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Time to carry on up the Khyber
“On your right, the garage where an assassination attempt on President Musharraf failed last December. On your left, a prison where ex-Prime Minister Zulfikar Ali Bhutto was hanged in 1979.” We were less than 8km (five miles) from Islamabad international airport. Welcome to Pakistan.
As Jonny Bealby, our fearless leader, listed the attractions on the road to Peshawar, I looked at eight strangers who had dared to book his first tour of the North-West Frontier since 9/11. Among them Rita Hayworth, aka Sylvia Scott, sea-green eyes, cherry-red lips, red-gold curls tumbling over her shoulders.
Could this immaculate woman, a fashion consultant in a boutique in Florence, have signed up for an open-topped Jeep trip though the remoter parts of an Islamic republic? It seemed she could.
Pakistan has effectively been off-limits to organised groups since the Foreign and Commonwealth Office blacklisted it for all but essential travel on 9/12. Now tourists are trickling back: if you’ve ever fancied the North-West Frontier, the time is now.
On the first of many roadside stops for chai (sweet milky tea) or kawar (green tea), the A-word held centre stage. With a 98 per cent Muslim population, Pakistan is officially dry. That doesn’t mean alcohol doesn’t exist, only that the choice is between exorbitantly priced branded goods or corrosive hooch in 1.5-litre plastic water bottles.
At this early stage, we all had our duty-free. Most of our group — an army couple, a pilot, an executive, a retired teacher, an interior designer and a missing persons detective — had profited from Musharraf’s unofficial “blind eye” policy at Islamabad airport. On a sunlit riverbank, we learnt who had what and who would share and who would not. In an uncharted alco-desert, it’s never too soon to discover who your allies are.
Until 9/11 forced instant diversification, Bealby’s adventure company, Wild Frontiers, operated solely in Pakistan. When the Foreign Office gave the green light to tourism in January, the travel writer turned tour operator was free to show the country he loves.
His North-West Frontier tour starts with a drive up the Khyber Pass to the Afghan border and ends with a night of revelry in a wine-serving Italian restaurant in Islamabad. But it’s the part in between that counts, as those who watch the first of Michael Palin’s series, Himalaya (starting tomorrow evening on BBC One at 9pm), will appreciate. As travel consultant to the first two programmes, Bealby assembled Palin’s itinerary. Now we followed the intrepid television explorer over the 3,118m (10,300ft) Lowari Pass to Chitral, a beautiful remote region, largely untouched by time, in the shadow of the mighty Hindu Kush.
We left Peshawar at 7am, a heavily laden convoy of four Jeeps. After Dir, a noted training ground for the Mujahidin in the Taleban years, the dirt road wound upwards, clogged with Bedford trucks encased in brightly painted woodwork designed to ward off the evil eye. From our perspective, its most evil aspect was the danger of falling over a precipice as we rattled past the trucks on blind hairpin bends.
At 9pm, we were warmly greeted by Prince Maqsood ul-Mulk in his ancestral home above Ayun, for centuries a defensive fort, now a sleek new hotel, the Ayun Castle. Putting 14 hours of bone-rattling travel behind her, Sylvia slipped into a white shalwar kameez she had brought with her and worked her magic.
In a region where hot-blooded men, many of them with the warrior faces of the Pathans, keep their women bundled up in baggy beige, the effect was electrifying. Maqsood purred, as did every man we met along the way. Her favourite was the Prince of Swat, a handsome politician with cold acquisitive eyes. We met him in the Hindu Kush Hotel: for Sylvia, it was a coup de foudre.
In 1398, as the marauding Tamerlane swept through Asia, one of his grandsons cut loose to occupy Chitral. His descendants, the ul-Mulks, still call the shots in an administrative district the size of Wales.
As we learnt when we stayed in the Mountain Inn in the sleepy town of Chitral and the Mastuj Fort in Mastuj, the network of venerable uncles, spry English-speaking army officers in their eighties and nineties, and progressive cousins, entrepreneurs in their forties and fifties, control the best billets and much else besides.
Our next stop was the Kalash, a rugged area on the Afghan border where a pagan tribe has resisted the forces of Islam for more than a century. After Afghanistan and British India divvied up Kafiristan in 1893, the emir used brutal mass conversion to turn his segment into Nuristan, the Land of Enlightenment.
On the British side, the valleys of Birir, Bumburet and Rumbur were left free to worship a supreme being, backed up by supplementary deities, fairies and spirits.
Like Palin, we stayed in the headman Saifullah Jan’s cottage complex in Balanguru in the Rumbur valley. The unveiled, traditionally dressed Kalasha women barely speak Urdu, let alone English, but we joked together in sign language as they offered home-grown dried apricots, grapes, walnuts and peaches. This was our only spontaneous contact with women throughout the whole trip.
In Kalash society, gods, men, goats, altars and high mountain pastures are revered, while women, birth, sex, menstruation and death are condemned as impure. Even today, women are isolated in the bashali, a hut downstream from the village, when giving birth or having periods, only re-emerging when the “crisis” is over.
In other respects, they have a much better time than their Islamic sisters, drinking wine made from local grapes, dancing wildly with the men at the many festivals and choosing their own sexual partners.
A marriage is celebrated simply by sharing a cooked goat’s heart and, provided there are no children, it is as easily ended: a girl can go off with a new suitor, provided that he pays her ex double her bride price in goats.
At Chitral’s historic fort, Tony Ford, a former Royal Australian Air Force pilot, took over our education. He was the only non-Brit, but his passion for our military history put us all to shame. “Queen Victoria is my pin-up girl,” he declared as he talked us through the celebrated siege of 1895 when British soldiers were gradually losing their grip on the Fort.
At the last gasp, they were relieved by a heroic high-altitude forced march from distant Gilgit. As we made their journey in reverse, Tony showed us how history unfolded on the hostile cliffs above the Chitral river and the windswept flats of the 3,700m Shandur Pass.
We camped below the Pass, spending two nights alone with the yaks on the banks of the Gilgit river, with a day in between to trek towards its source through rugged glacial moraine. In the evenings, we huddled around the camp fire, eating freshly caught trout washed down with the last of the whisky. On the second morning, the first snow of winter covered the surrounding peaks as we evacuated at speed in icy rain.
The Shandur was our great divide, the point at which we swapped the intriguing detail of Chitral and the Hindu Kush for the wide horizons of the Karakoram Range. If Pakistan had tourists, the majority would be in Karimabad in the Hunza valley, a small town overlooked by the 750-year-old Baltit Fort, restored to its former glory by the Aga Khan in the 1990s.
Even more important, it is overlooked by seven peaks of 7,000m-plus, topped by Rakaposhi at 7,788m. To see this magic circle at sunrise from the Eagle’s Nest hotel, a bumpy half-hour above the town, is to marvel at the sheer icy beauty of one of most spectacular 360-degree views in the world. A final vertiginous climb to look down on the Ultar glacier, a shopaholic’s blowout in Karimabad’s pashmina heaven, and we were on our way home.
No hiccups, no horrors, no dodgy moments. Lots of laughter and hospitality generously given. Was this the Pakistan the world loves to hate? I don’t know how Rita Hayworth would have coped, but Sylvia skipped up the mountains on long thoroughbred legs, put on her make-up with religious zeal before emerging from her tent and turned down at least one proposal of marriage.
Had it been from the hawkish Prince of Swat, it might have been another story.
Pakistan is back on the tourist map again - so Minty Clinch joined a lively group to explore it.
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