Words and Photos by Dave Stamboulis
I am sitting in a small hovel just off the main street of dusty Chitral town, not far from the Afghan border, where a couple of old blenders, two dirty tables covered with an army of flies, some broken benches, and a very large slab of ice serve to create a mango shake parlor. I am surrounded by eight wizened old men with long wispy beards and skull caps staring at me, all of whom look exactly like Osama Bin Laden. At first glance, the traveler might find Pakistan to be a bit daunting.
However, minutes later, the bearded men have treated me to two delicious mango shakes, a wonderfully cool reprieve from the 40 plus degree searing temperatures outside, and after finding out I am American, the men are full of questions, wanting to know if I find their country safe, and why tourists no longer come to visit.
To say that Pakistan is a land of extremes is not to exaggerate. Home to some of the most inhospitable terrain on earth, from barren and baking deserts to the huge and jagged Karakoram Mountains; where dozens of indigenous tribes eek out an existence under towering peaks and massive glacial upheaval. Baking hot in the summer, a frozen wasteland in the winter, and yet containing some of the most beautiful and lush valleys in the world, with abundant fruit and vegetables during the harvest season.
The international media portrays Pakistan as a land of lawlessness and evil, home to the Taliban and Al Qaeda mobs, and there are indeed areas such as Waziristan in the Northwest Tribal Frontier, which are very much off limits to foreigners. In Waziristan, everything off the main road is not subject to government jurisdiction, and the land is ruled by feudal clans who have been suspicious of outsiders for years. The inhabitants here sleep with their doors open, with the women in the family placed next to the door to serve as a frontline against intruders, while the turbaned men lie in bed clutching their Uzi’s, AK47’s, and just about any other of the latest military hardware, all of which can be copied from an original in 30 minutes in small villages whose existence serves only to replicate weapons.
Yet the traveler to Pakistan will never be allowed into these areas, and outside of the political violence that has disturbed the big cities, the rest of the country is safe and hospitable, especially in the north, with one being far more likely to be crushed by the never ending cascade of boulders falling onto the Karakoram Highway on an hourly basis than by any act of terrorism or violence.
The sectarian violence and Al Qaeda related jihad groups are restricted to most of the far west and south of the country, and government troops make sure that visitors cannot enter these areas while they are busy battling insurgents. Meanwhile, the north of the country is a mosaic of different ethnic groups and even religions, with Ismaili Moslems (following the leadership of the esteemed Aga Khan) and various tribes of the Pamir mountains making up a majority. Every bend of the raging Indus River brings about a language change, from Burusheski to Gojali or Chitrali, and often the only way one can tell the difference between a Baltit from a Hunzakot is by the color of his hat.
In the northwest, near the Afghan border in the Chitral district are the famed Hindu Kush Mountains, stretching across northern Afghanistan. In the shadow of the Hindu Kush, live one of the most interesting and remote ethnic groups in the world, the Kalasha, also known as the Black Robed Kaffir. The Kalasha are a non Moslem animist group with light skin and European features. Legend has it that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great, who traveled through the region on his journey from Europe to India. How the Kalasha have survived over the years is quite amazing. They are the only non Moslem group between Turkey and India, and they inhabit only three remote valleys, surrounded by conservative Islam on all sides, and a Taliban inhabited region of Afghanistan just across the border.
In contrast to most of the neighboring villages, where women often are not even seen outside of the home, the Kalasha women are unveiled, attired in colorful headdresses made of cowry shells, pillbox hats, and embroidered skirts, and all are smiling and welcoming, even engaging in drinking wine and smoking cigarettes!
The Kalasha are pastoral, and make cheese, grow walnuts, wheat, apricots, and mulberries, which they store to survive the harsh winters that they endure. The valleys they live in are ringed by steep mountains and angry rivers, and the paths between the valleys are challenging treks over some extremely vertical terrain. In the river gorges, Kalasha men can be seen braving the whitewater rapids trying to free logs that have been cut to send downriver to be sold as timber. Each year, several men are swept away to their deaths by the powerful currents.
