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.
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.
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.
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.