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Chitral and the Hindu Kush

Published
July 1, 2021
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Map of Northern Pakistan, Kashmir and the Hindu Kush which runs between Kashmir and Afghanistan. North at top.

Map of the Chitral (or Chitrāl) Region, with addition of country names and location of the Lowari Tunnel and Zondrangram Valley. Background map data ©2018 Google. North at top.

THE majestic Hindu Kush mountain range is every mountaineer’s dream. In the east, it is part of the Pamir range where the borders of China, Pakistan-controlled Kashmir and Afghanistan meet. In the southwest, the mountains run through Pakistan and Afghanistan, merging with other mountain ranges in Iran. The highest peak is the 7,708-metre Tirich Mir near the Pakistan-Afghanistan border.

Tirich Mir overlooks the town of Chitral — which is pronounced with a long a, and thus also spelt Chitrāl — and sticks out from its surroundings by nearly four thousand metres. As a local landmark, Tirich Mir is hard to miss.

K2, the second-highest mountain in the world is also located near here in the Karakoram Range.

The region is stunningly beautiful but has suffered from the war in neighbouring Afghanistan and the sectarian violence in Pakistan. The Pakistani Taliban took control of the Swat Valley east of Chitral between 2007 and 2009, but apart from the Swat Valley, the region was considered a safe haven for trekkers until June 2013, when militants shot dead ten mountaineers at the Nanga Parbat base camp in Gilgit-Baltistan, an area east of the Swat Valley. Ever since, most countries have issued strict travel warnings for Pakistan. The country has itself become something of a police state, with many travel checks for its local inhabitants.

(I have a reference to a media story about the Nanga Parbat attack at the end of the present chapter, plus references to several other things as well.)

The Pakistani Taliban are the cousins of the religious extremists who took over Afghanistan in the late 1990s and harboured Osama Bin Laden, mastermind of the 9/11 attacks, who was eventually tracked down and killed by the Americans at Abottabad in Pakistan in 2011. Bin Laden’s safe house was located less than a mile from the Pakistan Military Academy, and it has been suggested that this almost ridiculous degree of proximity implied a degree of protection from elements in the Pakistan security Establishment, which had been unable to track him down. Certainly, it is true that the Pakistani Taliban have many sympathisers in sections of Pakistani society. And the Afghan border regions, historically known as the North-West Frontier, have been a Taliban stronghold, as they were of various fierce warrior societies and sects in the past. For instance, the legendary Khyber Pass, the subject of many a poem by people like Rudyard Kipling, is on the border of today’s Pakistan and Afghanistan. In Auckland, New Zealand, we have roads with names like Gilgit Road and Khyber Pass Road, a link with the days when Victorian armies were posted to what was then the North-West frontier of British India.

By staying fairly close to Chitral town and the peaks to its north, we were headed for what was supposedly still a fairly safe part of the local frontier-lands, an area that was very popular with Pakistani holidaymakers themselves.

(Having said that, it’s the foreigners who stick out the most. At the time of writing, the New Zealand travel advisory for the region featured a red triangle with an exclamation mark in it and the advice Do not travel, in bold letters, to anywhere that I’m going to talk about in this chapter, including Chitral. The rest of Pakistan merited an orange triangle with an exclamation mark in it. The Australian advisory was similar but classed the urban areas of Chitral and Gilgit and their environs as orange, though anywhere near the Afghan border was still red. Such is the situation. Chitral town itself has suffered a string of bomb attacks over the years, including some in 2018.) Travel insurance is something you need to re-check in dangerous regions, by the way. If your embassy says not to go there or to proceed with caution, there is a good chance your normal insurance cover won’t apply either.

I arrived a year after the Nanga Parbat attack. I was part of a team with Patricia Deavoll and Chris Todd, New Zealand’s best-known mountaineers. Pat was familiar with the region, as they had been there before. This time they were going to climb the Roshgol Glacier in the Hindu Kush from Chitral, and then attempt either of two unclimbed southern faces — the southeast face of Shakhawr (7,116 m) or the south face of Languta-e Barfi (6,827 m) — or both. Few expeditions have been up to the Roshgol, and none had previously reached the head of the glacier. This expedition was sponsored by several organisations, including Earth Sea Sky, Southern Approach, W. L. Gore, Back Country Cuisine and the New Zealand Alpine Club.

