Archive for August, 2014

Kalam, Swat, Pakistan

This is written by my dad in reflection of his recent visit to Swat, Pakistan in the aftermath of the military operations against the local Taliban.

My eldest son Aimal insisted that we spend some of our long Eid holidays in Swat. Unlike two years earlier, this time I couldn’t think of any valid reason not to agree with him, especially after the guarded encouragement from my dear friend Dr. Sher. During our previous two visits some ten years back we had greatly enjoyed his kind hospitality in Kooza Drushkhaila across river Swat from Khwaza Khela on the main Mingora-Kalam road.

But I still had my apprehensions, though. Deserted roads, broken bridges, endless check posts and the ghosts of Taliban hovering over us.

Aimal didn’t even consider it necessary to make any reservations thinking that we can just drive without any prior reservations for our night’s stay at Speen Mahal, or the White Palace Hotel, the winter residence of the former ruler of Swat. On my insistence we finally reserved two rooms in the PTDC Motel in Saidu Sharif a day before our departure as we weren’t able to contact Spin Mahal on the phone.

We left Islamabad for Swat on 30 July at 1400 hours instead of our planned departure time of 0700 hours. After a brief stopover at Rashakai just before leaving the Motorway and another stopover at Sherghar for lunch we reached Darghai, the gateway to Malakand, Chitral, Dir and Swat around 1700 hours.

At Sakha Kot we passed the usual police check post but here we had to go through the main military check post. A soldier wearing a gadget on his wrest that had evidently a wireless connection to the main NADRA data base waved us to continue our journey after scanning Aimal’s NIC. Passengers of the car just in front of us were not so lucky. After scanning the NIC of all its adult passngers they were asked to wait for further instructions. Their NIC might have been expired or fake.

By 1830 hours we reached the Malakand Swat border on the excellent road from the Motorway exit to that point. The traffic was also relatively light. So far the only bottleneck was at Takht Bhai where a bridge over the railway in the most congested part of the town crossing is under construction.

The traffic became denser and slower as we entered Swat. Both the incoming and the outgoing traffic was heavy as some people like us were coming for their vacations and many others were on their way out after spending their vacations. Youngsters traveling back in buses and vans when not being able to move forward would come out on the road and spontaneously start singing and dancing the traditional Pashtoon Atharn further blocking the traffic. With the road being under construction and the police and military check posts at regular intervals we soon found ourselves in traffic jam. In the absence of any traffic police people from both sides kept overtaking each other and blocking the incoming traffic. Occasionally travelers themselves would come out and try to clear the blocked traffic. It took us more than 4 hours to cover the last 10–15 kilometers into Mingora reaching our destination around 2330 hours.

Aimal was up at 0700 hours the next morning in order to avoid the anticipated traffic jam on our way to Kalam. Without taking our breakfast we were on the road by 0800 hours. Except for the poor condition of the road, the many make-shift bridges washed away by the floods a few years back and heavy congestion while driving through small and large towns on our way we drove more or less smoothly all the way to Madyan.

On our way we stopped for a quick breakfast at a trout restaurant in the middle of the lush-green rice fields that was built around a large fish pond. Some of its workers were just waking up after their exhausting duties the previous day till the early hours of the morning. All they could offer us was a cup of tea. We managed our ‘breakfast’ with the sweats we had brought along from Islamabad and some leftovers from our dinner of the previous night.

At Madyan we could still clearly see the full impact of the devastating floods. Apart from washing away the main bridge on the Swat River and the one on its tributary that joins it at Madyan it had also washed away a part of the town. Now one had to pass over one-way temporary steel structures. By the time we got there around 1100 hours there were already long queues of vehicles on both sides of these bridges. Most of the road beyond this point was also evidently washed away. It was not much more than loose gravel at places only wide enough for only one vehicle to pass. The result was that it took us more than 2 hours to cover the 8 km mostly unpaved road from Madyan to Bahrain along the narrow gorge of Swat River.

It was already past 1300 hours when we arrived in Bahrain where we stopped for lunch at a hotel overlooking the turbulent blue waters of the River. The weather was rather warm and humid for Bahrain but a brief shower made it more pleasant. While planning to continue our onward journey of 34 km Aimal happened to run into some tourists who had just returned from halfway to Kalam due to an overturned truck blocking the road. With heavy heart we decided to abandon the main destination of our trip and started driving back around 1500 hours.

Seeing several cars parked across the river after passing though Madyan on our way back we decided to take some respite from the long driving at a snail pace by stopping over by the river bank. After crossing a newly built bridge we tried to drive as close to the river bank as we could. This was also meant to be a treat for Aimal’s daughters; Khkula (four and a half) and Zlanda (11 months) who have been sharing our ordeal with great patience. All of us, and especially the two little angels greatly enjoyed playing in the ice-cold blue glacier waters and the multi-colored stones and rocks, some of which they decided to take home.

