A JOURNEY IN WESTERN CHITRAL
LIEUT. J. F. S. OTTLEY
By August of 1934, owing to pressure of work occasioned by the forthcoming Chitral Reliefs, my long-hoped-for month’s leave had dwindled to a meagre ten days, so that deep thought was required as to how to invest these precious days. Eventually I decided to trek through the high valleys west of Tirich Mir, 25,263 feet, in the hopes of obtaining a close view of the mountain and of shooting an ibex. Time availing, the return journey was to be made by a different route, passing through the deep valleys and pine-forests of southern Chitral.
In accordance with time-honoured custom my leave began on a Monday, and I gained a flying start on Saturday afternoon, arriving in Chitral by car the same evening. I rode out of Chitral very early next morning and gained a wonderful view of Tirich Mir, whose southern snow-fields dominate the main Chitral valley, with its intricate ridges and valleys thrown into sharp relief by the early sunshine.
Five miles north of Chitral the Lutkho river joins the Mastuj. Quitting the main valley, the motor-road runs along the right bank, the valley closes in, and little is to be seen beyond the barren scree slopes on either side. The valley is well populated, and a narrow strip of fertile ground along the right bank is intensively cultivated with maize and rice in terraces. Twelve miles from Chitral, near Bohrtuli, His Highness the Mehtar has a bungalow where he relaxes from the cares of state. Markhor appear on the cliffs opposite his residence in winter, and several fine heads have been bagged from the road.
The motor-road ends at the terrific gorge which the river has cut through a range of red marble, which forms a rugged backbone running south from the Tirich Mir group. The sun seldom penetrates to the bottom of this great cleft, and it afforded a welcome respite from the heat of an August day.
A mile through the gorge brings one out into the blazing sunshine, where two nullahs join the main valley. In the little amphitheatre stands Shoghot Fort, an important post, as it guards the only outlet from the Dorah pass, and also a back-door to Chitral up the nullah coming in from the south. On the opposite side of the river is a bungalow, the usual long, narrow polo-ground, and a village of about 200 inhabitants, nestling in the shade of some fine walnut-trees. His Highness visits Shoghot for the polo in the spring, but in summer it is very hot and infested with mosquitoes, which breed in the rice-fields.
My route lay to the north up the Arkari valley, a mile above Shoghot. The path had been washed away by snow-water and was impassable to a pony, so that the whole of that hot afternoon was spent toiling up the ten desolate and stony miles to Muzhigram. I had lunch at the village of Momi, after which the narrow valley is uninhabited. Muzhigram came in sight in the late evening, a tiny oasis on an alluvial fan at the entrance of a narrow nullah. My kit, which had left Drosh three days before, had arrived at midday, and camp was pitched in an apricot orchard by the village.
The next day’s march was a long one of eighteen miles to Owir. The Arkari valley is, for long stretches, arid and uninhabited. The track rises and dips along the hill-side in the most tiring manner, whilst in some places the swollen river had undercut the hill-side, and the loose shale was in motion as we crossed.
We had a long halt at Arkari, and changed coolies. This is a large straggling village in a widening of the valley; it stands at the mouth of the Dir Col by which the bulk of the snow-waters of Tirich Mir reach the valley, and, for the first time, near glimpses of the snows to the east are obtained. The inhabitants grow maize and millet, the crops being watered by means of channels running for considerable distances along the hill-sides; numerous orchards provide plenty of fruit and shade. Arkari is the last village in the valley and is curious in that the houses are built on to each other, forming a large warren, presumably as a protection against the severe winter.
Above Arkari there is an old fortification beyond which the valley narrows again; here the river runs clear and the path is undamaged. By evening we had risen to 10,000 feet, and, rounding a corner, came in sight of the large village of Owir, lying like a grey fortress among waist-high barley-crops, surrounded by steep shaly hills and backed by a fine snow peak, Ghul Lasht Zom, 21,690 feet, at the head of the Upper Tirich glacier.
Next day we turned west up the Agram valley, which for the first four miles is narrow, and little is to be seen except scree. Then the village of Agram-o-gaz (map, Agramdeh) appears, lying in a broad grassy expanse. It is a collection of filthy hovels inhabited only in summer; the flies here were appalling. Two miles beyond, the valley suddenly widens out into a big amphitheatre, flat and grassy, with cattle grazing by the stream, now running quietly through shallows. The scenery here is magnificent. In contrast to the flat bottom of the valley, at the far end rises a ring of glaciers above which stand a row of amazing peaks, projecting upwards to over 18,000 feet and looking like yellow teeth. They are composed of limestone, while the valley is bounded by snow-patched conglomerate crags from which huge screes fall steeply to the stream-level. Beyond a large grove of willows, many very ancient and gnarled, lies Nawa Sin Ghari, a shepherd encampment at 11,300 feet, where the shepherds live in rude bowers of saplings. Camp was pitched at the bottom of a precipice rising to over 16,000 feet.
