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By Nadeem Akram
IT was more than a couple of years back that I first went past Chakdara on my way to Islamabad. As we were crossing the River Swat on a relatively newer bridge, flanked by its 156-year-old decommissioned compatriot, my companion, a good old chap, pointed towards our right, and there it stood, a building with a ragged yet defiant look to it. It was the home of Chitral Scouts, I was told, and over the next half-an-hour I came to know everything that could be known about the Chakdara fort. That brief glimpse and a lengthy introduction stuck to my mind for days to come. My return to that place was inevitable, but that it would take this long, I had not fathomed.
It was a nice sunny wintry morning as we settled in our vehicle on our way to Chakdara. The weather had warmed up a bit in the early days of February and we had to resort to turning on the air conditioning every now and then. The journey to Nowshera was a breeze; with the exception of a few rough patches the road is in a tip-top condition. We took a right as we exited Nowshera and there we were on our way to Chakdara. We crossed Risalpur, followed by Mardan, Dargai and then Takht Bai. The road leading to Takht Bai was pretty decent, but as we crossed Takht Bai, things started to worsen. From Dargai to Batkhela, there was absolutely no reprieve. Gravel, ditches, fresh ploughed land, and remnants of what used to be a road once, was all we could see. There was an uncomfortable ease inside, as I steered the car through the maze of dust and drivel for almost 90 minutes. I wondered who was worse off, my family or my car.
I took a long deep breath at the first sign of road as we entered Batkhela. I chose the road running parallel to the water channel leading to Batkhela siphon. The clear blue water, flowing lazily yet elegantly, was a treat to the eyes. The water channel is over a quarter of a century old, yet it is in mint condition. The bazaar on our right was bustling with afternoon shopping. Men, women, yes women, and kids were all scurrying in and out of shops oblivious to the incessant honking of the passing vehicles. The ride amidst the bazaar and the water channel was quite an exercise.
Great history and picturesque surroundings make Chakdara a place worth visiting
We reached Chakdara just before the sunset. It took us about half-an-hour to get settled and as if by magic our hosts appeared as soon as we were settled in the guest house of Chitral Scouts at Chakdara. Pleasantries were exchanged, the ladies gauged each other and soon we were sipping the much needed hot cup of tea. It did not take my host and myself to get acquainted, neither did it take us long to discover the special bondage that a few of us in this man’s army share! The uneasiness of the first meeting melted away into a mutual admiration and a sense of comradeship that paved the way to very frank and intimate exchanges that would dominate our relationship for the next couple of days that I spent in Chakdara. The dinner was a family affair, our hosts realising our predicament of having to negotiate the road leading to Chakdara left us alone for the night.
My wife, being a woman that she is, could not fathom the idea of spending a moonlit night by the river all cooped up in a room with kids and a room heater. She challenged me for a night cap and a walk, and I was more than happy to oblige. After a hard day at the office, so to speak, it was not a bad idea to take a walk by the River Swat. Passing by the vigilant sentry watching the rear end of the guest house we exited the room only to be welcomed by a youngish moon eager to make an impression. As we moved out of the room into the open we found ourselves bathing in the milky light leading us to the banks of the River Swat. Serenity was all around, as we city dwellers slowly but steadily made our way to the banks of the river. There was absolute silence around us as if someone had, with a magic wand, turned everything off, save the whispery sound of the water flowing down stream.
Finally we reached the bank of the River Swat under the watchful eye of the moon which followed us like a dutiful chaperon. As we stood by what seemed to be the bank we were mindful of the fact that we were standing in the heart of the river; come summer we dare not venture so deep. Nevertheless, there we stood watching the water flow past us silently. The mercury had fallen considerably and it did not take us long to resume our jaunt. The journey along the river bank was riveting; we talked of the change in weather, the river flowing beside us, our kids and anything and everything that we could talk under the moon till we hit a dead end where river made a sharp right turn forcing us to retrace our steps. We paused there for a moment and about turned. Not a word was exchanged between us till the time we reached our room. God only knows what she was thinking; as for me I was simply glad to be there -- for them!
That night we all slept like a log, or so I thought. The next morning was fishing day and all of us were up early. Kids and I were up and about by eight, finished our breakfast and before you knew it we were at the bank of the river all set to fish. Fishing was quite an experience. We came across fish catchers posing to be helpers waiting for us at the bank. My inexperience accompanied by my ineptness to learn became abundantly clear in the first few minutes. From then onwards, I just sat there watching men at work. Soon it dawned upon me that the fish being hooked for us was to feed our fantasy more than our palate. I wished I had the courage to discourage them from doing so, but when it comes to showing courage we do it so very selectively!
Lunch was tastefully arranged; a hallmark of the institution that is known for its hospitality. Siesta followed lunch. The ladies decided to do the ladylike things after siesta whilst we men decided to visit Churchill’s piquet. I was not very sure if my nicotine-infected lungs would make it all to the piquet which is an eight-hundred feet climb. So I held my breath as my younger companion trotted alongside me explaining the terrain as we climbed slowly but surely. As we reached closer I could see plaque after plaque etched in rock honouring young men who had braved harsh winds, endured severe weather and negotiated hostile conditions year after year. My lungs were still helpful as we negotiated the final turn. It was only as I was about to place my first foot on the steps leading to Churchill’s piquet that my oxygen-starved calves gave in and through sheer will I managed to save myself from tumbling and busting more than just my crown!
Once inside the piquet, I was literally overawed considering where I stood. To my left stood the mighty River Swat flanked by the Chakdara fortress, to my right again the swirling river was making downstream journey and over my shoulders the deafening noise of the dynamite blasting away the perfect marble in a most crude fashion reminded me of the days when young Churchill spent his days cooped up in this building watching men die left, right and centre of this piquet. A young man thousands of miles away from home, perched in one of the most hostile terrains in the world, would want no more than to rid himself of the perils of a continuous war and meet up with his good old buddy Rudyard Kipling in Lahore who would win a Nobel prize one day!
To say that the view from Churchill’s piquet was picturesque would be an understatement, and an insult to the very spirit of aesthetics. As you look around from the piquet, you realise that there is nothing more beautiful than what you are watching. I have been to Aspen, the place people call the ultimate, I tell you, I have been there, but the difference between Chakdara and Aspen is that Chakdara is mine whilst Aspen is not. No matter how long you live there Aspen will never be yours!
I am tempted to write about the history of Chakdara, a favourite of mine; however, I will refrain myself, for once, to do so. It does not matter if Akbar the Great built it or not, the fact remains that the place offers more than a peep into history -- it provides you the peace which has never been the character of this place.
The Chakdara fortress has weathered occupation of one conqueror after another. It has witnessed young men being brought in from far-off lands as well as places not so distant only to be sent off to their death in the name of valour and bravery. It was hoped that such insanity would bring sanity to the world that we all love to live in, but the sad fact is that all those young men who were brought in to bring sanity left this place either dead or wounded. And it continues! After all boys will be boys and life must go on!
For centuries places like Chakdara have seen madness and mayhem and it would be a pleasant change for Chakdara to host holiday-goers like me into its bosoms and I pray that it stays that way for eternity. At the same time it would be an ideal opportunity for the babus who have been entrusted to protect places like Chakdara to kindly look into the affairs of Mankera, Dipalpur, Umerkot, Dai Anga’s Masjid, Dai Anga’s tomb, and many more!