Kafirs in the Kalash

Leaving Chitral along the main highway (which was about wide enough for a car and a half) Saaed played chicken with oncoming trucks, vans and ‘mummy daddy’ cars (more on them later).  We turned off the main road at Ayun – a mostly muslim village, and home to lots of Afghan refugees, and headed up the Kalash valley road to Kafirstan.  Kafir is the word muslims use for pagans or non believers.  And the Kalash are a tiny minority of pagan non muslims (c. 4-6,000 of them) who live in three valleys (Rumbor, Bumberet and Birir) near Chitral.   No-one knows where the Kalash came from – the best guesses are that they descended from some of Alexander the Greats lost soldiers, alternatively they are thought to be related in some way to Greek civilisation, and the Greek government have invested a lot in protecting Kalash history (including funding the lovely Kalash museum)

Kalash used to be very isolated, but the roads are now largely passable in a 4wd or a hardy station wagon, and Bumberet in particular gets a lot of local tourists – coming to see the famous Kalash festivals – in a society where few women are out and about, seeing women drink wine and dance is quite the drawcard.   

We first headed up to Rumbour – the quieter of the two main valleys.  The road was classic Northern Pakistan, literally excavated (normally with dynamite) from the side of the hill, and only wide enough for one car with the odd passing point.   We were staying in Grom, at the guesthouse run by Saifullah and his family.   Yasir runs the guesthouse now (one of the six sons).  Kausar took us to visit the temple and a few of the houses, but the locals were not keen to have their photos taken (and we didn’t insist). 

Returning to the guest house for tea, Jamil (Saifullah’s youngest son) offered to take us for a walk around the village.  As he was related to everybody, everyone was happy to have their photo taken.  He even took us for a nice easy hike up river to the pasture lands where every family tends their crops.  The villages are piled high on top of each other to preserve valley pasture land – all of which is painstakingly irrigated with a complex system of channels.  The houses beautifully constructed of wood and slate with carved wooden terraces.   We were offered tea by everyone, and interrogated by most of Jamil’s aunties.  Obviously they were bewildered as to why we had no kids.  But they were also tickled by hubby’s lack of hair and my short hair – very odd.   We were impressed by how many babies they had – four seemed to be the minimum; the quality of their fields – really impressive, and the colour of their dresses.    Our two favourite aunties might have partaken of a little too much of the Kalash wine and they were hilariously posing for photos – all of which look a bit skew whiff.   The local women look amazing, as they wear these black costumes and every women embroiders their own belt and dress.  They all wear a headband with a long tail down the back (even the five year olds) – and they are all gorgeous. 

Back at the guest house, our terrace overlooked the village square, where the kids gathered after school to play, the elder boys and men playing volleyball and the veterans playing a form of pétanque with rocks.  Three local girls signalled they wanted to come and see me, so I waved them into the guesthouse garden.  The introduced themselves in English, and then pointed at my hair.  I thought they were amused at how short it was.   They then suggested I sit on the step – and I thought we were just sitting to have a chat.  Nope.  The three of them set to work on my hair, braiding furiously to make  sure I looked like a Kalash woman.  They were hilarious.  They braided, surveyed, braided again.  Then they took all the flowers from the garden and stuck them in my hair.   Then I lent them my phone so they could take selfies, of which they took many, giggling and deleting the ones that they didn’t think they looked good in.  

We then went and hung out watching the volleyball and the petanque – and the local boys starting doing flips and jumps for Stephane so he would take photos – although pretty impossible to photograph them given how fast they were moving, and they all crowded around him to check out the pictures.

We had a lovely dinner of beef, beans, green beans and potato curry with fresh naan in the garden and had an early night. 

Breakfast was a feast of omelette, homemade walnut bread and honey, and lots of coffee.   And then we farewelled the family and headed off down the valley to turn right and go up the Bumberet valley.  I will confess up front, I didn’t like Bumberet anywhere near as Rumbour, as there were lots of hotels and lots of traffic.  

We first visited the Kalash museum which was a stunning building funded by the a greek charity who built the museum and also bought many of the Kalash treasures from Chitral and further afield to return them to the valley.  The also buy artefacts from the valleys to ensure they are preserved.    Definitely worth a visit. 

