma Police Station was a delightful place. Its front garden was bordered by babbling irrigation channels and shaded by small apricot trees which were just starting to bear fruit. Moving inside, we were met by a friendly policeman who recorded all of our details with a minimum of fuss.We then made our way to the hotel which has the famous hot spring within its grounds. There was nobody to be seen inside, and so we decided to go into the small bazaar to look for the proprietor. The little dust blown street of shops was only a short walk away up the hill, and it was a remarkable place. The village of Garam Chasma has been almost completely taken over by Afghans, and this was evident from the appearance and character of the bazaar. As I looked at the row of shops that were constructed of mud, stone and wood and at the faces of their owners it dawned on me that I really had arrived in Central Asia.Doug and I sat down outside a tiny tea house and drank Chinese green tea while we chatted to the owner. At the bottom of the tea pot I noticed the white jasmine flowers used to scent the brew. Further on up the street we came upon the strange spectacle of a big white Pelican which was tied up at the side of the road. The reason for its presence in one of the most remote corners of Pakistan seemed to be that it was to be used to make some kind of medicine. Alongside the poor creature were small bottles of the strange yellow remedy, which had already been extracted from another, long dead, Pelican.Moving on, we were greeted by a man in his late fifties or early sixties. He wore a smart, clean shalwar quamiz and a pair of Ray-Ban sunglasses. When he found out that I was from Britain, he told us that he had recently been to Prince's Gate Hospital in London for a heart bypass operation. I wondered how he had managed to become so wealthy, living as he did in such a remote area. However, he soon told us all about what he did for a living, and it was precisely the location of his remote home that had made him well off. He was a dealer in gem stones and specialised in trading in lapis lazuli, a highly prized blue stone that is mined exclusively in Afghanistan. During the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, the Mujahideen resistance fighters had to travel to Pakistan to buy weapons. They loaded mules with great quantities of lapis lazuli and hashish, travelled over the Dorra pass to Garam Chashma and traded these for AK-47s and rocket propelled grenade launchers. Presumably the gem dealer we were talking to had bought lapis lazuli at very cheap prices from Mujahideen desperate for money, and then sold it all over the world at a much greater price (he told us he had been to Hong Kong on several occasions to sell gems).. The CIA also benefited, by using the Mujahideen to fight the cold war by proxy. It was in these same mountains that Stinger shoulder launched surface to air missiles were given to the Mujahideen by the CIA so that they could shoot down the Soviet helicopters that were destroying their villages. However, the Americans were careful not to give the Afghans enough Stingers to win decisively and end the conflict. All the while the Russians were losing troops and equipment in battle, America was content, even though the price was the devastation of Afghanistan.We had not yet come across the last of the surprises that Garam Chasma had in store for us. At the top of the bazaar was a large group of Afghans, laughing and drinking tea. They were extremely friendly and each one shook hands with Doug and I. Then, remarkably, they offered to smuggle us into Afghanistan, telling us that we didn't need a passport and that in three days we could be in Kabul. Several foreign travellers have visited the country with the help of Mujahideen groups since the start of the war, but it is a very dangerous business. Even if Doug and I had had the time to embark on such an adventure, the chances of death would have been extremely high, and so of course we politely declined their offer.It was difficult to determine the background of the Afghans, they were all of fighting age, and therefore could have been Mujahideen (especially given their presence in Pakistan). On the other hand they were not carrying any weapons, and could simply have been traders or refugees returning home. They told us that the Afghan border at the Dorra Pass was only 40km away, and the first Afghan valley was 100 km from Garam Chasma. As Doug and I set off to the left to walk up a beautiful valley, the Afghans sped past in a jeep, above and to the right of us, on their way back to their war torn homeland.We made our way along the side of the valley, walking on the banks of a fast flowing river. After a while, we entered an area that was shaded by small trees and carpeted in grass so green and even that