Monday, December 28, 2009

Adventure in the Eastern Pamir

It is a bright morning on July 9, at the end of the Shandur polo festival that with a group of 6 people we start from Shandur over Chamarkand Pass to participate in the Broghil festival and to continue our trek over Darkhot pass further on to the Yasin valley. After night stay at the Chamarkand pass (4328m), we manage to get to the village Chapali (2500m), 8 kilometer north to Mastuj. This village is acknowledged for its traditional folksingers, folkdancers, solo sitar players and vocalists. We stay with Mr Akhtar Murad Khan, whose house perches atop the mountain overlooking the village.

The next morning we have a thorough visit to have glimpses of the women activities in handicraft, cooking and the rest of the household chore. We observe several women harvesting wheat crops. Many more are occupied with weaving traditional woolen carpet, goat-hair carpet and embroidered women cap. Every house we visit, we are warmly welcomed and presented with cherry and mulberry besides tea. Some of the group members buy the local woolen carpets and embroidered women caps. In the late afternoon we arrange a big cultural event in the wide orchard under the cool shadow of the fruit-bearing trees,, where ‘Lokzhore’ and ‘pasthok’—the two famous floksongs are showcased through the participation of the elderly folksingers and folkdancers. Some tourists also join the dance party and make a fun.

From this village to Lashkargaz (3660), the venue of the festival, it is about 3 days travel. We arrange a 4X4 Jeep—the only dependable source of transport in the mountains of the Hindukush—upto the end of the Brep village where the bridge that connects the upper Yarkhun valley is broken and hence we have to carry the entire luggage through the narrow and rickety pedestrian bridge to the other side, where we bargain with Mr Dawood, the driver, who will charge us Rs 8000 for Kishmanja (3300m), the beginning of Broghil. Our travel is interrupted once as we stop for lunch at Pawer, the house of Mr Hakim Jan, the renowned personality of the area. He is also a first-class sitar expert and plays some of the oldest piece of music to the cheer and appreciation of the guests. This place is the best camping site but we don’t have it in our schedule to stay here. Rather we continue for Yarkhunlasht (3048) after lunch.

After traveling half an hour from Pawer, we reach at another unsteady jeep-able bridge connecting the village of Sholcoach (2700m) to that of Zhopo to the right side of the Yarkhun River. We choose to get down for our safety and let the jeep pass unloaded. The road from here onward leads us through a narrow valley with big boulders slowing down the vehicle’s speed. We reach at Darband, a place where a war was fought between Chitralies and some people coming from across the Wakhan Corridor in the olden times. The bunkers and other signs of war installations are still here. We reach Yarkhun by the evening and manage to stay with Mr Mehboob, a social activist and a hospitable gentleman. We pitch our tents in his vast orchard and the cook prepares dinner of chicken and rice. We go to sleep earlier with eagerness to start another challenging travel the next morning.
It takes us 2 hours to reach Kishmanja. You don’t have vehicle beyond this point. If traveling by foot, either from or to Broghil, then you have to compulsorily stay at Kishmaja whether or not you like the idea. Here we meet Mr Momin Khan, who speaks Dari Persian and Wakhi language and is proud of his Central Asian ancestors. He is dressed in the self-made raw leather coat and shoes called ‘Kon’. Here the cook prepares our lunch whilst we send for horses at Pechuztch or ‘the hot spring’ around which the village has developed. We arrive at Chikar for night stay and camp outside in the open meadow. By the night we listen to dogs barking, donkeys braying and horses neighing. We feel rather abandoned in a high and dry place under the bold shine of stars in the pitch-dark.
We awake to the yellow sunrays on the glacier of Chikar (3570m) to the south and in the adjacent pastureland. The nomads here just gather around and look at us in disbelief and some of them really shy away. Young girls play flute as they tend livestock further up the pasture. Smoke from the makeshift nomadic shelters makes a wavy column against the sky whilst children and elderly people sit lazily in the morning sun. As the sun in the nearby Chikar glacier presents an incredible view, we take a good deal of snaps.
We ride the sure-hoofed mountain ponies for Skarwarz (3510), the venue of the Yak Polo festival. It takes 5 hours before we reach this place, which is a big pastureland shared by the entire Wakhi communities. Yaks, horses, donkeys, sheep and goats are being grazed here. The landscape is beautiful with a range of wild flowers such as edelweiss, the sight of which brings a broad smile in the face of our Swiss group member who elaborates that edelweiss is Switzerland’s national flower. Golden marmot is also found in abundant here. They make underground tunnel and live in a family system. Broghil, the eastern Pamir region, is a wetland, appropriate for a variety of flora and fauna. It is one of the biggest peat bogs in the country and the locals dig out and get them sun-dried for fuel to be used in the harshest of 6 months long winter every year.
The three-day festival is truly a moment of pleasure. Some of the foreign friends just go for playing yak polo. It is an uphill task to mount the unruly creature and score a goal or two. On the final day of the yak polo festival, we arrange barbecue party to a big bonfire. The foreign guests and locals join together to have a big feast that everyone relishes.
The next day early in the morning, we start for Darkhot pass (4650m). The glacier is lengthy, steep and uneven and thus much tiring. One has to be much careful about the crevices filled with blue water many hundred feet deep. We clear the hurdles skillfully and ultimately reach the meadow of Darkhot in about 12 hours. For night stay we reach Darkhot village.
The next morning we awake to witness the long poplar trees and the nearby Darkhot glacier. The weather is quite chilly here even in midsummer. We take turn to the south and walk through the villages of Terset, Sandi and finally on to Taus, headquarter of the Yasin valley, where we avail public transport to Gupis and further on to the Gilgit city.
Thus one of our adventurous treks comes to an end.

