Continued from my previous post…
One of the things I wanted to do while in Chitral was to visit Bumboret, one of the Kalash valleys nearby (see also here). They are a unique peoples, seemingly unrelated ethnically to the other people of the region, and maintain their own culture, traditions and animistic religion. There are three Kalash valleys; Bumboret, Rumbur and Birir, but Bumboret was the easiest (or should I say ‘closest’, as none of them are easy to get to) to access from Chitral, so that’s where I went. The starting point was a village called Ayun, so I took a jeep there, stayed overnight, and then asked around for directions to Bumboret. I was pointed in the direction of a narrow footpath which seemed to climb straight up the side of a mountain. In fact, it didn’t just seem to climb straight up the mountain – it actually did climb straight up the side of the mountain. So off I set under the hot sun.
It went on interminably. It must have been a close to 45° incline, and it just went on and on. And on. And up. And on. It was exhausting. After about two hours or so of this, the path plateaued, and started winding precariously round the side of the mountain, with sheer cliff on one side and sheer drop on the other. I’m actually not too keen on heights, so tried to ignore the vertiginous drop under my right foot, but it was somewhat nerve-wracking, I have to say. But there was more to come…
I rounded a bend in the path, and was confronted with a rock-slide, about twenty metres across. Fuck! It was a shale rock-slide, looked very unstable, and disappeared into the depths below. I sat down, deeply depressed. The thought of retracing my steps horrified me – it had been such hard work getting to where I was – but I couldn’t see any other option. Then, suddenly, an old guy carrying a big bundle of sticks appeared on the path the other side of the slide, obviously on his way to Ayun. He arrived at the steep slope of broken shale separating us, and barely broke step. He took his long walking stick, plunged it into the shale, wriggled it around to settle the shale and then stepped where he’d done the stick-wriggling. He repeated the process for every step he took, and in about five minutes or less was on my side. We exchanged greetings, and he put down the bundle of sticks he was carrying, gesturing for me to follow, literally, in his footsteps, and led me across to where he’d just come from, wriggling the stick ferociously for every step we took. We then squatted down and shared some water, and he got out a chillum and we smoked some hash. I’d actually have preferred to pass on the hash, being on the top of a mountain and all that, but it seemed curmudgeonly to refuse after the guy had been so helpful. So there I was, on top of a mountain somewhere in the Hindu Kush, stoned out of my mind. Ho hum…
After we’d finished the chillum and exchanged niceties, off he went again across the shale, picked up his bundle of sticks the other side, and disappeared round the bend.
So I set off again, hoping desperately that I was getting near to my destination.
The next obstacle I encountered would definitely have turned me back (particularly given that I was high as a kite from the hash I’d just smoked) had I not got the shale rock-slide behind me. Most of the path had been carved out of the side of the mountain with relative ease, the rock being shale / graphite (I’m not a geologist, so may be wrong about the type of rock), and thus quite soft. But there were outcrops of granite or similar which presumably didn’t carve so easily with the hand tools they had available, and I had come across one of these now. It was like a carbuncle stuck on the side of the mountain, hanging out over the abyss, and what the clever locals had done was to carve out small hand and foot holds to enable them to traverse this obstinately hard piece of stone. It wasn’t far – maybe five or ten metres until the footpath resumed, but it might as well have been a million miles as far as I was concerned. It was fucking terrifying. Absolutely nothing below but several thousand (well ok, several hundred, but it looked like several thousand from where I was) feet of fresh air, face pressed hard to the rock surface, forcing myself to let go with one hand to search for the next handhold…it was a nightmare. Character-forming stuff, I’m sure, but I would happily have missed that particular bit of character formation, thank you very much.
Shortly after the outcrop incident, I finally got to the point where I rounded a bend and I could look down on the valley of Bumboret, and relax in the knowledge that from here on it was all downhill.
Except it turned out to be not quite as easy as I’d anticipated.
It was a steep path – not as steep as the path up the other side, but almost. The big fear was allowing myself to break into a run, which once started could never be stopped, and would end up with me cartwheeling uncontrollably down the mountainside, doubtless leaving limbs and other bits and pieces in my wake. So it was a slow, controlled walk, leaning back at an uncomfortable angle. When I finally got to the bottom (Oh the relief!) my feet were in agony from having my toes pressed so hard into the toecaps of my boots, and as a result all my toenails subsequently went black and fell off.