it looked like a lawn. Through the middle of this tiny wood ran a crystal clear stream, hurrying down to join the main river. It was one of the most beautiful places I had come across on the entire journey, and I could quite happily have spent several hours there.Garam Chashma, PakistanEmerging on the other side of the wood, the going became difficult and we had to clamber over boulders and scree slopes to make any progress. In the end we could not go any further, and retraced our steps back down to a bridge over the main river. It was at this point that Doug and I split up, he had found the proprietor of the hotel when we had been in the bazaar, and was going back to take a dip in the hot spa pool. I had decided to carry on up the valley and then meet him back at Garam Chasma later on.The bridge was similar to the ones I had crossed during the trek two years before; built of three or four slim logs that had stones and branches piled on top of them. I stepped warily across and made my way up a substantial dirt track that ran along the valley side. Soon I found myself among neat fields of wheat and maize that continued up the hill sides in rows of impressive terraces. In the far distance I could see a large black mountain, topped with snow and I later found out that it was right on the border with Afghanistan. I walked up the track for as long as time allowed and then turned back to meet Doug at the spa.Looking towards the Afghan border from Garam Chashma. The snowymountain in the far distance is on the border.I found him swimming in a small rectangular concrete pool back at the hotel, which did not exactly resemble the natural spring that I had expected. Two metal pipes ran from the hillside above (where the spring rose out of the ground) down into the water. The hotel had exploited this gift of nature to the full, and doubtless the proprietor was doing very well for himself.After a short wait in the street, we boarded a wagon going back to Chitral and braced ourselves for another couple of hours of pain. One of the passengers this time was our friend the gem dealer.As we careered along the hairpin bends of the Luthko Gol, small kids hitched a ride by clinging to the tailgate. When one of them jumped off, he timed it badly and nearly fell down the sheer drop into the river below. At last we pulled into the wagon yard near the Dreamland hotel, and I found that I was so numb I could hardly walk.Late in the afternoon I made my way to the public call office on Shahi Masjid Road, hoping to telephone home. To my dismay it was padlocked, but after making some enquiries I was directed to a dingy general store in the bazaar. Right at the back of the shop was a telephone capable of making an international call, and I managed to get through to Mum and Dad to hear the latest news. It was not good. My Mum had fallen while walking in the Lake District and broken her ankle. I told them whereabouts I was, since Chitral was a major detour from my travel plan. It really struck me that the telephone is an amazing invention when I finished chatting to my parents, four thousand miles away, and stepped out into the Central Asian bazaar with Tirich Mir towering at the end of the valley like a giant silver fortress.Once I had seen that Tirich Mir was unobscured by cloud, I walked up to the vantage point that I had discovered on my first day in Chitral. It was a splendid sight, and while I was looking at the summit I noticed that a long snow plume was being blown from it by the very strong winds at that altitude.Back in the bazaar I visited the 'Afghan Handicarft Shop' which had at last opened. It was full of carved wooden items such as bowls, pots, chests and ladels from Badakhshan and there were a few very nice carpets. I was tempted to buy a small one for Rs 1500 but remembered all too well the problems I had had with carpet permits when I bought one two years before.Feeling tired after the two arduous jeep rides, I headed back to the hotel.
Day 50 - Thursday 22nd August.One of the main reasons that I had wanted to come to Chitral, was the opportunity to visit one of the three Kalash valleys, close to the Afghan border. The Kalasha people are the last remnants of a fascinating and enigmatic culture. They and their way of life only now exist in three parallel valleys in the Pakistani part of the Hindu Kush range, and because of this (and the fact that they are the only non-muslim people for many hundreds of miles in any direction) they have been the subject of numerous ethnological studies and papers. Surprisingly, they were once much more numerous and held sway over a small empire, its territory consisting of a large portion of what is now Afghanistan. However, in the late nineteenth century the Kalasha (sometimes also referred to as the Kafirs) who dwelt in the valleys of