I first heard about the trek from Pat’s Facebook post. She was looking for people to accompany her and I thought, why not. Because of the conflict in Afghanistan, the local theatre of the so-called War on Terror, I felt it was important for me to visit Pakistan and see what this country was like for myself. There was so much hardship and poverty in that beautiful country already. Additionally, the spillover of conflict from Aghanistan had had a devastating impact, not only in the physical sense (with drone attacks), but also psychologically. I emailed Pat, and there it was — all done.

The trek was organised by Terichmir Travel, a trekking agency owned by the late Abdur Razaq, who was to perish in a flood in 2017. Abdur himself was to be our guide.

A family business based in the town of Chitral, Terichmir Travel has survived the loss of Abdur and remains in operation, at terichmirtravel.com. It is currently managed by Abdur’s nephew, Hussein Ahmed. The firm is named after Tirich Mir, the local landmark whose name can be spelt in various different ways. Even pre-Covid, I was that sure all those negative travel advisories couldn’t have been helping Abdur’s firm.

I was supposed to meet up with my climbing partner, David, but what with one thing and another, I wasn’t able to for a while. We finally caught up at Dubai airport and shared the same flight to Islamabad. I was mostly travelling on my New Zealand passport, but had applied for a visa to enter Pakistan on my UK passport. Razaq was anxious about this and thought my UK passport may land us in trouble. He said the UK was perceived as an aggressor nation, unlike New Zealand, and so we were to be prepared for surprises.

As I was in Pakistan, I thought I would be required to wear a head scarf in accordance with conservative Muslim traditions, yet no such request was ever made of me. I still wore my scarf, but many people thought I looked like a bride. I was wearing the churidar-kurta I had bought in India — the kurta was a knee-length top with elbow-length sleeves and the churidar was a fitting pair of trousers with the kurta over the top. There was an issue with this outfit, but it wasn’t the headscarf. It was the bare forearms, common enough in India but apparently too revealing by Pakistani standards. In the end, I bought a jacket with longer sleeves and a dress in Chitral.

From Chitral, we had a six-hour drive to Zondrangram. It’s a beautiful place at the junction of the Tirich and Roshgol rivers, close to the Afghan border. We received a rapt welcome upon arrival in Zondrangram and stayed two nights at the home of Professor Rehmat Karam Baig, an expert on the cultures of Chitral, who also operate the tour guiding firm Hindu Kush Adventure Guides. Professor Baig has written several books on the Hindu Kush, and even one on the misrepresentation of Islam by extremists.

We talked about Pakistan, and I learnt that Pakistan is a mostly Sunni Muslim country with a Shi’a Muslim minority. The Sunni and Shi’a are the two main branches of Islam. In Islam, there are also the Isma’ili, followers of a historical imam named Isma’il, who are frequently thought of as a third branch though they are actually an offshoot of the Shia; and Sufi, who are not so much an actual theological branch as rather the practitioners of a mystical form of worship that involves trances and meditation. The name Sufi comes from the Arabic word for wool, a common garment of hermits. There are also many other religious and ethnic minorities in Pakistan, including the Kalash, whom I was soon to meet in Chitral.

When the Taliban went through Chitral, girls couldn’t go to school. But all the women in Professor Baig’s family were university-educated and spoke three languages in addition to the Pakistani official language of Urdu; which is much the same as the Hindi spoken in much of India but written in a flowing Arabic/Persian script rather than in the Indian script known as Devanagari, the one where all the letters have a line on top.

(People whose first language is English often forget that in many countries, even people who aren’t as well-educated as the Baigs often speak several languages, including English, in ways that make it easy for English-speakers to travel!)

Professor Baig was concerned about how poverty was becoming a problem in his village. Many educated villagers could not find work. He had four sons and a daughter who was yet to be married. He joked that he would get his daughter married once she learnt to milk a cow. He had a big house, and his family took great care of us. We had gooseberries and tea and met with people who lived in the area and cultivated fruit.

Hindu Kush: Base Camp and Mountain Views

Scenes from Town

The Trek Team: Pat and Chris are in the lower photo

Flowers in the rocks, and a view of Languta-e Barfi

Zondrangram

Meanwhile, thirty porters were preparing for the trek. Professor Baig’s son, Irshadul Haq, was our base camp manager, our cook was Hayat Ahmad, and Naseeruddin was the cook’s assistant.

Our trek was to last four weeks and cost $2,000 each.

Rather heroically, Hayat Ahmad and Naseeruddin were to prepare food for the expedition during the month-long Islamic fast and time of reflection known locally as Ramzan, which overlapped with our four-week expedition.