We then headed up to the graveyard at Karakul.  Kalasha were famous for leaving their dead in wooden coffins above ground, a practice that seems to have diminished, but some of the old graveyards are still around.   We ran into a big group of ‘mummy daddies’.   This is what the Pakistanis call the upper middle class elite.  Known for instagramming, not dressing halal (women with uncovered heads), and generally having no manners.  Also named as they live on ‘mummy daddy’ money.  It is quite hilarious that the locals here like foreigners more than domestic tourists, and the Kalasha get annoyed with so many of the domestic tourists walking into their houses uninvited to take photos.   The group of domestic guys had decided to jump the fence and clamber over the coffins to take photos – very ‘mummy daddy’ behaviour.   Not impressed, and I was happy when Kausar told them off.

We wandered around Karakul village which was a bit grubby with the upper irrigation channel seeming to be the village loo.   I did find a street filled with largely female run Kalasha shops, so I distributed money around in the pursuit of encouraging commerce and have come home with a lovely Kalasha headdress which I will never wear and some jewellery. 

We then wandered up to Brun to look at the statues the Kalasha believe can house their souls, and stopped in to visit a friend of Kausar’s for tea.  We decided on a ‘fast’ lunch, as every hotel lunch we try is freshly cooked which means it takes over an hour.  So instead we found a small local restaurant with a busy tandoor oven and quite a lot of dirt, and had naan and Loubia (beans).

I really enjoyed Rumbour and think I will likely come back.  Apparently there is a trek that you can do from Chitral through the mountains, so I will ask Jamil and Yasir to sort me out a guide at the right point – having a Kalasha will be key as you need to speak their language.   Jamil is studying tourism in Chitral, but if he is at home he was a great guide.  WhatsApp him on +92 3443857773

Political icons

Politics is a big deal in Pakistan.  I reckon our driver and guide spent half the car rides debating Musharraf vs Imran Kahn.  What we found fascinating though was how political campaigning had been simplified for anyone illiterate by using symbols on their campaign posters which are liberally on every surface in even the remotest village – a bat for Imran khan, a book for the devout Muslim party, a goat etc.   When people go to vote they can mark the symbol on the ballot card without needing to read the name 

Meeting a travel superstar

We bumped back along the road to Ayun, and installed ourselves for a lazy afternoon drinking mixed tea on the breezy verandah at the delightful Ayun Fort Inn (also owned by a former royal).   In an amusing twist of fate, there were two other guests at our hotel – Jonny Bealby (founder of Wild frontiers) and his lovely wife Anna.  Jonny visited Rumbour many years ago on an epic journey and lived with Saifullah for three months before deciding to set up a travel company to bring westerners to the Kalash (the first ever Wild Frontiers trip), and he is en route for another visit.   We had a great chat about travel and he shared some of the more complicated parts of the Kalash’s history – including the murder of Saifullah’s brother by merchants and multiple attempts on his life, as Saifullah fought to protect the Kalash’s grazing and crop rights all the way to the highest courts in pakistan (see p19 of this for more details). 

Our next stop was Islamabad, and alhamdulillah the plane flew. We had an interesting day at the airport in Chitral wondering if the flight would come – 50% of them get cancelled. We did go – but 90 minutes late. The plane was ful, with half of the passengers showing up just before the flight left – they must wait until they know the flight has left Islamabad. We had been warned the flights were erratic, and the road journey takes at least 10 hours, so we had left spare time in case we had to drive. It was hot and late afternoon when we landed in sweltering Islamabad so we had a lazy afternoon in the Serena Hotel (enjoying the air con and a bath) and had an excellent Lebanese dinner.

Idling in Islamabad

We didn’t have busy plans for Islamabad – our last day of holidays we always like to take it easy and we had a midnight flight home. but we did rouse ourselves to see the main sites. First up the lovely Faisal mosque – for me it was like the Barbican of Mosques with some excellent modernist brutalist details. The mosque was closed outside of prayer time, but we peeked through the windows like the locals.

