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The Chitral valley; at an elevation of 1127.76 meters (3,700 feet) is a favorite with mountaineers, anglers, hunters, hikers, naturalists and anthropologists. The 7787.64 meters (25,550 feet) Trichmir, the highest peak of the Hindu Kush Mountains dominates this 321.87 km (200 miles) long exotic valley. Afghanistan is located to the north, south and west of the district. A narrow strip of Afghan territory, Wakhan separates it from the ex-Soviet republic of Tajikistan. Tourists flock Chitral from June to September. The rest of the year, this land is inaccessible due to blockage of traffic routes by snow.
The district capital is Chitral Town itself. The main attractions of Chitral town are the bazaar, the Mahtar of Chitral's fort and the main Mosque by the river. The summer palace of the ex-ruler of Chitral is on the hilltop above the town at Birmoghlasht.
Places to See
The Kafir-Kalash Tribe
One of the major attractions of Chitral are the Kalash valleys - the home of the Kafir-Kalash or 'Infidel Wearers of the Black Robe', a primitive pagan tribe. Kalash means black in their language. A similar tribe on the other side of the border in Afghanistan used to wear red robes and hence became known as the Red Kafirs. These are a non Muslim and culturally distinct tribe whose ancestry is shrouded in mystery. A legend has it that some soldiers of the legions of Alexander of Macedonia settled down in Chitral and the preset Kafir-Kalash are their off-springs.
Almost all of the 3,000 strong Kalashis live in about 20 villages in the three valleys of Birir, Bambureet and Rambur in the south. Bambureet, the largest and the most picturesque valley of the Kafir-Kalash, is 40 km (25 miles) from Chitral and is connected by a road suitable for jeeps and other 4x4 wheelers. Birir, 34 km (21 miles) away, is accessible by a similar road. Rambur is 32 km (20 miles) from Chitral. Until recently, the road could be used up to Ayun and the remaining 16 km (10 miles) had to be traveled on by foot.
The Kalash women are of particular interest as they are not in Pardah unlike their Muslim neighbors, but wear black gowns of coarse cloth in summer and hand-spun wool dyed in black in winter. Their picturesque headgear is made of woolen black material studded with cowry shells, buttons and crowned with a large colored feather. Around their necks, they wear large necklaces with countless strings of red beads. The Kafir women are known throughout the area for their toughness. This is because they do almost all of the chores; both in the house and outside in the fields as well. Their men are considered a lazy lot; and they can be spotted either idling around with other men or taking care of the kids in the homes or doing other minor chores.
They make offerings to several gods, each of which protects a different aspect of life and livelihood; animals, crops, fruits, family, and so on. They build their houses of timber and fill the cracks between the logs with mud and pebbles. They have holes in their roofs which is meant to let smoke escape through the wooden ceiling. In summer, the women sit on a wide verandah on the second story to cook, spin, and weave or on the other hand work in the fields doing the manís job. In winters, they usually stay inside and cook.
The wooden temples of the Kalash are often elaborately carved, especially around the doors, pillars and ceilings. Some of the holy places are closed to women; both Kalash and foreign. If a woman accidentally goes to these places, they are fined a goat or an equivalent amount of money. The dead of the Kalashis are left in wooden coffins in Kalash graveyards. The lids of these coffins are left open so that various elements of nature can affect the bodies. They usually leave all of the belongings of that person next to their coffins. At nightfall, animals and other beasts of pray come down the mountains and eats up what remains of that dead person whereas the belongings are carried away by other inhabitants in the area. The Kafirs end up believing that the deceased has gone along with his belongings. Going to a Kalashi graveyard is a smelly business and the faint hearted should not go as they should expect to see unsuitable scenes. Due to the smell emanating from these graveyards, other non-Kafir inhabitants of the area have complained and as a result, these graveyards have been moved more out into the wilderness. For safety, the Kalashis rely on their Muslim neighbors for giving them protection from outsiders.
Pictured above is one of the dozens of rooms which act as a segregation room. The Kalashis believe that women in later stages of pregnancy are impure therefore they avoid getting into contact with them. For this purpose, these special rooms are built where such women live upto for upto four months. All food and other necessities are provided to them during their stay.
The Kalashis do believe that their hearts are closed and with the will of Allah SWT, their hearts will be opened at a right time and they will be blessed with the light of Islam. However, there are many Christian missionaries posing as tourists who are actively working trying to convert them to Christianity and thus create dissent in the area. The Government of Pakistan has officially forbidden anybody from trying to convert these tribes to another religion. The obvious reason behind this decision is that after these tribes are converted, the government will lose important revenue generated from tourists flocking the area.
The Kalash are gay people and love music and dancing particularly on occasions of their religious festivals like Joshi Chilamjusht (14th & 15th May in spring), Phool (20th-25th September) and Chowas (18th to 21st December). Foreign tourists require special permits to visit the Kalash valleys. Permits are issued free of cost by the Deputy Commissioner, Chitral.
Garam Chashma (Hot Springs):
Garam Chashma has an elevation of 1859 meters (6,100 feet). It is 45 km North West of Chitral and takes 3 hours to reach by jeep. Visitors have to take a spectacular drive up the Latbo/Latkho River through deep and narrow gorges to reach this place. This unspoiled enchanting valley of orchards, verdant fields and snow clad peaks is renowned for its boiling Sulphur springs which are famous for healing effect on skin diseases, gout, rheumatism and chronic headaches. For the convenience of tourists "hamams" (baths) have been constructed near the springs. Foreign tourists are requested to pay a toll tax of Rs. 5.00 per person.