Known in Arabic and in the West as Ramadan, Ramzan is the ninth month of the Islamic year. The Islamic year follows a timetable based on the moon. It comprises twelve months each of approximately 29 to 30 days duration, from new moon to new moon each time.

For this reason, the Islamic calendar doesn’t map directly onto the ordinary sort of calendar year, which is defined by the sun’s maximum elevation in the sky at various dates and thus called a solar year. Each month of a solar year falls in the same season and in the same relation to the solstices and equinoxes as the years repeat, so that December is always in the middle of winter in the Northern Hemisphere for example. The Islamic year is known, similarly, as a lunar year, a year in which the months follow the moon rather than the sun.

In most countries, the solar year has twelve months too. But the months have generally been made a bit longer in order to keep pace with the sun. Every solar year, Ramadan begins about eleven days earlier on average, as do all the Islamic months and the Islamic year itself.

In fact, both kinds of calendar are used in Muslim countries. But the solar calendar is understood to be for mundane purposes such as working out when to plant the crops, while sacred dates and important commemorations are in the lunar calendar.

From Zondrangram, it was a two-day walk to the base camp. We trekked to Duru (3,350 m). In fact, I beat all the porters to the Duru camp, and they couldn’t believe it. They didn’t like being outdone by a woman. But I had just done five months of hiking and was pretty fit.

We then headed to Kotgaz where we pitched our tent for the night. This was to be our base camp for the next month. The views of Languta-e Barfi and Koh-e Langar (7,070 m) were spectacular. To the west was Udren Zom (7,131 m), Shakhawr, and to the east, Saraghrar (7,349 m).

Kotgaz provided summer grazing for the village. And so, we were hemmed in by 7,000-metre mountains in the distance and cattle on the ground. I noticed the impacts of deforestation. People had chopped down trees and the bare rocks were exposed.

Pat got sick that night from the watermelon she had eaten earlier that day. But being a seasoned mountaineer and an experienced traveller, she was carrying her medication.

The men danced by the fire at the camp. One of the men had some low-grade marijuana which I tried smoking. It wasn’t nice. Pat was horrified when she heard what I did, and we joked about it. The next morning, Pat and Chris left for their trek. David and I had to figure out our route.

Professor Baig visited us at the base camp and told me about the snow melt and warned that it could be dangerous. It was a good warning because I was not inclined to do anything that would endanger my life.

A climbing partner is very important for every trek. It’s a relationship of trust and understanding. As Pat points out in her book, Wind from a Distant Summit, the right partner leads to a higher degree of success and a good climbing relationship increases the chances of survival if things go wrong.

David was an interesting guy. He was a dairy farmer and told us how he left his land in Zimbabwe and come to New Zealand. In fact, he got along well with the local people who were mostly of the Pashtun ethnic group, the second largest in today’s Pakistan, and they discussed their cattle. Some of the cows were sick and they would bring their cows for grazing. People would pick herbs which were used for medicinal purposes.

Many herbs from this area have been officially recorded by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) as having strong medicinal effects: anti-epileptic, anti-diabetic, blood-pressure-lowering, cholesterol-lowering, wound-healing-promoting, possible anti-cancer activity, antimicrobial, anti-fungal and anti-viral, anti-inflammatory, good for stomach ulcers and good for the liver. In short, to employ a familiar expression, some of the old wives’ tales about herbal remedies are true.

David and I had our differences. For the five days while we were to decide on our trek, David sat around the camp reading books. Finally, we went to a nearby valley to practise some of our mountaineering skills. We simply did not get on. And David didn’t seem very fit. Despite this, we managed to trek as high as 5,500 metres on one of the routes to the glaciers.

We had agreed, beforehand, that we would climb to 4,800 m and camp so that the next day we could go up to 5,500 m and head back down. Unfortunately, David changed the plan unilaterally and decided to go ahead and camp at a different place. It didn’t feel good, and it was difficult for me to trust him.

He reached the 5,500 metre target ahead of me and then rushed down saying it was too far and that I shouldn’t bother. I didn’t listen to him and went ahead by myself.

David and I were meant to go further still, but I remembered Professor Baig’s warning about the snow melt. We had no satellite phones nor avalanche transceivers (or beacons, not to be confused with personal locator beacons which we didn’t have either). If anything happened to either or both of us, the chances of rescue were dim.

