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How To party in the Hindu Kush
As an adventure tour guide, I have run some fairly ambitious trips in my time: riding horses blind across the mountains of Kyrgyzstan; travelling into the centre of the Sahara; leading a group safely through Afghanistan. But offering to take a party of 10 on a two-week holiday into the snowy reaches of the Hindu Kush, in mid-December, to find a snow leopard and experience a Kalash pagan festival - which would involve us taking part in goat sacrifices, purification ceremonies and wild drunken dances - made me wonder if I had finally met my proverbial. They say a good guide is a lucky guide; for this trip to be even partially successful, I knew I would need that commodity in spades.
We arrived in Peshawar, Pakistan's wild west border town, on December 10 only to learn that bad weather had hit the mountains earlier than expected and that for the past week all flights to Chitral in the north had been cancelled. This was worrying news. Surrounded by towering mountains, Chitral province is only accessible by dirt roads over high mountain passes or by an extremely unreliable, weather-dependant air service. With the passes now closed, our only option was to fly. And to make matters worse, if we didn't reach the Kalash valleys by the time the purification ceremonies took place on December 15, we would be considered unclean and not allowed to enter at all.
This kind of information leaves the tour guide in an awkward position. You have to stay positive, show your group the sites with enthusiasm and focus, but inside your thoughts are in turmoil. What will happen if the weather doesn't clear? Where will I take them? What will we do? So it was with enormous relief that we woke on the morning of December 12 to clear skies and boarded the plane to Chitral. No ordinary plane mind you - little would be ordinary on this trip - but a Pakistan Air Force Hercules C130 transporter. The Fokker Friendship that used to do the run had crashed on landing in the summer.
We touched down into a winter wonderland, surrounded on all sides by snowy mountains. At one end of the tranquil valley stood the towering form of Tirich Mir, the highest mountain in the Hindu Kush, while at the other swept a row of icy peaks. The sky was deepest blue and the air was clean and sharp. I have been to Chitral many times, I even have a house high up in the valley where the festival was taking place, but I have never been in winter. Like other summer destinations, this is a time when tourism is non-existent and life returns to its natural indolent rhythms. As I stepped off the plane, I breathed in deeply and smiled. Whatever happened with snow leopards and pagan festivals, I knew now I could relax ... just being in this stunning place was privilege enough.
Mufti, my right-hand man in the region, was waiting for us outside the small terminal building. "You are lucky man," he said as we embraced. "You have good relations with the gods."
Set in a tapered gorge, Tushi is a hamlet of six or seven dwellings half an hour out of Chitral town. On one side is Chitral Gol national park, bordered by the narrow road that leads to Afghanistan and a shallow but thunderous river. Opposite are craggy, barren mountains rising up towards snowy peaks. We found Mark and the rest of the BBC crew in the same place they shot their epic footage - this time making a film for Natural World - with a row of impressive lenses pointing west across the river. But although there were plenty of markhor (wild goats) to watch, there was no sign of the prize animal. Mark told us encouragingly that with the early snow pushing her lower into the valley, there was a good chance she'd appear. But with only four days set aside to catch this elusive animal, we would have to be very lucky indeed. As night fell, we returned to our hotel with cold feet and hands and plenty of film left in our cameras.
When we arrived at the same time the following afternoon, Mark gave me the thumbs up. I jumped out of the jeep and clambered up the slope.
"She came out half an hour ago and has been sitting there ever since," he said pointing to the dappled rocks a hundred yards beyond the river. I stared mesmerised, mouth agape. As I looked around at my group, all of whom were beside themselves with excitement - Tanka, a Belgian grandmother, had actually thrown her arms around Mark and was kissing him - I felt an enormous sense of relief. I had been told I couldn't run a snow leopard tour as the chances of seeing one were just too small. Yet here we were on the second day of trying with the snow leopard in our sights. The vicarious pleasure I gained from my clients was absolute, I could have hugged them all.
We continued to watch her and take photographs all afternoon as she prowled this way and that across the mountainside. Then, as dusk fell, she stalked her prey - a young markhor - and made her kill. None of us could have asked for more.
