Footloose — tales from the True North

He was in his mid-eighties and slightly hunched. With a wooden walking stick in hand, a woolly contraption wrapped around his waist, he smelled goats and sheep. We had been looking for Mehraban, the shepherd in his mountain hideout, off the Karakorum Highway (KKH) in Nagar Valley, north of Chalt village, when he unexpectedly straggled in front of our vehicle. We were en route to Gapa Valley (Chaprote)…a lesser explored area of Nagar District.

He was walking to his town home. A member of our entourage had met him a year ago and seemed impressed by his story-telling talent and lifestyle. Mehraban, the shepherd was unable to talk now, as an aftereffect of a stroke…we were to learn. His eyes lit up at seeing us and it was not difficult to discern from his gestures that he wanted us to be his quest. We promised to visit him at his town home on the way back from Gapa Valley, where the first snows arrived as we visited.

During our visit to his town house in Chalt later that evening, we learnt that one of his sons was a ranking commissioned officer in the armed forces and another was a senior professor in a local college. He seemed happily ensconced among his grand kids and pleaded us to stay in his house, as the night had fallen and a steady rain was ushering the early winter chill in.

Mehraban, the shepherd — we learnt — lives all by himself in the mountains; an arduous 45-minute drive from his town home that he walks to visit his family once in a while. He finds peace in the serenity of his mountain hideout where he tends his cattle with unfiltered love. He has lived all his life in Nagar District except for a visit to Rawalpindi/Islamabad for medical treatment last year. While up North, the rural community of Hunza was keen to let the story of dyal, the village shamans… so to speak…known. Surviving to this day, dyal — a hereditary position — is present in almost all villages.

He acts like a sooth-sayer, indulging in faal-geeri (fortune-telling), blessing events, countering evil eye and taweez-ganda (charms). Dyal is often invited by villagers to elaborate ceremonies in the village square or maidan. He enters such a ceremony with great fanfare, where he is made to inhale smoke from dried juniper leaves. Once ‘drugged’, dyal dances in trance and then drinks fresh blood from the throat of a freshly sacrificed sheep.

During this state, he is led to a select group of village elders, who put up questions to him. Continuing to dance, dyal looks up at the sky ostensibly consulting with the ‘spirits’. After such consultations, he comes back to the elders with answers.

These are just some aspects of our True North, which the locals believe was the prison for irate jinni during the times of Prophet Solomon, before any human settlement. Last year I wrote ‘The Relentless Charm of Our True North’ published in this space on 7 October. My wanderlust took me recently to newer areas of Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) in our Northern Areas (NAs).

One such escapade was towards the end of Yaseen Valley, the abode of revered martyr from Kargil War in 1999, Havaldar Lalak Jan, who won the first Nishan-e-Haider — our highest gallantry award — for GB. Derkot, the last village, would blow your mind with three glaciers in sight… right, left and front and a glacial lake at the bottom of the central glacier as the valley ends in a grassy meadow. Unimaginably picturesque, fall colours further adorn the meadow and the tree-lined tracks with leaves on fire. One glacial pass would take you to Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan.

The rivulet that forms after glacial melt trickles to become streams has inviting sights, sounds and scenery. Compared to Swat, Dir and other areas of KPK (except Chitral), GB has greater capacity to absorb large-scale tourism year around — both local and foreign. There are countless scenic valleys, some still untouched along every major road axis, that have the potential of becoming tourists’ havens. Tracking and camping in these valleys is presently being done at very limited scale. Officially sponsored drone photography would greatly help in exploring the hidden lakes and waterfalls in both GB and KPK. Ironically, the regulatory oversight of the GB government seems lax, except for the Tourism Police, which was not very visible this time around either.

I had previously mentioned the tortuous forty or so kilometers on the KKH from Chilas to Raikot Bridge, the start point of the high-quality road. Even after a year, this portion (called Tatta Pani Slide area) remains unattended. Simple levelling and compaction also do not seem to be within the capacity of the GB Highways Dept. By comparison the tourism-oriented activism of the KP government is admirable and far ahead. KP government attaches greater importance to road infrastructure including side roads into the valleys. GB, like KPK, also has much greater potential for off-summer tourism in two categories. First, the ‘Fall Tourism’ from mid-September to mid-October. Second, the winter tourism in December and January depending upon timing of the snowfall.

Like Malam Jabba resort in Swat and other areas in KPK, GB has greater choice of winter sports sites. In addition to Naltar, last year an attempt was made to organise winter sports on Khalti Lake near Gupis along Road Gilgit-Chitral, by private parties headed by Col (retd) Amjad Wali, whose talented daughters are ski champions at national and SAF levels. Rattu on Road GilgitAstore is another potential location close to Nanga Parbat’s base camp at Rupal village. Army (Forward Command Northern Areas — FCNA), Northern Light Infantry — NLI) and Gilgit Baltistan Scouts (GBS) actively collaborate and promote sports in the NAs. They keep locals enthralled by having teams of popular sports like polo. GB’s story would not be complete without the community development efforts of Aga Khan with far-reaching implications.

His followers, the Ismaili community adds a lot of colour to local life, culture and cuisine. Sectarian harmony of the community can be emulated across Pakistan. One hopes the GB government, sitting on a gold mine, pays attention to road infrastructure rather than hiding behind the façade of paucity of resources, federal interference and turf battles. Even Gilgit has poor roads.


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