Besides, I was carrying a very heavy tent and David hadn’t brought my bivvy bag: an alternative, lightweight accommodation for sleeping in. It was going to be too much hard work in thin air to hump the tent for another day onward and upward.

But what really changed my mind about pressing on was the fact that the very day after we’d gone to 5,500 metres and back, there was an avalanche onto the section of trail we’d been on the day before!

I decided I couldn’t risk my life any longer, and that it was better to head back to the base camp. David, of course, never forgave me for this. But unfortunately, this was a decision I had to take, and I have no regrets. I thought about Pat and Chris and was worried for their safety as well. They were due to arrive the day after we reached the base camp, but there was no sign of them. I asked David and the cooks to look for them while I stayed at the camp by myself.

Trekking, with David and a goat (for fresh food)

Resting — and snowy vistas

While I was at the camp, I had an interesting encounter with a middle-aged shepherd with two wives who propositioned me. He told me of his two wives who he described in less than flattering ways. He thought I was strong and then proceeded to ask if he could sleep in my tent with me. In hindsight it was hilarious, but at the time I was a bit concerned. I declined and politely told him to take his cattle to his village or I would speak to Professor Baig. Later, two shepherds came by and slept outside my tent on the rocks, presumably for my safety.

To express my gratitude, I thought it would be good to share a meal with them. I had some dried food packets that I was living on for a month — roast lamb with potatoes — that I had carried from New Zealand. We also had a green vegetable that was locally available. But then it occurred to me that sheep-meat with potatoes and a local green was probably something they ate all the time. So, I offered a fish dish, drinking chocolate and cornflake biscuits to my guests. We swapped dinner. I had their tea and bread. They loved my meal and I enjoyed myself that evening and went back to my tent and they to the rocks.

I spent almost a month in the base camp and one day it occurred to me that I hadn’t come to the Pakistan to see only mountains. I wanted to meet more people and understand the culture. Two of the boys at the camp walked with me to Professor Baig’s house in Zondrangram. It was a Friday, and I was asked to stay with the women in a big room. I had a long, flowing dancing skirt which I had bought in Agra. I gave it to one of the girls, but she just whipped it away. I guess they’re not allowed to dance or wear flashy clothes. I showed the girls my tattoo and they were surprised. Salman, one of the boys in the house, later told me that the girls all wanted to be like me. But I must say, the girls were all educated and seemed happy. They taught me to make chapatti over a dirt fire, and I had dinner with the family.

Salman also asked me about his brother Irshadul, our camp manager. He wasn’t just enquiring about Ishad’s well-being, he wanted to know if Ishad was reading the Qur’an and praying, as it was the month of Ramzan. I found it a bit weird that he was checking on his brother, and there was no way I was going to tell on anyone. “Who are you” I asked, “the Muslim Brotherhood?” I slept there that night, and the next day I decided to take a jeep to Chitral. They all walked me to the vehicle to say goodbye.

It was a shared vehicle with other passengers. I was surprised to find that everyone in the jeep spoke perfect English and there was an architect amongst them. They were surprised to see me as well. By now, my scarf was back on my head. I asked them to drop me at the Tirich Mir Hotel. I relaxed that evening and had chicken for dinner. The next day I was sick — a bad bout of food poisoning which lasted for two days and two nights.

When I felt better, I decided to walk to the town to get some hair dye and Nivea cream. I didn’t want to look like a bride anymore and got myself a long dress with long sleeves and a different scarf. I walked past an army scout, and he looked at me. In fact, he followed me to my hotel and informed the local administration. Soon, an armed guard arrived at the hotel and insisted he stay in my room, so I would have an armed escort. I went to the reception and told the people.

I wasn’t comfortable with having some strange guy with a gun in my room and asked to see his boss. I met the head of the army scouts, who was angry that I did not want any guards.

Pretty soon the issue was escalated all the way up to the governor of the province, whom I was taken to meet! He said it was my choice if I wanted to be under armed guard, but that if my life were threatened in any way, he would not be able to do anything about it if I were without a guard. And worse, should anything untoward happen, he would lose his position and pension. With him was a man who appeared to be a conservative mullah, for he declined to shake my hand. The governor also talked about his sons who were studying in Melbourne. In the end, I didn’t want to be rude, so I asked for a policewoman to be my guard. Problem solved!

I met the head of the policewomen and was assigned a policewoman called Zaina, who came from the Kalash minority, sometimes also written as Kalasha.

