Exploring the Kalash Valley in Chitral, Pakistan
The absolutely spectacular Kalash Valley in Northern Pakistan’s Chitral district in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, is easily one of the best places to visit in Pakistan if you’re looking for a unique, traditional cultural experience.
You should know that the lush Kalash valley is surrounded by the Hindu Kush mountain range, and gorgeous mountain vistas can be experienced from almost every point in this fantastic region, made up of three main valleys – Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir.
The relatively-mysterious Kalash people are an ancient tribe with a very unique culture and tradition… not quite what you’d expect in the rather conservative Muslim-majority Pakistan! I spent three days exploring the region whilst hanging out with the lovely Kalash people to gain a little insight into their way of life in this remote corner of Pakistan close to the border with Afghanistan.
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Getting to the Kalash Valley in Chitral, Pakistan
I was on a three-week guided trip in Pakistan with two other girls I go to know on a travel group, who also wanted to explore the country. After having planned out an itinerary including all the best places to see in Pakistan, we contacted a well-known local guide who planned out the logistics of our trip.
Our first stop on the trip was Chitral town (more on that below), the gateway to the Kalash Valley. Since we had our own driver for the full course of our three-week trip in Pakistan, we made our way from Islamabad (where we landed) to the Kalash Valley by car, stopping overnight in Chitral town.
You can travel from Islamabad to the Kalash Valley with a private car, or alternatively, if you don’t wish to hire a driver to take you all the way from Islamabad to the Kalash Valley, you could travel from Islamabad to Chitral by bus and then hire a driver in Chitral to take you straight to the Kalasha Valleys, or else take a shared taxi directly from Chitral to the Kalash Valley.
The vehicles headed directly to the Kalash valley can be located near Bank Alfalah in Chitral town and usually leave for the Valleys early afternoon. You can also take a shared car from Chitral to Ayun and then another car from Ayun to the Kalasha Valleys.
I definitely don’t recommend anybody to rent a car and drive to the Kalash valley. The roads leading there are extremely bumpy, and at time dangerous. Luckily, our driver was just great, but there are some road safety considerations you should take note of!
Where to stay in the Kalash Valley in Chitral, Pakistan
As stated above, there are three valleys with Birir being the most remote, and having least facilities. We chose to not go there because this would take a significant portion of our time. Rumbur is less developed than Bumburet, and is where we chose to base ourselves, although we did go to visit Bumburet for a day.
We loved staying in Rumbur because the people are predominately Kalash, whilst those in Bumburet, which has seen quite a bit of development and is more accessible, has a population which is largely mixed. Whilst there were no other tourists staying in Rumbur when we were there, we saw mini vans with local tourists in Bumburet.
There are a couple of guesthouses in Rumbur which cater to travelers. They have simple rooms and usually provide food. We stayed at Kalash Home Guesthouse in Grom village, where we got to sample some amazing Kalash dishes!
Bumburet is home to a number of guesthouses / hotels which we did not stay in, but probably provide a similar experience. Some accommodation options can be booked here and here.
What to do in the Kalash Valley in Chitral, Pakistan
Roam around the villages
The best things to do in the Kalash Valley is to experience the local way of life in the little villages. The locals are very proud of their heritage and we happily discovered they were very willing to open up their homes to us, and introduce their families, whilst the kids played around and at times shyly invited us to join them.
I noticed that many of the locals here were fair with light-coloured eyes. We were told that no one keeps written records of their births in the Kalash valley, so nobody knows their actual ages!
The cemetery in Bumburet may not be the happiest attraction around, but we thought that it was pretty interesting! The Kalash people have, in the past, left dead bodies of their loved ones in wooden boxes under an open sky (together with treasured personal belongings), instead of following the traditional burial methods. The graveyard is packed with these wooden boxes and it is quite common to come across bones and pieces of cloth too.
Here in the Kalash Valley, death is celebrated, with traditions similar (but not identical) to those in Tana Toraja and Sumba, Indonesia, where animals are sacrificed and feasts are held.
There’s also a tombstone dedicated to the late Jordi Magraner, a Spaniard who lived in the valley hunting for a snow yeti, who was murdered in 2002. The reason for the murder is still unknown but he seems to have ruffled a few feathers in and around the Kalash Valley.
Find it on a map! – Kalash Cemetery
Museum in Bumburet (Kalasha Dur Museum)
The Kalasha Dur or ‘House of the Kalasha’ is a museum in Bumburet where traditional items used by the people of the Kalah Valleys have been collected and displayed, including old photographs of the region which I thought were incredibly fascinating! Be sure to visit the museum when you’re exploring the Kalash Valley!
Find it on a map! – Kalasha Dur Museum
Secondary School in Bumburet
Visiting the local school was a pretty rewarding experience, though we didn’t stay there too long. The teacher who showed us around was eager to display his little collection of books, kept in a library where the wood still smelled fresh.
