Col (r) Ikram Ullah Khan
A lot has been written on the history, religion, beliefs and festivals of Kalash tribe which is available to the readers in abundance; so instead of treading the beaten track and repeating what the readers already know about, I would restrict myself to the existing pathetic conditions of the road leading to Kalash valley and other associated issues of subsidiary nature facing the people of this most beautiful and unique tourist destination of KPK, nay, the world, and also dilate on the apathetic attitude of KPK government towards Chitral in general and Kalash valley in particular.
It was on 3 June 2022 that I visited Bomburet – one of the three valleys inhabited by Kalash tribe. The visit came after 35 years. Last I visited Bomburet was back in 1987 when I was a captain and posted in Chitral Scouts. But traveling on the road from Ayun to Bomburet this time seemed to me like travelling to heaven through hell, to be least hyperbolic. It took us almost 3 hours to cover a mere 22 kilometer distance that too on a normal day when there was no festival going on. We moved on the narrow bumpy road at a snail’s pace fearful of meeting a mishap anytime. Had it not been for my son who was driving I would have taken a U-turn midway notwithstanding the fact that there is hardly any place appropriate for doing that (not IK’s U-turn, of course). The only rickety suspension bridge that connects Bomburet and Rumbur to Ayun invites the travelers to visit the other world, though unwillingly, which we all have to travel to sooner or later. It’s not only Kalash valley, but similar is the condition of roads leading to other parts of Chitral like Garam Chashma road, Booni to Mastuj and Torkho road and Mastuj to Yarkhun road.
The harrowing journey to Kalash valley started the moment my vehicle took diversion towards the left from the main road leading to Chitral. The moment we negotiated the Ayun bridge that has replaced the old and narrow suspension bridge still making its existence felt to the scary visitors, it dawned on me that I was going to traverse the same old kacha and bumpy track which I had been through 35 years ago. Right from Ayun bridge up to Bomburet village, the road was presenting the same hair-raising scene yet providing a breathtaking view at the same time, and through the drifts the narrow and steep twists and turns did send a dismal sheen which I had experienced in 1987 with hardly any mentionable change. This dilapidated road puts the lives of commuters in great peril as there are a number of places where fatal accidents could occur anytime.
The natural beauty of the valley, it seems, has escaped ravages of unscrupulous visitors, but the place is wearing a silent and deserted look due to gross negligence of the civil administration and dilapidated road coupled with overall shabby and poor infrastructure that makes the tourists shy of visiting the valley. Anyone who ventures to visit the valley for the first time would think hundred times to make a second visit or induce his friends and relatives to undertake such a hazardous and arduous journey. It may be mentioned here that no official tourist resorts worth the name have been built. The tourists are forced to depend on the lone decades old Benazir hotel (a private entity) that too is in a state of disrepair. The only saving grace in the entire valley, however, is the FC hut/guest house with elaborate arrangements duly maintained and kept in an immaculate condition by Chitral Scouts. I was lucky enough to stay a night along with complete family in that guest house which ordinarily is not available to ordinary visitors for obvious reasons. Nonetheless, due to fear of prolixity I can’t provide the spicy details of my visit.
As for the Kalash population bearing original faith, I was told by the local guide detailed to conduct us, it’s shrinking, though at a glacial speed due to propensity to conversion among locals; and the pace with which conversion is taking place, the day is not far away when the posterity would only read in books about Kalash culture, beliefs and festivals.
It’s sad to note that nothing worthwhile has been done by successive governments to promote tourism in the valley. When PTI came to power in 2018, Imran Khan made tall claims as usual to make Pakistan a hub of tourism and kept the people on tenterhooks throughout but he couldn’t go beyond lip service as it makes a routine matter with all Pakistani politicians. With regard to promotion of tourism in Chitral and making it a tourist destination, PTI has done nothing despite remaining in power in the centre for almost four years and in KPK for the last nine years at a stretch. Given the apathy of the KPK government shown towards Chitral, there is a scant hope of any improvement in the pathetic conditions of roads in the valley in the foreseeable future as long as PTI government stays in power in the province and also due to a streak of economic and political crises plaguing the country that still continue to metastasize and deepen.
Chitral would continue to suffer as long as PTI rules the province. The unending miseries of the hapless Chitralis pinnacled the day PTI government in the centre took the ominous decision to drop Chakdara – Chitral Express Way which formed part of the alternate CPEC route approved during PML-N government. How unfortunate it is to see PTI government performing political antics and pranks during the past three-and-a-half years. As it was destined to turn out, the consequences of Imran Khan’s faux pas eventually came home to roost.
Last but not the least, it’s a clarion call to the rainbow coalition government led by Shahbaz Sharif to wake up from the deep slumber and take necessary measures on war footing and take notice of the pathetic conditions of the roads leading to the valley and improve the road infrastructure and allied facilities to transform it into a tourist destination, and ensure make-shift arrangements as a short-term measure for the time being to attract both foreign and domestic tourists to suck in huge amount that could be utilized to further develop many more potential tourist destinations which have hitherto remained unexplored. The amount so earned would not only be sufficient to meet the requirements of local development projects but would also ease the financial burden on the federal/ provincial government. I know there are spoilers around operating with full force who wouldn’t let it happen as it goes against their personal interest. But the government can hit the jackpot if it remains steadfast in getting the job done.