Zaina was thirty-three. She had been a well-known dancer when she was around sixteen years of age. I noticed that she wasn’t carrying a gun.

The Kalash live in a region that is often called the crossroads of the world. While some local populations look East Asian, and others are of Indian appearance, others such as the Kalash seem more European. Thus, the region appears to have been populated in prehistoric times from the east, from the south, and from the west. Historically recorded influxes of religions and invaders have come from several directions as well.

Traditionally, the Kalash were said to be descended from Alexander the Great’s Macedonian-Greek army. There is no hard evidence for that claim. But certainly, there is no doubt that this is a region where a wide variety of wandering tribes, invading armies and missionaries of different religions have all ended up.

There are affinities of language across the miles, too. Surprisingly enough, both English and the Kalash language belong to the so-called Indo-European family of languages, spoken in native terms over a vast area of Europe and Southern and Central Asia, along with more recent colonial extensions in the form of English, Spanish, French and Portuguese to practically every corner of the globe.

Another member of the Indo-European family which has been very influential in spreading its words around, via overland routes throughout southern and central Asia, is Persian or Farsi, the majority language of Iran.

Persian words pop up everywhere in central and south Asia, the most familiar being stan as the suffix for a name of country. Like its near-identical Spanish equivalent estan, the Persian suffix stan means ‘are’. Thus, Afghanistan means ‘Are Afghans’ and Tajikistan means ‘Are Tajiks’, while Pakistan literally means ‘Are Pure’.

Even Nepali is an Indo-European language, near the extreme eastern end of the family’s original range; though Sherpa is not, being of the family that contains Tibetan and Chinese instead.

About half the Kalash continue to follow their own religion, which some scholars consider to be a unique form of ancient Hinduism. Followers of this old religion are notable for believing in peri, a Persian word for fairy-like entities who are held, by followers of the old Kalash religion, to live in the mountains and occasionally descend to the meadows.

As I mentioned in Chapter One, the Kalash are also Pakistan’s smallest ethnic community; the believers in the old Kalash religion are Pakistan’s smallest religious community as well. Zaina’s parents were working hard to build a house. Her boyfriend was also in the police, and they were both training.

I was curious about life in the barracks, and she told me that policewomen lived in the barracks with their children. I was impressed. She also spoke about her sister who had married a Greek Orthodox guy and was hoping to get to Greece at some stage. During my tour, I had met a Kalash woman and given her some money for her children. Zaina said I didn’t have to do that, but I felt bad for the children. I also had a tour guide who was a staunch Sunni and believed that everyone should accept Islam, much like the born-again Christians in New Zealand. He even wanted me convert to Islam and made several attempts, but each time I politely declined.

I was encouraged to see that the Kalash women were doing well. I visited the Bumboret Museum, which was headed by a female archaeologist, Sayed Gul Kalash. I also noticed that there were other women working in the museum and government offices. Many of them were wearing their traditional head gear, though some were wearing scarves over the head gear.

On the other hand, I also encountered symbols of ancient feudalism. We went to a castle and met the prince who lived there. He owned land and was very wealthy.

There were no land reforms in the region and feudalism festered on. There is not much access to contraception, either. On the other hand, the ancient plagues that used to keep the population down even in the absence of contraception have been tamed here, as they have in most other countries. So, the population growth is phenomenal, and the cities are booming.

Along with their rural estates, the princes and other castle-dwellers also own most of the good land in the cities of Pakistan. They consequently profit from modern urban growth, even though they have done little to cause it other than by denying their people family planning.

Chitral Area: Kalash in traditional dress speaking to Zaina (left), and Zaina with two men (right)

With Kalash people and Zaina

I met another guy who was an Isma’ili Muslim, the sub-group of the Shi’a that I mentioned before. He told me the story of how polo was brought to Pakistan in 1936 by the British. Even today, an annual polo festival is held here, and the Shandur Top is known to be the highest polo ground in the world. He complained that Pakistan had become something of a police state because of terrorism and objected to the fact that he needed a pass to travel in his own country. Each time he wanted to go up the road, he had to give the pass to the police.

On the other hand, there were good reasons for these precautions. The Taliban were notoriously intolerant of religious differences, it goes without saying, and the Isma’ili were in their gunsights. In Chitral town, buildings belonging to members of the Isma’ili sect had been blown up six years before.

