The Khunjerab Pass is a vast green bowl and presents an Augustan panorama of the descending Xinjiang Chinese mountains to the north, and looking back south, the infinite, eternally snow-clad Karakoram ranges. These lush pastures of Khunjerabare ancient grazing grounds and large herds of bulky-haired yaks still dot the landscape. Apparently, in ancient times, the Mir of Hunza placed some of his soldiers as guardians of this frontier. The Chinese side of the border welcomes visitors with a monumental entrance gate. On the Pakistani side of these mountain ranges is a National Park and home to the celebrated and rare, curly-horned Marco Polo sheep. The park also protects the snow leopard, Himalayan ibex,Tibetan wolf,Tibetan red fox, golden eagle, golden marmot, lammergeier, saker falcon, snow partridge and snow pigeon.

Gojal is essentially home to the Wakhi people of Pakistan. The Wakhis are of Persian origin and migrated to Central Asia centuries ago - possibly as refugees fleeing the Mongol invasion of Persia in 1200 AD. In Persia, the original language spoken was, in subsequent centuries made more literary, a linguistic evolution quite similar to the refinement of the French language in the reign of Louis XIV; but the Wakhi language, isolated in the Pamir region, seems to have remained closer to ancient Persian. The Wakhisare now dispersed in Gojal Pakistan, Afghan Wakhan, Tajikistan and extreme western China.A small, more nomadic Wakhi population also resides in Borogil, Khyber Pakthunkhwa. Initially these people were steppe loving nomads, who since those early times, lived in the principality of Wakhan with its centre at Punj, situated near the confluence of the Wakhan and Amu Darya, or Oxus rivers. This principality began to get dismembered, consequent to the expansionism of the mighty Amir of Afghanistan. In 1883, the last Wakhi Mir, Ali Mardan Khan, fled to his father-in-law’s territory in Chitral and was subsequently settled by the latter, in the Ishkoman valley, where there is still a sizable Wakhi population. In the latter part of the nineteenth century, the expansionist Russian and British Empires, during the strategic maneuverings of the ‘Great Game’, decided not to be confronted at a common border in Central Asia. Thussome of the Wakhan area was ceded to Afghanistan and this remains an international border. In Alastor, Shelley writes about these

‘aerial mountains which pour down

Indus and Oxus from their icy caves’

The vast, sparsely populated area of Gojal, or Upper Hunza, was, since ancient times, part of the state of Hunza. The Mirdom was abolished in 1974and, with the KKH opening up the area, the region has seen dramatic change. The Wakhis still keep herds of sheep in the summer pastures of the numerous ‘nallas’ in Gojal, but have settled down to mountain agriculture and there has also been considerable migration for employment to various parts of Pakistan, especially Karachi. The Aga Khan Rural Support Programme has done extensive developmental work in the last decades, creating modernistic social awareness, building schools and water channels. The Wakhis now place great emphasis on education and most young men leave to pursue higher education in the cities. Characteristically, a young Wakhi stated ‘education is the solution to all problems.’

Far in the north of Gojal, turning left on a jeep-able road from Sust, is the once remote Chipursan valley. This is a wide and relatively dry region, opening up at the Pak Afghan border to the far pavilions of upper Wakhan and little Pamir in Afghanistan. Indeed this valley has, since time immemorial, been a gateway to Central Asia and the Badakshan region. The region, like all of Gojal, is a land of magnificent towering mountains that tend to dwarf humans and civilization. In the Chipursan valley, often craggy peaks and crumbling ridges will give way to vast ochre slopes of gravel that sweep down to the fast flowing Chipursan river. A string of small villages lead up to the pilgrimage destination of the Baba Gundi shrine. This saint came from Gund in Afghanistan and passed away here. Some of the villages, like Kermin and Reshit, have interesting ancient ‘Old Houses’. In this valley, from Reshit onwards, there are a number of guest houses, including Pamir Serai in Zoudkhun and Sost, which organize comprehensive trekking tours.

Chipursan apparently means peaceful place and, indeed, this bare valley, often windswept and very cold in winter, is quiet and calm. Traditionally it was believed that trees could not grow here, but with global warming and the efforts of AKRSP, a large number of trees have been planted in the villages and on the riversides. A famous local scrub tree is the thorn apple, from which a jam is prepared and is considered to have numerous medicinal qualities. These dry ochre mountains and lucid blue skies are sometimes enlivened by the passage of flights of snow pigeons and golden eagles. The latter is a very large raptor with somewhat angular wings and a fan-like tail; its flight is powerful and it remains unruffled by the strong currents that sweep across these mountains. It is known to take baby ibex and sheep kids as prey. One of the delights of this valley, as in all this area, are the numerous ‘nallas’ that often lead up to tranquil pastures. The crystalline mineral water in them is delightfully clear and pure. The more adventurous and fit, can venture up these numerous tracks to sublime heights in this region of eternal allure, which awaits the adventurer. It has been said that beauty is revealed only to the solitary seeker.