We then headed to the Hazrat Bari Imam Sarkar shrine just out of town – which is a famous Sufi shrine. They don’t see many tourists, so it took me a while to visit the women’s section as every woman stood up to shake my hand

But the absolute highlight of the day was leaving the groomed and orderly streets of Islamabad and heading to bonkers Rawalpindi to see the truck decorating zone. Owners of trucks in Pakistan take great pride in their vehicles and spend an absolute fortune making them look lovely. If you can afford it, no surface is left unadorned – the cab, the wheels and even the inside loading bay.

Battling the heat, we also wandered around the main Bazaar in Pindi. But by 1pm I was literally having a melt down in the forty degree heat so retreated to the hotel for a lazy afternoon.

That was it – our last day in Pakistan. highly recommend, and we will be back.

Islamabad, 4 June 2022

Additional info

This blog was helpful for anyone wanting to organise their own visit to the Kalash, and this was useful background. Also Jonny’s blog on the Kalash https://www.wildfrontierstravel.com/en_GB/blog/return-to-pakistan-the-birthplace-of-wild-frontiers

Things to bring

  • basic guesthouses don’t change the linen – you might want to bring a silk sleeping bag liner
  • Coffee isn’t great or always available, I carry Nescafé 2in1 sachets.  
  • Toilet paper is rare in the loo – we always have spare 
  • Immodium (the dissolve on your tongue one is the most efficient), Motril (for vomiting) and rehydration tablets (I use Nuun zero)
  • Light head scarf (or 3) – the local ladies will be grateful, wear everywhere except Kalash
  • Long sleeves and long pants, with shirts covering your bum if you are a lady.  I have several loose summer linen ones from M&S.  If in doubt always cover to your wrists and ankles and throw a scarf on your head.  

Getting around Pakistan

There are lots of different options.  I think it is quite easy to come and work your way around on public transport or arrange as you go, provided you have time.  However, I didn’t find a single decent guide book.  

Public transport? – At my advanced age, I don’t really do public transport except for trains as I like to stop when I want to take photos, and (probably more relevant) I have a very cheap bladder so need to pee all the time.  Gone are the days when I want to spend 9 hours on the back of a minibus cramped with locals and chickens and only one pee break.    But the transport here is efficient and reliable and really cheap

Group tour? – Lots of good agencies run group tours (untamed borders, wild frontiers)- I am not a fan of those either as like to flex the itinerary and hotels to suit myself.  We also realised that most villages don’t have capacity for big groups – so the group tour being run by untamed borders when we were here didn’t stay in Mastuj or Phander as they don’t have guesthouses with more than six rooms.    So you may see different things on a group tour and have to stay in bigger towns.

Lazy single tour – I tend to have more money than time these days so we tend to always book private transport – and if somewhere complicated (like Iraq) a guide.  Pakistan is super safe and lots of people speak English, but a driver is a good idea if you can afford it.  We had lots of fun on our road trips stopping exactly where we wanted for photos.   I booked with Kausar and James at untamed borders.

Heading up the Hindu Kush

Saying farewell to the Hunza, we returned to Gilgit after stopping to load up with some cherries from the tree in Saaed’s cousins garden. Gilgit was a bustling metropolis compared to Hunza and the bazaar was in full swing. We stopped to take more photocopies of our passports for the multiple checkpoints we would encounter en route to Chitral with stops at Phander and Mastuj to break up the long days driving. It is one of the great road trips of Asia – heading over the Shandur pass, and I was very much lookig forward tot he landscape

Buddha in Pakistan

We detoured near Gilgit to see the Kargah Buddha – impressively carved in the side of the mountain. The highlight of the visit was a crew of young guys who were determined to have Steph take a glamorous headshot of each of them.

Camels, Weddings and Pulleys

The road from Gilgit to Phander is well trafficked, half paved with lots of potholes. It follows the Gilgit river up the Hindu Kush. Much of it was spectacular – particularly around Gupis – but it was tough going. We stopped in Henzal at a very grubby truck stop for lunch and I didn’t fancy the chicken kebabs which were piled high half precooked and covered in flies – didn’t look particularly hygienic. I opted for a greasy omelette and chapati. (Truck traffic is pretty slow these days as the Chinese border is still closed for covid, so food turnover at the truck stops is not high). We stopped again in Gahkuch. I had asked for a pee stop and so Saaed found us a nice hotel with a washroom. So we had to have tea. So a pee break takes 45 mins and makes me want to pee again. I learnt to ask for a photo stop and then find a rock – much more efficient :-).

