Chitral, Pakistan – serenity untouched

Chitral, Pakistan

Chitral, Pakistan

The scantily clad mountain would be calling to my soul – all she wore was a shear ice thin chamois yearning to have my eyes upon her – and there she was; Tirich Mir – the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush region of Northern Pakistan. I would gaze upon her from afar – seemingly infinite in distance as I sat on my balcony at the Hindukush Heights Hotel in Chitral enjoying my glass of freshly squeezed apple juice. I could hear the gentle sound of the river rushing through the path it had formed through the rocks centuries ago while I awaited the call to breakfast.

I had never imagined that a region surrounded by war ridden areas could have been so peaceful.

I have spoken about Chitral endlessly since my trip in 2008. I’ve called and e-mailed people, blogged about it, shared pictures and even dedicated a vast majority of my facebook status updates to this incredible valley. I was so mesmerized by the beauty of the place that I simply had to return. A friend’s wedding gave me the opportunity to go back with a group of 25 friends. The people, culture, food, views and freshness were the ideal break I had been craving away from the rush of city life in London. There was no rush hour, no fast food, no deadlines, no bills and most importantly no Internet connection. While I have done my best to share my experience, in reality my experience transcends the eloquence of these words.

“Cold cliffs, more beautiful the deeper you enter – Yet no one travels this road. White clouds idle about the tall crags; On the green peak a single monkey wails. What other companions do I need?”

This poem by Han-Shah gets close to describing the emotions we felt when going to Chitral.

Chitral is the name of a tribe, town, valley, river, district and former princely state in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province of Pakistan. The town, at the foot of Tirich Mir, the highest peak of the Hindu Kush Mountains, which is 25,289 feet, has a population of 20,000 (while the district has a population of 300,000) and the altitude of the valley is 3,700 feet. The unfortunate truth is that Pakistanis tend to make quick getaway trips to Dubai and Bangkok but can be somewhat unwilling to explore their own country and I have become determined to recommend this valley now that I have experienced it myself.

What I found most interesting about the region was that unlike the rest of Pakistan where cricket dominates all, Polo is the most popular sport in Chitral. The valley is known for its famous Shandur Polo tournament, which is held at the highest polo ground in the world. We had the honor of meeting Sikander Ulmulk, the Captain of the Chitrali Polo team as well. I actually didn’t know this at the time but General Zia Ul Haq, my Grandfather, was the one who inaugurated and introduced the Shandur Polo tournament in Chitral, which was only played as a hobby prior to that. The polo matches are enthusiastic, intense, have no rules, and are extremely thrilling to watch.

Hindukush Heights Hotel - Please get in touch with me at omarulhaq@gmail.com if you would me to put you in touch with Siraj Ulmulk to learn more about holidaying in Chitral.

Hindukush Heights Hotel - Please get in touch with me at omarulhaq@gmail.com if you would me to put you in touch with Siraj Ulmulk to learn more about holidaying in Chitral.

Siraj & Ghazala Ulmulk are the proud owners of Hindukush Heights Hotel, which is situated in the middle of Chitral. The Hotel has twenty-four bedrooms and each bedroom has a balcony with panoramic views of the entire valley. The Ulmulk family attends to each guest personally and often accompanies them on their adventures around the region, making their experience even more memorable and intimate. The fresh water served in the hotel comes from a mountain spring, which is better than any bottled water we are apt to drinking and the vegetables served in the hotel come from the UlMulk’s own organic vegetable garden. Strategically, Hindukush Heights Hotel is located in a complete noise & pollution free zone, and is about a 15-minute drive away from the town centre.

The flight to Chitral was one of the most enthralling parts of the trip. The twenty of us walked towards the diminutive airplane and were initially shocked as we stared at the two-step ladder leading into it. The entire journey from Islamabad to Chitral seemed dreamlike as we flew through the mountains and snowy peaks of Tirich Mir before descending down to the stunning valley.

As we reached the hotel, we were welcomed with chilli omelettes, a variety of fruit & cereals, and a great selection of juices just before we were given the keys to our individual rooms. It was surreal to look up and see the clear, perfect blue sky as we walked to our rooms downstairs. Although the rooms were clean, simple, large, surrounded with rugs and decorations from the valley, and just perfect, I was mostly interested in the balcony, which had an uninterrupted view of Chitral’s beauty. I put my bags down, lit up a Dunhill Light, and just sat there in silence while staring at what seemed to be a dream.