In the 1990’s, anthropologists, biologists (the mountains surrounding the Kalasha valleys are home to some of the largest populations of markhor sheep in the world), and tourists invaded the Kalasha area, and many feared that the consequences of large scale tourism would irreparably damage their indigenous lifestyle. But the September 11th attacks and subsequent war in Afghanistan virtually brought the tourist industry to a standstill, and the Kalasha have been left in peace ever since.
There is still a large selection of guesthouses in the Bumburet and Rumbur valleys, and I spent a week calling one of them home. My lodging was run by Engineer Khan, a jovial and energetic man who is the first university educated Kalasha from the valley, and now Rumbur village’s one and only esteemed school teacher. Interestingly enough, Khan received his first name not due to his being an engineer, but because his father wanted him to go to school and study, and his son took him to task, even going as far as leaving home to attend college in Chitral town.
Khan speaks Kalasha, Urdu, Farsi, Pashto, English, and a smattering of other languages, and is happy to show visitors into local homes, the traditional funerary totems of his people, and to indulge in long evenings of astute conversation over several bottles of mulberry wine and local moonshine, a boon for the visitor in mostly alcohol free Pakistan.
Khan doesn’t worry too much about the political instability in Pakistan or the fundamental Taliban push from neighboring Afghanistan, as he figures the Kalasha have survived far worse throughout the hundreds of years they have inhabited the valleys around Chitral. He worries more about young people leaving for the cities to find employment, about dependency on western medicine instead of traditional remedies, and about overpopulation, a topic he is hot to teach in school. As he warmly jokes, “I have five kids, so it is too late for me, but I think that about three per couple for the future generations would be just right.”
I am amazed at the continuous warmth that the Kalasha show me in household after household. Even trekking over the steep 3000 meter Donson Pass to get from Rumbur to the neighboring Bumburet Valley I am constantly greeted with warm cries of “ishtapa baia,” the Kalasha words meaning “welcome brother.” Women out tending the goats invite my guide and me in for tea and rest, interested to know if we have news from neighboring valleys, as the vertical landscape and dangerous river crossings make regular travel between settlements a rigorous undertaking. I still have a hard time getting used to the fact that I can have free and open dialogue with the women, as in most of the rest of rural Pakistan, women are wrapped in burquas and not allowed to have conversations with strange men, let alone even look at them.
The freckles, green eyes, and blond and even red hair that I see on many children as I walk makes me forget I am in Asia and for all I know I could be in the countryside of Ireland or Scotland, but then one look around at the towering peaks and endless alpine ridges reminds me that I am in a landscape far more magnificent and on a much grander scale.
In the Bumburet Valley, many of the villages have been heavily populated by Moslems, who now run guesthouses and shops for the Pakistani middle class, who make up the majority of the tourist trade these days. Chitral can be reached by airplane, and the Kalasha Valleys are then a short drive away, a welcome respite from the summer heat on the plains, not to mention that nobody seems to make a big secret about the mulberry and other local wines openly available for consumption in this dry country.
The Kalasha seem to have survived the visitations, invasions, and designs of just about anyone for a long time, and it seems likely that their genetic makeup just might guarantee them to outlast the most stubborn of intruders. And if that is not enough, then the giant mountain walls of the Karakorams and Hindu Kush will provide the rest.
From Islamabad and Peshawar, local flights go to Chitral, and there is land transport available from Peshawar on a daily basis. From Chitral, local vans go to the Kalasha Valleys of Bumburet, Rumbur, and Birir.
Accommodation: Hotels and Guesthouses to suit all budgets can be found in cities. In Chitral town, the PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Commission) Hotel (#412683) is one of the nicer options, the Chinar Inn (412582) is basic, clean, and welcoming, and the HinduKush Heights (413151) is a swank resort just out of town.
In the Rumbur Valley in Grom village, Engineer Khan runs the Kalasha Home Guesthouse (email: firstname.lastname@example.org).