Instead of crossing back we decided to continue our journey on this side of the river. Except for the first few km of the narrow, broken and steep part of the road the rest of the road was a freshly paved excellent road though peach and apple orchards. Seeing low hanging fruit in the trees Khkula couldn’t resist asking for some fresh apples. Very reluctantly Aimal had to stop and plucked an apple and a raw persimmon hoping that no one saw him in the dusk after the sun set.

We could have taken this excellent road all the way to Mingora but being weary of again being stuck in the traffic jam coming from Peshawar we decided to cross the river near Khwazakhela. However in spite of this precaution we again got stuck in the traffic jam some 10–15 km outside Mingora for more than 3 hours. Finally we reached our hotel around 2200 hours.

By now Aimal’s patience had run out . He knocked at our door at 0800 hours the next morning announcing that we are returning to Islamabad. He even dropped the idea of visiting the Swat museum with excellent Ghandara sculptures that has hopefully survived the brief Taliban take over. He reluctantly agreed to my suggestion of having our breakfast at Speen Mahal, where we had planned to stay in the first place.

The initial half of the road from the PTDC motel to Marghuzar is excellent without much traffic. The last half of some 7–8 km of the road is a remnant of original narrow single lane road that it seems hasn’t been touched since Swat was merged with Pakistan in 1969. With not much traffic from the opposite direction we managed to reach the entrance to the Palace without much difficulty. Its entrance was locked and there was hardly any room to park our car or turn it around in the presence of the few vehicles that were already there. Finally I managed to get the gate opened to let us in where we parked our car in the small parking lot along with a few other cars that evidently belonged to the guests staying there.

We entered the Palace grounds after paying the 200 rupees entrance fee for the four adults that included chilled mango juice that was served in the veranda of the Palace. At the reception we found that the entire hotel was fully booked. I thanked our stars for not turning up here in the middle of the night two days earlier else we would have been stranded in the middle of nowhere. The waiter in the dining hall refused to serve us breakfast saying that they had only enough provisions for the guests staying in the hotel. Finally I was able to persuade the receptionist to serve us some simple breakfast.

Except for the hundreds of visitors roaming in and around the Palace all the time during the day the hotel that is located at the end of a cool green narrow valley has an excellent location next to a stream of sparkling spring water. Its walls are decorated with the pictures and swords of the previous rulers, the late Miangul Jahanzeb and his father the late Abdul Wadood. Unless declared as a national heritage or looked after the descendants of the former rulers this jewel embedded in the lush green hills will soon go into oblivion.

It was already past ten by the time when we finished our breakfast and we decided to start our journey back home. To our utter dismay we found that the gate to the parking lot was now wide open. It was fully packed with all sorts of vehicles with one car parked right behind ours. With scores of people pouring in every minute and roaming in the palace and its scenic surroundings and with utter chaos all around it was impossible to locate the owner of that car. All we could do was to patiently wait for him to turn up. Aimal decided to stay with the car asking us to explore the beautiful surroundings.

While waiting there I saw two armed soldiers take their positions next to the desk issuing the entrance tickets. I didn’t pay much attention to them thinking that they were meant to deter any terrorist who might disturb the peace of the swarming tourists.

When I returned after more than an hour our car was gone. Thinking that Aimal might have decided to take the car out of the congested place before we get stuck up again I started walking along the narrow broken road we on which we had come. After some time I saw him coming telling me that the car was parked on one side of the road about half a kilometer away. He went in looking for the rest of the family.

While waiting for them next to our car I saw two army vehicles driving towards the Hotel. Later on Aimal told me that as soon as these vehicles entered the parking lot the soldiers started pushing people around in an effort to make room for their parking. He also saw a lady, evidently relative of some army officer in one of the vehicles.

It was already past midday before we started driving out. Even now more vehicles were coming in than they were going out taking us a while to cover the narrower part of the road. Luckily the traffic was light on the rest of the way and by 1400 hours we were back at Landakai near the Swat-Malakand border. There we stopped for our lunch at an open air restaurant on the bank of Swat River. The rest of the drive back home was uneventful. We reached back home around 2100 hours.

Swat today is very different from the Swat that I visited some sixty years ago. It was then a peaceful social welfare princely state with thickly wooded mountains, not much crowds even during the popular Eid holidays or summer vacations, no pollution and, I am told, no crime. Dance and music was tolerated in spite of the fact that the ruling family had religious origins.

The first thing that struck me during this visit apart from the barren hills was the unusual crowds, especially on the roads. The most obvious remnant of the brief Taliban takeover, besides the police and army check posts, seems to be a roundabout in front of the Swat Serena Hotel that is named as Allah Chowk. The army presence, which was not there at all before the Taliban is now very ubiquitous as already mentioned. The star and crescent of the Pakistani flag painted on almost all shop shutters has replaced the Coke and Pepsi brands. A number of new bridges on the River, some replacing old bridges washed away by the floods and some good quality paved roads with work in progress on paving other main roads will open up Swat valley to many more people. I hope this doesn’t lead to the killing of the proverbial goose that lays the golden eggs.

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