"I'm so happy to see you," one of the nature guards said as I arrived at sunset to their Ranger Checkpost Station on a ridge high above Chitral Valley in the Chitral Gol National Park. That evening, I erected my Sierra Designs' Clip Flashlight tent under a large Deodar cedar tree at a high point on the ridge, with views of the valley below and the Hindu Kush for hundreds of miles, it seemed.
After dinner, I joined the guards in a small room for tea. Some of them were nature guards and others were community guards, both protecting the resources in the park and the buffer areas, so people could use the area, but not exploit it. "I love nature," one man smiled. They wanted me to see all kinds of wildlife. This place was different from most other national parks I have visited in Asia: I was able to camp and hike wherever, there was no entry fee, the staff were friendly and cared about their jobs. I almost wanted to pay an entry fee, but that didn't seem even appropriate here.
What struck me about Chitral Gol National Park was the combination of trees and rocks: the elder pines and cedars were weathered and gnarled, and the rocks were likewise: swirling metamorphic rocks, both symbols of nature at work.
--the Manifestation of God. "And Allah sends down rain from the skies, and gives therewith life to the earth after its death: verily in this is a Sign for those who listen" (16:65). The Koran
speaks of signs of God in animals and plants and the sun and the rain and the moon and day and night and the rivers and milk and wine. Allah, the Manifest, desired to be known and thus created the phenomenal world: nature and the cosmos. Beyond the Manifest is the Hidden, another of the 99 names of Allah.
As we are only able to see the manifest signs, science and man will never fully comprehend the world in its entirety. As an example, take evolution. In evolution, Darwin provided a framework. From there, genes were discovered and eventually the DNA code was broken and categorized. Some scientists are looking at how DNA might have evolved from RNA and proteins. Others are looking at how the first pieces of organized proteins may have arisen, simply through a dynamic world. A good example is cooling lava or a hot cup of chocolate milk. Each naturally creates a film on the surface, perhaps a sign showing how cell membranes could have formed.
Still, we have no answers for why all of this exists, we can explain mechanisms and the way things work very well. We know that lightning is caused by electrons and a differential charge between the earth and the sky, but why is that? We can say it isn't Zeus throwing a lightning bolt, but it doesn't explain the Hidden. Our finite knowledge will never be able to approach the infinite.
The full moon rose over the misty Hindu Kush as an owl called from a couple of trees away. Flying squirrels called from the deodar tree above me. Aside from the owl and the squirrels was silence, absolute silence, as the wind had completely disappeared too. My ears, naturally grasping for something, found my heartbeat and ringing in my ears. Elsewhere in the park were bears, leopards, Snow Leopards, and wolves.
At sunrise, the light shone pink on Tirich Mir, the owl fell asleep and the Rufous-naped Tit, Spotted Nutcracker, Kashmir Nuthatch, and Kestrels awakened. I stayed on the ridge for two days, watching nature go by.
Reaching this ridge hadn't been easy, as I had a backpack full of gear and food and the ascent climbed 4,700 vertical feet and it was Ramadan, so I wasn't supposed to eat or drink. After about 2,000 vertical feet, with many more to come, I broke my fast to avoid dehydration in the hot sun and ate some dried fruits to regain my energy.
Luckily, the Koran
allows travelers to break their fasts, as well as sick people, young children, or pregnant women, for example. They must make up their fasts later or donate to a charity, however.
Along the way, a few people confessed to me, knowing I wasn't Muslim so could serve as a friendly, non-judgemental ear. "I couldn't help it...I smoked a cigarette!"
"I'm a 'second Muslim,'" another said, meaning that he didn't practice Ramadan and other things, perhaps he was just born into the Muslim world.
I also saw others cheating, sneaking into the back room (my room) to eat or pretending to wash their mouths with water but clearly retaining it.
Muslim lands, in a way, as a whole, are no different from any other place: some people in China are devout Communists, others not; some people in Rome are devout Catholics, others not. And many people are in between. Not everyone in the Christian world fasts, for example.
Breaking camp, I hiked down into the Chitral Gol Valley. On the way, I flushed a couple of large groundbirds--bright irridescent, multi-colored Himalayan Monal--and watched as a couple of young Kashmiri Markhor skipped across a ridge, sending rocks below with their hooves.
Three thousand vertical feet later, in the middle of a pine and cedar forest, I found another camp at the confluence of two streams. Here, I relaxed, looked for wildlife, and explored the canyons and forests and gullies. In one gulley, a stream had polished the white marble along the way. I followed the stream to its source and relaxed under a small oak tree.
On the last day, I followed a trail on the side of the steep valley. Periodically, the trail disappeared in a landslide of slate descending steeply to cliffs below. I crossed, carefully, also looking at the tracks of markhor and a small wild cat. After a while, the wildlife signs decreased and the human signs increased. The heat increased and I rested often in the shade, climbing up one thousand feet to the ridge where I broke my fast before. At this point, I was determined to keep my fast.
I descended to Chitral town, where the din of humanity grew in my ears.