Wednesday, September 06, 2006


The day of my departure Azam handed me an envelope. It contained a letter of introduction to a relative of him, who lived in Naghar, on the way to Chitral, and who could put me up for the night. He referred to whim as “the prince”, which I thought was a nickname. But I was wrong; Azam’s brother in law belongs to the former Royal Family of Chitral. Let’s say it better: hadn’t royalty titles been abolished by 1969 he would be King of Chitral. Finding his residence, Azam explained, would be easy: you cannot miss a fort built on an island amid the streams of the Chitral river and linked to ground by a suspension bridge. I was shown a picture and hit the road. It was what I would call a nominal adventure: regardless the outcome, hitchhiking in search of a prince’s fort was quite the event alone. The towns of Chakdara and Dir set the turning point where, slowly, Pashtuns begin to give way to Chitralis. More and more frequently, I see white skinned, green-eyed people. Caucasoid features is something you wouldn’t expect from Pakistan, but the Northern Areas are truly an unfinished Rubik Cube, with patches of different people here and there, and many valleys speaking their own languages” Pashto, Khowar, Wakhi, Kalashmun, Farsi, Shina, etc Some of these people have migrated from neighboring countries centuries ago, following ancient trade routes. But the origin of some others still remains a mystery.

Exiting Dir I couldn’t resist the temptation of boarding an old Bedford trucks that was slowing down and inviting me with the horn. Pakistani trucks are giant rattles: from their entire perimeter hang metallic chains whose clash announce the truck from half a mile. The carved wooden doors seem to have been made for a temple, and the truck itself may well be a wheeled rococo cathedral. Boarding such a slow monster would have been a terrible mistake if the truck had been going far. But soon I was free and got a lift in the minivan of two engineers, bound to the other side of the Lowari Pass. After Ladakh’s high passes, I will need a one-year spiritual retreat in Holland to recover the adrenaline when going over 3000m.

Two hours after the pass the Prince’s for appear behind the bend of the river. When I arrive he chatted with his servants in the garden. Bore has diluted casts… As there aren’t anymore “regal” issues to be busy with, the kind prince, whose name was Salahudin, runs a small guesthouse inside the very fort. That’s where I met Richard, a Brit who had driven his BMW motorbike from England, and who gained my respect when saying that “work” once meant for him traveling to Sudan to arrange the exportation of sheep to Yemen.

Chitral seems a never-ending chain of farms under the dramatic background of Tirich Mir (7708m) among other Hindu Kush giants. While the entire bazaar was suggesting I should go to a hotel, a small man, dressed in white pants and shirt, and sporting a black navy cap with the embroidery of a war ship, called me apart. His name was M.I.Khan, and he was a lawyer. He promptly produced a wonderful speech on equality among men, and gave me the key to his office. He was one of that universal minded men that, if lucky, you may find even in the most remote of this planet’s provinces. Eventually I was off to explore the bazaar carefully, discovering that many vendors there spoke Farsi, since they are originally Tajiks from neighboring Afghanistan. Proximity to such country legally forced me to register in the local police station, where the sound of Olivetti typing machines still silences the few dusty oversized computers. “It is for you own safety Sir”-said the policeman there. I explained that I had been a month inside Afghanistan with no inconveniences, but let them fill the forms anyway. In the streets of Chitral I also met Richard again, who was trying to get the local mechanics to fix the electronic starter of his motorbike. Richard held the curvature of his head as the mechanics unscrew everything they found with the only inspiration of the Holy Quran, let alone the User’s manual.

On the second day after arrival I departed for the Kalash valleys. Who are the Kalasha? Nobody truly knows. In a country with 120 million Muslims, the Kalasha, that once dominated the whole Chitral, are the last 4000 survivors of the Kafiristan (or land of the unfaithful). Technically, they are the only Indo-Aryan people of Central Asia that was not (yet) converted to Islam. You can walk from Kashmir to the Turkish Mediterranean, and the only non-Muslims you will find are going to be the Zoroastrians at Yazd, Iran, and the Kalasha. Their beliefs are closely linked to the pantheism of old Vedic religions. Until the late 19th century the Kalasha lived relatively isolated, on both sides of the Hindu Kush, protected by a labyrinth of valleys and mountain ranges. Little was known about them, and the Royal Geographical Society considered Kafiristan the last mystery in Asia. The fate of the Kalasha changed when the British Empire, in their desire to avoid Russian influence in Central Asia, opted for a solid Afghanistan, drawing the Durand line in 1893 and arming the Emir of Kabul, who immediately launched a military crusade to convert the Kalasha on the Afghan side to Islam, through gunpowder… On the Pakistani side they still retain three valleys: Birir, Rumbur and Bumboret, although even there are outnumbered by Muslims (new settlers and converted Kalasha).

I thought the suspension of the jeep was going to cede before we would make it to Rumbur. The valley was comprehensibly narrow, being the sanctuary of an endangered culture. There is nothing in the valley big enough to be called a town. Only hamlets, where two storey houses edge the mountainside in order to take the most possible profit of the narrow even land used to cultivate corn or tomato. In Grom, one of the settlements, I met Engineer Khan. “Are you an engineer?” –was the first question to make him. “No, my father named me that way cause he wanted me to be the first one in the family to attend school” What was a family experiment had an unexpected outcome when the young Engineer announced he was ready to go to university. Both parents looked each other in dismay, in sought advice in their ancestors through the voice of a shaman. With the permission of the past (and not before swearing his grand mother that he wouldn’t convert to Islam) Engineer left his valley for the first time to study in Chitral, and came back years later with a degree in Political Science, becoming the first graduated ever among the Kalasha.

Having learned about politics, Engineer knew better than anyone that politics wasn’t at all what the Kalasha needed, and instead founded the first school in Kalashamun, their native language. It’s a pleasure to learn a few words of a language that is only spoken by a few thousand people. We must remember that a language is much more than a channel of communication; it’s a unique way to organize the universe. And the entireness of the Kalasha universe is still under threat: a group of Greek intellectuals have introduced the idea that the Kalasha may be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s lost legions. A romantic explanation we would all like to believe, but without scientific back up, unless you consider the prevailing green eyes as an argument. There are some who even think that these Greek are creating a small Christian community among the Kalasha, and that they are waiting for a larger number to build their first church. I spent two days walking around the plantations. From everywhere I could here a melodic “Ishpata, baia!” (How are you brother!). Regardless their blood links, the Kalasha refer to anyone as brother or sister. You feel like in a Rainbow Gathering. As usual, cultures based in brotherhood and harmony have the worst cards against a destiny that plays kings and aces. I am walking towards Gilgit: China is inching closer.


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