The Kalash Valleys in Chitral District are home to the ancient group of Kalash. If you haven’t heard of Kalash or you don’t know much about them, don’t worry, you are not alone.
I heard about Kalash when I started my research about our upcoming trip to Pakistan. I couldn't find a lot of information about Kalash, I just learned the basics about the Kalash religion and festivals. But, when I travelled to the Kalash Valleys and stayed with Kalash people, I learned more about their culture, traditions and religion.
You can also read: Things you should know before travelling to Pakistan
In this article, I gathered all the information you need about Kalash, how to visit the Kalash Valleys, including tips and advice on where to stay and things to do in the Kalash Valleys.
Who are the Kalash
There are less than 4000 Kalash people left in the world who live in a remote mountain range in Pakistan near the border with Afghanistan.
It’s not clear how they got here. Some believe that they are the descendants of Alexander the Great's soldiers, while others have suggested they were part of Slavic tribes who got lost in the mountains.
What we know for certain is that the tradition of the Kalash community is listed by UNESCO as an Intangible Cultural Heritage and it is recognised as a living heritage whose viability was under threat.
The Kalash live in three valleys: Bumburet, Birir and Rumbur. Even in these valleys, they are a minority. They are only 20% of the population here. The rest are Muslims, including a high number of people who converted from Kalash to Islam.
How to get to the Kalash Valleys
The Kalash Valleys are located in the north-west of Pakistan, not too far from the border with Afghanistan.
There is no easy way to get to the Kalash Valleys. We had to fly from London to Islamabad and take a very long road trip from the capital towards Chitral. After leaving the motorway, the roads can be quite bumpy and somewhat dangerous. We actually took a private Kalash tour. The private tour means we hired a car with an experienced driver and a guide. So we were able to customise our tour based on what we were interested in doing.
You can also read: Things to do in Islamabad
If you prefer to travel by yourself, you can fly from Islamabad to Chitral or use the local public transport to Chitral or Ayun. Keep in mind the number of daily flights from Islamabad to Chitral is limited and the flights can get cancelled due to rough weather conditions.
It doesn’t matter if you take a tour or travel by yourself on public transport, you might want to take a break along the way from Islamabad to Kalash. Some people choose to spend the night in the town of Chitral, but we stayed in Ayun instead, which is only 20 kilometres away from Kalash.
From Chitral to the Kalash Valleys
Many tourists prefer to begin their journey to the Kalash Valleys from Chitral, so if you want to stay in the city of Chitral, you have more accommodation options.
You can hire a car or a Jeep (with a driver) from Chitral to the Kalash Valleys. You can find these Jeeps near the Bank Alfalah in the centre of Chitral around noon, and they will take you to the Kalash villages. The alternative is to take a shared car or a minibus to Ayun and from Ayun take a car to Kalash Valleys.
Keep in mind that all the cars from Chitral have to go through Ayun to be able to get to the three different Kalash Valleys.
From Ayun to the Kalash Valleys
You can take a break in Ayun and stay in one of the few inns there. From Ayun you can get a shared car which usually charges around 100 to 200 RS or just take a private car to Kalash Valley for about 1000 to 1200 RS.
The roads from Ayun to Kalash Valleys are really bumpy and there is no tarmac road. I don’t recommend anyone to rent a car and drive to the Kalash Valleys. There is no fence on the side of the roads, which makes them quite dangerous, in addition, most of the cars don’t have seatbelts for passengers.
That is why you need an experienced driver, who knows the roads. On our way, a car was stuck in front of us and the driver wasn’t confident enough to move forward. He blocked the road and put his life and other people in danger. Luckily, the other divers got out of their cars to help and nothing bad happened.
Note: Foreigners have to pay 600 Rs per person to be able to enter the Kalash Valley. The money is going to the welfare of the Kalash people and to the roads’ maintenance. You can pay for the tickets at the entrance of the valleys.
When is the best time to visit Kalash Valleys
Kalash people celebrate different festivals throughout the year. The main ones are Chilam Joshi Festival, Uchal Festival, Poh Festival, and Choimus Festival.
Chilam Joshi Festival takes place from the 13th to the 16th of May when Kalash people are welcoming spring and saying farewell to the harsh winter.
