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Pakistan 2 - The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Mountains

PAKISTAN | Wednesday, 13 October 2021 | Views [192]

Shandur Polo Field, 4100 m.

Shandur Polo Field, 4100 m.

 Pakistan 2 – The Khyber Pakhtunkhwa Mountains

 The drive from Mingora to Chitral is long, windy, and the roads, while asphalted, are often torn up. Nonetheless, the journey is beautiful.  The landscape changes from fruit orchards, both apples and pears were in abundance, to rolling hills to high barren mountains with a patch of green near the rivers that cut through the scene or on ridges above the waters. There was evidence of multiple land and rockslides that took out houses and portions of the road.  I was glad we weren’t driving during the monsoons. We passed through a number of small villages, and a few towns with crowds of people going about their daily routines.  The people in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province were dressed much more conservatively than in the major cities. Colorful burqas became more or less the norm for the women, and there were very few men dressed in western attire. In Hunza, where Amyn and Iqbal are from, burqas are colloquially called ‘bullet proof vehicles’ as it is impossible to see inside them, and according to Pashtun tradition, it is unlawful/cowardly to shoot a woman or child. It creates honor to fight and kill your opponent. During the TTP time, men would take covered women with them so they wouldn’t be shot. As revenge is a multi-generational affair, it is best not to get into situations where one’s childrens’ children are still going to suffer the consequences. According to Amyn, ten years ago this region was controlled by the TTP, the Pakistani Taliban. In order to rout them out, the government told the people to leave their homes and to move into safe places in another region.  Those that stayed were considered to be terrorists, and the military bombed, shot up, and destroyed the whole area. Once they had cleared the region, they had the people come back and the government helped pay for new houses, shops, and community buildings.  The towns now have a mix of brightly colored new structures amid the sandy burnt brick older ones. When I asked if the TTP would be coming back now that the Taliban is in control of Afghanistan, just a few kilometers over the border, I was told that there was no way they would as the government and military wouldn’t allow it.  On the other hand, everyone I spoke with – from the taxi driver in Karachi, to the bellhops in some of the hotels, said they were thankful that the Taliban was now governing Afghanistan as that meant, according to their logic, an end to the endless war and peace. The U.S. is viewed as untrustworthy, and they are glad the U.S. is gone. The general attitude was that the U.S. trained the jihadis for fighting against the Soviets in the 90s and they were quasi allies then, but when Bush et.al. moved troops in after 9/11, the people they had previously worked with now became the enemy. Most of the men I asked said that the Taliban just want what is best for the people of Afghanistan without any external interference. When I asked about how women would fare, I was told two things, one: this is a new Taliban and they have learned. Women are allowed to go to school and hold jobs. (This is not true!) and two: Women should just stay at home and wait, it will change after a few years (!!!). I was notably not able to ask any women about this as I didn’t come into contact with any other than a student in an apple orchard in Karimabad, who just wanted to get a scholarship to study Mass Communications at a European university.

 The Pashtuns have been known for their fighting ability for centuries and for their skill with weaponry.  The village of Dir is renown in northern Pakistan for its knives, and both Amyn & I got small ones, to cut up the apples that we collected along the way. We finally arrived in Chitral towards dusk.  We were staying in the very pleasant Mountain Inn, with separate cabins and a large garden with a tree whose leaves are supposed to be good for dealing with diabetes. The young man who was running the hotel, tried to do everything as there was some kind of festival and all the other staff were away.  He came from Kalash Valley and was helpful in giving us information on the people and culture that we were going to visit the following day. Before heading up to Kalash, however, I wanted to stop at the Chitral Museum, which is located by their polo field.  Polo is a national pastime in this region, even more than soccer or cricket. (Well, perhaps equal to cricket…). The museum is small, just a few rooms, but it did have a number of Kalash artifacts including some Gandau effigies. These are carved from a single piece of wood and are said to represent the soul of the person who has died. When an important person dies, a gandau is placed on the grave.  The term is also used for the three day ceremony to install the effigy. Family members select the best piece of wood from the forest to carve image and the name of the deceased is constantly recited during the carving process. After the image is complete, a procession takes it to the Jestakhan, where they dance for twenty-four hours before heading on to the cemetery. There are three kinds of gandaus: standing, sitting and those on horseback. Sometimes the horses have two heads, which supposedly means that the deceased was quite powerful and/or influential. Women are usually represented in a sitting position on ornately carved chairs wearing caps with four horns. According to Kalash tradition, a goat with four horns is seen as an auspicious omen. This may harken back to the earlier pre-historic traditions, as this valley was cut off for centuries. There were a number of other interesting artifacts in the museum, including one where help is needed to identify the script.  There is a stone with an unknown ancient inscription, and it would be helpful if someone could identify it and let me, or the Chitral Museum, know. It would also be helpful if we could have the name and contact of a scholar who might be able to decipher it. A photo of the stone is in the photo gallery.

