unusual at Kalash
tourist to the Northern Areas,
Tourists and trekkers, along with residents of the Northern Areas of Pakistan, were angered by reports in sections of the foreign print and electronic media that Osama bin Laden may be hiding somewhere in the vicinity of the K 2 mountain peak. They still believe it was part of some conspiracy to destroy tourism in the area and deprive its people of one of their major sources of income.
Now that the summer tourism season is here, a number of tourists have been to Gilgit, Hunza, Khunjerab Pass, Ghizer, Skardu and other places in the Northern Areas. More importantly, some have trekked to the base camp of the fabled K 2 and returned with tales of their thrilling experiences. A Western diplomat from a small European country, who requested anonymity, remarked to this scribe after visiting the area near K 2 that he saw no trace of bin Laden or any other al-Qaeda figure in the area.
“Everyone laughed when the issue of bin Laden’s presence in the area was discussed. They all wondered how a TV channel or newspaper could give such an irresponsible and baseless report,” the diplomat said.
People in Northern Areas, particularly in Skardu-Baltistan where K 2 is located, were understandably angry over these reports. Both the administration and the political and social activists there held meetings and highlighted scores of reasons to show that Northern Areas cannot be a hospitable place for the likes of bin Laden. One reason they gave was that the Northern Areas were mostly populated by Shias, who normally are hostile to radical Sunni figures such as bin Laden. Another was the lack of public support for al-Qaeda. The harsh winter weather was also cited as a deterrent to outsiders wanting to set up camp and hide somewhere close to the K 2.
After the publication of a newspaper article that spoke of the unlikelihood of Bin Laden finding a sanctuary in places near the Mount K 2, a number of emails were received from Pakistan and abroad. All were critical of the reports carried by the foreign media, starting with the Al Arabiya TV channel, and happy that this impression was dispelled to a large extent following the publication of articles that ruled out the possibility of bin Laden’s presence in the snowclad environs of the K 2.
Umair Lateef wrote an email from the US. He said: “I have distributed your article to many friends here. I have been planning with my climbing friends to trek to the K-2 base camp this year and people had a lot of apprehensions about what they had been hearing in the news. Your article clearly describes that Northern Pakistan, which is one of the most attractive parts of the world for tourism, has nothing to do with tribal areas and the fanatics. I hope that we can be a peaceful country and open our beautiful land and culture for the world to see.”
Afshan, without mentioning her place of residence, also sent an email. She wrote: “As you might know, the K 2 area (Baltistan) is 96 percent Shia, and 90 percent of the village houses have photos of Ayatollah Khomeini or other Iranian Shia Imams. There is probably not a single photo of Osama... If Osama surfaced in Shia or Nurbaksh-Shia Baltistan, he would be martyred immediately. Local Mullahs have invoked fatwas against al-Qaeda.”
Dr Nasser Ali Khan, director of the Institute of Management Sciences (IMS), Peshawar, is a regular visitor to the Northern Areas. He goes there every year, trekking along with friends and students and enjoying the sights and sounds of Skardu-Baltistan. He has now returned to Peshawar without encountering bin Laden or anybody else from al-Qaeda or Taliban and is determined to go there again next year.
A number of tourists and trekkers have now been to the Northern Areas and are happy to have made the trip and enjoyed the experience. They are now encouraging others to go there and not to worry about the funny media reports that mentioned the vicinity of the K 2 as a likely hideout for bin Laden and his al-Qaeda lieutenants.
It is ordinary tourists who promote tourism in a better way than all those big and unimaginative government departments. Remember the State Bank of Pakistan introducing a new Rs 50 currency note recently with a lot of fanfare and committing a blunder by printing the words, Karakoram Peak, on its backside with the picture of the snow-clad K 2 peak. All those assigned to handle this project ranging from the bank’s Governor Shamshad Akhtar to the host of managers and hangers-on failed to notice that there is no peak by the name of Karakoram, which is a mountain range just like the Himalaya, Hindu Kush and Suleman ranges. The picture on the back of the currency note was unmistakably of the glorious K 2 and the height mentioned (8,611 metres) too was of the same peak. The mistake was pointed out by Shahzad Amjad Shinwari, a keen observer and assistant manager marketing at The News in Peshawar.
