8 mins

Once upon a time in Pakistan's rugged, mysterious north...

The rugged mountains and welcoming culture of Pakistan's north have long been off limits, but with direct flights from London being relaunched, the country's story is ripe for retelling...

The Kalash people during the Chilam Joshi Festival (Emma Thomson)

From the dark recesses of the room came a sharp snore and a loud fart. We gated our giggles behind cupped hands and waited for Gul Naz’s grandfather to slip back into a deep sleep.

He rested on one of six woven-rope beds arranged around a central wood-burning stove, and from the rafters hung heavily beaded headdresses, rumpled shirts and cobwebs. Gul Naz’s mother, Jamsher, shooed away the kittens winding between her legs on the compact mud floor and passed me a cup of weak green tea.

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A Kalash girl in traditional piran dress (Emma Thomson)

A Kalash girl in traditional piran dress (Emma Thomson)

Jeeps are dwarfed by northern Pakistan's mountains (Emma Thomson)

Jeeps are dwarfed by northern Pakistan's mountains (Emma Thomson)

I’d met her daughter, just an hour ago while wandering around the village of Balanguru in the folds of the Hindu Kush and she’d invited me into the family home. They are Kalash, a pagan people living in the Chitral District of northern Pakistan, but I would come to learn that the warm welcome they offered me is the same as any you receive countrywide.

 I left Gul Naz and returned to my Kalash host Saifullah. “In the Seventies, Pakistan was firmly on the hippie trail,” he remembered, as we walked through the village. “They used to hang out here smoking marijuana,” he smiled, pointing to the dilapidated balcony of a former guesthouse – a reminder that, not so long ago, travellers had very different opinions about Pakistan.

Indeed, we’ve all heard stories – many of them negative – about Pakistan. Some are real, some are exaggerated, some are untrue. I’d come to uncover the truth by staying with a Kalash family, visiting the previously off-limits Swat Valley and taking in the mountain scenery of the Hunza Valley as I journeyed around the country’s north-west region.

New beginnings

Kalash people during Chilam Joshi Festival (Emma Thomson)

Kalash people during Chilam Joshi Festival (Emma Thomson)

Marco Polo once described the region as ‘noisy with kingdoms.’ Urdu – the national language – means ‘army,’ and terrorism and the Taliban have dominated news reports since the mid-nineties, so you’d be forgiven for thinking unrest is built into the country. Even the very landscape was forged by the collision and jostling of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates.

But this reputation for conflict and turmoil isn’t the full story. A new era of stability seems to be emerging. The Pakistani Army are no longer turning a blind eye to Taliban activities while new Prime Minister, and cricket legend, Imran Khan, is cracking down on corruption and has opened the country up with a new e-visa system, making entry much simpler and faster.

And, now British Airways has relaunched its direct London to Islamabad route after an 11-year hiatus. These changes warrant travellers to take a fresh look at visiting Pakistan.

Meanwhile, I was getting a new look of my own. Back at their house, Saifullah’s daughter, Gulistan, was dressing me for Chilam Joshi – the spring festival during which they pray to their gods for the safety of their fields and animals.

A Kalash woman wearing piran and a feather headdress  (Emma Thomson)

A Kalash woman wearing piran and a feather headdress (Emma Thomson)

Hunza Valley in the north of Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

Hunza Valley in the north of Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

The Kalash are famous for their piran – baggy black cotton dresses embroidered with symbolic designs.  These dark robes gave them their name: when the Persians invaded in the 16th century they called them Kafir Kalash (black pagans).

Gulistan pulled one of her spare dresses over my head and wrapped the pat’i – a thick woven belt – around my waist, yanking it as tight as a corset. She balanced a headdress on my freshly tied plaits and nodded approval.

Together, we strolled through the village, nodding greetings to each family we passed, and up a coil of rock-hewn stairs to a platform on a hilltop where men and women sang and danced.

Her friends linked their arms around her waist and spun her off into the crowd, twirling in slow circles. A boy with pale blue eyes and fair hair caught my attention. The Kalash are believed to be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s armies, who passed through here in 327BC, and left their Grecian looks in the gene pool.