The road is dusty! Really dusty. I had wondered why so many people were wearing masks. No one is remotely bothered about covid but the widespread mask availability has been a boon for those who don’t want to inhale the road dust. The road is also a big game of chicken. Driving is no problem on a wide road, or an entirely gravel road – chicken kicks in when the road (like from gilgit) is half asphalt – about wide enough for 1.5 cars – and half rocky gravel. No one wants to put their left wheel in the gravel so they accelerate towards each other and try to hold on to the asphalt. Inevitably both drivers have to slam on the brakes, swerve and they both end up with one wheel in the dirt. Even Saaed our very zen driver can’t resist the temptation every time and the last minute braking wears thin after many hours in the 4wd

We did stop to experiment with one of the many pulley systems the locals use to pull themselves and their gear across the river. Saaed was lucky there was a kid with him as he got stuck half way back. We also met a camel man who was walking from Lahore to Peshawar selling milk. Our highlight was stopping to chat to a wedding party (we actually passed three). The women had a chat to me from the back of the car. They are very joyous occasions.

The rest of the road was bumpy but spectacular- meandering through tiny villages with pretty painted houses and passing through sheer red rock gorges along the Gilgit river

Pausing in Phander

We bumped into Phander as the sun set after 10 hours on the road and met the lovely owner from the Hilltop Hotel. What the hotel lacked in soundproofing and hot water it made up for in innovative coloured lighting tubes on the ceiling. We had fried river fish and vegetables for dinner and went to bed. Apparently the govt workers in the other room had a dance party until midnight but I didn’t hear it, I did hear the vigorous nose and throat clearing at 7am

I got up early for a stroll – passing lots of kids going to school, women taking the cows to graze and men making bricks. The view from the top of the hill was lovely down over the Phandur valley.

After breakfast of omelette and chapatis we headed out, stopping often to take photos. The road today is much easier as while very rough and bumpy, it is less trafficked and we are in less of a hurry. It is also entirely gravel so no need for games or chicken with the few cars coming the other way

Scaling the Shandur Pass

The road up through Shandur pass was spectacular. Beautiful red and green riverine valleys with increasingly steep sides up to Tero (home of Tero Rest House – which made us giggle). From the check point at Barset you pass through a high flat valley with beautiful ridgelines along each side – no trees but lots of grazing animals. The road is closed in winter and pretty bumpy in the summer

We stopped for lunch at a small shack in Shandur. Omelette, chickpeas, tea and paratha. Kausar and Steph entertained themselves taking atmospheric photos of Saaed smoking. The cook was most amused. Shandur pass is the highest polo ground in the world – home of fierce battles between Gilgit and Chitral, but a literal killer for the horses given the ferocity of the game and the lack of oxygen.

Onwards to Mastuj

The descent to Sor Laspur was very steep and I was immensely grateful the only oncoming traffic we met were a mad German couple cycling up the hill with all their gear. It’s narrow and would involve a lot of reversing and manoeuvring to get passed anyone. The views over Sor Laspur were incredible

The road from Harchin to Mastuj sidled along a steep c.600m high scree slope for about 15km with stomach wrenching drop offs to the river below. You had to keep your left eye on the steep drop off as the road fell away from time to time and your right eye firmly uphill to avoid any landslides (we saw a few). Saaed was careful and I was delighted to get to Mastuj. We are staying in a very peaceful guesthouse – the Noor Mahal – with excellent wifi, so spent the late afternoon in the garden enjoying the sun and catching up on the blog and email. The rooms were basic and I am not sure how often the linens are changed – but the showers were hot and the roses were beautifully tended. The lovely staff served us more excellent fish and daal, and wonderful naan from the fresh tandoor around the corner