the Hindu Kush which lie in Afghanistan, were told to reject their religion and culture or be put to the sword. This was done by the army of Abdur Rahman, who at the time was Amir of Afghanistan. Now their numbers are dwindling and their culture slowly being overwhelmed by outside pressures, but they still hold their festivals and worship their own pantheon of deities in the three picturesque valleys that are their last home.After much thought, I decided to try and visit the Bumburet valley, because it is quite accessible and my travel guide stated that although it receives the most tourists, it is probably the most scenic of the three. To get there, I first caught a wagon from a rubbish blown yard at the other end of Chitral, which took me back parallel to the Chitral River, heading in the direction of the Lowari Pass. After a drive of perhaps half an hour we turned right, and dropped down a series of switchbacks towards the river, which we crossed via a large suspension bridge. The wagon climbed a small way up the far side of the valley and then arrived in the mainly muslim village of Ayun, the gateway to the three Kalash valleys.Ayun seemed deserted, the small bazaar area that I was dropped in boasted one tea shop, and that was all. I was hoping to be able to pay for a ride on a jeep to take me up to the Kalash village of Anish in the Bumburet valley, but it soon became obvious that few jeeps, if any, ran from there. Studying the rough map in the travel guide, it looked as though Anish was a long, but feasible walk away. Not wanting to waste any more time, I set off.There was only one obvious route forward, a rough stony jeep track that meandered up the mountainside. At one point there was another stunning view of Tirich Mir, and I didn't pass up the opportunity to take a photograph. Eventually the jeep track climbed high above a valley, with a sheer drop of perhaps one hundred and fifty to two hundred feet to my right. Cut into the rock on the lip of the precipice was a brilliantly engineered irrigation channel. The track itself was sometimes in deep shadow due to rock overhangs, and it was not always the safest place to have to walk. At one point I heard a jeep approaching and wanting to be easily seen by the driver (so as not to be run over) I moved to the right, close to the edge of the cliff. This was definitely a mistake, because as the jeep swept past I was forced to move uncomfortably close to the drop off. Despite these perils, it was an amazing place. Looking back down the valley from where I had come, I could see the line of high peaks which overlooked the Chitral valley, and in the distance a tall silver waterfall cascaded down a rock face. Walking through those high mountains in perfect solitude and in such beautiful surroundings, I felt extraordinarily privileged to be there.Walking up to the Bumburet Valley, near Chitral.As the ascent continued, the jeep road drew closer to the fast flowing river on the valley floor. By this time I had been walking for nearly two hours in the heat, and because I had expected to catch a jeep from Ayun, I was not carrying any water or even any purification equipment. The cool clear water of the river was soon just too tempting and I knelt on a rock and drank it unpurified from my cupped hands. My thirst quenched, I carried on into the mountains, still unsure of exactly where I was going or how long it would take.A short while later, I came to the police checkpoint that was marked on the rough map. Beyond the checkpoint, I knew that the valley would split into two of the three Kalash valleys, the other one being further down the Chitral River towards the Lowari pass. The checkpoint was just a small open fronted wooden shed, little bigger than a bus stop. Inside were two sentries, a thin tall man and another who was shorter and rather fat. I soon formed the impression that the fat one was the superior officer. I produced my Chitral police registration certificate, and entered my details in their book."Give me fifty rupees", the fat policeman snapped.He was not asking for a bribe, the Kalash valleys are now so popular with tourists that the Pakistani government charges an entry fee to help preserve the area. After taking my money, he noticed my travel guide and asked to have a look. Snatching it from me, he started rifling through the pages at speed."Where is Chitral chapter?" he barked, in a tone that was even more impolite than his earlier demand for money.I found the page for him and waited patiently while he flicked through the pages. By now I was anxious to get away and at last he handed back my book, and I set off up the left hand track towards the Bumburet valley.It was another hour of walking before I came upon the outskirts of Anish village. By this time the valley had narrowed, and clumps of deodar