Eleven hundred metres above Chitral town, and to its north-west, in the heart of the Hindu Kush Mountains, there sits an open undulating plain known as Birmogh [walnut tree] Lasht [plain]. A little below the summit of the plain, there sprawls a set of corrugated tin-roofed huts. Though still in good condition, with only the paint somewhat the worse for wear, they are all singularly bare of any furnishing.
A few metres south of the main cluster of residential chalets is a larger building, with a reception area and what could only have been a dining hall. Here, too, no furnishings are seen.
In 1997, at the height of the Pakistan Muslim League-Nawaz (PMLN) power in Pakistan, some very smart politician came up with the idea of creating a Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motel in Birmogh Lasht. Why, if the mehtar (erstwhile ruler) of Chitral could build his summer palace just 100 metres away, could the government not squander untold millions from its coffers, for tourists to relax and look down at Chitral town sprawling at their feet.
This was about the time that Sirajul Mulk, scion of the erstwhile royal family of Chitral, had taken in hand the construction of his own star hotel Hindu Kush Heights, about three kilometres north of Chitral airport. Incidentally, it was Siraj’s grandfather Sir Shuja-ul Mulk who, as ruler of Chitral in the early years of the 20th century, had ordered the Birmogh Lasht summer house. And to this, Siraj has to admit that it was totally useless because Chitral, being 1,500m above sea level, did not need a summer house. But because that was a time when it was fashionable for every independent prince in British India to have one, so too did Sir Shuja deem one necessary.
In 1997, the PMLN poured millions into opening a PTDC motel in beautiful Birmogh Lasht in Chitral. It never received a single tourist for the two years it operated, since getting to it was daunting and there was no water
Siraj whose own hotel runs to capacity during the tourist season, points out that the summer house was bound to fail because of the paucity of potable water on Birmogh Lasht. The nearest source was a spring about four kilometres north of the plain, and accessible only by a pony track. When His Highness went up, if he ever did, retainers and pack animals were aplenty to keep the water flowing in the taps.
Now back to the PTDC motel. The construction completed, an electricity transformer was also installed to ensure a 24-hour supply. The 15 chalets were luxuriously appointed and ample staff was put in place and the facility duly advertised as the place be seen in during season. At 2,600m above the sea, on a ridge nicely wooded with holly oak, walnut and the occasional apple or apricot tree, the motel promised a wonderful retreat from the humdrum bustle and heat of the plains. Also, for the naturalist, this place would have been a great starting point for a trek into the heart of Chitral Gol National Park.
But what His Highness Sir Shuja-ul Mulk had learned about the paucity of water nearly nine decades earlier, the planners of the government motel were not willing to learn. In those early days, there were no bowsers and water had to be man-hauled. Now when the motel was built, water was trucked up from town. Nevertheless, despite all the difficulties, the facility was completed and nicely appointed to receive its first guests.
But no one came. And no one knows why that happened, when the facility was sited to afford great views into the valley below in all directions.
What this drought of visitors shows is that the planners had carried out no proper survey. But more glaringly, the project was supposed to be connected to Chitral town with a chairlift that was never installed. What the writers of the government project paper, that famous PC-1, had not taken into account was that, in the late-1990s, Chitral was suffering a severe power shortage. This would have made the chairlift impossible to operate.
It is very likely that visitors, hoping to enjoy the thrill of a climb of 1,600m above town in a chairlift, were disappointed. The alternate of the winding unpaved trail, with its hairpin bends pasted to the contours, would have been another impediment.
The first tourist season, which according to reports was summer 1998, went dry. Not a single guest arrived. The next year, a skeleton staff kept the facility open, hoping for business. Still not a rupee’s worth of business was transacted. In 1999, the motel was shut down. Shortly afterwards, the furniture was removed, the facility locked and abandoned.
Siraj-ul Mulk wryly notes that much money changes hands in such projects and, as long as the flow continues during the building and furnishing phase, all concerned remain involved, only to disappear when the activity is done. When it comes time to turn the project into an earning enterprise, little interest remains. And so it was that PTDC Motel Birmogh Lasht was a stillborn child.
Some years later, probably in 2003 or the year after, Gen Musharraf and his NWFP (now Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) governor Iftikhar Shah visited Chitral. Siraj-ul Mulk recalls that the governor offered to lease him the motel on ‘terms he would not be able to refuse’. But Siraj refused, for he already had his hands full with his own hotel, Hindu Kush Heights, that was doing excellent business.
However, he did have a question for the governor: were he to accept the offer, who would maintain the road between Chitral town and the motel? The governor offered that that would be the responsibility of the lessor. Still, Siraj had his reservations.
It is a well-known fact that once such a deal is cut and the government is replaced, muck, even where there is none, is raked in large quantities. Stories would emerge that he, Siraj-ul Mulk being from the erstwhile royal family of Chitral, had used his ‘superior connections’ to get an advantageous deal. Siraj did not want that.
And so, to this day, the motel stands forlorn and abandoned, its paint fading, cobwebs dancing in its empty rooms and rodents eating into its timbers. “Those who had seen this project as a source of the famous quick buck, made it and walked off,” says Siraj in his typically understated, quiet way. And those who were tasked with making it a profitable enterprise simply lacked the acumen and application.
One wonders how long without maintenance it will take for the stone, cement, timber and corrugated iron to be reclaimed by the mountains. And one also wonders why the National Accountability Bureau, established during Gen Musharraf’s disastrous rule, never thought of investigating this mega-folly in the Hindu Kush Mountains.
The writer is a fellow of The Royal Geographical Society and author of several books. He tweets @odysseuslahori
Published in Dawn, EOS, September 19th, 2021