Meandering around Mastuj

After paratha and omelette (our breakfast staple – we always get asked what we want for breakfast so we always ask what they have. The response is always omelette or fried egg, chapati (or paratha), jam, coffee or tea. We wandered around chatting to the local men. We didn’t see any women in town as it was a largely Sunni village. Ismaili women tend to be a little more out in society and they mostly smile back when I wave at them (hence I have dubbed them smiley Ismailis – rhymes perfectly). Sunni women in Pakistan are a lot less friendly to foreigners in passing. Looking at the women is pretty much how I figure out the dominant religion in a village – the guys all look the same, Sunni women are less visible and more veiled (this was confirmed by our guide). We took lots of photos of the local men. It is extremely rude in these parts to point the camera, but very well received if you have a chat for a few minutes, ask to take a photo and then show them the photo. This only works for men, women are mostly off limits though sometimes they are happy to have a photo taken with me. Our favourite photo this morning was a lovely old gent with kind eyes who said we could take his photo ‘but, don’t show it to anyone in America as they will think I am osama bin laden and come and kill me’

Cruising to Chitral

We had been warned that the road to Chitral was under construction so the drive may take five hours. We made good time until just before Booni and then we’re stuck for 30 minutes in a queue waiting for works to halt so we got out and enjoyed the dust with the locals. No one was cross or agitated with an unspecified wait – my fellow Londoners would be less zen with road works. I had taken the left over hot water from breakfast in my swell thermos so made a cup of coffee (carrying coffee, a spoon, thermos and collapsible cup is probably not in keeping with the ultra light packing of my younger days, but it is nice to always be able to have a brew – and it all still fits in carryon)

We arrived at the Booni checkpoint at 11 and then lost an hour as Saaed and Kausar decided we should detour for ‘10 minutes’ to see Qaqlasht meadows. They got lost and took a wrong turn and ignored Stephane when he tried to set them right with Google maps. We eventually got there after almost an hour – and I am sure is lovely in the spring but in June it was just a dry dusty bowl with an ok view of the valley. So after a wasted hour we continued on the way to Chitral where I was excited about the posh hotel we were staying in – owned by a local prince.

With the aid of downloaded maps on stephs phone we shaved 30 mins off the journey to the hotel as we found a bridge that Kausar and Saaed didn’t think we could cross – and we arrived at the hotel at around 2.30 (5.5 hours after leaving Mastuj for a three hour drive). We had sort of missed booking lunch and they had cooked the buffet to order for the five guests they had. Fortunately, they let us clean up the leftovers at the buffet and we ate most of the fresh cherries on offer. we then did our laundry and had long almost hot showers and enjoyed the views down over chitral from our enormous suite.

The sites of Chitral

As the day cooled we headed down to check out the sites – the mosque was lovely but hard to photograph as the electric company had installed pylons in front of the domes. We snuck into the chitral fort (officially closed to the public) and had a look around. I loved the orange colour.

Chitral shopkeepers and trucks

Next up the bazaar where we met some lovely shop keepers and had tea. And then we mostly fan-Ed out on the trucks. I am quite smitten. The only weird thing about chitral was how few women we saw. Few Pakistani women outside of the middle classes work. There are lots of girls schools but you literally see no women working in commerce (you do in the fields) . They don’t even really get out in the more Sunni towns and villages to buy groceries – the men do it. I can never quite fathom why a culture would decide not to use half of their intellectual capacity and workforce…… seems a bit bonkers to me.

Staying with royalty

Dinner was lovely (when it arrived half an hour late – the entire hospitality industry here is consistent in its lateness – from posh to downmarket places). Delicious soup, naan, curry, kebab and salad all fresh from their garden, followed by an exceptional crème caramel. We also met the Prince of chitral and his wife who own the place. I complimented him on the wonder of Pakistan’s mountains, and said I felt disloyal to NZ to say such a thing. He complimented me on Jacinda – the NZ prime minister. I mentioned she wa a lot less popular these days in NZ – so he offered to swap her for the mountains ‘the mountains can’t govern our country but she could!’

