Gilgit and Chitral, Pakistan
When your mind finally clears, you feel it. It’s a feeling deep inside. It’s a feeling of excitement, nervousness, and a strong desire to delve deeper into the unknown. Here Jacob and I were, experiencing this very feeling, riding atop an old, rusty bus, crossing the remote Shandur pass In North East Pakistan. Our destination is Chitral, a series of mysterious valleys located deep in the Hindu Kush. As the warm apricot scented wind blew across our faces, and we marveled at the impossibly beautiful mountains, the feeling only intensified. “This is exactly where I want to be.” It’s not often I say this to myself but, being in such an incredible moment, it seems plausible. This is Chitral, in North Pakistan.
Polo in Gilgit
From Hunza, the road winds through mountain valleys that travelers have been passing through for centuries. Marco Polo and Chinghis Khan passed through these very valleys. The scenery is incredible; fluorescent blue lakes below, black mountains towering high above, and massive glistening glaciers of blue and white.
In the olden days you would cross one of these lakes via an old ferry. Those days are now gone, however. The ferry sank a few times, making this journey dangerous for the locals. Recently, the Pakistani government issued China the rights to blast tunnels through the massive Karakorum Range to connect these remote valleys. A journey that once took seven or eight hours can now be completed in just under two.
Jacob and I arrived into Gilgit at midday. It was quite the contrast from upper Hunza and Gulmit. The streets were bustling and loud. The locals here dress much more conservatively as well. We found a cheap hotel named Horizon Guest House right next to the Gilgit Bazaar.
The first thing we noticed as we walked the streets of Gilgit was the military presence. Often, whole streets were closed down without notice. Heavily armed soldiers guarded intersections alongside tanks, and snipers on the rooftops. Gilgit defiantly felt “tense”.
There’s not a whole lot to see here, as Gilgit is a transit town between northern Pakistan and the south, as well as our destination, Chitral, to the west. The one thing that Gilgit is famous for is Polo. Gilgit’s locals are renowned to be some of the fiercest and finest Polo players.
After exploring the Bazaar, we walked to the Polo pitch. You have to be lucky to catch a game as they are usually seasonal, being played in the spring or fall. We just happened to be that lucky. Tickets were only cost us a few dollars. Seating is up to you. There are indeed VIP sections, but these don’t offer as good of views as the pitch side seats do (nor do they offer the thrill of almost being run over by a horse!).
After Adhan played, the game began. The players raced their horses into battle, often falling off their steeds as they collided. The Polo sticks were used to hit opponents as the ball. Players would hit each other and do whatever it took to drive that ball forward. At one point in the match, a player actually flipped his horse which landed on top of him…. Needless to say I don’t think he survived the ordeal. An ambulance came and removed the player, and the battle continued on.
Crossing the Shandur Pass
From Gilgit, the road climbs gradually to the Shandur Pass. This 3810m high pass separates the Gilgit and Chitral regions. After you cross it, you officially start descending into the Hindu Kush. The entire journey is a little under a few hundred kilometres, but because of road conditions, security checkpoints, and the quality of transportation, you can expect the journey to take anywhere from 18-24 hours.
After the Polo match we found the small Chitral transport hub in Gilgit. It’s little more than a small shop with one bus, and it is quite difficult to find. We asked around and eventually the locals pointed us in the right direction. Tickets were bought for fewer than 20 dollars for the whole trip. The bus was to leave at 6 am.
In the early hours of the next day, we arrived to the bus office. The bus was old, but had very rugged tires on it, indicative of the journey were about to take. The bus depot employees spent the first few hours piling everything from sheets of wood, satellite dishes, and food products in and on top of the bus. We used this valuable time to have Chai, and various deep-fried breakfast goodies across the street with the other Chitral bound passengers.
The seating arrangement was cramped, but not terrible. Many of the locals introduced themselves to us in the first few hours and wanted to hear our story, they seemed particularly interested in why we decided to travel to Pakistan, and Chitral.
The hours passed by and the scenery only got more magnificent. The valley opened up as we followed the roaring blue rivers up hill. As we rolled on through, the mountains showed there true dominance over the region. This is defiantly some of the best Himalayan mountain scenery I have ever seen.
The first town we stopped at was Gupis, a small bustling market town. Here we had lunch and were allowed to continue the journey riding atop of the bus. Many of the other passengers joined us on top smiling and taking in the beautiful scenery.
Every hour we would have to stop at a military checkpoint. Some would initiate a small interview with Jacob and I. Others would photocopy our passports.
Shandur Pass Tip: Bring at least 20 copies of your passport; some of the checkpoint took over thirty minutes to photocopy our passports. If you have a copy in hand you can just hand them to them and be on your merry way.