The next two days were spent in strenuous but ineffectual attempts to close with a particularly fine herd of ibex containing six good heads. The weather was perfect, and one day was spent at 16,000 feet on the north side of the valley, in full view of Tirich Mir; from here the mountain appears as a great dome of reddish granite, enough to daunt the most skilful mountaineer.
The following morning we had to move on according to programme. The shikaris and myself set off in the dark, leaving the camp to follow; this time our efforts were crowned with success and I managed to shoot the leader of the herd, a 47-inch head, at 13,500 feet.
There are two exits from Agram: one, a glacier pass over 17,000 feet leading into Badakshan; the other, the Sadqulachi An, is at the top of the southern extension of Agram, and gives access to the Siruik Col, and so to the Lutkho. By 3.30 in the afternoon, we had climbed up tumbled masses of scree and moraine below the Sadqulachi, and were resting on a small plateau before tackling the final 200 feet of steep snow. Actually, we were able to avoid the snow by keeping close to a rocky rib on the right, and reached the razorbacked summit an hour later. The pass is 16,170 feet high and must command a fine view; unfortunately, it had clouded over, and there was only a brief glimpse into the Besti Col to the east and of the desolate peaks and snow-fields to the south-west.
There is a track down the precipice on the Siruik side, but the descent was made very tiring for the coolies by an expanse of snow melted into hard furrows some 3 feet deep. It was a great relief to reach the flat upper Siruik valley, where the way led along the grassy banks of the stream. Camp was made at 13,000 feet near some shepherds; there was a gale blowing, and most of the inhabitants of the little village were enlisted to hang on to the guy-ropes of our wildly flapping tents.
Late next morning the coolies left, quite cheerful at the prospect of climbing back over the pass to their village in Agram. We engaged ponies and reached Gabar Bakh by an easy ten-mile march down the valley. A mile below Afsik, the river cuts down through an old moraine, and the path descends over 500 feet to the lower Siruik valley. At this point a deep valley comes in from the right, and at its head the Mach pass can be seen, a deep trough leading up to a snow-covered col over 17,000 feet high. It is seldom used and then only by goat-herds.
Gabar Bakh is the highest village in the Lutkho, and is at nearly 10,000 feet. Lying as it does at the eastern foot of and about eight miles from the summit of the Dorah pass, it occupies an important position on this much used trade-route between Chitral and Badakshan. A few crops are grown, but the village makes its living by breeding ponies, which are in great demand in polo-loving Chitral.
I had already visited the Dorah pass in November 1933. It has an altitude of 14,942 feet and is the easiest pass over the Hindu Kush between Chitral and Badakshan, about fifty-five miles from Chitral. The pass may be visited in a day from Gabar Bakh, but it is more usual to camp at Shah Salim, a place with a few huts three miles up the valley at 12,000 feet. Shah Salim stands at the junction of the Uni Col and the Artshu Col with the main valley. There are passes at the head of both these bleak, uninhabited side-valleys, but only the Uni pass is used at all regularly, mainly by coolies, who consider it a shorter route than the easier Dorah. In summer Shah Salim is occupied by shepherds, but it is deserted by October.
From Shah Salim the well-worn but rough path to the Dorah pass climbs steeply, zigzagging up an ancient moraine to 14,500 feet, where the pass broadens out into a rolling, boulder-strewn plain, half a mile wide, which rises gently to the summit. The Lutkho river has its source at about 14,300 feet, where it gushes out and carves a deep gorge through the moraine.
The actual summit of the pass is a flat col with snow-drifts piled up permanently on the west side of the ridge. Steep rolling slopes descend to the bright blue Hauz-i-Dorah, Lake Dufferin, surrounded by rocky cliffs. These cliffs descend from a series of high valleys, culminating in a rocky wall which rises to about 17,000 feet. Above the wall soars a fine snowy pyramid which must be at least 22,000 feet above sea-level.