 After the museum we headed up to the Kalash Valley.  We had to change cars in a small village near the base of the windy, narrow, hilly road as the Toyota Corolla wouldn’t make it up the jeep track. The driver of the old broken down, but drivable, vehicle we hired was from Kalash, spoke the language and was able to act as a local guide. There are fourteen small villages in the Kalash Valley, each with somewhat unique traditions, but all within the same general framework. They, like many in Hunza, are said to be relatives of the troops who left Alexander’s army to stay put where they were. After seeing all the mountains they had to cross, I can completely sympathize with their decision. The valley is lush with water from the surrounding glaciers, fruit trees grow in abundance, as well as grapes for wine and apricots for fruit and schnaps. We visited a room where three centenarians were in the process of making the latter. It seems if one can survive the winters when young, a hearty long life is entirely possible. I was surprised that the valley is known for its wine as alcohol is not permitted in the Islamic Republic. It seems that the tribe has a special exemption, and the red wine was quite good, as were the grapes that people would pluck off the vines for us. The exemption is for their entire cultural heritage, not just for wine and schnaps.  They have a different language and the elder generation did not speak Urdu, so the conversation had to be translated from English to Urdu to Kalash and back again. How much was lost in translation, I can’t begin to guess. What I did understand was that their funeral rites entail giving the soul back to the creator; life is temporary and there is another life after this one. There are a number of annual festivals according to an agricultural calendar, and the festival of Madaik is equivalent to the Catholic All Souls Day. The departed souls live forever.  The bed of the deceased is turned over on their grave so that they have their resting place in the life beyond. Time is cyclical, not linear, as are the seasons. The festivals are celebrated in the community square that is decorated with streamers, flowers and other colorful objects.  The winter festival of Chaumos is the only one that takes place indoors, in the Jestakhan. The Jestakhan is a temple dedicated to Jestak, the protector of family and generations.  The altar is always oriented to the west, the origin of the Kalash people.  Each house has an altar dedicated to Jestak and each village has its own temple. The Jestakhan is the only roofed temple in the valley. All other sacred sites have open air altars. There are a number of other deities, but of special note is the goddess Dezalik, who is the patroness of women in childbirth and confinement.  In the villages, there are separate structures for women during their menstrual cycle and for during and just after childbirth.  At the entrance to some of the villages are Kunduriks, which are wooden sculptures in commemoration of a respected male member of the tribe. They are similar to the Gandaus in appearance, but serve a different purpose. The special exemption for the Kalash tribe to maintain their heritage applies to both the tangible/visual, i.e. dress, language etc. as well as intangible/spiritual aspects of their traditions. While preserving their heritage, today, students learn Urdu in school and can choose between a tribal village life or a more modern one or find a way to balance between the two.  Family and community bonds remain quite strong. As a tribal community, the elders used to distribute justice. The federal court system has changed this for federal offences, but family and community matters remain the domain of village elders throughout tribal areas, so long as they don’t interfere with the laws of the land.

While we were visiting intricately wood carved rooms and gardens in the village, a young girl approached us. She was dressed in the typical Kalash outfit, that she had made herself.  At fifteen, she was already a budding entrepreneur and guide. She showed us around, invited us to her house, and then to her aunt’s shop, where she had personally made many of the items for sale. By this time, it was getting dark and we needed to get down the hill to our car and drive back to Chitral for the night.  It was a memorable day with warm friendly people.  Amyn plans to go back for the winter festival. I hope he makes it through the snow….

