Benoît GRIEU a French tourist
Chitral : Never again or when the dream turns into a nightmare !
When I was a teenager in the early 80’ies a French ethnologist Jean-Yves Loude with his book of black and white photography concerning the Kafir Kalash give me desire to travel the world. As I never had the chance to come in Chitral at the proper season – the Lowari pass is closed in winter due to heavy snowfall – being already in Shandur so close to Chitral I felt like if it was the time to pay them a visit.
I was enough fortunate through great circumstances to be welcomed by the Royal family in Ayun, gateway to the Kalash. My host by whom I had already been resting for three days asked me kindly to go for registration at the police in Chitral town. I left his domain in the morning of the fourth day and did go as he had asked me to do so.
What such a mistake ! I personally did not feel like registering and should not have gone for it but he convinced me that the registration paper was necessary in order to visit the Kalash valley. The police could ask me for this registration certificate as they give you back a copy of it. I had planned to take the old road on foot and avoid the checkpoint. I would have gone maybe for registration back through town on my way up to Mastuj.
I still enjoyed visiting on my own the old Chitral fort freely but as soon as I entered the registration office I lost my freedom and it was the start of a full-day worries like I never had in my traveling life and problems started to face. They all were nice-smiling faces to welcome me even the DPO (District Police Officer) Abdur Rashid who did implement a new policy a year ago when taking position in Chitral. This wrong policy makes people’s life – the tourist’s one and the policemen’s ones – fully miserable as you will keep reading.
As a foreigner they give you usually an escort. One policeman for a couple or a group but why did they send me two guys? Because I wasn’t shaved with mid-long hair looking alike Rambo “I am not what I look – but I do what I say – and appearances may be wrong” – a dangerous person (?) or as a kind of V.I.P or special guest – he gave / provided me two bodyguards (= two policemen). I did not need that at all to move around on foot. I hadn’t reached the main bazaar that one escort was left behind because too slow. The second one more cantankerous showing already some sign of bad-will tried vainly to stick close to me but I hadn’t reached the edge of Chitral town that he was following me sitting on the backseat of a motorcycle. I had warned them that sometimes I may happen to run but anyway they could not keep up with my pace. He started to shout after me and by passers looking at him angry against me started to arrest me and hold my hands. I was in deep trouble facing an angry crowd. I could not go further on my own without any mean to explain myself as locals could not understand English (speaking mainly all only Khowar / Chitrali). I got into a shop and took a bed out on the side of the road sitting there and asking the cop to call his boss. He could not stop crying: ”I am not a motorcycle! I am a human being. I will arrest you."
Such behavior aroused curiosity and brought only more resentment and misunderstanding on both sides and cause a crowd to gather. There were twenty people around and more and more kept coming and pouring as it is not usual to see a foreigner being kept in custody on the side of road.
After half an hour a car came by and as the driver was asking what was going around I kindly begged him to give us a lift back to the police station for the three of us. The second cop had caught up us. The angry guy switched his heavy cotton uniform for lighter shalwar kamiz style clothing. Then we were back on the track but the same thing happened and instead of a motorcycle the two same policemen chose to jump in a taxi to follow me along the old dirty road between Chitral and Ayun, around 20 km distance. I could not escape as I had the cliff on one side and the river on the other side.
As a matter of fact the DPO did so well the things that I ended up with 4 policemen in the middle of the track, two following behind and two coming in front sent by the police station of Ayun. Had they been given specific instructions?
One only over the four could keep my speed after almost three hours walking and finishing hand into hand into the Ayun’s farm where I was staying. He stayed on my side because I was sometimes taking shortcuts. They were too scared I could run away – I had not any intention – and they even felt lost whenever they were not seeing me ahead of the car. You can imagine coming back to your host with four guys willing to camp on your lawn – I was in a bungalow in the garden – in order to watch you the whole night for security reasons. The royal descendant could convince them that I would not leave his domain without noticing them. He sent back my four bodyguards down hill to sleep into the Ayun police station.
The two watchdogs from Central Chitral not speaking a word of English were back at about 6:00 a.m the next morning sitting in the garden and waiting for me to move ahead to visit the Kalash like I had plan to do.
As my host did not want any further complications and acting as a translator he set up himself things as following. He took the decision and informed me that I could not go anymore on foot to Bumburet, one of the Kalash valleys and wasn’t even allowed to stay in Ayun and enjoyed his hospitality anymore. In short I was expelled from Chitral !
I had no choice but to go back to town and leave as soon as possible the state of Chitral.