The pass itself lies among rather unimpressive scree slopes; there are no glaciers, but a great deal of moraine debris, and the view back into Chitral is partially blocked by the hills bounding the Lutkho valley. The first snow falls about the beginning of November, but the pass is not closed until a month later, and is not open again until the middle of June.
On the occasion of my journey in 1934 I did not revisit the Dorah pass. Instead, from Gabar Bakh, I went down the Lutkho valley, completing the very pleasant stage of fifteen miles to Garam Ghashma, near Izh. The Lutkho valley is quite unlike any other valley in Chitral. The whole country south of the Sadqulachi pass is softer in outline than the Agram and neighbouring valleys; there is grass on the slopes, and the hills go up in rolling downs to the rocky peaks. The valley is comfortably broad and does not lack impressive rock scenery. The hills are red in colour, and the flat bottom of the valley consists of white sand and boulders through which the river runs in a clear green cataract. At the narrowest part is a ruin marking the old Darband, below which the valley is populous and there are numerous villages. The soil is poor, but barley is grown and there are extensive apricot orchards. The Prime Minister of Chitral has his country seat opposite Birzin, a white-walled house embowered in apple orchards where I had lunch. That evening we revelled in the baths of Garam Chashma, and ate melons out of His Highness’s garden.
Several hot springs gush out of the hill-side above the village, and His Highness has built a private bungalow and rest-house, in which are concrete baths to catch the water as it leaves the ground boiling hot. He often comes to take the waters, and has installed a telephone to keep in touch with his capital. The village is naturally prosperous apart from the springs, and the ground is very fertile. The chief tree is the poplar, which is planted round the polo ground and in long avenues leading up to the bungalow.
Having four days in hand, I divided the baggage, and, retaining four loads, sent the remainder by the normal route back to Drosh. Our own way lay up the Bogosht valley which comes into the Lutkho from the south, almost opposite Garam Ghashma. It is the Lutkho in miniature, and heavy crops of maize are grown in its first three or four miles. Seven miles up the valley, at an altitude of 9,000 feet, stands Bogosht village. It is small and picturesque, being dominated by a mud fort built upon a single enormous rock overlooking the river. For a mile or so beyond, there are crops of barley and potatoes on the gentle lower slopes of the valley; then the path runs through groves of silver birch on the grassy banks of the stream.
Chingiko Ghari is a grazing encampment at 10,480 feet; it stands at the mouth of a steep nullah coming in from the east. Our pass lay over the head of this, the Chingik nullah, but it was as yet hidden by a vast yellow moraine blocking the valley. At dusk camp was pitched below this moraine, but at a respectful distance, to avoid the boulders which frequently came crashing down-a gloomy spot in a little bush-covered hollow with sheer rock walls on either side.
At dawn next morning we were scrambling up the left-hand side of the moraine; it was firmer than we expected, and, as the sun struck the red hills behind us, we reached a tumbled moraine plateau at 14,200 feet. The plateau is a quarter of a mile wide and bounded by amazing crags; two miles away at the far end a rudimentary glacier descends gently from the pass, which comprises two snowy cols separated by a rocky outcrop. Even in the midst of this desolation, we saw a small herd of ibex, and found leopard tracks in the frozen mud shore of a small tarn.
This tarn was nearly the cause of my undoing. The coolies showed a marked reluctance to stay by it and passed it as quickly as possible. I lingered and looked down into it. Hardly had I gone a hundred yards beyond it than I had a mild heart attack and was hors de combat for about twenty minutes. However, a couple of sour apples revived me, and I was able to proceed feeling none the worse. My shikari knew exactly what had happened; he told me that this lake, together with three others in Chitral, was inhabited by fairies who objected to strangers looking into their abode, and he said that it was only by virtue of his strenuous silent incantations that I had not succumbed! It may have been coincidence, but I am inclined to believe that there must be some sort of malign influence in the tarn. There is a story that a sahib attempted to cross the pass some thirty years ago. Evidently his shikari did not know the appropriate charm, for he had to be carried back to Bogosht! After four days he crossed the range by the Ustui pass. The other three tarns are situated, one near the Gangalwat pass, one near the Lowari, and the third in the mountains east of Tar in the Shishi valley.
By 1 o’clock we had crossed the tiring furrowed snow on the glacier and reached the left-hand col, 15,520 feet. The view is very extensive, comprising most of southern Chitral, including the Lowari pass which stood out as a notch on the far horizon, over fifty miles away. The Chingik pass is on a narrow crumbling ridge on which the sun beat with such intensity that we were soon scrambling down the other side.