Although we had been awake since the early hours of the morning and were exhausted, we quickly showered, changed and were eager and ready to begin our adventure. We jumped in our open jeeps and drove through the narrow roads to make our way to the trout farm. Our fishing trip was followed by a freshly-served meal we devoured while lounging around the banks of the river. As we continued our journey, we drove towards Tushi with the hope of seeing the highly endangered Markhor Mountain Goats come down from the mountain slopes. Markhor Mountain Goats, which are the national animal of Pakistan, tend to come down to the river to drink water in the late afternoons. Luckily, we were able to see about a hundred of them sprint their way down the mountain, which was a truly fascinating sight.

Kalashi Girls shying away from my camera
Kalashi Girls shying away from my camera
Personally, I was most excited about the next day, as Hindukush Heights Hotel had arranged for us to go to the Kalash Valley. Following a peaceful night of deep child-like sleep, I jumped out of bed to get ready and was psyched for the next escapade. We drove for about two hours on a mountainous road into the walnut-laden valleys of Rumbur, Bumburet, and Birir in the hopes of experiencing the Kalash culture, which is markedly different from any other in Pakistan. The Kalash people are descendants of the Indo-Aryans and the Greeks acknowledge them as descendents of Alexander the Great’s army, who stayed in Pakistan after he left in 420BC. They are nature-worshippers and believe in Dezau (Khodai), their creator, and other Gods and spirits each of whom have their own set of responsibilities. Traditionally, the deceased are buried above ground in carved wooden sacrophagis and are left in graveyards for the vultures to come and feast upon them. We first went to the graveyard to see the skeletons and bones of the departed and were amazed at how these rituals, traditions, and culture continues to exist in Pakistan. Then, as we met some of the families and were welcomed into their homes, we personally witnessed and experienced their warmth, kindness, and generosity.

Our next venture was by far the scariest, yet most thrilling, thing I have ever done in my life. The twenty-five of us decided to go on a ‘trek’ and ended up walking from the Kalash Mountain pass to Ayun village, which took about five hours. As exciting as the trek was for all of us, there were definitely some near-death experiences since hardly any of us had been on a trek before. All in all, it was worth the risk and danger as we all felt extremely accomplished when we reached Ayun and were treated to an exquisite Chitrali meal and a local folk dancing and singing.

As we stared into the sky and watched the hundreds of shooting stars above the hotel, we decided to travel to Mastuj the next morning since we were eager to see another part of the region in order to make the most out of our trip. Mastuj is a town of Chitral District and is approximately a four-hour jeep ride away from Hindukush Heights Hotel. The Ulmulks are originally from Mastuj and have built a number of beautiful chalets as an extension of the hotel over there. Luckily, we were also able to experience a ‘Shtuck’ while we were in Mastuj as someone had just gotten married. The shtuck is a celebration in which all the Chitrali men and women from the neighborhood gather to sing, chant, and dance together. It was an extremely powerful and moving experience for us as everyone seemed genuine, carefree, and content with life as well as being quite humble. We were so moved by this experience that instead of spending the night in the chalets, we decided to move our mattresses out to the garden to properly absorb the beauty around us as we lay awake all night. We were just in awe of the people, the culture, and the district and couldn’t believe that there were people who are actually worried about their safety before coming here.

On our drive from Chitral to Mastuj
On our drive from Chitral to Mastuj

All of us on the trip left Chitral with memories that will remain in our hearts for a long time. While I am aware that the details of our itinerary may not convey the beauty of this valley, the warmth of the people or the feeling of peace it instilled within us, I hope some of the pictures will enable you to visualize what I have attempted to describe. I’m back in London for now and have re-adjusted to the bright lights, crowded trains, prawn cocktail sandwiches, and the endless conference calls at work – until my next trip to Chitral.

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17 comments

  1. Shaza Haq · · Reply

    I am certainly going to Chitral with my husband after Ramadan. Please arrange it for us. It seems like a dreamlike place and we are very lucky to have a place like this in Pakistan. Your words are magical in describing the valley and Inshallah we will go soon.

  2. What a beautiful narration – Contrary to what you have said, you make the place and events seem much better than they are. This article of yours is all over the internet and those who have seen it (courtesy of Google Blog) have been forwarding it to me since yesterday. I have recieved it from many friends in different parts of the world. It’s great!

    – Lucky Chitrali

  3. Oms,

    One of your best pieces yet – well written and eloquent. I’m now dying to go to Chitral and be able to experience the beauty, sights, and people of the area.

  4. It is so great to see Pakistan’s beauty highlighted. With all the negative press, one forgets what a beautiful country we have. You are giving us all Chitral fever!

