We had already been in the mini-bus six hours when we stopped for a snack at a truck stop in Lower Dir. The sky was overcast and the mountains in the distance were a deep blue. Despite this, shafts of brilliant sunlight turned the terraced wheat fields on the slopes an impossible gold. It looked exactly like the flashback scenes from Gladiator but way more corporal. The weather had cooled slightly, and our whole group crawled out of the coaster with relief. We were shown into gazebos called “family rooms”. More than half our group comprised girls who wear jeans, so obviously everyone got Looks. Looking at the landscape, it was hard to imagine the area under the Taliban’s recent control. A car pulled up behind us and a tea set of shuttlecock burqas passed surreptitiously to the next stall, pausing to look the skinny legs up and down. I noticed that when their food came, the waiter slid the tray between a partition so as not to actually see the women. The men wore eyeliner and had long beards with no mustaches.
To borrow a phrase, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
My travels in Pakistan have taught me many things, the most important of which is that truck-stop food is fantastic; this place was no different. Steaming, freshly baked bread was served with fragrant Kabuli rice and spiced meat on skewers. Anxious to make it to Chitral but still hours away from the place, we folded ourselves into the coaster once more. At this point the road was paved and smooth but extremely snaking. While striking a pensive pose, staring outside the window (Allama meets Gucci), I noticed a woman in the back of a car with three men. This car overtook us and I thought nothing of it. Twenty seconds later, our coaster came to an abrupt stop amid people running. Turning back, I saw the same car hanging off a cliff, its front tires impossibly supporting its massive body on the edge, as men with ropes tried to pull it up. The woman was literally hanging on for her life. They rescued her but I did not see what happened to the men. Taliban or not, the landscape is dangerous and I became suddenly invested in the continued wellbeing (read: consciousness) of our driver.
We climbed higher and higher into Upper Dir; occasionally I popped my ears. The greenery in the mountains vanished suddenly to be replaced by grey, sharp, jagged rocks ranging in size from pebbles to monuments. We stopped for tea once more, because there wouldn’t be much to eat between here and Chitral, still another 9 hours away (three Panadols, two Flexirils, and counting). The sun was setting and soon we would be driving at night, a risk I’d rather not take in the mountains. So far, we had been stopped 12 times at army checkposts where we all had to show our ID’s. Checking became more frequent as we approached the Lowari Tunnel.
The tunnel is what has made travel to Chitral and its surrounding areas more pleasant (kinda), connecting Dir and Chitral directly on road. Initially one would have to climb a steep road over a mountain; now the tunnel shaves over two hours from the trip. The entrance looks evil: a 30-foot hole in the side of a massive mountain (there are no ‘hills’ here) that looks like something Frodo has to endure to save the world. It extends for about 9 km and takes half an hour to get through. A sign outside announced: “Welcome to Lowari Tunnel. Enter at Your Own Risk.” (Makes you feel alive, don’t it?) Once inside, you learn why. Since it’s still being built, there is no actual road in there. You are literally driving through a cavernous, rocky hole which doubles as a two-way street. There is no ventilation – diesel fumes are everywhere – but the most exciting part is that after the first thirty feet, you see nothing but darkness and headlights. For half an hour. In an incomplete tunnel.
By the time we exited the Love Tunnel (better ring than Lowari, no?) most of the group was nodding off. I can’t sleep in moving vehicles and saw with terrifying clarity the road (I use the term loosely) that remained until Chitral. Debris from the tunnel construction assured me that everything within 3 kilometers was covered in rocks and we rarely went above 20 km/hr. Night in the mountains is as lovely and terrifying. The majesty of peaks is replaced by the twinkling lights of villages on slopes that make it seem like a place fairies come to chill. Finally we arrived at our hotel in Chitral (the lobby had a print of a Velasquez) at 3 am, and were served a hot meal and sent to bed, tired but grateful.
I couldn’t have prepared myself for what I saw when I stepped onto the balcony from our darkened room the next morning. It was beyond looking at a postcard; it was a vision. A loud blue river cut the valley floor, which rose through green pine forests to snowy peaks. Above were lapis skies and white clouds that shamed this urbanite’s sensibilities with their perfection. In the distance I could see Tirich Mir, among the tallest mountains on the planet (We aren’t even in the Himalays. Suck it, Alps). The sun was warm but the air was cool, and giant rose bushes the size of trees with flowers the size of footballs lined the expansive hotel garden, making everyone in it look beautiful and happy. Everyone was happy. It’s difficult not to be when faced with the Hindukush. Our group was scattered on the lawn; some of us were sketching, others were playing football or simply lying in the sun. I went up to grab some breakfast (how can so many parathas disappear so quickly?) and while eating was looking out on some girls doing Yoga on the grass when I noticed next to me three men with big beards (and no mustaches) looking intently at the same scene. They began to have a debate about whether Yoga was Islamic or not. (“They should say namaz. God has including stretching in the Quran.”) I quickly made myself scarce, lest I be held responsible for the yogic postures unfolding before us now…
Later that afternoon we got into jeeps, the only vehicles sturdy enough to make the journey from Chitral to Bumberat and beyond (in the areas known colloquially as Kafirsitan). The road was built some 20 years ago and is the only way to access the Kalash tribes. Everything and everyone here must come and go via this one road. It follows a jagged river along a rocky cliff and more than once I looked out the window and saw a 50-foot plus vertical drop. Here too there were check posts and army stops. On our way the driver pointed out interesting sights: the bridge Lady Diana gave money to build; the old colonial crossing; the ancient mines; far-off villages; the mountain from which Taliban crossed over, abducted and murdered a Greek aid worker who was fundraising for the Kalash. On one of the last army posts, the soldier “checking” us asked us why we were going to Kalash. For toursim, we replied (you realize early on what to say to quicken the process). Why do you want to go there, he asked. We told him about the Spring Festival we were going to see and how wonderful it would be to witness their culture. He got shifty, looked us over again and then got to the point: “They don’t say the kalma, you shouldn’t go there.” Then he added, “They smell.” (Yeah, coz you smell like a Chanel ad…) I asked him where he was from. He said Punjab. He really didn’t need to…
After descending to a bridge by the river, the car made a rapid ascent, turned around a mountain and suddenly everything became very, very green. Small houses that looked vaguely Zen were neatly tucked into the slopes of new crops and freshly plowed fields. The air was clean, even cleaner than the air in Chitral. The sun shone with clarity and the streams were like moving glass. It had rained and there was the smell of fresh grass and flowers all about. Local men watched the cars as we passed, their eyes the color of water and their hair a straw gold. We stopped briefly to let an oncoming car pass when I looked to my left and saw a little Kalashi girl. Her hair was braided, two at the back, one over her forehead; she wore an elaborate headdress decorated with seashells and buttons. Around her neck were dozens of orange beaded necklaces that matched the orange flowers on her heavily embroidered tunic. She was joined by another girl, wearing the same outfit but in vivid turquoise, with matching eyes. I smiled and they giggled. “Welcome!” one shouted and ran off, making the little bells on the anklets chime.
We had finally arrived, and it was paradise…
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