Getting Cultured In The Kalash Valleys – Pakistan Part 2

Trekking Pakistan’s renowned mountainous terrain involves more than just skillful driving, sightseeing and getting acquainted with the topography. This type of travel is also about getting cultured.

We left off in the last post still at the beginning of my journey to and through Pakistan. After a disastrous time trying to exit Libya, we traveled from Islamabad to Swat Valley in the pouring rain to see the sights. We spent a night there before continuing on toward the very dangerous Lowari Pass, led by our own special police escort. After taking in the beautiful views there, we moved on to the Kalash Valleys, which are surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountains and home to the non-muslim, uniquely cultured Kalash people. Read on, and let’s get cultured in the Kalash Valleys.

The amazing view after passing through the (anticlimactic) Lowari Tunnel (of course, I wanted to take the dangerous pass 😆)

A Change of Plans

Our original plan after seeing the Lowari Pass and the Hindu Kush mountains up close was to visit Ayun, a little village on the way to the town of Chitral. We decided to change our plans and skip any sightseeing in Ayun to have more time in the Kalash Valleys instead. We wanted to spend an extra night there to experience the very special local culture, so we didn’t mind skipping Ayun, save for a short stop to change cars.

The minibus was an absolute champion on these rocky roads around the Lowari Pass.

Up until this point, we had been riding in an old VW minibus. There were five of us on the tour of Pakistan, plus two guides, a driver, and all of our luggage. The minibus made an impressive performance on all of the gravel roads that we had undertaken thus far, but was not well suited for the even rougher roads ahead. We switched in Ayun from the minibus to some land cruisers that were driven by local Kalash people. From there, it took us about an hour to get to our destination.

The land cruisers were much better suited for this terrain.

Welcome to the Kalash Valleys

The Kalash Valleys consist of multiple deep, narrow valleys surrounded by the Hindu Kush Mountains. We were able to visit two of the three main valleys that are just a few hours hiking from the border of Afghanistan and its Nuristan province. I did not have the opportunity to visit Nuristan during my Afghanistan trip, but I know that it is famous for its people and local culture.

We were basically just a stone’s throw away from Afghanistan

The people who live in the Kalash Valleys are a very interesting ethnic group. The rumor says they are descendants of Alexander the Great. With their blonde hair and blue eyes, they look very different from other Pakistanis, so it’s not hard to see how such a rumor would have gotten started.

Another fact about the Kalash people that stands out is that they are non-Muslims in this predominantly Muslim country. Instead, they follow an old animist religion that is similar to ancient forms of Hinduism. They worship multiple gods, to whom they offer sacrifices. They have lived there in the Kalash Valleys for thousands of years, right at what is now the border of Afghanistan and Pakistan.

It’s not hard to understand why the locals have stayed in this beautiful valley for so many years. 🤩

The topography of the Kalash Valleys seems like it would be difficult to farm, but the Kalash people have found that it is possible to grow a lot of agriculture on this rough terrain. Because of that, they’ve managed to be basically self-sufficient for thousands of years. This has largely protected them from attacks, which one would expect to happen to a minority group practicing a non-Islamic faith in a Muslim country. Today the Kalash people are a legally protected minority group by the Pakistani government.

A peek at the Kalash rooftops, framed by a corn crop, greenery, and the beautiful Hindu Kush mountains.

The First Night

The first night we didn’t do much other than settle into our guest house, which was like a homestay with a local Kalash family. Unlike the previous evenings, I didn’t take any consulting calls while I was there because there was no internet access in the Kalash Valleys. Rather than working, I got to take a little time off and enjoy the evenings with my tour group. It was nice to have the time to really get to know the guys I was traveling with.

It was the first drink I’d had in… well, not that long. I’d needed a drink in Istanbul, after my flight disaster and before starting the detox (Emirates business class drink menu pictured here).

We enjoyed some red wine that evening, which didn’t exactly fit into my three-week alcohol detox plan. It should not have been difficult to go three weeks without alcohol in the Pakistan.

But, the exception to that, of course, is in the Kalash Valleys, which don’t subscribe to Muslim beliefs about alcohol. The Kalash people grow a lot of grapes which they ferment into red wine. The wine is a bit sweet, but overall it wasn’t bad at all, so we enjoyed a lot of it that night. We also enjoyed flirting with the daughter of the guesthouse owners, who was very cute and showed us around the Kalash Valleys the following day. 🤗

Laida is only 16, but she speaks perfect English and brought us closer to the local culture.

Kalash Culture

On our first full day in the Kalash Valleys, we checked out the local museum, where we got to learn a bit more about the unique local culture and customs. For example, in order to maintain their culture, the Kalash prefer not to intermarry or cohabitate with the local Muslims. However, they have a small population and a strong taboo against incest, so the villagers often have no choice but to either marry outside of the valleys or invite outsiders in to marry. Because of this issue, the Kalash population has dwindled drastically to the point that there are only about 4,000 Kalash people still residing in the valleys.

There are many customs related to gender in the Kalash Valleys, some that dictate where women can and cannot go, which would make it somewhat more difficult for a woman to tour this area freely. Luckily, we had only men in our group, so that was not an issue. Despite these different customs around gender, the Kalash Valleys are probably the only place in Pakistan where women are not covered except for their traditional dress, and where you can speak normally with them.

Some Kalash girls all dressed up in traditional garb

After the museum, we visited a local school. There, we had the opportunity to see some of the classes in session, and to meet some of the local kids.

Visiting the Kalash school. Can you spot the tourists? 😝

Next, we went to the local cemetery and learned about the special way that the Kalash people bury their dead. In the past, the Kalash used to leave dead bodies in the graveyard without burying them. But in the modern day, Kalash people are buried with some personal belongings. They are also left with their bed and pillow at the grave.

We also went to some different places where they hold festivals, which the Kalash are famous for throwing year round. Their main festivals are full of singing and dancing in order to celebrate the beginning of spring, the harvest season, and the end of the year, according to their ancient calendar.

I wasn’t there for any festivals, but I’m sure these kids enjoy them to the fullest!

The next day, we went to explore some other parts of the valley. We drove for a little over an hour to visit Rumbur Valley, a sister valley of where we stayed, which was also quite beautiful.

Awesome views in Rumbur Valley

We found a nice Kalash village there and took beautiful photos of the river valley below. We got to see some of the traditional Kalash buildings and some shrines where they sacrifice animals for their religion. We enjoyed the scenery of the Hindu Kush mountains, with views of the snowy peaks all the way to Afghanistan.

Another Kalash village

Onward Travel

After taking in the amazing scenery and snapping some nice photos, we left the Kalash Valleys and drove about an hour back to the minibus where we switched vehicles again. Then we drove onward to the region’s main town of Chitral. Chitral is also nestled in the Hindu Kush mountains, so it was not too far of a drive.

Along the way, we could see the beautiful sight of Tirich Mir, which has the highest peak of the Hindu Kush mountains. Tirich Mir is the tallest mountain of the Himalayas-Karakoram mountain range and the 33rd highest mountain in the world. It has about eleven peaks, the highest standing at an astounding 7,700 meters tall. The highest peak was an impressive sight as it was completely snow-capped and rose up prominently above all the other mountains. We took some photos, then traveled on to Chitral.

A view of Tirich Mir mountain towering over the Chiral Valley.

Check in again next time to hear about the time we spent in Chitral and travel onward with us to the spectacular Karakoram mountain range.