Shandur Pass (Emma Thomson)

Shandur Pass (Emma Thomson)

Gul Naz recognised me and came running over with a gaggle of other girls. Forming a half moon, we joined the swirl of skirts.

Suddenly, drums started to pound and the Kalash men ushered the Muslim men and boys to one side. Leafy walnut branches were handed out to everyone, and together they all turned and shook them at the snow-dusted mountains, emitting shouts of glee to shoo the evil spirits out of the valley.

The next morning, I joined Saifullah inside the family compound. A bloated pigskin hung from a tree. “For fermenting the cheese,” he said, noticing my interest. He pointed to a low stool beside an open hearth and I sat, knees hunched to my chest, and asked about life in the mountains.

“In winter we receive five feet of snow – people barely leave their homes,” he told me. “And the Taliban?” I ventured. His village lies just 20km from the Afghan border and I was intrigued to know the truth behind the headlines. “The Taliban used to cross the mountain passes and raid the valley, but that was four or five years ago,” he answered.

An unexpected journey

 

Kalash Valley, Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

Kalash Valley, Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

It’s not just the Kalash Valley where things are calmer. Further southeast, the Taliban seized the verdant hills and plains of the Swat Valley in 2007. “They were off limits even to me until 2009,” said our blue-eyed guide, Attaullah Khan, as we drove the now-open road weaving through the picturesque valley.

En route, we spotted a tower on a hill where the course of history was almost changed forever when a 23 year-old Winston Churchill was nearly killed in 1897 during the Siege of Malakand. “A Pashtun aimed his gun at Churchill three times until he was rescued by an orderly who shot the soldier,” said Attaullah.

We paused for lunch beside the broiling Indus. A gujar (shepherd) watched nervously from the bank as his water buffalo waded in the shallows, a long branch twitching in his hand. Asia’s third-largest river is said to emerge from the mouth of a lion in Tibet. “That’s why it roars as it flows,” smiled Attaullah.

Remains of a Buddha (Emma Thomson)

Remains of a Buddha (Emma Thomson)

We’d seen other lions earlier that day, on the outskirts of Mingora, about an hour north-east of Chakdara and Churchill’s Picket.

They were headless and carved into the rubble ruins of Butkara, a 2,000 year-old Buddhist stupa. A major pilgrimage site, it was said to contain a gold casket filled with an eighth of the Buddha’s ashes.

Pilgrims came from as far as Tibet and China to pay homage here and Sogdians tracing the Silk Road knew of it.

Indeed, few remember that from 3,000BC to AD700, Buddhism thrived in the Swat Valley and its plains were dotted with 1,400 monasteries; its large rocks decorated with religious engravings, a few of which are still visible today.

Rampaging White Huns, who plundered the gems and scratched the gold from the stupas, destroyed most of it in the seventh century.

But even now, as I wandered between the circles of heavy stone, there were remnants of intricate artwork; reliefs of fruit-heavy trees, sitting Buddhas, and a light scattering of lapis-lazuli mosaic tiles in the floor.

Marijuana plants grew in great wild thickets throughout the area, their heady scent conjuring wilder times. This was not what I’d expected of predominantly Muslim Pakistan...

Land of fairy tales

Rakaposhi Peak on the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

Rakaposhi Peak on the Karakoram Highway, Pakistan (Emma Thomson)

And the stories were about to take an even stranger turn as we moved further north, closer to Attaullah’s home.

Traversing the yak-patrolled meadows of the Shandur Pass and moving east we reached the Hunza Valley, the so-called Switzerland of Pakistan, thanks to a sisterhood of eight mountains – including the highest unbroken slope on earth, Rakaposhi – that encircle the vast schist-studded bowl.

Houses clung to the mountainsides. “We’re so close now I can smell what my wife is cooking,” grinned Attaullah, as the Jeeps wrangled their way up the coil of streets crowned by peaks uncloaked of mist – much like the women who don’t wear headscarves here.

They sat hunched in the fields picking rice seedlings; others washed carpets in the river. Kids rolled tyres downhill and tried to avoid the squat cows moseying between pastures with their calves. Elderly men inched down the road leaning on their canes, or sat outside clapboard shops chatting.

Baltit Fort, Pakistan (Shutterstock)

Baltit Fort, Pakistan (Shutterstock)

Ruled by an independent king until 1945 and cut off from the outside world until the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1978, there’s been time to let magic brew within this cauldron of mountains.

