It was our second morning in Chitral. On our way to the hotel for breakfast we explored the Royal Fort and Mosque. The main entrance to the Fort is a Mughal style gateway. Wild grass on its threshold told us that it wasn’t in use any more. Stone walls of the fort were plastered with mud. The structure is modest as compared to other forts of Pakistan. A shaded path runs along the walls of the fort. A little further on this path, I saw a small hidden door which was for the use of servants. Rear entrance of the fort is a high wooden gate with a bastion. The fort was built at a beautiful turn of the river. The spot had an amazing view of Terich Mir. Unfortunately, the guards at the door couldn’t let us in because the fort is private residence of the Mehtar of Chitral and he was expected to visit that day. Mehtar is the nominal head of the former royal household. Chitral remained a princely state till 1969 when it was finally merged into Pakistan.       

Chitral’s Shahi Mosque is perhaps the only manmade landmark of the city. Built on orders of His Highness Sir Shuja ul Mulk, the Mehtar of Chitral between 1919 and 1924, it is an excellent example of later Mughal architecture. The mosque has a spacious courtyard. Arched corridors with a slight Moorish touch run on all sides of the courtyard. Façade of the mosque has a main arch in the center and two smaller arches on either side. There are three beautifully designed domes on the mosque roof. Two handsome minarets with exquisitely designed canopies stand on either side of the mosque. Children were having their Quran lesson in the spacious main hall of the mosque. Fireplaces in the side walls were a unique feature which I haven’t seen in any other mosques in Pakistan. The entrance, domes and minarets of the mosque are beautifully decorated with intricately carved marble set against a red background. Garden of the mosque blooming with lovely pink and orange roses was no less beautiful. In front of the royal mosque and fort there’s a huge sports field. It was packed with children and young men in the evening.

Small hidden door of Chitral Fort

The Fort wall

Mood at the breakfast was relaxed and nobody was in a rush. We enjoyed our cups of tea in the balcony and made a short visit to the museum which is an excellent archive of Chitral’s culture and history. The notoriously famous polo field was right next to the museum. Chitralis take the game of polo very seriously and their matches with the team of Hunza in their home ground and at Shandoor, world’s highest polo ground, are much anticipated events of the year. Polo is also a passion to Chitral’s royal house. There’s always a prince or two on the team.

Around mid day, we boarded wagons and jeeps. Gol National Park was on the day’s schedule. Just like yesterday, the company was great. Dr Shahid was a foodie as his wife told me. He was complaining about the lousy food served last night. Somehow, Lahori food sneaked into the conversation and I started taking pleasure and pride in giving a detailed account of every delicacy Lahore offers. I had struck the right cord because Dr Shahid got almost sentimental and complained that Islamabad offers no food worth mentioning and even a roadside stall in Lahore serves more delicious food than the highest restaurants of Islamabad. He asked his daughter to note down my contact so I could be their guide when they make a special “food-only” trip to Lahore.

Royal Mosque from the sports field

Roses in the garden of Royal Mosque

I realized how unromantic it was to talk about food when our surroundings offered such natural beauty. We came across some beautiful panoramic scenes of the valley and mountains on our way to Gol National Park. River making its way through the fertile, green valley dotted with habitation. Mountain bases were lush green and their highs were brown and arid. We were gaining height on a road leading to the top of mountains. After an hour or so, surrounding mountains weren’t so high and the road was making its way through green meadows between beautiful forests of cedar. We finally halted at a solitary building which looked like a government facility. We had reached our destination and it was in the middle of nowhere. There were wild grass fields, thick forests of cedar and bushes and we were surrounded on all sides by snow capped mountains. We must’ve been on a very high plateau because in nearly all directions, sharp depths of the mountains were invisible, lost in the trees and bushes. It is hard to describe the beauty of the place. It felt like we’ve come far away from civilization deep into one of mother earth’s beautiful mysteries.

There was a picturesque view point which offered a panoramic view of the surrounding mountains. There were signs of a camping ground a little further. A track went into the jungle and opened up to another delightful view of the mountains. They were covered in thick sheets of snow, glowing in sunlight. It looked like white icing on top of a giant cake. We climbed a little over rocks and reached a high point to enjoy the most beautiful scene of the whole trip. The kingdom of great mountains was spread far and wide under our feet. Back in the camping ground, a delicious barbeque was underway and the group was sitting under the shade of a huge cedar tea, enjoying the day. We spent a couple of hours at Gol National Park. Its fragrant air, peaceful surroundings, breathtaking view of the surrounding mountains, its loneliness and isolation makes it more a part of heaven than earth. It was a beautiful day.