He took us half day to get there. I got a lift for the three of us. Back in town I was typing on the computer – I knew it was my only and last chance to get connected and give some news before a whole week because my plan was to walk / trek back all the way to Gilgit. The insistent policemen sat in a shop near by and came a few times to check if I was still in. The bad-behaved one did even check my mailing spying on me. After one hour and so online we went back to the DPO to complain and explain that I had to cancel my trip to the Kalash. While I was booked in the PDTC in Bumburet for the night I was struggling in the DPO to make things work differently. I did not even blame the nasty policeman or try to put the guilt or the fault on someone’ else. This is not my way of doing things being straight-forward and outspoken.
On my way to town for registration the same day I met a Polish/German couple traveling by VW kombi. They had their mascot / puppet in uniform (= 1 policeman for 2 tourists) in the back of their vehicle. Their plan was to stay 7days in Rumbur. Lock him in the trunk and forget it !
In Chitral I had a friend I could have called and by whom I could have stayed / slept but my plan was to leave town as soon as possible back to the limit of the Gilgit jurisdiction / district. As people sometimes want to invite you and share a cup of tea they call / hail you in a friendly way. You’re coming closer followed by two guards imposing themselves. It cuts completely the relationship and they naturally speak about the outcome and consequences of this absurd situation. You’re left alone because everything is spoken in the local language. Better to leave Chitral than to loose your spontaneity and freedom to go / walk around meeting freely the locals.
As I am only walking / trekking / hitchhiking they had to find a vehicle going to Mastuj providing only one policeman half way to Buni where I spent the night in the police station. I obtained that one of my two angels be dropped of his duty. I did select the naughty one to be dismissed of his duty and kept going with the other one who had been ordered to accompany me only to Buni. The revoked minder did apologize for his behavior but it was too late. He’d got what he wanted:”to be off his duty and go back home”.
Next morning in the Buni police station the officer in charge did not really want me to leave on foot. By the time they tried to solve the enigma of who was going to escort me I had left on foot for the check post. One policeman driving a motorcycle caught me and dropped me there where I wrote my ID details. They asked me to wait for a vehicle but there was no way for me to stay with them. I started to walk for the last 30 kilometers to Mastuj. Soon the same motorcyclist who had given me a lift was behind me telling me that he was from the special branch ISI – Inter-Services Intelligence – and had been ordered to follow / escort me. I had come that way on my own from Shandur getting easily lifts and I was going back escorted. The guy offered me to seat behind him and to give me a lift to Mastuj but I could notice that he was not able to drive with a heavyweight on his backseat. I was more frightened sitting on his motorcycle than walking. I did not feel safe at all and told him frankly. “I’m not a champion!” he confessed.
After catching a Jeep for a few miles and then finally a Suzuki – my travel mate picked up their number plate – I came in Mastuj with a family. My driver stopped and someone who he knew came straight to my car door, opened it and asked me to follow him. I slammed the door showing my disagreement with his way of imposing himself. He was a policeman who had come at the corner of the street waiting for my arrival. I was tired of all this drama / comedy turning into a nightmare like if I was victim of a bad game. It was all done for my safety officially. The thing is that when you get caught in the whirlpool no one will let you go on your own. Once again the police officer in the Mastuj police station does not want to take the responsibility to let me walk alone to the three feet in snow-covered Zagar pass and is looking for two policemen to escort me. Complete non-sense to escort me to the borderline (= snowline) with Gilgit. After waiting an hour I got a lift from a passing car to Chapali, 11 kilometers upriver from Mastuj. I told the officer I was leaving. As soon as he got to the driver willing to give me a lift he talked to him in Urdu / Khowar and scared him He made him changed his mind. I was left alone again and on foot. I was really tired of this turn of events and kept shouting:” I want to go! I left quickly without giving him any chance to stop me. A few policemen were around their chief but did not move to prevent me from going. I quickly walked away. They could have followed me if they wanted to but I did not want to wait anymore for my escort to be ready. I could understand that no one wanted to accompany a trekker.
Every time your angel disagrees with you he has to refer to the DPO and it takes time in this country to wait an answer for every call. Everything is bureaucracy and such a waste of time.
My escort will come after me and catch me for the best or the worst, I came in Mastuj by 10:00 a.m and it is now past midday. I hate leaving / walking during the hottest time of the day. It did happen the same thing yesterday. I had to wait for the escort to be ready and we finally left under the sun past 2.00 p.m.
Daylight comes at 5:00 a.m. I like to walk early morning and late afternoon in order to avoid the heat but the police station have their timings and night / day shift. You’re not anymore traveling alone.
If you really can’t stand someone on your side it’s better to avoid / skip Chitral in those conditions as long as this policy is valid / effective.
This policy is in fact made to discourage the tourists to come to Chitral. The DPO does not care at all about Tourism in Pakistan It’s much easier for him to do his job if nobody – no westerner / tourist – are coming to visit His state. He won’t have to send anybody to escort them. If this guy is moving to Gilgit or another district will he implement the same policy? I hope not but he will surely.
