As we sat in the departure lounge at Islamabad’s Benazir Bhutto airport, waiting for our flight north to Chitral, Peter Oborne confessed, “The only thing that could go wrong is the Taliban sending a raiding party over the mountains.” This is the kind of captain’s warning that concentrates the mind.
But for a certain sort of Briton, the words “Northwest Frontier Province” retain a kind of intoxicating romance. This is the land of Kipling and George MacDonald Fraser, of Kim and Harry Flashman. These mountains – as impenetrable as they are magnificent – were once the backdrop to another Great Game, played between the Russian and British empires as they jostled for position and influence at the top of the world.
More recently, and at great price, the ghosts of Empire have returned to the mountains of the Hindu Kush. Few western tourists visit Chitral these days. The old hippie trail closed years ago and whereas before 9/11 as many as 4000 trekkers and holidaymakers might have visited Chitral every year, in 2014 little more than a tenth of that number travelled to these remote valleys. It is too far, too difficult, too dangerous.
But Pakistan, a cause and a country that’s always on the verge of being lost but never quite is, repays a determined traveller many times over. No place could be more welcoming; no hospitality finer. No scenery grander either.
And as our plane climbed over the Lowari Pass and began its steep descent into the Chitral Valley, all Pakistan’s multiple difficulties seemed to fade away. We were the Wounded Tiger XI and we were here to play cricket on the old frontier of Empire.