For a people with a population of only 4,000 the Kalasha punch well above their weight when it comes to visibility on the Pakistan tourist circuit. Living in three valleys bunched up on the Afghan border in the far northwest of Pakistan, the Kalasha are the last surviving “pagans*” of the Hindu Kush mountain range.
In the years before 9/11, they were a magnet for foreign tourists and many Kalasha will tell you about this or that French/Japanese/Australian/Swiss person who spent months staying in their home year after year. Deteriorating security in Afghanistan now puts restrictions on how long foreigners can stay in the Kalash Valleys and also has closed off some of the amazing treks in the region, but it’s still well worth paying a visit to the Kalasha: their culture is entrancing, the landscape is spectacular, the villages are fascinating, and everyone is very open and friendly. Plus with so few foreigners visiting nowadays, people will be all the more pleased to see you.
In the past, the vast majority of revenue generated by tourists bypassed the inhabitants of the Kalash Valleys and ended up in the pockets of “outsider” entrepreneurs. Although recent years have seen the Kalasha hold onto more of the money spent by tourists, keeping revenue in the Valleys is still a problem. The best way to ensure that your Rupees go to a local is to bypass the Valleys’ many hotels and opt for a home-stay guesthouse.
The one that I know best, and which I have been returning to again and again for the past eleven years is the Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse, run by the super-friendly and larger-than-life schoolteacher Wali Khan and his wonderful wife, Sherbegum.
Staying with Wali Khan and Sherbegum puts you in the bosom of a Kalasha family. You’ll be fed Kalasha food, taught Kalasha words – the Kalasha speak their own (endangered) language – and most importantly, learn about Kalasha culture direct from Kalasha people (outsiders have all sorts of incorrect and sometimes insulting ideas about what the Kalasha get up to).
This morning I put my parents on a plane from Islamabad to London. They had come to Pakistan to visit me for a couple of weeks and to see the spectacular landscape of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram mountain ranges. Despite the glory of some of the highest peaks on earth, for my parents, the highlight of the trip was the days we spent with Wali Khan, Sherbegum and their children. Mum and dad kept on repeating how unforgettable that interaction was.
Getting There & Around
A flight from Islamabad to Chitral with Pakistan International Airlines takes around 40 minutes, leaves every Friday and Sunday and costs 1,1000 PKR one way. Return flights operate on the same day.
Make sure to check out Chitral airport’s beautiful flower garden and if it’s springtime, pick a handful of white mulberries from the tree to the left of the car park as you leave the airport building.
There has just been a tourist office set up in Chitral airport – with a wonder of wonders, a cappuccino machine! At the office, they can help you organise transport to the Kalash Valleys. If possible speak to Zarin, he’s Kalasha, speaks excellent English and is super-helpful as well as being very knowledgeable. A jeep from the airport to the Kalash Valleys should cost between 1500 and 2000 PKR and take a little under three hours.
At the airport, you will also have to register with the local police, who you will find friendly and courteous. Since the Kalash Valleys are so close to the Afghan border, foreign visitors currently have to be accompanied by a police bodyguard, this will be arranged for you at the airport. If you plan to stay longer than a couple of days, and you really should do, Wali Khan can help organise a Kalasha policeman for you. Having a Kalasha, rather than a Chitrali police bodyguard will open up all sorts of doors. (Note: You will have to pay for the policeman’s accommodation as well as your own, and you both need to stay in the same building).
The Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse is in Krakal Village at the far end of Bumboret Valley. Ask for Wali Khan’s house if there is any confusion. A double room with breakfast lunch and dinner costs 2000 PKR per night.
Contact Wali Khan on +92 (0) 3468294614 (that’s 03468294614 when dialling from within Pakistan), or on Facebook through “Hindu Kush Kalash Home Guesthouse.” If you want to camp, Wali Khan also runs a small campsite just across the river from his house.
*Finding a catch-all term to describe the Kalasha religion is tricky. The Kalasha will tell you that they have one god, comparable to the god of the Abrahamic religions, but that this god also has lots of messengers who are a bit like gods in their own right. So maybe “pagan” isn’t the right term to use as it tends to refer to the pre-Christian religions of Europe which had many gods. But it’s also true that the Kalasha religion has quite a lot in common with those pre-Christian religions. This nit-picking over terminology might seem a bit pointless, but for many Kalasha the idea that they share the same god as Muslims, Christians and Jews is very important.