Two hundred feet down moraine begins again, and we spent hours picking our way down over the boulders, precariously balanced on each other, which extend down the valley for quite 3,000 feet. At last a path appeared on steep grass slopes, providing grazing for a large flock of goats. At sunset we reached the huts of some Black Kafir goatherds in the Ustui Col. The pines lay close below us, and it was extraordinary how glad we were to see them after ten days of only rock and snow.
This point is the junction of two other nullahs leading to the Ustui and Uste passes; each valley is very deep and blocked by huge moraines. I was told that the Ustui is easier than the Chingik and is passable for cattle; it leads into the upper Bogosht Col, whence Afghanistan is reached by the Shui pass at the head of that valley. The next day, roundabout as the way is, the coolies returned to Bogosht village by it, so that it evidently is very much easier than the Chingik.
The next march lay down the deep-cut Ustui Gol where the river foams in a cataract under the pine-trees. After three miles it is joined by a wide nullah coming in from the right which leads to the Gangalwat pass, over 16,000 feet, but used regularly by men and animals; here again a moraine blocks the view to the summit. After another three miles the first village, Kanusht, is reached. This is interesting because it is inhabited by an isolated section of the Red Kafirs; they came into Chitral about sixty years ago to escape Afghan tyranny, and were allowed to settle in Bumboret Col, twenty miles to the south as the crow flies; they came as heathens, but practically all have been converted to Islam. They are clean, good-looking people, and their village is well built and prosperous; crops of maize and millet were ripening for some distance up the hill-sides, and the vines and apple-trees were heavy with fruit.
Below Kanusht, the river cuts through the same marble range as does the Lutkho at Shoghot. About midday we reached Kalashgram, a large straggling village of the Black Kafirs. These are the aborigines of Chitral, and are of a lower type than either the normal Chitrali or the Red Kafirs. They delight in wearing bright-coloured beads, and the women wear a unique type of head-gear; this is made of coarse brown cloth reaching half-way down the back, the head-piece being surmounted by a bunch of red wool and thickly sewn with cowries, while the back-piece is decorated with all kinds of brass ornaments, including old regimental buttons! Although picturesque, they are very dirty, and all the children had inflamed eyes aggravated by the heat.
The Chitralis do not consider the Black Kafirs worthy to be Mohammedans, and they remain idol-worshippers. They do not take their religion very seriously, and content themselves with putting up a few rude figures on horseback to guard the village; I noticed a pile of spare ones outside one of the houses. They are great dancers, both men and women, and whenever His Highness gives a party in Chitral a contingent always goes to dance before the guests.
I left this valley with very real regret, for, apart from its interesting and friendly people, it affords very good big-game shooting in the winter. Markhor come down to the marble cliffs, and numerous shapu live on the steep forested hills round the village. I had paid two visits and had very pleasant memories of the efforts of the people to make them a success.
Thursday, 23rd August, was the last day of my leave, and I still had twenty-five miles to go. Six hours of the morning were spent covering the eight miles down the Ayun Col to Ayun. This gorge is usually easy enough when the half-dozen plank bridges are in place, but these had been washed away above the junction with the Bumboret nullah, and we had to scramble along the cliffs above the left bank; in several places the loads had to be hauled across one by one, and we had to make the passage barefoot-an unpleasant experience when the rock is nearly red-hot! Luckily the A.P.A. was on a visit to Bumboret, and the lower bridges had been replaced. Ayun in the main valley was reached at 1 o’clock.
Ayun is the richest village in Chitral, and must contain nearly a thousand inhabitants; His Highness has a residence here, but there is no polo ground; however, the game is played with undiminished zeal in the broad village street! At this time the maize stood 10 feet high and the heat generated by it was terrific, so that we arrived at the A.P.A.’s bungalow in a state of collapse. The same afternoon I obtained a pony and reached Drosh in the evening, in time for parade on Friday morning.
It had been a wonderful trip, and its success had exceeded my wildest expectations. Nothing had gone awry, and the programme, even to bagging an ibex, had been completed. Thanks to the activities of past A.P.A.’s and the goodwill of His Highness, transport difficulties are few and travel is fairly cheap; at this time of year supplies were plentiful, and the whole trip cost just under a hundred rupees!
 The map (37P/se) shows two passes leading from the Sadqulachi Col, the Sadqulachi An which is on the track back to the lower Arkari Col by the Besti Col, and the Lutkho An which leads to Gabar Bakh. The author appears to have crossed the pass shown on the map as the Lutkho An (15,400 feet).-Ed,