The town’s Shi’a mosque had also been destroyed. For, the Taliban also had it in for Shi’a in general, even though the Shi’a constitute a really major branch of the Muslim religion, and not just the smaller, weaker and more easily persecuted Isma’ili community in particular.

The dangers faced by the Kalash were, if anything, even worse. Some of the Kalash are Muslims, but the ones who venerate peri, or who practice one or other of the ‘wrong’ sorts of Islam, have also suffered considerable persecution by Muslim zealots since the 1970s. The distinctive national costumes of Kalash women also fly in the face of the extremists’ rather dismal ideas of what females should wear.

In February 2014, one of the leaders of the Pakistani Taliban overtly declared an “armed struggle,” as he put it, against those Kalash who resisted conversion to a Taliban-approved religion.

This was reason to be fearful indeed, as the Pakistani Taliban has carried out a series of extraordinarily brutal attacks, which have not received much publicity in the West but are certainly known to the Pakistanis.

Attacks such as the Peshawar School Massacre in December 2014, the same year I was in Chitral, in which 150 died, including at least 134 school pupils and the seven gunmen themselves as the authorities closed in.

As you might expect, there seems to be no basis for that kind of atrocity in the holy books of the Muslim religion. Even on the differences of religion about which the Taliban are so obsessive, what the Qur’an says, in an English translation of a key passage, is that:

“If God had so willed, he would have made all of you one community, but he has not done so, in order that he may test you according to what He has given you; so, compete in goodness. To God you shall return, and He will tell you the truth about what you have been disputing.” (Sura 5, verse 48)

Passages such as this have often been interpreted by Muslim rulers as meaning that tolerance should be extended to other organised religions. Above all to Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism, which along with Islam have long formed a cluster of rather similar and mutually cross-pollinating faiths. But also, very often, edicts of tolerance were applied to Hinduism and Buddhism as well.

Religions that had more of the character of folklore were not granted as much respect; though, there were still strictures against forced conversion.

Injunctions to be respectful in peacetime were accompanied by codes of chivalry for times of war. Muslims are commanded never to be the one who starts a fight, and to always retaliate proportionately.

How do you get the Taliban, and ISIS, from that? It is true that these extremists wrap themselves in the mantle of religion, as did the witch-finders of Christendom in Shakespeare’s day. But then again, as Shakespeare wrote: “The Devil can cite scripture for his purpose.”

The late Abdur Razaq told me that despite its outward religiosity, the Taliban was “just a gang.”

Or maybe a cult. Perhaps that is the best way of looking at it.

Certainly, it seems to be a general rule that cult members are indeed capable of just about any extremity.

Take, for instance, the ones who killed themselves in the belief that their spirits would ascend to Comet Hale-Bopp. It has been said that such people go crazy in groups and regain their common sense one at a time. That is if their foolishness does not get themselves killed, of course.

To date, no huge massacre has been inflicted on the Kalash. But the danger was obviously real.

My Isma’ili companion gave me food and perfume and seemed to have developed a romantic attachment to me. But if so, it was unrequited. I went back to my hotel and waited for Pat, Chris and David to arrive.

Pat and Chris broke the news that had not been able to summit Languta-e Barfi. They made it up to 6,130 metres and were only two hundred metres from the summit, but the weather was bad with low visibility and temperatures of minus 25 degrees Celsius. Going ahead would have meant spending the night in the bad weather, so they decided to turn back.

Pat told me that she had enjoyed herself and that they would have spent another night on the mountain, had the weather permitted. But she also says that she is not “summit-driven” anymore. In her words, as recorded by a journalist, “I relish the experience more than the summit.”

That was quite a cool thing to say, for when Pat and Chris were attempting to climb it, Languta-e Barfi was only ever known to have been summited three times, first in 1963 and then twice in 1973, in all three cases from the north or the north-west. Pat and Chris would have been only the fourth team known to have summited the mountain and, of course, the first to climb it from the south.

In town, it was interesting to hear the perceptions of the locals. We had used the internet in cafés, and soon learned that word about a group of foreigners in Chitral was spreading. Which was a bit of a worry in a place that kept attracting the attention of the Taliban.

Though the Taliban didn’t seem to be very popular as such, a lot of local people seemed to think that there was too much Western influence in the region, all the same.

