The valley was a mix of dark green and brown pastures, rubbles of stones and dust particles, with missing blue color from an absence of a water body being compensated by a sparkling blue sky, crystal clear on this day of July 20th.
Large canvas camps for guests and foreigners were neatly tucked on one side while locals had camped on the other with their food camps set up nearby serving meals and chai to a large crowd of people. A few horses galloped in the valley, preparing for a polo match later while there was a hushed sound of drum beats from somewhere. At the very end, beyond which was nothing but folding mountains, was the Baba Ghundi shrine adorned with flags of different colors representing a holy site.
This was the first look of the Baba Ghundi Festival in Chipursan valley. A place I had read about for the first time in a travelogue by Mustansir Hussain Tarar and instantly made up my mind to visit someday. Little did I know it would take me 2 years to fulfil my dream. Do you know what that feels like?
I only knew that I had strange butterflies in my stomach the moment we started our journey from Sost around 8 am in the morning and it continued all through the way till we reached Zoodkhun , the last village of Chipursan, beyond which you’ll only find meandering river streams, lush green meadows, water pools and some gypsy houses. Reality hit me, when I actually reached the festival and laid my eyes on the shrine that I was living one of my wish lists in real life.
Once settled, we headed to the shrine to pay respects. The area behind it is heavily guarded by armed forces as this place is just a day’s trek away from the border of Tajikistan in the North west and Afghanistan to the west, basically making this region almost touching the Wakhan Corridor (Time for Google and revisiting some history lessons!)
Who is Baba Ghundi?
Baba Ghundi is a celebrated Sufi saint in the upper Gojal region of Northern Pakistan. Originally from the Ghund in Afghanistan, he is revered to rid the lands of evil presences and spread Islam in the region. A water stream flows right behind the shrine, said to have healing qualities for all and sundry, specially as a cure to couples struggling to conceive and even as a remedy for children who are often a nuisance to their parents. I found a huge line of people at the stream waiting for their turn, to have a single sip of this elixir.
Cameras aren’t allowed inside the vicinity of the shrine so I left that part for later and stepped inside. A square wooden structure with slanted ceilings covered with colorful flags reminds you of similar design from Nepal. A narrow passage is built around the shrine for people to walk in an anti clockwise direction as they recite a prayer for the beloved saint. The common practice involves to maintain a decorum of silence at all times while inside the shrine and to leave the shrine facing the grave, and not turning your back against it as a sign of respect.
The two day festival brings together Wakhi people from both regions of Afghanistan and Pakistan at the border to revive the centuries old traditions of exchanging trade, involving many other sport activities like Buzkashi, Niza Bazi, Polo, Yak Race and tug of war.
The festival is annually organised by the Chipursan Local Support Organization in collaboration with the Gilgit-Baltistan’s Ministry of Tourism and Aga Khan Rural Support Programme.
Since Shandur polo festival had recently happened, the polo match was not something I was too thrilled about, however, Buzkashi had my interest piqued. This centuries old Central Asian game literally meaning “goat pulling” involves placing a goat carcass on the goal by one of the many horse mounted players. This game is the perfect depiction of WILD. Dust raising off the ground from speedy galloping of raging horses, all directed to just snatch the carcass from the other and take it to the goal.
Next up on the “Interesting” list was witnessing the Yak race for the first time. There were just two participants as most of the herd had gone up to the Pamir due to warmer temperatures down here and locals weren’t able to fetch them for the match. So it wasn’t really going to be a tough decision after all. One of the yaks was severly angsty and even managed to throw its rider off dragging him severely on the ground but hats off to the strength and courage of the player that he managed to hold onto the leash and get back on it but the damage was done by then, he had lost the race already.
Meanwhile I also got to meet this badass female horse rider, Bibi Niqba, from Ispanj village of the valley who had been horse riding for many many years; and she isn’t the only one. The women here are often seen performing such daring activities, be it horse riding, climbing or any such sport that is often associated with the male gender specifically. It was extremely uplifting to see such empowerment here in these remote valleys while the big cities still struggle to implement it.
The festival also included local dance performances on Wakhi and Shina songs, Neza Bazi or Sword show and a Sufi night with captivating performances by Wahab Shah and the special guest, Saeen Zahoor, a popular Sufi artist who delighted the audience with his transcending music and kalam for hours.
The Local Food
One of the delightful things to enjoy at any festival is trying out various foods specially that which represents local flavour. People in the North have relatively simpler taste buds hence the options maybe limited but they were nothing short of delicious to our palettes. Local families had set up camps where the women prepared and served the meals to approaching guests. We sat inside one of the food camps and ordered ourselves some Molida, Graal, Mirik and of course Chai, lots and lots of chai!
Most of the local dishes are made using wheat / barley, sour buttermilk, yak cheese (if available) and apricot oil, a must ingredient in any Wakhi food.
Besides these, there was one other commercial food stall as well, Da’awat, that also happened to invite us over for dinner the first night and yes it was a heartiest one – with the special serving of Rice & BBQ – served in a perfect setting of a cold chilly night in Chipursan, sufi music being played live in the background, people swaying in the trance of kalams and great tasting food!
Exploring Chipursan Valley
Once the festival ended, we decided to head back to the village and explore around in whatever little time we had. So we made a night stay in Zood khon, at probably the first ever guest house that was constructed here: Pamir Serai owned by the very knowledgeable and well explored Alam Jan Dario, who has gazillion stories to tell about the Wakhan culture and his adventures. He also happens to have written the very famous Wakhi poetries – Ambar – e – Pomir & Gul – e – Amber
Chipursan has about eleven villages of Gojal district, which include Yerzirich, Raminji, Kirmin, Kill, Reshit, sher-i-subz, Ispanj, shetmarj (kimpir diyor) & Zood Khon with Reshit being the oldest of them all. Naturally, due to shortage of time we couldn’t have explored all of these so we just made a day tour to Yishkuk, a series of pristine blue water pools, roughly three hours ahead of Zood khon by walk, after which we finally headed back to Sost closing out on our journey to the vast and majestic Chipursan Valley and the unforgettable Baba Ghundi Ziarat.
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