“The Hunza believe fairies and demons live up high near the juniper trees,” said Attaullah. We were sat on the rocky ledge of a 3,000 metre-high viewpoint the great sweep of the glacier-carved valley at our feet.

“Fairies are five foot tall, have glowing hair, and eyes blue as Attabad Lake,” he continued, eyes fixed on the hills. “Our shamans communicate with them in ancient Shina – the language of the dead.”

As we listened, the sound of people calling to each other far below mingled indeterminately with the wind, creating an other-worldly sound that could have been that secret speech. “They sneak down and swap their ugly offspring for good-looking human children who grow up to be shamans.” 

As I scanned my eyes across the canyon, taking in the 800 year-old form of Baltit Fort (based on Tibet’s Potala Palace) and with the aromatic scent of wild sage in my nose, I was ready to believe in fairy tales.

A guard watches Baltit Fort (Emma Thomson)

A guard watches Baltit Fort (Emma Thomson)

Pakistan – more than most – is a land forged by stories; stories that establish who to be loyal to, who to trust and who to fear. Even the jibes that exist today between the Hunza and the Nagar are fed by legend.

“A thousand years ago, the King of Gilgit’s wife was pregnant with twin boys. But even in the womb they were always kicking and fighting. As they grew up, it continued until their father decided to divide his kingdom into Nagar and Hunza with no bridges between them – and that continues to this day,” said Attaullah, gesturing to the other side of the Hunza River.

“They sneak down and swap their ugly offspring for good-looking human children who grow up to be shamans.”

As I scanned my eyes across the canyon, taking in the 800 year-old form of Baltit Fort (based on Tibet’s Potala Palace) and with the aromatic scent of wild sage in my nose, I was ready to believe in fairytales.

Pakistan – more than most – is a land forged by stories; stories that establish who to be loyal to, who to trust and who to fear. Even the jibes that exist today between the Hunza and the Nagar are fed by legend.

“A thousand years ago, the King of Gilgit’s wife was pregnant with twin boys. But even in the womb they were always kicking and fighting. As they grew up, it continued until their father decided to divide his kingdom into Nagar and Hunza with no bridges between them – and that continues to this day,” said Attaullah, gesturing to the other side of the Hunza River.

Highs & lows

Inside a Bedford truck (Emma Thomson)

Inside a Bedford truck (Emma Thomson)

Crossing through Shandur Pass (Emma Thomson)

Crossing through Shandur Pass (Emma Thomson)

En route back to Islamabad, we picked up the Karakorum Highway (KKH) again. “Look, there!” pointed Attaullah to a thin trail half way up the scree-covered slope. “That’s a section of the old Silk Road.”

I strained in my seat to get a better look, picturing the caravans of spices and fabrics that would’ve travelled along it. “It was known as Kinu-Kutto and evolved from a footpath, to a pony track and then, in 1950s, widened to fit to a Jeep – well, three quarters of Jeep,” laughed Attaullah.

“One tyre had to hang off the edge most of the time!” Only when the KKH was constructed in the the Seventies. “Of course, it won’t be a sudden change. You’re still restricted to certain areas,” one guesthouse owner had told me.

In areas such as Kohistan – formerly known as Yaghistan, ‘land of the ungovernable’, and where they call guns ‘men’s jewellery’ – the government’s control weakens the minute you leave the highway.

Karakoram Highway (Shutterstock)

Karakoram Highway (Shutterstock)

But there are large areas that are safe and visitors can play a role in telling a more truthful story.

“You shouldn’t judge people you haven’t met,” our driver, Mufti, had said manoeuvring past vans bursting with fat-tailed sheep and Bedford trucks festooned with more bling than a bride. “We’re a peaceful people, we like visitors.”

And from the time I’d spent with Gul Naz, Saifullah, Attaullah, Mufti and numerous strangers along the way, I believed him. The country is starting a new chapter in its history; now is the time for travellers to help them write it.

The trip

The author travelled with Wild Frontiers (020 8741 7390), who offer a 16-day Hindu Kush Adventure that costs £2,795 per person, excluding flights and visas.

Find more Wild Frontiers tours here

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