Nearing the pass locals would see us and yell out “Chitrali, Chitrali!” One of the passengers explained to us this was solely because travelers never make it this far, and Chitrali people tend to have coloured eyes and light hair. They were mistaking us for Chitral locals.
When we finally ascended the Shandur Pass it got cold… very cold. The bus had picked passengers along the way so it was too full for us to get back in. After 18 hours and riding in the dark, our bus pulled into Mastuj and told us that they will not be going any further due to the roads not being in good enough condition for the bus to finish the journey. Jacob and I stayed here in a government run guest house, which the local police authorities escorted us to.
Chitral and the Hindu Kush
In the morning, the police escorted us to the Jeeps that plow through the last remaining roads to Chitral. Now I am only going to say this once, do not attempt this journey if you are scared of heights, or death defying roads that barely cling to the side of mountains.
Our Jeep struggled as it pushed through tire high mud, sometimes within inches of a 1000m drop to the bottom of the valley floor. Often we would have to get out of the Jeep as we crossed the bridges as they might collapse if there was too much weight.
Four hours passed and we reached the opening of the valley, and final exit point of the Shandur Pass. Here we spent yet another hour being interrogated by police, and government agents, questioning how we made it here. Eventually, they let us into the Chitral Zone.
We arrived early enough into Chitral town. Chitral has a very exotic feel to it. Most locals wore the pancake flat hat, and it’s not uncommon to see brightly dressed Kalash tribe’s people, with their striking blue eyes, shopping in the local bazaars.
Our Jeep dropped us off at the Bazaar where yet another police escort was waiting for us. The checkpoints must have called ahead to tell the others that two adventurers were on their way. We were escorted to the police station where we were issued a Chitral Zone Permit. The chief of police then issued us our very own police escort who was to follow us until we left the Chitral Zone. I will leave his name out for his safety; I will refer to him as George from now on.
Police Escorts: In all of the dubbed “dangerous” areas of Pakistan, the government will issue you a police escort. At first this will seem very intimidating but, in fact, not only do they provide security, they make great translators, bargainers, and essentially act as local guides. The Pakistan government does not charge for their services at all! They make traveling to these regions a lot easier. Thanks, Pakistan!
We left the police station and went straight to the bank to get more Pakistan Rupee. George showed us the way. We slipped pass exotic spice markets and butcher shops displaying their fresh meat. The people’s faces displayed the diversity of this region.
Money Tip: Do not arrive here without money to exchange. We did, and almost had to leave as all the ATM’s were not working. Luckily one of the bank tellers escorted us to all the ATM’s he knew. The very last one allowed my card to withdraw money, but not Jacob’s.
Money attained, George and his machine gun in hand, we set off to the transport hub that climbs the mountain passes to Kalasha!
People of the Kalasha
The Kalasha (also known as Nuristani), are a Indo-Aryan Dardic group who reside in the lush valleys of the Chitral region near the Afghanistan border. Their culture, language, clothing, and way of life is very unique compared to the other tribes of Pakistan.
The Kalasha people speak their own language called Kalash, it is completely different from the local languages Chitrali and Urdu. Along with their language, the Kalash people are easily identifiable amongst there Pakistani counterparts. Most Kalash still dress in coulourful traditional clothing, but men often wear the traditional Pakistani Shalwar Kameez.
Another distinct feature you will notice is how the Kalash people look. Their eyes are piercing, usually bright blue or green. They trace there looks and culture back to Alexander the Great, who they all believe they are decedents from. It is believed that Alexander left part of his army here in the mountains when he conquered the area.
The Kalash have their own religion. It’s slightly confusing at first, but is based on spirits, nature, and animistic beliefs. There is a creator god and he often appears in many forms, It actually resembles Hinduism in many ways. This is very unique compared to the rest of Pakistan, which is strictly Muslim.
Traveling to the Kalasha Valleys
From the Kalash transport hub near the main bazaar in Chitral town we hunted for our ride into the valleys. Finding a ride isn’t that difficult, just look for the colourful clothing of the Kalash people or the bright green eyes and ask them for a lift!
Our police escort helped us with translating as many of the Kalash these days can converse in Chitrali and even Urdu. Our new Kalash friends told us that they were just picking up a few more supplies and then they would be more than delighted to give us a lift up the mountain passes of the Hindu Kush to Kalash.
When visiting the Kalas,h you must know that Kalash refers to a few remote valley high in the mountains that connect into Afghanistan. There are two main valleys, however, the first is Bumboret.
