The Kalash Valleys, Pakistan
The Kalash Valleys are possibly the final frontier of cultural adventure in Pakistan. It’s not that no-one has been there before; in fact thousands of domestic and international tourists descend on the region south of Chitral every year in May for the exuberant Chilum Joshi festival. However the Kalash people, isolated both culturally and geographically, occupy a place on the very fringe of the global community, and in the imaginations of most ‘downland’ Pakistanis who have only heard of them.
The Kalash are one of Pakistan’s smallest ethnic minorities. Their religion is said to be a form of ancient Hinduism, and has survived the onslaught of invasion and conquest for millennia. Genetically, they are believed to be related to inhabitants of western Eurasia, leading some to speculate that they are descended from Greek or European lineage.
Many Kalash people have converted to Islam over the years, but at least half of the community continue to practice their traditional religion which involves rituals of dance, fire, music and food. Kalash women are easily recognised in their fluorescent garments which are worn everywhere; at home, in the village, and on the land.
The Kalash valleys are mostly agricultural societies that survive on their own produce and some imports from the “outside world”. The valleys are stunningly beautiful and incredibly peaceful; it’s all the more remarkable considering the border with Afghanistan, and the media-informed image of chaos that that name conjures up, is just 50 kilometres away.
There is no place called “Kalash”, in fact the three “Kalash Valleys” are individually called Rumbur, Bumboret and Birir, and all can be accessed from the village of Ayun, about 20 kilometres south of Chitral. Most visitors come on a day trip, but with enough time and stamina or preparation there’s no reason why you can’t stay for longer.
I say stamina because facilities in the valley are very limited; there’s little or no internet access, medical facilities are basic, and your choice of food is often just what your host has cooked that day. Chitral makes a good staging post for the Kalash Valleys, from where you can stock up on basic supplies, access the internet and even shop for a limited range of camping goods.
The roads to all of the Kalash Valleys are rough and prone to the elements – floods, landslides, storms and earthquakes all take their toll. Foreign visitors must also come with a guard – although the Kalash Valleys are very safe and peaceful, they have received threats from militias in other parts of Pakistan. While no untoward incidents have so far occurred, it’s a “better safe than sorry” attitude which sees foreigners walking around with an armed guard in tow. In any case the guard is a blessing – most people who come here aren’t fluent in Khowar (the local language of Chitral), let alone the local Kalash tongue, so the guard can translate.
Moreover the Kalash have grown weary of travellers (including no small number of domestic Pakistani tourists) treating them like animals in a petting zoo – many are understandably reluctant to interact or have their photos taken, and a pushy tourist looking for a “cultural experience” will be met with hostility. Your guard is equally there to make sure you don’t misbehave in this far flung corner of the country.
The Kalash Valleys are therefore not your typical tourist destination, but nor are they inaccessible – in fact they are Pakistan’s final frontier in cultural adventure travel. How the tourism industry develops in this fragile corner of humanity is an important question, but one which a responsible traveller can help in answering the right way.