trees clung to its slopes. I could hear the noise of the river in the distance, but could not actually see it. Looking at my watch, I noticed that the altimeter was reading above 6,000 feet.Soon I came across a couple of the inhabitants, men walking back from the fields carrying very basic shovels or hoes. Further on, I came to a small shop and was dismayed to find that they did not sell any tea, because by now I was extremely thirsty. When at last I came to the village proper, all I could think of was finding something to drink. With this in mind, I headed for the first hotel that I saw, The Jinnah Kalash. It stood a short distance from the road, through a couple of fields and there was no apparent path. The travel guide had warned that certain parts of the valleys are off limits to visitors because of the Kalash religion, and that stepping on any of these might mean having to pay for a goat to be sacrificed in a purification ceremony. For this reason I stepped gingerly off the road, with the kind of trepidation usually reserved for bomb disposal workers entering a mine field. Thankfully I reached the hotel grounds without having to sacrifice any goats and without offending anyone.I found the proprietor of the hotel, Mr. Jinnah, and asked if there was any chance of buying some tea. I was led to a small room on the ground floor, where there was a fairly large iron stove. Soon the air was full of the sweet smell of wood smoke, and Mr. Jinnah had put a kettle on the stove to boil. While we waited, he offered me some water to drink which he said came directly from a spring in the hillside. I was so thirsty that I drank two cups of it, reasoning that if it was from a spring it was unlikely to make me ill (in fact I suffered no ill effects at all from drinking the spring water, or the water I had drunk earlier from the river). I had intended to go back to Chitral that same day, but Mr. Jinnah told me that in the evening there would be dancing in the village to celebrate the Kalash festival of Uchau, and so I decided to pay for a room for the night.The room that I was given was basic, but it was comfortable enough. The window looked out across a field to a couple of Kalash houses, which were made of wood and reached by short ladders. They had dirt yards, in which a few chickens were scrabbling and pecking for food. Occasionally, one or two young Kalash women came back from the fields, wearing their famous traditional costume: a headpiece which is decorated with buttons, cowrie shells, pom-poms and beads.I went for a walk a bit further up the valley, stopping at a couple of hotels for tea or pepsi. My wanderings had no real objective; I was too tired after the long trek up from Ayun. I spent most of the afternoon in the lovely garden of a hotel that was just up the hill from the Jinnah Kalash.Back at the hotel, I spent the evening talking to another guest. Sohail was a Christian and talked a lot about Pakistan's new blasphemy law, which has made serious disrespect to the Prophet or Islam punishable by death. As we chatted, night fell and the temperature dropped quite considerably. By now I was very hungry, and was grateful when Mr. Jinnah appeared with dinner of Dal and Nan bread, washed down with more spring water.At about nine thirty, Mr. Jinnah, Sohail, his wife and I set off to walk to the place where the dancing would be. We followed Mr. Jinnah's torch beam, first up the main track, and then we veered off along the edge of a field. There was no electricity in the valley, no lights from houses to give perspective or distance, and beyond the circle of the torchlight the darkness was total. We crossed a couple of dry stone walls, using styles which reminded me of the Lake District in the UK.Faintly in the distance we began to hear the beating of drums, echoing from the rocky sides of the valley. Reverberating in the darkness, they created a menacing atmosphere, heightened by the timelessness and remoteness of our location. They grew steadily louder, until we came to the gathering place for the Uchau festival. As my eyes grew more accustomed to the dark, I could see that we were in a roughly square yard that was bordered on two sides by houses made of stones, mud and timber. On the far side the valley fell away, while the side on which we were standing was filled by a makeshift grandstand of stacked tree trunks on which we sat, with the rest of the audience. The Kalasha male dancers were standing in the centre of the yard, playing the drums, while the women danced around them in a circle. It was so dark that the moving figures were like ghosts, flitting about in the shadows. The festival had a magical air about it, and as I watched, overlooked by the stars, a sickle moon and the mighty peaks of the Hindu Kush, I knew that it was a unique and strange experience.