Back in Chitral, on some people’s request, we were dropped in Shahi Bazar for shopping. It is Chitral’s central market place and quite thorough for a town as isolated from the rest of the country as Chitral. From basic necessities to cultural specialties like jewelry, antiques, dry fruits and traditional warm woolen clothing, shops were full of merchandize. I was looking for a pathani cap in particular. Sher Ali was helping me getting decent prices with his Pashto. Apparently the whole market didn’t have a cap the size of my head. There was a beautiful little shop named Moogh Patti House run by a grand old man and his sons. The interior floor was carpeted so we had to remove our shoes and the walls were hidden behind showcases of readymade gowns and other items. I tried a dozen caps and the shopkeepers tried to stretch a few on their folded knees, all in vain. Finally the old man gave me a million dollar smile conveying a silent message that they don’t have my size. I really appreciated their effort and courtesy so I expressed my gratitude and found a beautiful white cap in the next shop.

It was nearly dark. Sher Ali had bought some dry fruit and we were just wandering in the streets of Chitral getting the feeling of the place. A strong wind from the north brought sand particles from the river bank and slightly blurred the vision. We had a cup of tea and a little chat with the locals in a small tea house. Trips planned for such a short duration don’t really allow any time to mix up with the locals, so it was a rare chance to talk to charming Chitralis.

Back at the hotel, roasted chicken was served at dinner and Mudassir bhai, the charming deputy organizer was appointed at the catering table to ensure equal distribution of food. We stayed in the garden for a while but retired to our rooms soon for we had a long day tomorrow. It was a magical full moon night and as we walked back to the rest house, the mosque, the fort walls, the sports ground, dark allies, rows of maple trees and the mountains all glowed in the moonlight.

     

Gol National Park

We woke up before sunrise. Sher Ali wanted to capture sunrise images of Terich Mir from the hotel balcony and I wanted to accompany him. Chitral was quiet and serene at this hour. Back at the hotel some people were still sitting in the lobby, talking. Terich Mir, wrapped in clouds, lit up with the first rays of the sun. The river and the town were still in the dark. It was a beautiful sight and I thought treasures like Terich Mir surely reward their curious spectators.

We left for Islamabad that morning. Five hours on the road were saved by ditching Lowari pass thanks to Ma’am Uzma who pulled some strings and got us permission to use the Lowari Tunnel from Assistant Commissioner Chitral. It was yet another thrilling experience. The unfinished tunnel is still like an 8 kilometers long cave in the heart of the mountains. Streams flow on its muddy road and marks of excavators could be seen on the roof. It was very cold inside the tunnel. We slowly made our way through. Whenever we saw a bunch of workers working under dim lights, we would clap to express our appreciation and gratitude. When we finally came out of the tunnel, which was nothing less than a Disney ride, Ma’am Uzma got a sitting ovation (because we were in a moving bus) for this huge favor.

Glowing snow at the mountain peaks

Sher Ali's image of Terich Mir at sunrise

The journey back to Islamabad was a 20 hours long session of merry making inside the coaster. It was my birthday and when the folks came to know, they celebrated all day long, singing, dancing, laughing and joking. We were a happy, happy lot. When we made a stopover at Dir for lunch, someone took a naan and somehow balanced a candle over it, sprinkled dry fruits on it and my birthday cake was ready. I was surrounded by all those beautiful people clapping and hooting when I cut that cake. It was one of my most special birthdays.

Chitral, its culture and landscape are a goldmine of nature and civilization. The beautiful valley leaves a deep and everlasting impression on tourist’s heart. What I value most are a bunch of good friends I made on this trip, something which you don’t often do on trips. It would be unjust not to mention Tanzil the Karachiite here, the guy I sat next to when the coasters started rolling from Islamabad and we kept laughing on and off for the next three days mainly on my imitation of Karachi accent and his failed attempts at speaking Lahori Urdu.

Barbecue at Gol National Park

The Birthday Cake

Well, such is the beauty of life. It’s scattered everywhere, from the great mountains to the core of a person’s heart.

Until I hit the road again…