Trekking Through the Nomads' Land

Lonely Planet terms it ‘Chaghbibi—Gokhshal—Chimirsan—Rumbor Trek’. I would rather describe it ‘Trekking through the Nomads’ Land’ given the frequency with which one comes across the nomads in the course of his/her trek illustrated by scenic beauties—dense forests of pine, cedar and oak, milky streams, pure icy springs, colorful flowers and most noticeably an aura of pastoral life.
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Day 1:
We start trekking from the Chitral town with quite heavy supplies—food items, utensils, clothes and sleeping bags—up to the Chaghbini Hut (2925m) of the Chitral Gol Natural Park and get here in about 7 hours. The watchers on duty are hospitable, friendly and easy going people, who welcome us into the compound of the hut with low boundary walls located in the forest overlooking the Terich Mir and Booni Zom to the North and the Broz village of Chitral to the south. Near sunset as the golden rays hit the landscape here transforms into a picturesque scene that prompts us to do some nice photography. We also scan the wood with binoculars to find markhor and see many of them whilst grazing far bellow the ravine. Take dinner early and go to sleep in anticipation of an arduous trek the next morning. After breakfast at 7:30, start for Gokhshal An (3720m). The trek is quite steep that zigzags up all the way to the base of the white rock before leveling across its face to reach the top and takes U-turn to the south, fall precipitously forming into a long scree defined by snow cover, moraine, grassy land and forest. Wild flowers greet us as we descend further down the valley. Here we go on the spree of mushroom searching, which the space is famous for and find 15kg of it before completing the trek to the hut of the nomads, who tend cattle up on the summer pasture in the midst of the forest called ‘Gokhshal’. For lunch, the nomads serve us with dairy products, their staple food. For night stay we go to the watchers’ hut just a little down to the nomads’ makeshift.

Day 2:
It is a reasonable stay with the hospitable and well mannered watchers from the Chitral town. They are generous and helpful to every bit. For dinner we have our delicious mushroom vegetable. This place, too, is idyllic with a great deal of photographic opportunities that we avail before sunset. The morning of June 22, we walk up the nose-touching steep of ‘surmabohto dahar’ across the river and then through a tangled and trek-less forest before getting to the Dooni pasture (3350m). We take lunch here to energize ourselves to cope with the uphill journey leading to Dooni An (3713m). ‘Alpinism’ not ‘trekking’ might better explain this part of the trek. You have to be a very good trekker. And Mr David is a good one indeed. Notwithstanding its difficult nature, the trek is the habitat for snow leopard, markhor, wild goats, snow cocks and partridges. We glimpse markhors with the biggest screwing horns ever seen. The songs of snow cocks/partridges mingle with nomads’ whistle and produce a pleasening echo in the mountains/valleys that makes the trek a rewarding one. The higher we get the more visible become the peaks of the Hindu Kush ranges with the Terich Mir standing lofty and clear. It takes us 8 hours to get to Dooni An. Once on the top we are elated with a sense of accomplishment and tough performance indicative of strong and healthy people that we are!

Day 3:
The sun is going down the horizon; we are exhausted and a little bit sore, with an urgent need to find a shelter at Chamarsan pasture with the Kalash nomads. They are equally hospitable, cordial and careful hosts, who afford us shelter, food and a place to spend the night. Nights are pretty cold here. From this point we see to the direction of the Rumbor valley to where our trek will end. We are excited about the upcoming trek, not a difficult one. We come across a range of nomads—mostly Kalash—in the forest of cedar, pine and oak. As we walk further down the valley, we see many people floating down logs along the stream to the roadside at Sheikhandeh (2250m). It takes us 5 hours to get to Sheikhandeh and an additional 2 hours to Saifullah’s at Balankuru, in the Rumbor valley. We get back to Chitral tired but elated with a sense of accomplishment about a very challenging trek plus enthusiastic to watch the final of the free style polo tourney that will be played on June 24 at 05:00 between the Sub-division Mastuj and Chitral Scouts teams in the Chitral town.