But I’d made it! I was in Bumboret!
The valley was lush, green and fertile, and the people were surprisingly friendly and welcoming. It was a fascinating juxtaposition after the Muslim society I’d just left. The women were open and friendly, and I was often invited into houses to share food and drink. A few of the women from one family dressed in their traditional finery for a photo-op for me, too.
Three generations in traditional garb made for a nice photo, I thought.
One thing that intrigued me was their headdresses, which were decorated with hundreds of small Cowrie shells. Cowrie shells? In the middle of the Hindu Kush, 6000 feet above sea level and hundreds of miles from the nearest coast? I never got to the bottom of that mystery.
So I spent the next week slowly walking to the head of the valley, taking in the unique architecture.
One feature which interested me was the way they made their stairs. They were simple, made from a single tree trunk, with the steps carved into it, which seemed to me to be an incredibly labour-intensive and wasteful way to make a staircase. Nice to look at, though.
I discovered that the Kalash had some odd customs, too, concerning their women. There were compounds where the women would go and stay while they were menstruating, and also during the whole period of their pregnancy, never venturing outside the walls of the compound. Female members of the family would bring them food and drink and whatever else they needed during these periods, but the menfolk weren’t allowed to set eyes on them.
I was quite fortunate to be there at the time of the full moon, and even more fortunate to be invited to a village full-moon ceremony. There was much feasting and drinking (another bonus of the valley was that not being Muslim, they drank alcohol, which they made from local fruits), and as the night progressed, the dancing started. This entailed all the virgins of the village gyrating slowly round the fire to a hypnotic accompanying drumbeat, with a low, chanting chorus, almost a hum, gradually building up to a crescendo as the dancing got faster and wilder until the girls were a blur of whirling dervishes, flinging themselves around the blazing fire in the centre in time with the syncopated beat of the drums. I was transfixed. It was utterly mesmerising, and in retrospect seems like some sort of psychedelic dream. Reality seemed to recede further and further away as the drumbeats quickened, and it seemed to matamorphose into a drug-induced fantasy which existed only in my imagination, the images dancing on my eyelids and inside my head.
The whole evening was like an acid trip, and the entire world had shrunk to the confines of the area illuminated by the roaring fire. Nothing existed beyond that.
A night to remember, as they say.
The relaxed amble in the valley of Bumboret was really life-affirming. The tranquility was absolute. No machinery, no cars, no TV, just the sounds of water, wildlife and the occasional human voice in the distance. The difficulties of the journey over the mountain paled into insignificance.
However, having made my way there and enjoyed my exploration of the valley, I now had to consider the return journey – a prospect which filled me with dread. But the Gods, it seems, were smiling on me, and when I got back to the bottom of the valley where I’d arrived, I was told that the river route was now open, which meant I didn’t have to climb back over the mountain. This route was only possible for a short period in the year when the river was low, and followed (more or less) the course of the raging torrent I’d seen far below me when I was negotiating the mountain path. Ha! If I thought it was going to be easy, I was mistaken! The path criss-crossed the torrent via a series of tree trunks that I guess got replaced every year. They were round and slippery with spray from the torrent below, and one slip would mean being plunged into the fast-flowing icy waters, where chances of survival were slim to non-existent. And much of the path followed irrigation ditches which had been dug in years past, and these of course rose as the watercourse fell, so as often as not, I found myself on a muddy pathway no more than six inches wide, with the irrigation ditch and sheer cliff on one side, and a sheer drop of a hundred feet or so on the other. So, easier than the high road, but still not a walk in the park.
I stayed in my palace guest house for another week or so on my return, relaxing and enjoying the trappings of civilisation, (like electricity, of which there was none in Bumboret) and taking a few more pics.
I wish I’d taken lots more photos, but these were the days of 35mm film, and I had a limited number of rolls with me and a finite number of pictures I could take, so had to be quite sparing. In this digital age we tend to take for granted that we can take a hundred shots of the same thing and discard 99 of them with zero cost, but things were different back then.
My short walk in the Hindu Kush was over, and I got the jeep back down to the hot, smelly, cacophonous maelstrom of lowland Pakistan, and immersed myself in the amazing multicoloured and spice-laden markets of Peshawar, where a whole different world awaited…