I tried to bring up the issue of who the Taliban really were: that is to say, apart from being a gang or a cult. Some people told me the Taliban comprised five groups, and that they had not emerged out of thin air, but had shadowy backers dating all the way back to the days when the Americans first organised a guerrilla force to fight the Soviets in 1980s Afghanistan. Other alleged backers included India and China. Certainly, I know that ties with Pakistan’s own security forces have also been very frequently alleged; although the children murdered in Peshawar were attending a school that was actually run by the military. Others insisted that it is in India’s interest to have a destabilised Pakistan.

We also made some conversation about the neighbouring region of Kashmir, divided between India, Pakistan and China, and I heard it was easy for Pakistanis to get into the Indian-controlled part of Kashmir. They just had to bribe the Indian army. Apparently, the price was not too high; though then again, that might have just been some sort of joke!

Most of the people I spoke to agreed that they wanted a democracy and were sick of the war. While I was there, the people were also discussing how best to clear out the last dangerous parts of the Chitral Valley and make it entirely free of terrorists.

The talk of the town was a penitent Taliban veteran who had come out of the wars with four wives and thirty children to look after. Now that he had sworn off sustaining his new tribe by means of plunder and booty, he wanted the government to help support his rehabilitation and that of others like him.

I also heard of a Greek Orthodox Christian who had built a house in the area. His house was raided by the Taliban, who kidnapped him and took him away. It seems he knew that he was going to be kidnapped and had, maybe, resigned himself to martyrdom. After his fortunate release, he decided to leave the country.

On our way back to Islamabad from Chitral, we were accompanied by armed escorts once again. This time, we wanted to take a shorter route. We decided to try the Lowari Tunnel, which was then under construction (it was formally opened three years later, in July 2017). The Lowari Tunnel gives year-round access to Chitral, which is otherwise cut off by road from the rest of Pakistan, and indeed the world, in winter. Here’s a video I filmed, which helps to explain why. The old road in was actually pretty scary in places.

We met the manager in charge of the tunnel and asked him about life in the region. He told us of the dangers and how his family could not live with him for fear that they could be kidnapped by the Taliban. He treated us to cappuccino and in the end allowed us to pass through the incomplete tunnel. Pat says getting permission to go through the incomplete tunnel probably had something to do with our visitor status and the fact that we had an armed escort. She also attributes it to my powers of persuasion. Driving half an hour through a dark tunnel with wet, unsealed, rock walls was quite an experience. We reached Islamabad, where I flew out.

I was impressed with Pakistan. The scenery was breathtakingly beautiful, and the people are amongst the most kind, caring and peaceful that I have ever met. It was a tragedy to see the devastation that the war had inflicted on the region and the fall in tourism and financial support that had come about as a result. I would like to return to the country someday.

Notes

Nanga Parbat attack: Taliban say new faction killed climbers. (2013, June 24). BBC News. Retrieved from bbc.com/news/world-asia-23027031.

The website of Hindu Kush Adventure Guides is hindukushadventureguide.com. Note that it is singular in the URL. There is a page about Professor Baig’s books on the website.

Patricia Deavoll’s Wind from a Distant Summit is published by Craig Potton Publications, Nelson, New Zealand, 2011.

On the human use of Chitral-region herbs and Pakistani herbs more generally, see Aftab Saeed, ‘Medical, culinary and aromatic plants in Pakistan’, accessed 2 December 2018 on URL: fao.org/docrep/x5402e/x5402e15.htm.

Regarding the Taliban commander’s February 2014 declaration of “armed struggle” against the Kalash, see Agence France-Presse, ‘Pakistan’s polytheistic Kalash tribe threatened with death by Taliban’, The Guardian (UK), 13 February 2014, at theguardian.com/global/2014/feb/13/pakistan-taliban-video-warning-chitral-valley, accessed 29 June 2021.

On the Peshawar school massacre, see the Encyclopaedia Britannica entry, at britannica.com/event/Peshawar-school-massacre, accessed 29 June 2021.

“If God had so willed . . .”. For the source of this translation see PBS, ‘Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet’, at pbs.org/muhammad/ma_otherrel.shtml, accessed 27 June 2021.

“I relish the experience more than the summit”: In Andrew Stone. (2016, January 9), ‘Battling her way to the very top’. New Zealand Herald. Accessed 22 June 2021 on: nzherald.co.nz/nz/news/article.cfm?c_id=1&objectid=11571109 .

For Patricia Deavoll’s account of her 2014 climb on Languta-e Barfi with Chris Todd, see: publications.americanalpineclub.org/articles/13201213380/Languta-e-Barfi-South-Face-Attempt, accessed 22 June 2021.

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