Magic Mountains

SSo sings Khushhal Khan Khattak, the foremost poet of Pashto. These lines from "An Ode to Spring" celebrate the colours and fecundity of his land. His other poems commemorate the wilder terrains of the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, the tenacity, the valour and the joi de vivre of the Pathan, the Pashtun, a hardy, hand­some people.

In contrast to other Provinces of Pakistan, this is a Province where each season casts its own spell. If spring is fragrant, summer is warm, even hot, in the valleys and invigoratingly cool on the mountain-slopes. Autumn turns trees, from rus­set to brilliant scarlet and yellow, and winter ushers in freez­ing winds and snow. Through the ages this land has enjoyed a unique position and character.

The altitudinal range is remarkable for a single country, let alone for a single Province. From Dera Ismail Khan at 125m, it rises to 7,690m. (25,230 ft) at Trich Mir, the 41 st highest peak on earth - thus registering a remarkable 7,565m.change in elevation. The Province is surrounded by the Gilgit Agency to the north, Punjab to its south, Azad Kashmir to its east and Federally Administrated Tribal Areas to its west. It stretches along the Indus from Dera Ismail Khan bordering Baluchistan in the south, to the most northerly boundary with Afghanistan. 

The magic mountain ranges of the Hindu Kush to the north and north-west, the Karakorum / "Small Black Rocks" to the north and north-east and the Himalayas / "Home of the Snow" to the east accord the land a dramatic backdrop. Fertile narrow strips along the Indus, desert in the south, lush and wooded hills, many deeply indented valleys, terraced hill-sides, tropical and sub-tropical forests, barren and rocky regions, all have contributed to make this Province, most challenging and endearing.

Beyond Peshawar lies the narrow gorge of the Khyber Pass leading west-ward into Afghanistan. South of the Pass lies Tirah bordered by the Safed Koh Mountains. The hills of Waziristan are for the most part .barren and treeless except some high ranges such as Shawal and Pir Ghal which have forests. Here the valleys are broader and fertile, merging into the plains. The Wazir hills rise to the Sulaiman Range, whose highest point is Takht-i Sulaiman / 'Throne of Solomon". This range forms a barrier between the Khyber pakhtunkhwa and Baluchistan Provinces.that such massive peaks evoke. The Kaghan Valley with the famed mountain-lake, Saif ul­Muluk, is linked to the former Hunza State through the Babusar Pass (4, 175m. / 13,589 ft.). The Nawagai Pass links Dir to Afghanistan. Lalu Sarpat Lake near Babusur Pass and Dodi Sarpat Lake are between 4,000m. to 5,000m. high. Accessible from the Khyber pakhtunkhwa, near the border at Chitral, is the 3.1 km wide Karumbar Lake at a height of 4, 150m. / 14,121 ft. Surrounded by the Hindu Kush, Southern Pamir and Karakorum, it is one of the highest "biologically active wet­lands on earth". It thaws during May to September and hosts "a spectrum of migratory bird species on their annual North/South journeys".

The region between the Afghan border and some of the remoter districts still preserves pristine wilderness. Here the hills often rise into ranges of great height and the valleys become narrow. Between the Hindu Kush and the Peshawar Valley are the territories of Dir, Swat and Chitral. The last is the most northerly aod a region of deep valleys and lofty ranges. To the south lie the wooded hills of Dir and Bajaur and the fertile valleys through which Punjkora and Swat Rivers flow. The snow-clad mountains of the uplands lift spir­its towards an expansive dimension. Not surprisingly some of the earliest sacred Sanskrit texts were written in this Province, and are imbued with a spirit of awe and reverence

The Kaghan Valley with the famed mountain-lake, Saif ul­Muluk, is linked to the former Hunza State through the Babusar Pass (4, 175m. / 13,589 ft.). The Nawagai Pass links Dir to Afghanistan. Lalu Sarpat Lake near Babusur Pass and Dodi Sarpat Lake are between 4,000m. to 5,000m. high. Accessible from the Khyber pakhtunkhwa, near the border at Chitral, is the 3.1 km wide Karumbar Lake at a height of 4, 150m. / 14,121 ft. Surrounded by the Hindu Kush, Southern Pamir and Karakorum, it is one of the highest "biologically active wet­lands on earth". It thaws during May to September and hosts "a spectrum of migratory bird species on their annual North/South journeys".

With such a vast geographic and altitudinal spread, theKhyber pakhtunkhwa has five distinct ecological zones and is home to rich fauna and flora. Some of the flora Khushhal Khan Khattak has commemorated in his poetic corpus, but the variety is large. It ranges from shrubs of arid areas to lush forests rich with herbs, from alpine to coniferous and deciduous species such as blue pine, fir, deodar, evergreen spruce, juniper and oak, chinar, maple, walnut.

