“We weren’t even supposed to be here”, I thought, eyes fixed on Zerina’s hands as she expertly kneaded the dough on the large, black circular dome functioning as a bread pan.
We circled around the fire stove at her home in the village of Chittisar, a small hamlet in lower Yarkhun Valley, some 8+ hours from our starting point of Mastuj in the remote Upper Chitral region of Pakistan.
Read of other adventures in this part of the world from Marsha Jean, who cycled through northern Pakistan as a solo woman.
Our sights had been set on Broghil, a hamlet in the extreme north of Pakistan’s Chitral District- that borders Afghanistan’s peaceful Wakhan Corridor. We had checked and rechecked, but according to all the recent news stories and government announcements, the NOC (also known as a “No Objection Certificate” provided by government officials) requirement for the rarely visited destination had been abolished for foreigners, something our guesthouse owners knew to be true as well.
News articles that highlighted the recent Broghil Festival which had taken place only 3 weeks prior proudly echoed the new rule change: for the first time in years, numerous foreign tourists had been able to attend the annual event.
So off to Broghil we went… or at least we thought.
Our last day in Mastuj (the last major stop before heading North) was spent in preparation mode as we gathered bags of rice, dal, bread and a heaping mound of sugar. A friend of our guesthouse owner lent us some quality sleeping bags, a tent, and as it was harvest time in Upper Chitral, a massive bag of walnuts for the road. As packed and prepared as we could be, with only the names of a few contacts and our offline map to guide us, we set off the next morning to the Mastuj bazaar, eager to catch our first shared jeep.
Soon enough, we managed to get ourselves two seats in a van headed for Bang Bala some 20 km away. Lucky, considering public transport in this region barely exists. I spent the next 5 hours transfixed on the epic scenery. The late September breeze sifted through the partially cracked window, giving myself and the two local ladies to my right a bit of air as we trundled along the dusty rock-laden roads.
We ended up getting off in Birzoz, a small village just a bit before Bang Bala where we were welcomed by a relative of our Mastuj friends. I sprawled out on the guestroom’s mattress, appreciating the never-ending stream of chai, freshly picked apples and the delicious Chitrali dinner of shapik, a layered bread dish whose filling reminded me of my favorite cheese sauce from back home.
The next morning, we woke early as finding a ride deeper into the valley was far from guaranteed. But several hours later, a lift came into fruition: a chipped, vibrant blue pick-up truck with no less than eight men and boys standing in the back, and three women and a baby squished in the front seat beside the driver.
Though a far cry from the comfortable and spacious van from yesterday, it was headed towards Yarkhun Lasht, exactly the spot we had been hoping to reach that day. I settled into the back corner on one of the thick sleeping bags, gripping onto one of the rickety truck’s old metal bars.
Wide, rocky mountain vistas peppered with the first colorings of fall spanned out all around us as we passed dozens of villages rife with surprised faces when they caught sight of us goras (white people) on the back of the truck. The overloaded clunker climbed up higher and higher until we were coasting on the side of a literal cliff- no settlements, no cows, just the Yarkhun River to the left and a whole lot of rock to the right.
As we descended from the pass, the men ushered us out- apparently the car wasn’t heading to Yarkhun after all, but was stopping here. And “here” wasn’t just anywhere- but rather a massive, wide-open expanse of sandy dirt and 360-degree rocky peaks that gave off an otherworldly vibe. Checking my maps, we were in a village called Yashkisht.
I stopped to take some photos, as my partner Charles inquired about a further ride. Yarkhun Lasht wasn’t too far off, but as daylight shortened, our desire to complete the day’s quest grew.
An olive green Soviet-style jeep soon came to the rescue, and this time with an open front seat too. Comfort still wasn’t on the cards though, the rocky road somehow led to more bumping around than in the aging pickup truck, but at least this ride wasn’t for too long.
As the last rays of light slid from sight, we approached a checkpoint being manned by two Chitral Scouts guards. They moved to open the gate but quickly recanted upon exchanging some words with the driver, we needed to get out and produce our documents.
At first, it seemed like we would just be registering, but it quickly became clear that it wasn’t that simple. The head officer in charge was adamant that we needed a NOC to proceed any further. This must be a mistake, I thought. I was sure I had researched thoroughly. I scrambled to find any screenshots I had of the information or the articles I had read—ANYTHING to back up my claims. The shifty 2G service wasn’t on my side, but eventually, I managed to load the documents I had read and triumphantly showed the head officer in charge.
He went from insisting we needed a NOC, to agreeing that I was right, to finally explaining what exactly was really up: a day earlier, a guided mountaineering expedition had met with trouble further up the valley when two of the men had fallen while climbing a glacier. The smidgeon of service I had revealed that the accident was thankfully not fatal, and both climbers had been evacuated safely.
But even so, he wasn’t having it.
We begged and pleaded with the officer to call any higher-ups he could. We were not mountaineering or even trekking for that matter. I simply wanted to see the village, meet some locals, admire alpine lakes, and hopefully, see some beloved yaks. The officer brought us over to the police station, where despite a massive language barrier, the police officer laughed and said,
“It’s safe. You go, no problem.”
Heated conversations ensued in Khowar, the local language of which we knew none, as we anxiously sat and sipped tea. In Pakistan, even during the tensest of moments, it’s still a good time for tea.
We soon learned that this checkpoint had only been set up two days ago, and beforehand it didn’t even exist. Darkness blanketed Yarkhun Lasht and we were forced to retire to the home of a local man who had a partially constructed guesthouse. It wasn’t looking good, but of course, there was still hope that better news could come in the morning.
At dawn, we sluggishly packed our things and made our way back to the checkpoint. I respectfully pleaded with the officer, even begged for a security guard to ensure we wouldn’t wander too far or attempt to scale any mountains. After several more calls with his superiors, he regretfully informed us that there was nothing he could do: we could not proceed further.
Dejection, anger and despair welled up all at once. We had come nearly 10 hours over the course of two days, just to be told to turn back? Our Broghil Dreams were crushed.
The officer was severely apologetic, he filled us up with tea after tea, accompanied this time by strawberry-cream-filled biscuits, and reminded us to look on the bright side.
“Every part of the valley before this point is free to roam.”
There was no doubt I was frustrated: if only we had known this, or had been stopped earlier on our journey, the pain of being so close yet so far would have been missed. But… he did have a point.
Up until Yarkhun Lasht, we had been seeing the valley- but not really savoring it. Our goal was Broghil, and while the mountains on the way were beautiful, I was focused on how much more of the journey remained. I hadn’t really taken in any of the scenery, and we had barely met anyone.
It took less than one hour to realize that maybe, just maybe, this was a blessing in disguise. Moments after leaving the checkpoint area on foot, we found ourselves being welcomed into a local home for more tea and conversation.
This continued throughout the day as we walked with no urgency through the stunning villages that made up Yarkhun Valley. With so few cars, no tourism to speak of, and epic vistas all around, I realized that though not Broghil, Yarkhun was exactly the type of place I had always dreamed of visiting.
Back in Zerina’s kitchen, as I helped with the cooking over the traditional stove, I thought to myself there wasn’t anywhere else I’d rather be. Sure, it was frustrating at first that our Broghil Valley plans were squashed.
But what followed was truly immersive travel in a region even less frequented than Broghil itself, in villages and valleys I hadn’t ever heard of prior. If anything, this experience proved to me that the best travel memories truly happen when you least expect them, and when plans go awry, sometimes it might just be because even better ones await.