Birmoghlasht has an elevation of 2743 meters (9,900 feet) and is 15 km (9 miles) away. This mountain top towers over the Chitral town and worth visiting in this area is the fairy-tale summer palace of the Mahtar of Chitral (ex-ruler) perched at a height of 2743 meters (9,000 feet). It offers awe-inspiring views of Trichmir and panoramic vistas of the valleys below. The fort is approachable by both a narrow winding road and by foot as well. The quickest method to reach Birmoghlasht would be by foot or alternatively, one can hire a 'local' driver. These local drivers are renowned for maneuvering their vehicles through the narrowest of roads at incredibly high speeds for the road they are traveling on; quite a feat considering that the nearest thing close to the road may be a straight fall to the bottom of a valley or a fast moving, cracking, roaring river.
Shandur Polo Tournament:
The most exciting polo tournament of the entire Northern Areas is played on top of the Shandur Pass, almost 4000 meters above sea level; a place unique and exotic in itself surrounded by some of the most spectacular mountain scenery in the world. The event marks the annual rivalry between the polo teams of Gilgit and Chitral.
The Shandur Polo Tournament also has some added attractions for the visitors. These include a Golf tournament at the Shandur Golf ground, also reputedly the highest golf ground in the world; a trout fishing competition at the neighboring streams and takes abound with trout; other equestrian events and a festival of folk dances of the Northern Areas. The Shandur Polo Tournament offers much more than an ordinary festival stretching over five days and four nights.
The highlight of all festivals of course remains the final match between the Gilgit and Chitral polo teams. Polo is played here in its original state with a minimum of rules and provides a most colorful spectacle. Supporters of both sides travel long distances from the remote parts of Chitral and Gilgit areas in order to be present at the thrilling tournament. The event, as such, provides a fascinating insight into the lifestyle of the ordinary people of these regions. Their culture and indigenous customs are a delight to behold for the visitors.
Shandur offers crystal clear lakes, snow covered mountains and alpine flowers amidst vast stretches of green grass. A tourist village comprising tents and restaurant springs up during the tournament. This is usually a couple of days each year. The rest of the year, this area is a wilderness. Merchants from Chitral and Gilgit set up Souvenir and Folk craft shops. The tournament offers visitors an opportunity to mix with the locals of these areas as well.
There is also the all famous Chitrali Dance performed during this occassion. Traditionally, this dance used to be performed as a warm up before battles and also as a celebration after winning those battles. Because of this, this dance is only performed by men. The dance in itself is an elegant display of body maneouvering and twirling shoulders and arms performed by men in white Shalwar Qamees, Red Waistcoats and White Curled Hats that are referred to as Pakols in Afghanistan and Chitrali Hats in Pakistan.
Calendar of Polo Tournaments:
- Nowroze Polo Tournament, Gilgit (1-7 November every year)
- Shandur Polo Tournament (second week of July every year)
- Chitral Polo Tournament (...?...)
- Skardu and Khaplu Polo tournament (5-10 September every year)
The Shandur Top lies mid-way between Chitral and Gilgit on an un-metalled road traveling on which is quite an adventure in itself. The distance from either side, Chitral or Gilgit, to the Shandur Pass is approximately 168 km (105 miles).
Getting to Chitral or Gilgit is possible by air on a PIA Folker operated flight from Peshawar or Islamabad. There are daily flights but they are subject to weather and tourist planning tours by air must make allowance of at least a couple of days in their itineraries just in case the weather does not permit flights to operate.
Access to Chitral by Road:
Access to Chitral by road is either from Peshawar or from Islamabad. Both these routes join up in Swat from where you proceed via Dir over the 3200 meter high Lowari Pass and on to Chitral. Jeeps can be hired both at Chitral and Gilgit to finally end up at the Shandur Top. Whether you decide to go through Chitral or through Gilgit you will encounter superb mountain scenery complete with crystal clear waters of Northern Area Rivers. From the Chitral side it is certainly worthwhile for travelers to stop at Mastuj for the night. From Gilgit side travelers can stop for the right at Gupis.
The 3118 meter forested pass between Dir and Chitral is normally open to vehicles from June through at least October. Itís incredible how the weather beaten road scrambles over it, laboring in wide loops up the Dir side; and then plunging into Chitral in about 50 sphincter tightening switchbacks. It is roughly a 70 km or 3 1/2 hours drive between Dir town and Drosh on the Chitral side. However, don't be mistaken about this short distance. Visitors, for example travelling from Peshawar to Chitral, might have to travel for 14-15 hours before reaching their destination.
The summit of Lowari Top is mostly covered in clouds throughout the year. But lucky travellers can experience a breath taking view on both sides on a clear sunny day. There are high winds on the summit at all times which may not be enough to blow you off but are enough to carry away your hats or other small things so hold on tight to them. Upon reaching the summit, the visitor will find a humble stone made hut which acts as a customs checkpost and an adjacent Chai Khana (Tea Stall).
In early and late summer you may see gypsy Gujar families on the road with their tents and their belongings. A hole is in the mountainside on the south side is one end of a tunnel meant to go under the summit to make the crossing possible all year round. But there are technical and financial problems and it may never be finished.