Introducing Indus Kohistan
Rounding the western end of the Himalaya at Nanga Parbat (8125m), the Indus River cuts a gorge so deep that some parts see only a few hours of sunlight a day, and are so inhospitable that even the caravan routes bypassed it. The Highway traveller is surrounded by this fractured, crumbling landscape with barely a blade of grass visible – magnificent and ominous. It’s a landscape in motion; the sheer rock walls are being ripped apart by powerful waterfalls carving out yawning canyons, and rocks lie scattered across the road.
Kohistan (Land of Mountains) refers to the sub-6000m peaks enclosing this canyon as well as upper Swat and Dir. The desolate, crumbling terrain made it one of the most harrowing passages in Asia. The intrepid Chinese Buddhist pilgrim Fa Hsien, having already crossed most of China and the Karakoram on foot, was awestruck. In 403 AD he wrote about Indus Kohistan:
The road is difficult and broken, with steep crags and precipices in the way. The mountainside is like a stone wall 10, 000 feet high. Looking down, the sight is confused and there is no sure foothold.
The roadside bazaars are gloomy even on a sunny day, and on the Highway – sometimes hundreds of metres above the thrashing Indus – you can empathise with Fa Hsien.
Another name for the region was Yaghistan (Land of the Ungoverned). Outlaws could hide here without fear of capture; tribal warfare and blood feuds were commonplace. Stone watchtowers and fortified houses can still be seen in the older villages. Even today outsiders are not very warmly welcomed and travelling off the KKH is not recommended without first seeking police advice.
In the 1960s the KKH cut through the Indus gorge and in 1976 Pakistan created an administrative district out of these semiautonomous areas. The district government relies heavily on police and the NWFP Frontier Constabulary, whose forts dot the valley.