Life Beyond Swat’s Tourist Trails

10 min read

By: Ubaid Sahil

Bishigram Valley, situated along the Ulal River in the upper reaches of the spectacular Swat Valley, exemplifies both the natural beauty and the harsh realities of remote living. Amid the breathtaking landscapes of Pakistan’s northern regions, the Swat Valley is particularly renowned as a prime tourist destination. In 2023 alone, over 4 million local tourists (4,049,000 reported) and more than 4,000 international visitors were drawn to its awe-inspiring beauty. The Swat Valley boasts numerous stunning sites, including Malam Jabba, Kalam, Gabin Jabba, and Mahodand Lake, offering visitors an array of natural wonders. Nevertheless, some remote destinations within the valley remain yet to be discovered.

Last week, I decided to explore the serene Bishigram Valley, my birthplace, where I spent my early childhood. I followed the Ulal River and eventually hiked to a remote meadow locally known as “Gujjar Band” (The Pasture of Gujjars). This completely remote meadow is far removed from the complexities of modern life, where life exists in its simplest form and the inhabitants live very close to nature. The meadow showcases the true beauty of natural treasures: lush greenery, a small yet serene and clear creek, welcoming smoking nomadic inhabitants, and an intimate connection with nature. This is what Gujjar Band offers its visitors.

Life in harmony with nature’s rhythm presents unique challenges. The road, navigable only by 4×4 vehicles driven by experienced drivers, ends halfway, requiring a hike of over two hours to reach the meadow. The remote Gujjar Band is home to no more than 50 families, yet the inhabitants are very welcoming and hospitable. The houses, built of mud, resemble huts. There are no shops and no medical facilities.

The nearest hospital is a three-hour walk away and is a basic health unit that provides only minimal healthcare services. The main hospital for the region is located in Madyan City, which is an additional one-hour drive from the BHU. There is no school in the meadow; children must walk an hour down the valley to attend a primary school that lacks proper staff. The high school, located even further down the valley, also suffers from a shortage of teachers. The region receives a high amount of precipitation, and in harsh weather, children face significant hardships traveling to school.

The inhabitants of Gujjar Band procure groceries only once a week due to the difficulty of transporting supplies to the meadow. Some use donkeys and mules, while others carry the groceries on their backs. The nearest shops are a two-hour walk downhill. The infrastructure in the entire region is heavily damaged due to the floods of 2022. The main road leading to the valley, which was already under construction, was submerged during the floods. Construction has been halted for the past two years, along with other regional government projects, due to a lack of funding from the provincial government. Technology and other modern conveniences arrive here very late. The use of smartphones and other tech tools is rare, and the network system was installed only a couple of years ago.

Despite the hardships and struggles, the spirit of Gujjar Band’s inhabitants remains strong and motivated. They handle every matter collectively. The traditional “Hashar” culture is practiced by the villagers, where all hard daily activities are done jointly. During grass-cutting seasons and the construction of new houses, every male in the village participates in the Hashar to offer assistance. This unique cultural practice is also found in other northern regions. Issues are resolved through the local Jirga system, where elders use their influence to settle disputes. During harsh weather conditions and catastrophes, the inhabitants manage the damages themselves, repairing trails, irrigation systems, and infrastructure.

I met Arshad, one of the few teenagers from Gujjar Band attending high school. He travels about 12 kilometers each day, walking for an hour and then driving for another hour to reach his school in Madyan City. He explained that the lack of teaching staff at the local primary school seriously hindered his education, making it difficult for him to gain admission to high school. When I asked him about his plans after matriculation, he replied, “My family can’t afford my higher education, so I will sacrifice my educational career and join my father in his job to earn enough to feed our family.” His father is a shopkeeper in the valley. Arshad also mentioned a friend who left school in the 9th grade to work and support his family financially, which is struggling due to record-breaking inflation. He told me that no one from his meadow has ever attended college.

Some welfare organizations are working to rebuild the damaged and submerged infrastructure and support flood victims in the region. However, sustained efforts and greater investment are needed to ensure lasting improvements. With continued support, these resilient communities can look forward to a brighter future. I asked a local about their issues, and he highlighted some major concerns: “We demand health facilities from the authorities, our children deserve to be taught at proper schools, and our infrastructure needs to be constructed to make it easier for us to live high up here in the remote mountains. Our meadow is no less spectacular than other destinations, but poor infrastructure and lack of facilities stand as barriers to attracting visitors. Infrastructure development and the provision of facilities could lead to a tourism boom and the development of the local economy.”

Capturing the essence of life in remote areas reveals a blend of hardship and hope. It is a reminder of the strength of the human spirit and the importance of ensuring these communities are not left behind in our nation’s progress. Providing them with proper education, healthcare facilities, and better infrastructure is a basic need that must be fulfilled.

Also read: خصوصی بچوں کیلئے بنوں میں خصوصی سکول

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