Salman Rashid

Travel writer, Fellow of Royal Geographical Society

Gut Bela: the Lost Valley

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Ashraf Ali, my friend who was taking me from Saidu Sharif to Gut Bela said he called it the lost valley. Even though it is less than seven kilometres from the Khwazakhela-Malam Jabba road, separated as it is from the latter by a high ridge, it is yet remote, said Ashraf. It’s a beautiful valley with friendly people but one where no tourists ever go.

Having picked up Ehsanullah Khan, a most likeable friend I had never met until this day, a man who grows quality fruit and lives in a beautiful little cottage amid apple, peach and pear trees we went up the winding road to Malam Jabba. Ehsanullah Khan, sixty-three, clean cut, good looking and suave is the archetypal Khan as they once made them. Well-bred, cultured and educated he, a right proper gentleman, yet prefers to live in his village and mind his orchard. In fact, even in the dark Night of the Terrorists, he stayed put. He says he was periodically stopped at the terrorists’ check post but always let off without any trouble.

Only six months earlier I had been on this same road in an attempt to reach Malam Jabba after a heavy fall of snow. At one point even the 4x4 we were in foundered. No amount of trying with all wheels driving in low ration would get the jeep going without slithering this way and that – and in a most frightful way. We gave up and returned. But now, some few kilometres short of the once-upon-a-time ski resort we turned right off the road.

‘Road’ was a misnomer for the track we drove on. Pitted, studded with huge rocks it had deep ruts in the gooey surface. Later we were told in the village that for several days it had rained every afternoon and with the passage of a light truck or two, the so-called road had been completely ruined. But the Gut Bela community still considered themselves fortunate. Only until the army’s arrival to flush out the terrorists from the area, there had only been a foot track connecting Gut Bela with the main road. With dozers, the army created this road to transport troops to the outlaws’ hideouts. It was only understandable that after their work was done, the army did not maintain it any further. In the event it took us over an hour to travel 6.8 kilometres!

Ours was no ordinary outing, however. Ehsanullah had young Shafiullah in tow with his cargo of several huge plastic bags stuffed with new clothing. This was to be distributed to the good people of Gut Bela. They were so poor, said Khan sahib, that their plastic shoes had patches. To add to their misery, the flood of 2010 had destroyed their little patches of cultivation.

Whereas any other similar village would have had a thriving agricultural community, Gut Bela could only boast of subsistence farming. Remote and inaccessible as it had always been, it was wracked by poverty because of the difficulty of taking farm produce to the road head near Malam Jabba. Moreover, situated at the bottom of a narrow gorge, the agriculture was all done in tiny terraced fields, much of which were washed away by the floods sweeping down the slopes. But when the community applied to the district government for flood relief, they were told there was no way their little valley could have been affected.

Why, whoever heard of a flood in a stream as little as the one that washes their valley? The mandarins of the administration could simply not understand that in this case, the flood had swept not only in the streams, but down every slope as well as the rain came down like no one had ever seen it coming down. Consequently, Gut Bela was bypassed for aid.

With all their agriculture lost, the people were reduced to dire straits. While their village lay covered by winter snow, the men made do by working as labourers in the plains. And as the thaws set in again, they returned to try and reclaim as much of their terraced land as they could. But with holdings of as little as one or two kanals to each family, even this was hardly anything to get excited about. But this time round, the farmers knew they would be able to get their potato harvest out to the market for meanwhile a little miracle had taken place.

Ehsanullah Khan first came to Gut Bela in September 2009 shortly after it had been cleared of terrorists by the army. It was like coming to a human settlement the day after doomsday. He recounts that when he asked what it was that the community needed most of all, he was told they needed a bridge. A man led Khan sahib outside the village to a high point and pointed to a stream dashing over huge rocks. If they had a bridge across that stream, said the man, and if the foot track leading to the road head at Bishbund just five and a half kilometres from the village was improved for wheeled traffic, they would be able get their produce out in good time.

As a member of the board of governors of Sarhad Rural Support Program, Ehsanullah Khan got the necessary funding and work on the bridge began in May 2010. With the men of the village working as labourers, the abutments for the bridge were in place waiting for the top slab to be laid when the deluge came. As the stream laced with large rocks raged against the brand new masonry, the men who had toiled long hours to raise it held their breath praying for it to hold.

And it held. It held, says Khan sahib, because it was built by honest toil by men whose very lives depended on it and not by government contractors. If the Gut Bela farmers had hoped to have had their bridge and road in place to take their potato crop to the Khwazakhela market, their hopes were dashed for even as they prayed for their bridge to hold, they watched their terraced fields virtually lifted off the mountainside and washed into the river at the bottom of the valley.

As we progressed along the dirt trail to the village, I thought of the dozens of similar valleys where I had trekked in days gone by. The hillsides were covered with pines alive with birdsong, the trail, deserted and lonely, was crossed by rills of crystal water. Below us, hidden from view by the vegetation, we could hear the hum of the river. This was a trekker’s paradise, but later in the village I learned that never, even in the days of peace before the terrorist takeover, did any walkers come this way looking, looking (to borrow a phrase from the late mountaineer Galen Rowell).

In the village, the entire male population turned up along with some girls below age nine. While Shafiullah dished out his bundles of clothing with Ehsanullah Khan by his side, I talked to some men. This was a community untouched by the flood of tourists that had brought prosperity to the rest of Swat before things went bad in 2007.

Pointing to the three large houses nearby, I remarked these could well serve as hotels for passing travellers. The man said no one wanted to be in Swat because all ‘you journalists’ ever wrote was about the, mayhem, the shooting and killing. He asked me if I had heard a single shot being fired or explosives going off in my time in Swat. When I replied in the negative, he instructed me to go home and tell everyone that the district was no more violent than any other place in Pakistan.

Done with the distribution of clothing, we drove on to the bridge. From the centre of the village where we were parked, the shiny rocks bordering the trail were evidence that only recently dynamiting had taken place to widen the path. Only about a year ago, I was told, this was just a foot path. Across the bridge, we were soon on the old three-kilometre laid by the government from Bishbund.

If Gut Bela were anywhere near, say, Islamabad, it would be a favourite walking trail. Folks could have left their cars at the turn off Malam Jabba, walked down to the village to refresh themselves with sweet milky tea and take in the scenery. Then by the brand new trail, across the bridge, to Bishbund all of twelve and a half kilometres from road head to road head. This is good walking, much of it through pristine forest. There is no dearth of birdlife and those who care may even be able to spot martens and other animals of the family.

The good folks of Gut Bela may just be waiting for the first hill walkers to pass through their valley before they open their tea shops for business.


posted by Salman Rashid @ 00:00,


At 25 April 2016 at 12:14, Blogger Zahid Zaman Qureshi said...

Thank you so much for exploring such a beautiful valley and letting us know about it. In Shaa Allah, one day I shall visit this beautiful valley.

At 25 April 2016 at 12:14, Blogger Zahid Zaman Qureshi said...

Thank you so much for exploring such a beautiful valley and letting us know about it. In Shaa Allah, one day I shall visit this beautiful valley.

At 25 April 2016 at 15:17, Blogger Salman Rashid said...

Good Luck to you Zahid. I am sure you will love this virtually unknown valley. The people were very friendly and hospitable.


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Deosai: Land of the Gaint - New

The Apricot Road to Yarkand

Jhelum: City of the Vitasta

Sea Monsters and the Sun God: Travels in Pakistan

Salt Range and Potohar Plateau

Prisoner on a Bus: Travel Through Pakistan

Between Two Burrs on the Map: Travels in Northern Pakistan

Gujranwala: The Glory That Was

Riders on the Wind

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