Friday, December 11, 2009

Booni Vigil Rally for Climate Change SOS Copenhagen

A vigil rally in Booni, northern Chitral, Pakistan was organized through the facilitation of CAMAT [Chitral Association for Mountain Area Tourism]. The objectives of the placard bearing rally was to showcase support and show solidarity with the climate change SOS Copenhagen conference in addition to highlight the issues of climate change that has already posed a serious challenge to the communities in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The participants were mostly students of government high school Booni and Pamir Public School apart from business community, political leadership, social workers and people from different walk of life. The rally, after walking for a kilometer, concentrated at the main Booni square where teachers, political leadership and business community representatives addressed the gathering. It was maintained that for the last three decades there has been a considerable change in the climate, which is inevitably linked to global warming. The destruction of the village Sonoghor three years ago resulting from glacier bursting is no doubt an eye opener in this regard. Similarly snow avalanches that destroyed the Washeech village in the Torkho valley and the annihilation of village Brep are directly associated with global warming.
The melting glaciers high up in the Eastern Pamir region, which are the vital source of cultivation for centuries in the entire northern Pakistan let alone Chitral, are melting very rapidly. If these natural water reservoirs get dried up, then the people here do not have any other option except to migrate to other places the way some of the valuable bird species have already done.
Likewise climate change has also severely threatened the habitat of the valuable natural biodiversity of the Hindu Kush region. Some of the rare birds species like the black throated thrush, finches, magpie, grey tit and golden eagle have almost disappeared as their ecological needs were no longer fulfilled in the given ecology. The population of wolf and fox has drastically shrunk and they are about to disappear. The disappearance of the substantial vegetative covering has had ever negative implication for the elusive snow leopard as it caused migration of the markhor and wild goats on the top of this ecological pyramid is always the elusive snow leopard. Now one can have very rare glimpses of the snow cat in northern Pakistan. It must have migrated to some other places better suiting his ecological needs.
The speakers at the rally maintain that students, being energetic and young people, have to be much focused whilst addressing the issues of natural environment. Moreover, it was emphasized that only within a healthy natural environment can we effectively adjust our social, political and economic needs for our broader welfare. If land resources are eroded and natural biodiversity degraded, then it will surely threatened our own very existence. It is therefore, the protection of natural environment and forming combined front against global warming must be the priority no one for the mountainous communities.
The livelihood of the people in the Hindu Kush Mountains is inseparably intertwined with healthy ecology and intact natural biodiversity, the disturbance of which has almost threatened the life standard of the communities in the region. As remedial measure, the participants of the rally unanimously passed the resolution as follows:
• That today on Dec 11, 2009, a vigil rally supporting the cause of global warming firmly pledge that we will continue our efforts for the protection of natural environment and our fight against global warming. To this end, we will harness the strength of schools, places of worship and other social centers in order to raise awareness and prepare workable plan to cope with the environmental issues at grassroots.• That developed and industrial nations are appealed to curtail the emission of carbon into the atmosphere so that the prospect of global warming would automatically be reduced and its negative impacts on the remote and less developed mountainous regions like ours would be minimized.• That there must be authentic research initiatives on the part of developed nations to measure the continuing damages to the natural environment of the mountainous communities in northern Pakistan. Based on such researches, awareness campaign will be mounted in the target communities and improved and coordinated strategy aimed at tackling the menace of global warming would be undertaken.• That effective awareness raising campaign with regard to natural environment and its importance for the living organism on earth needs to be initiated on regular basis for the broader stakeholders.• That courses on environment must necessarily be included in the curriculum of schools, both in the government and private sectors so that they will have proper knowledge and understanding about their natural environment and will resolve such problems based on their indigenous knowledge.• That student, being energetic young people, have the courage and strength to shoulder the responsibility of taking care for their environment if they have to be properly trained about natural environment.• That to fight against climate change; it is of paramount importance to stop deforestation in the southern Chitral and to increase forest everywhere in the district. With much greenery we can assure the health of our natural environment. To reduce pressure on the existing forest belt, the rally maintained, the provision of alternative source of fuel to the energy starved Hindu Kush region either in respect of natural gas from Central Asia or by generating electricity from its numerous rivers and streams could be helpful.
Best regards,

Shams Uddin,
CAMAT, Mountain Inn, Chitral

Tel: +92 943 413540