 The next morning we left early to head over the Shandur Pass to Gilgit. We didn’t make it all the way that day. The dirt track from Chitral north is, for the most part, wide enough, but it is a dirt jeep track that extends for hours and hours and hours. The road climbs fairly steadily and the day was quite hot.  After a couple of hours the car’s fan broke as a screw holding it in place was jolted loose. We had to stop and wait for it to get fixed.  Luck was with us, though, as we stopped in a spectacularly beautiful spot with a rock that was meant to be sat on for contemplating the magnificence of the snow-clad glacier in the distance and the green fertile valleys cascading down to the river. Additionally, just by chance friends of Amyn and Iqbal’s were on the same route.  They called them to pick up a new fan in Chitral, which they did, and after about four hours they arrived and after all six guys worked on getting the car restored for another hour, we were finally back on our way. As the friends were in a jeep, they progressed much quicker than we did and arranged for a place for all of us to stay in Phander Valley, the first ‘guesthouse’ after the Pass.  We approached the Pass at dusk, so the photos of the yaks in the meadow by the lake didn’t come out the way I would have liked, but there is a photo in the gallery of the highest polo field in the country, 4000+ m.  It was dark by the time we got to the guesthouse, which was really a couple of concrete rooms with beds and luckily a western style toilet. At least I thought it was. When it didn't flush, I asked what was wrong and was greeted by somewhat amazed stares; it turned out that the toilet wasn't connected to working plumbing, but it was, like the squaters, porcelain over a hole where one poured in water from the nearby bucket to clean it. One just needs to know how things work.... As there was no shower, and I really needed one as the road was so dusty, the guys arranged for water to be heated over a gas stove and then a new bucket was delivered to my room. It worked.  Actually, this wasn’t too bad, as I hadn’t had any hot water in the hotel rooms other than in Karachi and Swat. After Islamabad, the electricity was often spotty and there was often no signal on the cell phones. FYI, T-Mobile had a better connection, when there was service.  The E80 I paid for international roaming with A1 for the Austrian phone was wasted money as that phone company’s local partner did not have service in the north.

 Refreshed, the next morning we headed on to Gilgit, after a brief look at Phander Lake. Throughout the journey from Chitral almost to Gilgit there were police checkpoints every ca. 40-50 km.; at the checkpoints the police took copies of my visa and passport. When we didn’t make it to the checkpoint after the Pass, the police called Amyn the next morning asking where we had spent the night.  I was a bit disconcerted by this, but Amyn explained that it is for the foreigner’s safety.  The government doesn’t want anything to happen to tourists and the guides are responsible to the police for the safety of their clients. The checkpoints never felt intrusive, and the police staffing them were always friendly.

 Once down the mountain and back on asphalted roads, we took a short detour to see the Kargah Buddha. This image is not Gandharan and seems a bit out of place looking down from a steep cliff; on the other hand the view the Buddha has over the valley and winding Gilgit River is pretty amazing. The Buddha, possibly Maitreya, is standing in the fearless pose.  Local tradition said that it was a spirit woman, a Yatchani, who devoured the local men.  If two men went off to gather wood, she would eat one, if four went off she ate two, until most of the population was gone.  The people decided they had to do something to stop her so they got a Daiyal Khimito, a magic worker, from Bagrot, a nearby village, to help.  He was able to bind her by tricking her to come out of her cave on the hill, but knowing that she might get free at some point, he told the youth of the village to make sure that after he died, his body would be placed at the foot of the hill, thereby ensuring that the restraints would be permanent. The image is clearly not a woman and definitely a Buddha, but the story does illustrate some of the traditional local beliefs.

As we came closer to Gilgit, it was lunchtime and Amyn and Iqbal both wanted local trout from the river. We came to a roadstop that advertised fresh fish and stopped.  The fellow by the stove insisted that the fish were trout and that they had just been caught. Iqbal was a bit suspicious, though, after a bit of a misunderstanding with the tea order, so he went into the cooking tent to see what was going on. It turned out that the fish were frozen, and weren’t even trout.  We left.  It was fascinating to me to know that even locals from another ethnic group can be tricked if they don’t pay attention.  We drove straight through busy Gilgit and headed for Hunza, which was to be my ‘home’ for the next few days.






Tags: history, mountains, museums, on the road


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