  5. Great post! We should plan a family trip here next time we’re all in Pakistan together. Put up more pictures and go easy on the prawn cocktail sandwiches 😉

  6. Wow, that is beautiful OUH! I feels like I just went there myself!

  7. Wow. Excellent work, OUH. The more I read about Chitral, the hotel, the vistas and your experiences, the more I want to go there as well! And you are absolutely right, many of us take for granted the beauty Pakistan has to offer, and instead chose to ignore it and travel elsewhere. Chitral seems like a must visit for anyone. InshaAllah next time I am in Pakistan, I’ll arrange for a trip there with my parents. And I have met the UlMulks, and I know they are absolutely the best hosts you can have.

  8. Sounds like an amazing trip, I used to hear from my Grandfather how great the valleys were back in the day… Maybe when we’re in Pakistan next we can spend a weekend there …

  9. Thanks for sharing this with us, Omar. There is so much beauty in my own country that I have not witnessed as yet. I’m inspired to visit Chitral on my next visit.

  10. Ijaz Ul Haq · · Reply

    This is amazing, OUH. Excellent narration of your experience. You are very good at marketing and can describe your emotions well. I can’t believe I have not been to Chitral yet as you never took us with you. I’ll go there soon and enjoy the beauty!

  11. Mehnaz Ulmulk · · Reply

    Nostalgic is only a fraction of what I felt when I read this article.I think of home,family and all those little things you’ve talked about that bring ‘serenity’ to our lives in Chitral.
    I’m glad that Chitral was the get away you have been longing for and I hope that the mountains will lure you back for years to come.

  12. WoW! Super well written article Omar – really want to go visit Chitral as soon as possible! You make the place sound so peaceful and exciting.

  13. Zainab Alam · · Reply

    I have been going to Chitral every summer since i was born. At first it was with my parents and now I take my kids there. I guess i have been taking it for granted but its facinating everytime i have been up with friends to see it all over again through different eyes…

    We had a memorable trip after my sister’s wedding and thanks OUH for documenting it.

    For anyone who would be interested in going there or would like any information on the Hotel and different packages, please feel free to email me zainabulmulk@gmail.com

  14. Maleeha Ali · · Reply

    After my wedding in August last year my husband and I went up to Chitral with about 20 of our friends. Apart from Siraj Ulmulk’s Daugther, Omar (my husband) and I, everyone else in our group was either English /Australian/French/Jamaican and therefore their trip to Pakistan was their first ever. Having read Palin… Read More’s Himalayan adventures and guide books, everyone was keen to visit Chitral but due to holiday limitations and work schedules not everyone who came to Pakistan could make it. Those who did, decided within minutes that having been to Lahore, Nathiagali, Islamabad and Chitral the latter was their favourite. Our visit was in summary, incredible, and my biggest regret was not having been there before. It made me proud as a Pakistani to “show off” Chitral to our guests who were truly amazed by the magnificence of the mountains, the beauty of the valley and the splendour of sites such as the mosques and forts that we visited. Not to forget, the hospitality of the Ul Mulks was exemplary. Included within our group were a couple with 2 children ages 2 and 5 who we were initially abit worried about but they loved their trip so much they decided to stay on in Chitral for an extra night! When we landed back in Islamabad, a friend… Read More’s mother who had been on our trip thanked us and said that the visit to Chitral was for her, one of the most wonderful experiences of her life.

    A month later when we were all back and the Marriott hotel was bombed, Omar and I received loads of emails from our friends who all said that having had an incredible trip they felt really sad to see that a country so beautiful and with so much to offer was being ripped apart by terrorism and corruption.

    Even now, when we meet our friends everyone still talks about Chitral and how they would like to go back soon. For those of you who havent been, I cant stress enough what an amazing experience it is especially for people who live in Pakistan as its such an easy trip, being just a short flight from Islamabad.

  15. Had to show the photos to my kids who know nothing other then the city of Khi when it comes to our country…yes yes purely our fault. They were so surprised! Thanks for sharing your experience …

  16. Dude Im getting nostalgic reading your piece – looking forwarad to the next trip… It would be pretty cool to get involved in the after celebrations of Shandur.. imagine that shtuck!

  17. Mohammed Malik · · Reply

    Just got back from my first trip there and the Chitralis must put something in their mountain spring water because I am now also willing to be Chitral’s biggest promoter.

    Beautiful place. Wonderful people. Fantastic food. Great hospitality.

    Although I came to visit from Karachi, Chitral is not just an escape from the city life in Pakistan. It is worthy of an escape from most cities anywhere in the world.

    Nice tribute Omar!

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