With the snow leopard bagged, it was time for the Kalash winter festival of Chamos, and this too had caused some head scratching back in London. Knowing how important this event is to the Kalash and that no tourist group had ever been before, I'd asked Saifullah, a friend and chief spokesperson for the Kalash, to convene a jurga of the elders to see if they would mind us attending. Though often derided by their Muslim neighbours, the Kalash are a deeply spiritual people who guard their traditions fiercely. Saifullah had sent me a note saying as long as we were prepared to respect their ways and participate in the celebrations, we would be welcome. In an email, he added that we should bring no honey, as that carried the evil spirits, and, I quote: "If women could avoid menstruating between December 15 and 19, it would help matters enormously."
To the Kalash, women are considered unclean while having their period and for five days must attend the bashali - or menstruation house. Normally foreigners are exempt from such obligations, but not it seemed during Chamos. I had six women in my party ... it made for an interesting conversation.
As the last pagan tribe to inhabit the Hindu Kush, the Kalash worship a plethora of gods, hold colourful religious festivals, drink wine, sacrifice animals and judge a man by the size of the parties he gives. The festival of Chamos, to celebrate the winter solstice, is the biggest party of the year: a week-long celebration of drinking and dancing when the valleys are cleansed of the evil spirits.
We arrived in the valley of Rumbur mid morning, and made our way to the village of Balanguru, where traditional slate and timber homes are stacked precariously up the hillside, the roof of one forming the veranda of the one above. It was the day of the purification ceremonies, after which no one is allowed to enter the valleys.
With a member of each family leading a goat, we proceeded up the valley towards the temple of Sagi Gor - the goat god. It was a beautiful day, with a clear sky overhead and soft fresh snow crunching underfoot. The track led us beside the turquoise river, through thick forests of vaulting pines and giant walnuts. With people singing and chanting - and young lads throwing snowballs - there was a joyful sense of celebration in the air that put me in mind of Christmas.
At last we came to a clearing where a large stone altar was surrounded by carved wooden totems. Scented smoke filled the air from a fire covered with juniper. The first goat was brought forward. In a blink of an eye, it was flipped on to its back and its throat cut. The butcher gathered some blood and threw it against the altar as an offering to the gods. Then, one by one, he cleansed the soul of each male by splashing their faces with warm blood. Again it was a scene of elation. When our turn came, we were happy to take part; we all felt a sense of inclusion, like at communion or standing on the terraces at a football match.
With bloodied faces, we followed Saifullah and our adopted family back to the village where the goat was prepared for dinner. Presents were handed out, fruit and nuts placed in bowls before us and wine served. After the meal, we heard singing and walked out into the night. From all directions, the Kalash descended the hillsides, their flaming torches dancing in the darkness like distant constellations. We gathered around a giant bonfire in the centre of the village and spurred on by the wine, the wild pagan chanting and the romance of the moment, joined in with the dancing that carried on till late.
The next day, with a hangover strong enough to kill a small child, myself and Duncan, one of the group members, walked up the valley. Once again, the weather was perfect with azure skies and pristine air. At the temple of Sagi Gor, we turned right and followed a frozen river up towards my house. With deep snow, it was a tricky walk but when we reached the top and found ourselves in a magical winter paradise, we knew it had been worth it. Save for the distant trickle of the melting snow, there was complete and utter silence.
"What an amazing place," said Duncan, staring down the valley towards the forests and the distant peaks as a vast eagle drifted by. "This is why I came on this trip. Of course, I wanted to see the snow leopard and the festival ... cultures like that will not be here for ever. But really this is it. To see nature in perfection."
We sat still and looked out across the ancient wilderness. "Mufti is right," he went on. "You must have good relations with the gods. This place is heaven."
Five days later, right on schedule we caught the last flight out of Chitral and made it home for Christmas.
Wild Frontiers (020-7736 3968, wildfrontiers.co.uk) offers a guided 14-day Kalash Solstice, Snow Leopard Tour this year Dec 9-22 for £2,150 inc flights. It can also arrange tailored trips to the region during any of the winter months. Similar trips include Everest Wildlife (in search of red panda and snow leopard) with Exodus (020-8772 3807, exodus.co.uk): 14 days departing March 30 for £1,580pp inc flights; and Naturetrek (01962 733051, naturetrek.co.uk) has a 15-day bird and mammalwatching trip to Arunachal Pradesh & Assam from Jan 21 for £2,450 inc flights.
Jonny Bealby is the director of Wild Frontiers and the author of Running With the Moon, Silk Dreams, Troubled Road and For a Pagan Song.
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