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.

Lovin’ it in Lahore

There have been multiple terror attacks in Lahore this year, and the week before I arrived there were clashes between anti government protestors and the police.  My first day in town it was the prophet’s birthday – Eid Milad ul-Nabi – and there were 15,000 policemen on the streets of Lahore to prevent any violence…… so, I was a little bit more reticent than usual about visiting.  It turns out I have never had such a warm welcome to a big city.   My most amusing moments were being surrounded by young girls and their teachers who wanted to ‘selfie with me’.   I was also invited home by pretty much every woman I met, including the lovely woman who sat next to me on the plane on the way over.   The pakistani/british women on my connecting flight through Karachi on the way home, also took charge of me and hustled me to the plane along with them at Karachi and made sure I was fine and safe.  I can’t imagine feeling safer or better looked after!

Jinnay Lahore nu nahi takkeya, o jammeya e nai – He who has not seen or visited Lahore, is nor born yet

Lahore is a delight, and there are lots of things to see and do.  I only saw four other tourists in the three days I was in town, so now is a great time to visit.    My favourite things from the weekend……

Badshahi Mosque

The mosque is built out of Jaipur red sandstone, which apparently is baking hot in the summer.  The locals have tried to replace the red stone in the courtyard with a cooler marble, but the heritage officers won’t let them.  Its a truly enormous space which can apparently house 100,000 worshippers.  I can’t imagine the bathroom queues!, and am glad I didn’t visit on the prophet’s birthday as it would have been crazy.

the mosque in the Lahore smog

Contemplating life

A couple enjoying the morning light

the old classrooms of the mosque glowing in the morning sun

Lahore fort

The fort was lovely and well preserved.  Unfortunately you are no longer allowed to approach the elephant gate, but you can see it from the entrance of Badshahi mosque.  There was plenty to occupy an eager history buff for an hour or so, and I thought the hall of mirrors was extraordinary!

Elephant Gate at Lahore Fort


School girls lining up to visit the fort

yes I look like a dork….the guide made me do it

hall of mirrors at Lahore Fort

some of the many girls who asked if they could ‘selfie with me’

having a chat on the mobile at the fort

minar pakistan

The’ tower of Pakistan’ was constructed during the 1960s on the site where the All-India Muslim League passed a resolution calling for a  separate and independent Pakistan on 23 March 1940

the Eiffel tour of Pakistan, on the site of where the document founding Pakistan was signed


Jahangirs tomb

Jahangir is the father of Shah Jahan (who built the Taj Mahal).  He is buried in Lahore as this was apparently his first capital city.  The tomb is set in enormous walled gardens, and was lovely.

Gateway to the tomb

Jahangir’s Tomb

Jahangir’s Tomb

The actual tomb – decorated in the same lapis as the Taj Mahal

Asif Khan’s Tomb (brother of Noor Jahan). Next door to Jahangirs tomb its materials wer sacked by the Sikhs for use in the Golden Temple

delhi gate and old city

No visit to Lahore is complete without visiting the bonkers walled city.  I narrowly avoided getting hit by a motorbike and head butted by an ox.  There isn’t a great deal of personal space in the old city, but it was a fascinating walk.   In spite of having a substantial lunch, I couldn’t walk past the five men making buttery naan in a seamless manufacturing process, and it was delicious.

Delhi gate – to the old walled city of Lahore

the honey and spice traders hard at work in the old walled city

making naan bread

smoking ‘strong tobacco’ from the tobacco vendor’s hubbly bubbly pipe

traffic jam

Lahore styles

wazir kahn mosque

This lovely little mosque is apparently the most beautiful mosque in Lahore, and it reminded me of the ‘rose’ mosque in Shiraz, Iran.  Walking into the courtyard from the hustle and bustle of the old wall city, to find people peacefully praying in the late afternoon sun – it was delightful.  This was probably my favourite moment in Lahore

Prayer time in the late afternoon sun

Prayer time in the late afternoon sun

Atchison College

Atchison College is the ultra-posh school where fine young elite Pakistani men are educated.  The architecture is lovely, and that is why it has appeared on tripadvisor as a place to see.  The twist is the you need to email the principal of the school to ask for a visit – but lucky for me he said yes.   While the architecture was the reason for visiting, it turns out that I was most fascinated by the overwhelming British poshness of it all.  From the 200 groundsmen, to the fully kitted out stables for the equestrian lessons and polo ponies, to the three swimming pools.  They have thought of most things – they even have a Sikh temple and a hindu temple to compliment the mosque – so that everyone can worship.  I also was amused by the irony that there was no way I would have been able to visit the British equivalent of Atchison (Harrow? Eton?) so easily.

Administration building

Sikh temple for the students

Main building

Flowers arranged in a bed with military precision


I love trucks in Asia.  They are more ornately and lovingly decorated than the women, and that says something.  Truck owners invest extraordinary amounts of money (several thousand USD by all accounts) on dedicated truck artists.  I couldn’t resist asking my driver to pause at the truck stop for me to check some of these out.

the drivers requested I take their photo

Gorgeous truck

Shalimar garden

I ended one of my Lahore  days at the lovely Shalimar Garden.  While there was nothing amazing to see, it was peaceful sitting in the shade having a chai, watching the sun go down


additional notes
  • Many people visit the Wagah border with India (24km from Lahore) to watch the elaborate daily ceremony where the flags get lowered and the border closes.  I didn’t go, as had seen it 20 years ago from the other side of the border.  Its worth a trip
  • I stayed at the Residency Hotel which was excellent – free airport pick up, drop off and breakfast, and a great gym.  I rented a car and driver for one day to get around town – it was 30USD all in, including kms.    I also simplified my life and organised a guide for one day, as hadn’t had time to do any planning
  • Women – I would recommend long sleeves, a tunic and trousers or long skirt.  A shalwar kameez is best if you have one, but a tunic and jeans worked for me, with a loose head scarf
  • The food is fabulous…. I could have eaten my bodyweight in paratha, Dahl and chicken handi


Lahore, December 3, 2017