High up in the mountains is another world entirely. Protected by towering peaks are unique ecosystems and otherworldly geographical features. And here too are the isolated and fascinating cultures, which we only glimpse in pictures in travelogues.
|A view of yak polo match|
The Broghil valley, situated about 250km from Chitral, is one such place. Its extended glaciers, incredible wildlife, scattered wetlands, rich wilderness, green meadows and mighty mountains are a testament to the untapped tourism potential of the area.
The ecological significance of the area is immense in the form of biodiversity, glaciers, rugged terrain, pastures and rills. Established in 2010, the Broghil National Park is a treasure of wild indigenous and migratory fauna especially of Pamirian and Siberian bird species. Broghil valley is basically Alpine tundra, a treeless mountain tract where vegetation consists of dwarf shrubs, sedges and grass, moss and lichen. The valley supports about 30 freshwater lakes of various sizes, presenting breathtaking sights which serve as energisers during the long traverse through the valley. Kuramber Lake, from where the River Chitral originates, is known as the King Lake, being the 31st highest land lake in the world.
|Ice-cold water stream — a common sight in the valley|
To avail the opportunity of visiting this incredible land, two options are available. One can take a flight but it is often subject to cancellation because of weather conditions; the alternate option is to drive to Chitral town from where another 14-hour drive and trek through the meandering valley and road is required to reach the destination. Mastuj is the nearest place; however, Broghil is still about 10-hour drive and hike away. The track has now been developed into a jeepable road up to Shakarwar which earlier had to be covered entirely on horses or ponies.
Visit a lesser known place that features a lesser known sport
The adventurous track across the valley up to Kurambar Lake would expose tourists to many fabulous scenes that appear as if they have come out of a picture book.
These landmarks attract many local and international tourists to this part of the country, especially in summer and preferably between June-August for its colourful events and landscapes. And among those events is one you’ve probably never heard of before: Yak polo!
|Struggle for the ball during yak polo match|
While Shandur is known to many because of horse polo where thousands of visitors come to see the sport, the yak polo of the Broghil Valley is a rare sight for many tourists because it is organised in the farther valley, which is difficult and time-consuming to reach. The Broghil festival is organised with a gap of about a week between it and the Shandur festival to provide an opportunity for visitors.
|Yak polo is played at an altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level|
Usually the three-day Broghil festival is held in mid-July, soon after the Shandur festival, but due to Ramazan falling in July this year the festival was organised in the third week of the August at Shakarwar. According to Umar Rafee, president of the Chianter Welfare Society, “Celebration of the Broghil festival helps to expose the area and its culture to the rest of the country and the world besides maintaining the cultural integrity of this very tract.”
It is not just all festivity; visitors also get the opportunity to enjoy the rich panorama of the valley. Historically, the Wakhi communities in the Broghil are the descendents of people from the Wakhan corridor, which extends from China to Afghanistan, between Tajikistan and Gilgit-Baltistan, who headed here for its vast meadows. While traversing the length and breadth of the valley, the pastoral lifestyle of the local communities can be observed.
Those who make it to this exquisite event shouldn’t expect much in terms of facilities ahead of Mastuj. The terrain is rough and there are no hotels or restaurants for visitors, who will have to stay in tents.
|Yaks are a source of livelihood for the locals|
The festival generally comprises sporting events including Buzkashi, horse racing, marathons, Wakhi style polo and, of course, yak polo. Local music and Wakhi folksongs echo in the air, while local handicrafts such as rugs, mats, socks are displayed for tourists. For the culinary adventurers, local food is also available.
Unique to the highland, yak polo, played at an altitude of 13,000 feet above sea level, remains a major attraction of the festival. It is a special sporting event of the Wakhi community which is played riding on yaks instead of horses in the Himalaya and Hindukush mountain ranges of the country. Interestingly, a similar sporting event is also held in Mongolia.
|This sort of sports event also boosts up the economy of the local community in the Wakhan corridor|
For polo playing male yaks of between five to seven years, preferably of the Pamir breed are used, as this breed is considered very sturdy. Since the yaks can’t sustain high temperatures, the ideal time for the sport is morning or the early afternoon. Each polo team has six players who swarm and rush towards the opponent’s goal post, some defending and others attacking. It’s amazing to see these riders control these huge beasts with the help of only a simple bridle. At each goal scored the air is filled with chanting and cheering. After a number of rounds, the best two teams reach the Final.
When they’re not dominating the field, yaks are also useful means of transportation and support the livelihood of the local people at large.
Participation in the Broghil festival not only gets people close to the culture of the mountain dwelling Wakhi community but these few days are spent in a cooler weather away from the scorching heat of the plains of the country. This sort of sports event also boosts up the economy of the local community in the Wakhan corridor with mesmerising scenes and lingering memories.
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, September 7th, 2014