In Chitral DPO they sent / dispatched me the wrong guy. I could feel it we would not stick well together. I would not make it to the Kalash with him. I had better to give up and change my plans. All my stay in the state of Chitral was spoilt by one man. I tried to play it softly and to see things from another state of mind but you’ve to be ready on both sides to cooperate. What a pity and a great miss!
After half an hour walk towards Chapali I feel like someone is following / catching / rushing behind me. I’m hiding along the water channel like if I was resting. I can hear the voices near by and two guys approaching quickly but can’t see them. I do not know for sure if they are the ones chosen to escort or arrest me or only peasants back from their fields. I can’t distinguish them. One is coming searching along the water channel on my side. I can’t keep it quiet:”I went to toilet”. I have no choice but to go to them. There are two nice guys waiting for me. They have never been out trekking. Their English is passable and we can understand each other fairly well. One is fit and the other one has a painful hip but they have been selected / chosen to escort me to the Zagar pass. I am facing the same scenario / team than yesterday with one of good-will and the other one reluctant.
We walk to Chapali and further where along the road they know friends / have relatives and stop by for lunch and later on at 4:00 p.m for tea break. I do not mind as it is hot outside. We’re leaving Chapali at 5:00 p.m after they had to refer once again to the police station in Mastuj. There was no network and they had to be called back from a landline. What such a waste of time once again. The same happened in Chitral and Ayun where they always had to keep in touch with the main police station. That’s all about to be escorted. You can’t do / go somewhere without them to refer / be ordered to / from the main office.
We’ve got 3 hours walk to some summer settlements. It’s too late to leave at 5:00 p.m. I am afraid that we may not get there in daytime. Trekking at night 3000 m above sea level is not advisable. They’re not used to trek and we may need more time than if I was alone. We go well along together. Luckily the frail one is carrying only his heavy machine gun without bag pack and the second got only what he needs to keep him warm. I have my 15 kg rucksack on my back and one handy plastic bag for water / food. Taking a break we keep picking up and eating berries. They take snaps to upload on their FB account and we exchanged e-mail. We are the three of us in a good mood. They seem happy to do their job and enjoy the walk. This was not the case of the previous ones. Why should they walk or even have to escort tourists after all?
Coming to the high pastures at sundown the slower policeman wants to shortcut through the bush. I do not agree as you don’t do that in high-mountaineering areas. You stick to the footpath. He has no experience. We finally find a shelter but he wants to move again further at 10:00 p.m (!) by someone whom he knows. I am not happy about that but keep following him. It was supposed to be a 20 mn trek. Instead we keep walking at night for more than an hour on a trail along the river rushing hundred meters down. In the new settlement there is no room for the three of us inside and we end up staying in the corral outside. It does start to rain. The owner awaken covers us with huge plastic sheets. We keep hiking in the morning towards the snowy Zagar pass. The weakest stops half way to the pass and the strongest keeps it up for a while before going back. They will be back in Mastuj in the late afternoon. Everything went fine with them. It’s like selecting a travel mate. You’ve got to win the complementary and perfect one like if he was your partner in life. It is not an easy game. How do you want to cope / go along well with some guys whose duty is just to take care about your safety?
The less you do / plan
The better / easier for them.
It really makes everybody’s life miserable when it comes that you have only 50% chance or less to be compatible and successful during your trip.
N.B: How many ISI “special branch” policemen riding motorcycle I had to face and answer their insidious questions in 2 months time / stay in Gilgit-Baltistan? More than a dozen!
Today as a Westerner you’re suspected of spying or say what have brought here without being believed?
Nowadays if you go trekking along the border lines (Wakhan, Chapursan …) – I did not go because I got enough hassled and persistently bothered like that – you may even face more harassments and delays.
Have plenty of time in your pocket anyway. That’s the game. We are in Pakistan.
e.g : A former hunter in Darkot wants to prevent me from leaving on the trek to Ishkoman. Btw there is a check post at the edge of town on the way to the hot spring / Boroghil pass. I had to face him and convince people around that I was experienced and not a neophyte.
This is an easy trek.
The next day coming at the junction of Imit / Ishkoman I had not been sitting / resting for ten minutes that I see two guys running out of breath towards me. I can guess they are policemen from a near by check post and want to have me registered. One is trying hard to open the register book while running. I had no idea that there was one check post near by. Once close to me they realize that they forgot / don’t even have a pen. I first tell them I do not have one before taking out mine from my wallet. Do I look suspicious if I hadn’t done my entry? A by passer motorcyclist came across. One of the two policemen hails him. The guy stops and starts to be inquisitive and suspicious. He is from the special branch with his motorcycle / expenses provided by the government and 25 000 Pak Rps monthly salary. I told him: “I like trekking. It is beautiful here and a paradise to trek. I am here at the right season and I do enjoy it!”. He kept questioning me.