Two delightful pastoral areas in Chipursan are the Ishkok and Baba Gundi pastures. Ishkok is a string of ponds in green pastures, where migratory waterfowl halt in autumn and spring. The name of Ishkok was originally Ishkok Zarin. In the Wakhi language, ‘ish’ meaning greenery, ‘kok’ - spring and ‘zarin’ from ‘zar’ or land of gold. Apparently, in ancient times Kirgiz and Wakhi people inhabited this area, and the people of this prosperous town lived a life of pagan ‘luxe’. According to legend there was also a fort with twelve gates of gold, before a great flood devastated the entire town. Ishkok is also famous for the legend of a nine-headed dragon, which was slain by a holy man. Beyond Ishkok the landscape assumes a more lofty and ethereal aspect and leads up to the enchanting flower-covered plain of Baba Gundi. The village of Sitmerg, in this valley, also has a tale of devastation by flood, following the visit of a stranger. Beyond the Baba Gundi shrine is the Pak Afghan border and here the Irshad Pass leads up to the Wakhan area. Barter trade between the Wakhis of Chipursan and the mostly Kirgiz nomads, is still in vogue here. Bulky yaks of the Pamir may be seen in the summer and autumn, making their way to Sust.

An important Wakhi poet is Khalifa Ismatullah, who resides in the Sher-e-Sabz village in this valley and uses the nom de plume of Mushfiq. He has written about 40,000 verses, essentially in Wakhi, but also in Persian and Urdu. To quote one of his verses “Zindagi, ye meri pehchan hai - Kuch din khak ka mehman hoon”. He has also written some books on local culture and hopes they will be published shortly. It was a pleasure meeting this humanistic and spiritual Wakhi poet. He says his message to humanity is that, “God made man ashraful-makluqat. Man should recognize sharafat and why he has been called ashraf”. He concludes that “shareef means better than all things”. Interestingly he explains that Kashgar is a distortion of the ancient Wakhi name of Ashgar– ‘ash’ meaning morning and ‘gar’, storm. Indeed Kashgar lies at a side of the windswept Taklamakan desert. Further, according to Ismatullah, ‘goj’ means treasure in the ancient language. Gojal thus means land of treasure.

Veering left a few kilometres beyond Sust, is the nearby idyllic village of Misgar. It is renowned for its crystalline waters and verdure, and is a parallel valley to Chipursan. In ancient times it was the more frequented Silk Route to China, via the Kilik and Mintaka passes. It is also home to the highly knowledgeable local historian, Fida Ali. According to him the old name of Gojal was Herber, ‘her’ meaning wisdom and ‘ber’, route. Therefore, this was the route to the great centres of learning in China and Central Asia. He also believes that the Brosho people once inhabited a vast area in Gilgit-Baltistan and the present Brosho people in Hunza, Nagar and Yasin are a fragment of that Greater Brosho. The Mirs of Hunza, as defensive strategy, also settled some Brosho strongmen in Gojal. For example, in Misgar and Reming villages, armed Brosho soldiers were stationed to counter the Kirgiz raiders who sometimes plummeted into these valleys from the passes of Upper Wakhan.

Gojal is also known as the land of fairies. According to one story, an intrusive hunter was blinded by a fairy curse at Pari Goz, near Hussani village. The descendents of this man apparently still inhabit the village of Gulkin, near Gulmit. There are also stories of days gone by, when rumblings were heard at night, and the existence of one-eyed creatures. Mir Nazim Khan of Hunza(1891-38) in his autobiography writes that “in old times people were much troubled by ghosts who used to appear in the villages with their feet turned backwards, and one eye in the middle of their forehead”.

Thus Gojal presents numerous avenues for visitors and trekkers and the administration is keen to encourage local and foreign tourism. The peaceful and progressive Wakhi people, also look forward to welcoming visitors to their land of jade waters and icy peaks. Here one recalls the inimitable zephyr of heights Shelley, who wrote in his Ode to Liberty:

‘The eager hours and unreluctant years

As on a dawn- illumined mountain stood…..

Men started, staggering with a glad surprise,

Under the lightnings of thine unfamiliar eyes’.

The writer is an art historian and a travel writer.