Bumboret is the most developed of the valleys. There is comfortable accommodation and easy access to many sights here. The downside is the culture has largely been affected here, and many of the Kalash have converted to Islam, abandoning their own culture and beliefs. At the time, there had been much flooding and the road to Bumboret was also largely damaged, making access here very difficult.
The second valley is known as Rumbur. Rumbur is the most traditional of the Kalasha Valleys. Between the two main villages of Grom and Balanguru more than 70 percent are distinctly Kalasha who follow their unique culture. Rumbur is also the best place to find homestays and stay with a traditional Kalash family, who will give you an in depth look at their ways.
Our new Kalash friends happened to be from Rumbur, the valley we had decided to head to. They told us the journey would be dangerous as the floods have affected the roads ahead.
Getting to the Rumbur Valley
We loaded supplies onto the rusty 4×4 and set off into the Hindu Kush. Our driver was a young man whose eyes were such vibrant green color that he stood out in any crowd here. Accompanying us was also is younger brother and an elderly women dressed in the traditional black and orange colours of the Kalash.
As we climbed high into the mountains, the roads became less than appealing. The flood had wiped out most of the bridges and softer parts of the roads, so make shift bridges made from large fallen trees replaced the missing road. Jacob and I rode on the roof of the jeep at this point to help ease the nerves of crossing some of these horrific roads.
After four death defying hours of bouncing along crumbly roads, we arrived into the Rumbur Valley. As our bus pulled up to the main town locals began to emerge to see the two new foreigners who have arrived. It really was quite the sight arriving into a valley full of traditionally dressed local tribal people all curious and excited to see us. This is what real adventure is made of!
Staying with the Kalash People
Our driver showed us to the Kalash Home Guest House on the outskirts of Grom town. The owner, Engineer Khan, is a delightful man who is always pleased to see new guests. Engineer has been house travelers and adventurous alike for over 30 years. His guesthouse has a few brightly coloured rooms for around 15 dollars a night, including all meals. He also provides free accommodation for your police escort.
That evening, Engineer brought us some local wine (alcohol cannot be found anywhere else in Pakistan!). We drank wine, shared stories of our adventures, and learned about these unique people’s culture.
The next day, Engineer’s son took us around Grom town. We visited a few other houses and hiked to the top of Grom hill, where a Kalash religious monument is placed. Here, he explained more of the religious customs of their people. He also told us stories of how their language and culture is all derived from Alexander the Great. The Kalash are truly a lost and mysterious tribe.
Hiking to Afghanistan
From Grom, George walked us along the road towards Afghanistan. We bypassed more small villages along the way, some of which had no names. The villages were stunning. Fields of vegetables were being ploughed by buffalos driven by beautifully adorned Kalash women. It was like stepping back in time.
The further we traveled towards Afghanistan, the more remote it felt. George started to shows signs of being nervous as this is quite a sensitive area. George handed me his AK 47 and told me maybe I could carry it for a while… of course this turned into a photo op.
We arrived to a military checkpoint and had to ask for permission to continue on, as at this point we are technically in Afghanistan. Not too many foreigners make it here, so the police were actually quite relaxed with our presence. They allowed us to continue on for a small bit to a view point where we could take photos, displaying how we walked straight into Afghanistan. They told us not to go further than this view point, as security past there could potentially get very dangerous.
The Kalash Valley and the Hindu Kush
We left the stunning Afghan scenery and headed back to Grom town. When we arrived, there was a large market with grain trading going on. Many of the women had come out for the market, making this colorful spectacle a photographers dream. Do take note, however, that the Kalash people are not too fond of having their photo taken. If you come here and decide to take photos, do so delicately.
Over the next few days, we ventured off around town visiting locals who were more than happy to bring us into their homes and serve us tea and food. Our police escort became more relaxed and often stayed at the guest house while we ventured out.
We spent a total of four days in the Rumbur Valley. There is plenty of hiking opportunities here, but the highlight was definitely mingling with these incredible, diverse people. Engineer made everything possible for us here; he was a translator, a Kalash food expert, and the man who got us the forbidden wine we had been craving. When it came time to leave, Engineer arranged for another 4×4 to take us down the Hindi Kush to Chitral Town.
The drive back to Chitral was beyond breathtaking. As we descended into the Chitral valley, the sun was setting of the massive Hidu Kush Range. The mountains glowed bright orange and the deep valley a mysterious blue. I sat atop the jeep with my eyes glued to this incredible sight. My heart filled with excitement, my head swimming with thoughts of the road that lay ahead!
Location: Kalasha Valley’s, Chitral, Pakistan
Daily Costs: 50 USD per day
Tips: Use your free army escort as a guide/translator. There is wine in the Kalasha Valley’s, find it!
Recommended Guide: Lonely Planet Pakistan