This is my 4th time in Pakistan in 19 years time (first in 1992 and in 1999). It was much easier to travel here before and even if for newcomers / first-time visitors mostly Pakistanis are still exceptionally friendly and showing great signs of hospitability times have changed a lot. This country is in turmoil and the worst to come is in store.
The same day later further down the river in Pakora before getting on the track to Naltar a teacher is inviting me for lunch. His house is located right at the corner of the main road. He is offering me to stay for the night. I refuse at first and finally accept his invitation to rest / stay overnight. I have not been in his house for two hours that he gets a phone call around 4:00 p.m from the Chatorkhand police station explaining / telling him that it’s not safe for me to stay in his place. I should better overnight in the Chatorkhand rest house. Isn’t he trustable person as a teacher? Who did call the police station? The family of the retired army guy by whom I had dropped my bag for half day or someone he just talked to?
Every time I have been helped or I’ve got a lift from a motorcycle he was ISI (Inter-Services Intelligence or IB = Investigation Bureau) agent. I could feel it the way they were approaching / questioning me. If there are only a few tourists / travelers / westerners wandering around they will fly over each “piece of meat” like blow-flies and stick to it. I knew who they were and the other way round I was telling / giving them their details with their wages unveiling their action.
Gilgit-Baltistan is peaceful and safe. I really do not want to imagine staying in Peshawar / Swat or any others areas considered unsafe for travelers. I crossed the whole country hitchhiking in a straight line from Taftan and have an idea of how much authorities can be helpful or make your trip difficult. This is not the right time to come to visit the country. The regional scenario / situation in which Pakistan was located has deteriorated after the 9/11 incident. Keep it in mind and if you want free-hassle trip it is better to select another country.
N.B : If you never heard about load-shedding ! You will quickly learn when you will be in Pakistan what is it ! – It is cutting off the electric current on certain lines when the demand becomes greater than the supply. It is a restriction or an act of limiting power (as by regulation or not). Facing excessive power outages how do you want to work properly for a few hours on a computer. No chance to upload pics or update a webpage. Forget about it! This is another aspect very tiresome and exhausting of Pakistan.
A cultural touch : In about 1050, Nazir Khusran (1004-1077), the ruby of Badakhshan, an Ismaili missionary was sent from Egypt by the Fatimid Caliph who at that time was ruling in Cairo to convert the people of Persia and Afghanistan where he had remarkable success. He was forced to retire and spend his last 25 years in exile mostly in the eastern region called Badakhshan. Today, Badakhshan (which straddles both Tajikistan and Afghanistan and Pakistan) nearly completely professes the Ismaili faith, a fact the Badakhshanis reverentially attribute to Nasir Khusraw’s beautiful preaching and poetry.
His shrine is in Garam Chasma, 32 kilometers from Chitral bazaar and as a matter of fact I missed it as well the trip to the Kalash. I’ve got everything wrong all the way about Chitral. I came across his biography after having gone to Chitral.
The world is a deep ocean, its water is time;
Your body is like a shell, your soul the pearl.
If you wish to have the value of a pearl,
Raise up the pearl of your soul by learning.
A wise observer of the ways of the world, he also brings strong feelings to what he sees. One consistent theme is his scorn for hypocritical religious leaders:
From pulpit-tops they preach to the common folk,
Dazzling them about paradise and the food to be had there.
They crow and cry in hope of food;
Asses always bray when you speak of barley.
And By day you fast and moan and finger your rosary,
By night you’re enjoying music and wine.
You’ve memorized the texts of deception quite smoothly,
So now you’re grand mufti of Balkh, Nishapur and Herat.
“How can anyone be so stupid as to crave for the world and its trappings?
What is all this longing for power and kingdom? It’s nothing but slavery,
and whosoever is a slave of the body can never reach the lofty height of a true ruler ship for to be a king means to give not to take.
Why do people remember that this life is impermanent;
that the world is like a castle which one enters through the gate of birth
and leaves through the gate of death?
What is the use of life? Nothing grows forever.
Rather, in the time of increase one should think of the impending decrease.
Don’t you see that someone who used to be unruly and jumped around like a colt is now so old and decrepit that he has to color his hair and beard with henna to disguise their white hue?”
– (Selected poems from the Diva – Nasir Kusraw).
Nasir Khusraw, the Ruby of Badakhshan: A Portrait of the Persian Poet, Traveller and Philosoph By Alice C. Hunsberger