After a delightful sleep with the door open for the breeze, I was up early so they delivered coffee to the room. Breakfast was fresh cherries and apricots, home made cereals, marmalade, parathas and brown bread, and it was delicious – I scoffed my face. Next up …. We are up the remote Kalash valleys …. More on that later

Chitral, 31 May 2022

Hanging out in Hunza

Sleeping in the airport

Our flight to islamabad was two hours delayed – no explanation – or at least no explanation until we were on the plane and half way to Pakistan. Apparently Imran Khan’s protest machine (he recently lost his role as Prime Minister) had led to road closures all over the country. BA decided safer to arrive a bit later (midnight in this case, though unclear why midnight was safer), and Virgin cancelled their flight entirely (leaving their crew who were in country from a flight earlier in the week stranded for a few days). I bought on flight wifi and whatsapped our guide, he had not been able to reach Islamabad from Peshawar the day before. So he had started out again in the morning at 9am – in the end it would take him 18 hours to make the two hour journey. He managed our expectations that we might not get to our hotel for the night (it’s an hour from the airport in normal traffic and we had to be back by 5am for our next flight).

We landed and cleared formalities with no bother just after midnight (limited effort by officials to check our visas and no one asked for the arrivals forms). After struggling to get wifi and not finding Kausar (our guide) we reccie’d the airport for the best place to make camp. Like most third world airports – you aren’t allowed in unless flying so we couldn’t get back into the international departures area, and the domestic departure security would not let us in until 4am. The nice security man pointed us in the direction of the ‘visitors gallery’ which had lots of shuttered shops and dirt, but air con, some seats and loos. We weren’t successful at sleeping but we had somewhere to rest and Kausar arrived at 3am with peach juice and crisps. Our fellow squatters were all up at 3.30 for morning prayers. Steph reckons I am bragging about the airport dossing, and I guess I am, it makes me feel like a proper backpacker when I have to sleep in the airport

On zero sleep we headed into the domestic departure where Kausar let us know the flight to Gilgit often didn’t go (or went and then came back) due to visibility. Luckily that didn’t happen today as it is a two day drive to gilgit on a good day, and today it would have taken hours to get a car to the airport. The flight up was stunning – through the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, weaving up the river valleys. Stunning Nanga Parbat towered above us as we flew by (my favourite of all pakistans peaks, though the most dangerous).

Flying through the valleys to Gilgit

Gilgit valley was a delight – a lovely preview for the Hunza – lush fertile green valleys stuffed with cherry and apricot trees with incongruous sheer cliffs rising up on either side. We headed out of Gilgit and up the infamous Karakoram Highway (KKH), built by the ingenuity of the Chinese and Pakistanis to facilitate trade. The villages are clean and lovely, friendly school kids in neat uniforms, men with ridiculously movie star good looks in flowing shalwar kameez with the characteristic northern hat. It was a lovely drive up to the Hunza with a tea stop to admire Rakaposhi.

In the heart of the Hunza

Tempers were fraying at this point from the fatigue, so I refused to go on and demanded a three hour nap at the hotel – a good call as I was falling asleep on my feet by the time we bumped up the road to the Fairy land hotel at the eagles nest at 3000m. Somewhat restored we headed down to the valley for a late lunch of local vegetable pie (chapa sour) at a women run restaurant and then a stroll through the village areas only reached by foot admiring the neat planting and irrigation

We headed back up to Duiker for sunset. The views from here down the Hunza are spectacular. In the evening there are local tourists taking the requisite selfies. We chatted with the locals and then headed back to the hotel for outstanding chicken handi and chapatis and an early night. There was a ruckus of non stop shouting between 11-2am – apparently a family argument with someone with ‘mental issues’ (how it was described to us by the hotel) – it wasn’t a restful evening.

I woke up at 6 and headed back out to the view point – which I had entirely to myself. The view up to lady finger in the morning light was unrivalled, so I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view and tapped out the blog

Forts and faces

We headed down into Hunza to see the forts.  First up the smaller Altit fort, which is set in lovely gardens and has a sheer drop off of about 300m down a cliff side to the Hunza river (the obvious way they used to despatch traitors – of which there were many).  The fort was nice, with lots of Tibetan buddhist influences (including many swastikas) but the highlight of the morning was wandering around the old town.