The kids, many of them wearing the local dress, seemed relatively accustomed to having foreigners interrupting their class, and listening to them as they recited their lessons, and did so without any hint of self-consciousness or shyness. We were told that the local Kalash language is endangered and efforts are being made towards its preservation. In fact, some the school books have even been written in / translated to Kalash.
Drink wine by the fire
Before leaving for Muslim-majority Pakistan, I had already resolved that I would not be savouring any wine (or alcohol for that matter) during my time there, so I made sure to enjoy a glass every evening in the weeks leading up to my trip! Imagine my surprise when during our first night in the Kalash valley, we were asked whether we would like to try the local wine!
The wine made in the Kalash valley, is more akin to strong moonshine and perhaps not the smoothest beverage around, but it went down pretty well as we huddled up by the fire after enjoying an amazing home-cooked meal!
Indulge in the local cuisine
One of the tastiest items I got to try in the Kalash Valley is walnut bread for breakfast, locally called bilili! This is not your typical thick hunk of cake but more similar to something in between a chapati and pancake with large bits of walnuts in it. Nonetheless, it is truly delicious especially when served with spoonfuls of local honey!
Other noteworthy dishes were a hearty pumpkin stew and some delicious spinach, besides the more usual chicken and lentil dishes. Do let your host know if you are vegetarian…. you’re sure not to go hungry; the veg dishes were just as tasty as the non-veg ones!
During one of our walks, we also observed a string of thick walnuts drying in the sun. Our guide explained that the walnuts are coated in juice and left to dry until they are eaten during special occasions such as festivals. They reminded me a lot of the chuchkhela we had enjoyed so much in Georgia! I was dying to try some, but unfortunately there didn’t seem to be any occasion we could celebrate!
Take a walk up to the hills surrounding the valley
Later in the day, our guide took for a walk up the hills and around the surrounding valley, in order to get a better impression of life around the Kalash valley and also to savour the spectacular views. We passed by the house of a local sculptor Rahmat Wali Kalash, who, in spite of his disability, is a fantastic wood-carver, despite not having any formal training.
We watched kids play cricket, picked and ate local berries (approved by our guide), trekked up a hill and passed by streams and rivers, all whilst in the shadows of the mighty Hindu Kush.
The people of the Kalash Valley in Chitral, Pakistan
There are currently only around 4,000 Kalash people, constituting the tiny minority in Pakistan. Their unique language is considered to be endangered by UNESCO and of course, the ethnic population itself is at risk. The Kalash people have been struggling to preserve their lifestyle, identity and animist tradition, and people frequently convert to Islam, the major religion in Pakistan.
The origin of the Kalash people remains a bit of a mystery. They are thought to be either of Indo-Aryan or of Greek origin, but how they wound up in this isolated corner of the world is uncertain. Many of the Kalash people are fair-skinned with light-coloured eyes, starkly different to the darker-skinned Muslims in other areas of Pakistan.
The Kalashas are animist and have more than one deity. They observe religious festivals, during which would actually a great time to be in the Kalash Valley!
You should be aware however, that some Kalasha traditions may not be as agreeable to tourists coming from the western world. Kalasha women are considered to be impure during menstruation and pregnancy and are made to live in a house called a Bashali outside the village. Despite this, women are free to marry whomsoever they may wish, which may be considered to be a far cry from what happens in some other areas of Pakistan.
Exploring Chitral town on the way to the Kalash Valley
If you’re passing through Chitral town on your way to the Kalasha Valleys and you’re wondering what to do, this section is for you!
Chitral town is actually pretty small with one long street and not too much to do, but it makes for a good night stop on the way to the Kalash Valley.
We enjoyed walking around town and observing the very friendly local people selling their wares and going about their day, and even got to experience the traditional local transport across the river… basically a metal cage on a zipline! The price of a single ride was 20pkr.
Other things to do in Chitral town are to visit the Chitral Fort, dating to the time when Chitral was a princely state, and the Shahi Mosque located close by.
Find it on a map! – Chitral Fort
Where to stay in Chitral town
There are plenty of accommodation options in Chitral town depending on your preference and budget. We stayed at Hotel Mountain Inn, inside a cabin in a garden, which was very cute. We needed to tell the staff to turn on the hot water to have a shower though, and when they did, it was good enough (note that hot showers are sometimes hard to come by in Pakistan!)
Roomy Hindukush Sarai is a highly-rated option with modern amenities which is also rather popular. Other accommodation options can be booked here.
We truly recommend a visit to the Kalasha Valleys during your time in Pakistan – it’s uniqueness as well as its friendly people will surely make your trip worthwhile!Read more about Pakistan!