Chitral is Pakistan’s hidden gem at the North Western Tip, close to the stunning Wakhan Corridor of Afghanistan. It has traditionally traded more with Jalalabad and Kabul of Afghanistan, as compared to Dir of Pakistan. This is because of the natural barrier of Lowari Pass that separates it from the rest of Pakistan. It was this elusiveness and geographical isolation that fueled my curiosity to see the land where Alexander the Great roamed.
I had been hearing of the Kalash people for a long time and upon one extended weekend we finally decided to see the place. We didn’t plan too much except for looking things to do in Chitral, booking a one night’s stay in the city, loading 15 liters of drinking water, compiling a nice EDM playlist and arranging some refreshments. We left Rawalpindi at 0530 in the morning.
Google Maps indicated travel time of 10.5 hrs. However, it took us more than 14 hours to get there despite going through Lowari Tunnel. As soon as we crossed Malakand top, I was transported back in time when Winston Churchill was posted here and he took part in the anti-insurgent operations which he called ‘barbarians’. The drive to Dir is easy considering the road is metalled. If you leave early, the traffic in town centers will not slow you down.
We had lunch at Dir and left immediately for Lowari Pass. I was low on diesel and decided to drive through the under construction pass. The tunnel was so dark that my lights hardly traveled a few yards ahead of my 4×4. Fortunately, it was good decision as Chitral city was a further 3.5 hours after the tunnel, and it was getting dark soon.
Immediately after the Lowari tunnel ended, we were met with quietness. Peace and tranquility was on the other side. Gone was the hustle bustle of the road, only clear water flowed beside us. The temperature dropped a few degrees as well. Half an hour short of Chitral was the beautiful summer palace of the ruler of Chitral. Legend has it that Kalash people had ruled the valley centuries ago from this palace.
We reached Chitral close to sunset, while driving over the suspension bridge donated by Princess Diana. Chitral was a quiet city, relatively clean. We settled down in our accommodation and rested for the night. The temperature was quite chilly at that time in the winter.
The next day we caught the first glimpse of Tirich Mir, the highest peak of Hindu Kush at 7100m, in golden light. The Chitral River is fed by Tirich Mir. The British officers stationed at Chitral have documented the adjoining valleys around Chitral, with its ski slopes and wild life (mountain goats). It is an interesting read.
We went to the Royal Palace (ShahiQila) and the Mehtar’s home. It had been commandeered by the British after their botched attempt at regime change went awry in the 19th century. At one time, Chitral River flowed alongside of it. Now, it has gone far away.
The guard post, on top of a hill, overlooking Chitral city is an interesting place to go. We couldn’t go there due to less time available, but jeeps can be hired from the marketplace for the trip.
We also went to the local museum which was interesting as the guide was well aware of the area’s history.
Next we went to Hindu Kush Heights Hotel, owned by the current Mehtar, overlooking Chitral Runway. It’s a beautiful location where we can see mountain goats on the peaks and valley below. Many Hollywood celebrities had visited this place, including Robert De Niro. We also ate the local dish called Ghalmandi, which was made from wheat, walnut oil, cottage cheese and vegetables, all pure and organic. The locals even invited us to stay with them, which we politely refused but concluded that the people of the region are highly hospitable.
Next day we set off early to Ayun Valley then to Bamburat valley and onto Kalash village. Ayun Valley was breathtaking with its countless green patches, trees and clear flowing water. The road to Kalash,however,was beyond terrible. I nearly toppled my 4×4. It took us 3 hours to get there.
The Kalash people look different and have a unique culture. They celebrate everything including death with song, dance and drinks. They revel till they are bankrupted. Marriages are not binding and local alcohol flows like water. Wines are made with local fruits like apricot, berries etc.
Kalash would leave their dead in open graves fully decked in their jewelry. Their culture is dying as it is so out of tune with the civilization that has come knocking on their door. Legend has it that one of Alexander’s generals was left behind and he started the Kalash line and its odd culture.
I truly hope that the Pakistani government decides to link Chitral to Tajikistan and Kashgar. It would make for an enjoyable experience. We loved our trip to Chitral, but I would recommend studying the ravines and valleys around the city to get an authentic feel of the place and all it has to offer.