K 2 is the second highest peak in the world after Mount Everest. It is often described as the toughest and most dangerous in the world as more than 60 climbers have died trying to reach its summit. On Aug 3, eleven climbers from different countries along with their two Pakistani porters from Baltistan died while attempting to climb K 2. This was a timely reminder that those attempting to scale K 2, referred to as the mountaineer’s mountain, risked death and injury. The risks in the case of K 2 were more than during mountaineering expeditions at other peaks.
Every tourist and trekker who has been to the Northern Areas, particularly to the snowy expanses close to the K 2 base camp, knows more about the area than ill-informed media outlets that pontificate about issues and places well beyond their grasp. We have to court all those tourists, trekkers and mountaineers who have enjoyed the splendours of the Northern Areas and enjoyed the hospitality of its friendly people and want to come again. If they keep coming then no amount of unsubstantiated news and propaganda would be able to destroy the reputation of Northern Areas as a top destination for tourists and adventurers.
K2 and Concordia.
Height of disinformation.
Golden mountain K2 base camp hike.
A valley that has long fed the natives on its thriving tourism industry suffers the consequences of ignorance
By Zulfiqar Ali Kalhoro
The landscape of Kalash is breathtaking, to say the least. It encompasses verdant valleys, running river waters, meandering roads and wooden hamlets.
Kalash is located in three isolated mountain valleys: Bumboret (Kalash: Mumret), Rumbur (Rukmu), and Birir (Biriu) where both Muslims and non-Muslims live together. The non-Muslims are known as Kalasha — ‘the wearers of black robes’. Their dwellings are made of wood and tucked in the mountains.
Tourists from all over the world have always been fascinated by the serenity and the variegated culture of Kalash, especially during the traditional festival days when the place is so crowded that it is hard to find a room in any hotel in the locality. However, in the past few months, the place has seen a dramatic decrease in both domestic and international tourists. “The law and order situation in Swat and other parts of the NWFP is to blame,” says Ijaz Ahmed, owner of a foreign tourist inn.
During my stay at one of the hotels in Bumburet valley, I found that most hotel owners were sitting idle and cursing the militancy and extremism that have played havoc with their livelihoods.
A lot of people are not acquainted with the geography of Kalash. They assume that it falls somewhere close to the turbulent Swat region. Their ignorance is another reason why both domestic and international tourists are shying away from Kalash, says Taj Muhammad, owner of a restaurant in Brun village.
Interestingly, the scare has also led some gift shop owners in the valley to pack up. Souvenirs are a tourist’s delight. Kalashi ornaments made in Bumbret — namely ‘kopis’ and ‘susut’ — have always attracted foreigners as well as visitors from other parts of the country. But, again, the declining trend of tourism in the region has caused such souvenir shops to close down.
A friend of Taj Muhammad also recently closed shop in Kalash and moved to Peshawar. “I for one would like to wait till the Uchal festival (starting Aug 22) is over. If there is a good public turn-out at the festival, there is every chance that the tourists would be visiting the valley, too.”
I noticed four souvenir
shops in the Karakal village in Bumburet that were owned by
The situation is no different in the other two valleys. The business of people living in these valleys has also come to a standstill. A few tourists come and stay in hotels.
Tourism is an important source of livelihood in the Bumburet valley. “If tourism is not revived and life in Swat and other parts of the NWFP does not return to normalcy, we may have to close our hotel in Brun,” says the owner of Benazir Hotel. “We may have to shift our business to Gilgit or Hunza (where the tourism is still a thriving industry.”
There are people who visit Bumburet for education or religious purposes. Saeed Khan shared some very interesting information about how the Kalash people had been caught between two predominant faiths in the region. “About ten to twelve people convert to Islam annually,” he declared. “A lot of them convert to Christianity.”
Saeed also spoke of this Greek man who had helped establish a museum in Brun and was also involved in welfare projects in the village, “In the guise of a philanthropist, he has been converting the Kalasha to Christianity.”