One important internationally recognized migration route occurs in Pakistan and straddles the Province. The Central Indus Flyway enters the Khyber pakhtunkhwa at Dera Ismail Khan and its branches pass through Chitral towards Afghanistan and over the Wakhan Corridor with Tajikistan. As such the Khyber pakhtunkhwa is both home to, and staging area for, many migratory - water and dry land - birds such as the houbara bustard, cranes, sand-grouses, plovers, hawks and falcons.

The National Park at Mount Shaikh Budeen with an altitude of 4, 150 ft provides the necessary natural conditions to assist in the migration. Some other natural reserve areas are the Mandra Kalan to Ramak covering 100 sq miles, Saif ul-Muluk Lake and Chitral Gol National Park on the Chitral River. The last, the private shikar-gahj "hunting preserve" of the Mehtars of Chitral down the centuries, is a popular site for the sighting of hawks and falcons. Most sightings of Snow Leopards are also reported in this area during winter.

Among the regular winter migrants passing mainly down the Indus and entering by the Safed Koh Range and Kurram Valley are the Common and the Demoiselle cranes. The third species, the rarer Siberian crane also uses the flyway enroute to wintering grounds in north India. Of the three the Demoiselle, locally known as Koonj, is the most popular with the people. Its white down-curving ear tuft, pale blue-grey.body and elegant carriage make it a coveted pet in Khyber pakhtunkhwa households. These cranes migrate from central Russia and on their passage through the Kurram area are usually cap­tured at night by Wazir tribesmen of the Bannu district. They are ensnared with saya, a local device with a 30 ft long twine and a lead weight. This is flung at low flying birds which are attracted by the sight and sound of caged birds. The Koonj is a symbol of social status and also prized as a good guard for it becomes noisy and aggressive when strangers intrude. Of the many pheasants found in the Khyber pakhtunkhwa, the Western Horned Tragopan pheasant is the rarest of all. The elusive brightly-coloured pheasant frequents precipitous and mod­erately steep mountain-slopes in the oak and coniferous forests of deodar-blue pine in the Kohistan district, up to the treeline at 12,000 ft. It is occasionally found in similar habi­tat in the Kaghan Valley. To preserve and propagate pheas­ants, a breeding station has been established at Dhodial near Mansehra. Chakors and the black and gray partridges are popular pets, because of their sweet sounds. They are also believed to repel evil. An annual singing contest is held in Peshawar, when hundreds of Chakors are brought to chirp their best. The Chakor-call characteristically contributes to the ambience of the alpine part of the Khyber pakhtunkhwa, and is long remembered.

The Snow Leopard, among the rarest of large cats, is also found in theKhyber pakhtunkhwa, besides the more common wolf, jackal and fox, black and brown bear, monkeys and various types of deer. The Markhor and Urial once found in large numbers, as their heads in various residences of Deputy Commissioners and Political Agents show, are now endan­gered. Two species of Markhor goats - one frequents the higher reaches of mountains while the second, lower - are found in lesser quantities. The enormous Ovis poli, Marco Polo's Sheep, at certain times of the year occasionally strays from the Pamirs into the highest Gilgit pastures and the top of Hunza Valley. The Indus area happily remains the strong­hold of the Himalayan black bear.

Among the rarer, endangered mammals are the Indus Dolphin, the Golden Marmot and the Snow Leopard. The Indus Dolphin is found in reduced numbers between Dera Ismail Khan and Chashma Barrage. According to an estimate only about eighty to a hundred survive in this stretch of river­water. The Golden Marmot is found in the northern reaches of the mountains.

Sporting a beautifully marked thick coat of fur and longer, thicker and bushier tail than other large cats, the Snow Leopard inhabits the inner Himalayan ranges in Pakistan where both snowfall and rainfall is scant. In winter it occa­sionally descends to valleys as low as 5,000 ft. It is found very sparsely in northern Chitral, where the main population within Pakistan now survives. It stalks the huge-horned wild goats, Markhor and ibex. The locals see it as a destructive predator because it tends to attack even their goat flocks. But it is perhaps the most graceful of all wild cats.

The Province is criss-crossed by several rivers that churn their course to the plains of South Asia and to the sea. All, except the Kunhar River drain into the Indus. The snow-fed Kunhar, rich with trout, rushes through the Kaghan Valley and dis­gorges into the Jhelum River. The Kabul and Swat Rivers drain Kohistan, Swat, Dir, Chitral, Tirah and Peshawar dis­tricts. The Kurram River passes through the fertile Kurram Valley and the lower Wazir hills to Bannu. Three miles below Lakki it is joined by the Tochi or Gambila River which drains northern Waziristan. The Indus forms the eastern border of the Dera Ismail Khan district. Near Attock it meets the Kabul River in a spectacular blue and muddy-brown embrace.Within a radius of sixty-five miles from Gilgit are eight peaks over 24,000 ft, including Rakaposhi (26,050 ft) and the beau­tiful killer mountain, Nanga Parbat (26,650 ft). Nowhere else in the world are there so many lofty peaks, deep valleys and long glaciers.

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