In the summer, from the 20th to the 22nd of August, Kalash people celebrate the Uchal Festival. They pray to Mahadeo, the god who protects their family, crops, fruits and animals.
At the end of September, when all the harvest is ready and the shepherds return with the livestock, Kalash people celebrate the Poh Festival.
The last festival of the year is the Choimus Festival which takes place for two weeks around the winter solstice.
During the festivals and even a few days before, Kalash people gather in an open space and dance to the beating of drums. It is highly recommended to arrive at the Kalash Valleys a few days before the actual events. This will help you getting to know the Kalash culture better, meet some locals and make friends. This makes it easier to join them in the celebration instead of only acting as an observer.
Where to stay in the Kalash Valleys
There are three main valleys where Kalash people live: Bumburet, Rumbur and Birir. Biris is the most remote one and there is not much information about it.
Staying in Bumburet
The valley of Bumburet is the most popular valley amongst tourists. There are various hotels and guesthouses. Locals called it the most commercialised valley in the Kalash Valleys.
If you want to be more comfortable, you can stay in Bumburet, but if you prefer to be with the people of Kalash and experience the real Kalash life, here is not your place.
Things to do in Bumburet - Kalash Valleys
You should visit Bumburet, even if you don’t want to stay there. We have visited the Kalash Graveyard, maybe not the happiest place on Earth, but it is quite special.
The Kalash used to leave bodies in this graveyard without burying them, but they later started to do so, probably to prevent diseases from spreading. They also bury personal belongings and leave the bed and pillow at the grave. They don’t take them back because they believe evil spirits would come back home. You can still see human bones in the graveyard.
We have visited the Kalash school, we only had to ask for permission. Kalash and Muslim students, both boys and girls study together. Kalash girls wear their traditional dresses while the Muslim girls wear hijabs and cover their hair.
Education in the Kalash Valleys is a privilege, not a right. Only 18% of Kalash women and 25% of men go to school.
Amongst the three valleys, there is only one high school, two secondary schools and 10 primary schools.
In front of this school, there is a secluded house called “Bashali”, where we are not allowed to film or enter. Women are sent to the house during menstruation and childbirth because they are considered impure.
Rumbur in the Kalash Valleys
The village of Rumbur is smaller and less developed compared to Bumburet. Going to Rumbur is also tougher to get to compared to Bumburet. The roads to Rumbur are often closed due to heavy snow or landslides caused by rainfall.
We had to walk to Rumbur because the roads were closed, but it wasn’t a big issue. The locals also helped us carrying our luggage.
There is no hotel in Rumbur, but you will find a few guesthouses in the valley. The most popular one is Engineer Khan’s house. You can also camp in his garden.
If you stay in the guesthouse, you will feel part of the family. You will eat food with them and sometimes drink their local wine.
Things to do in Rumbur
Rumbur is surrounded by beautiful mountains and clear waters. You can take a hike with some locals and enjoy the natural beauty of the area.
When you are in Rumbur, make sure you are going to meet Rehmat Wali, who is an inspiring woodcarver, who contracted polio at a young age. He is a very welcoming man, you can meet him and see how he creates his outstanding artworks.
Be a respectful and responsible visitor in the Kalash Valleys
Do not take photos of Kalash people without asking. This is a very serious issue in the Kalash valleys. Kalash people are very nice, kind and friendly. They respect and welcome visitors, but they also want to be respected. So, don’t treat them like objects, always ask before taking photos of them. We have heard from many Kalash women how they were annoyed by tourists (mostly domestic tourists) taking photos of them without their permission.
Take your trash back to Islamabad or home: Unfortunately, there is no proper rubbish disposal or recycling system in the Kalash Valleys. They have to send their rubbish by car to Chitral. So, it will be helpful if you could take your rubbish with you back to the big cities like Chitral or Islamabad or even to your home country where there is a proper recycling system.
Stay in the hotels and guesthouses run by Kalash: The Kalash people need more support from visitors. It will help their local economy if you stay at one of the Kalash guesthouses.
In the end, the Kalash people are very proud of their culture and they are trying to preserve it, but they also want to have a better education system and health facilities to be able to improve their lives and their community.