A couple of days ride from Swat Valley got me to Phander, located in Ghizer. Phander is on the route to Shandur Plains. which carries onwards to Kalash Valley, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa.
Aside from being shouted at by an unhappy policeman which was probably due to riding past an empty police checkpoint, there was nothing to note. Excluding of course the dreamy scenery. Expressing itself in the form of fields and livestock, grumbling red tractors and fast flowing rivers, Ghizer was easy on the eyes.
Abundant greens of all shades were growing wild off the lower mountains and farming land. Afternoon sun glinted off a light blue Gilgit river, complemented by fresh melt veining down the metaled red Hindu Kush. Locals grinned, waving happily from the fields as I rumbled by, feeling the warmth of their welcome through my visor.
The lower halves of the Hindu Kush marbled from the metaled-reds into soft yellow and earthen hues. I had ridden into yet another amazingly beautiful part of the north amongst the small villages of Ghizer. As the shadows enveloped a green Phander Valley, a silent beauty was not absent from snow crusted mountaintops, whose only voice was the wind sweeping through it’s worn crevices.
Departing Phander early the next morning, I overtook four jeeps carrying a group of spritely older italians in the same direction. Within a few kilometres, the gravel jeep track revealed itself at the feet of burnt red mountains.
Small villages whizzed by as I closed on the plains of Shandur, and after a final checkpoint, hit the rutty, gravel filled road to Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. Nomadic herders were seldom seen this early in the morning on Shandur, so my only company was the sound of my whirring exhaust and the giant, white veined wardens either side of me.
I had never seen a such a plain before. Spring greens ran as far as the eyes could see. Small streams created miniature islands, trickling their songs past beds of pink flowers. Hairy yak grazing on the long lush plain were complemented by the smell of fresh dew amongst the snow capped mountains… and me, one grubby Australian.
My mind played with the idea of what it must be like to live in such a place…. tough perhaps, especially during the cold winters, but astoundingly beautiful year round. Happy too it seemed… grinning herders, sturdy farmers and children alike waved hello and flashed a ready smile. I had wandered into the next world.
Crossing into Khyber Pakhtunkhwa at the famous Shandur Polo Ground, the descent began into Laspur. Moody black mountains loomed off in the distance as the gravel grew choppy, and at times, traded places with a fast flowing stream. Spring had pressed winter into a meltdown it seemed.
The villages on the rivers edge appeared lush, just as Phander had. However the marbling of the Hindu Kush had disappeared and been magicked into harsh brown coloured rock, accompanied by a dusty gravel road. Riding along the mountain edge, I was afforded magnificent views of miniscule green villages that consisted of no more then a handful of houses, nestled between mountains, like a baby does in her mothers arms.
The landscape continually grew harsher as I rode along, occasionaly chewing on some rusty flavoured dust. It was just me, only me and the mountains… and a very uplifting gravel road all the way past Mastuj, over swinging suspension bridges and doubtful looking patches of mud.
The goodness of the road kept going and going – it was the kind of road where you forget where you’re going and what you’re doing, and you ride… you ride the shit out of that road. That old saying “feeling the wind run through your hair” really sung true in that moment.
By the time I’d entered the outskirts of Booni, I was on bright orange track – and still, lush green agriculture followed the snaking river. Thoughts bounced around inside my helmet, with the most prevalent being that nature is such a marvellous gift.
The occasional jeep appeared and then vanished into my dirt crusted mirrors before I finally found asphalt. I was on the final leg to Kalash now.
The foreign register took all of ten minutes in Chitral Police Station, which was more like a fortress then anything. Huge gates, watchtowers and long, dark halls filled with doors to who knew where. With my Kalash permit in hand I was off, and an hour later, was riding along the Bumburait river on the bumpy, boulder filled road to the Kalash village of Brun.
For those that don’t know, simply put, the Kalash are ancient people who live in the valleys of Kalash – in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan.
Claimed to be descendants of Alexander, they speak Kalash and roughly number around 5000. Women are known for their astonishing beauty in a community where green, blue and grey eyes are prevalent. Kalash also have their own temples, beliefs and culture, different from the rest of Pakistan. Also make amazing cheese and are the happiest bunch I’ve come across thus far.
Crossing the Bumburait river westwards, I entered Bumburait Valley (one of three valleys of the Kalash, the other two being Rumbur and Birir). Entering the first tiny village of many, green fields opened up and enveloped the boring browns of the surrounding Hindu Kush. Women in bright colourful headscarves were bent over double in the fields, picking, trimming and filling baskets.
The road dipped up and down like a roller coaster – sometimes covered with a thin layer of water, other times shale slips, but for the most part, hard packed dirt.
I didn’t imagine many overlanders came here on “big” bikes judging by the very curious looks I was fetching. Tires spinning, I scrambled up a steep boulder filled trail to a small tree covered clearing on the edge of Brun, my kalash village of choice for the next 6 nights… a village that completely enveloped my vision.
The first thing that caught my eyes were fair hands. Fair hands with perfectly painted red fingernails folded comfortably over one another rested on long black robes. Loud embroidery sang loud on feminine shoulders in the warm afternoon sun, where fluro red flared and scorching yellows seemingly danced at the smallest movement. A stitched belt sat above a resting hip, red and white tassles danging gently off the thick handwork.
Innocent chestnut eyes looked into my own as I was welcomed by the sweetest of smiles, if a little shyly. On sun lightened brown hair sat a colourful handmade red, yellow and white shushut (headress). A face unlike any other gently examined my scruffy dirty one. The perfect red nailed hand gestured that I should sit on a low stool made of woven leather and wood. I was finally in Kalash.
Vegetables are one thing I’ve lacked this entire ride because I just gave up on trying to eat healthily. Luckily, I was taken great care of at my Kalash home over the period of a week by generous hosts. With vitamins on the rise, catching up on sleep became a priority before the Kalash spring festival began.
Over the first two days in Brun, I did nothing more then wander through the small dirt paths twisting up and down between the tiny village. Thick timber logs rested agaisnt stone walls to create stairways, which were no more then thin steps carved into the half finished wood.
Old men in brightly feathered Pakuls (a type of hat) who seemed to ceaselessly grin shook my hand enthusiastically, with a “Eshpata” and a cheeky wink from a knowing blue eye. Bright colours screamed at me from the surrounds as I walked, but as soon as I lingered for a second glance, young Kalash girls would disappear.
Early evenings took me back to the property’s top verandah, where infinite games of Bazaar would take place, over a small lamp and steaming cups of tea. A young kalash security guard who constantly fiddled with his Kalaskinkov, schooled me on those evenings, laughing every time he counted his points up. Brun quickly became an easy place to forget about the world.
Known as the spring festival, which begins in Rumbur valley (a more densely populated area of Kalashas) and then carries over to Bumburait, lasts about four days. Chilam joshi is also a great chance for young Kalashas to meet and mingle, and perhaps find their future husband or wife! First on the agenda was the collection of milk, which usually involves young kalash children, along with a selection of women.
Beginning just after sunrise, few people were awake – well that was until the drums began to beat across the top of Brun. By 7am young Kalashas were dancing in the small dirt square outside the stone walled school to the beat of leather skinned drums. Young girls whirled around arm in arm, a small colourful indication of what was to come in the following days.
Dairy farmers had been saving the milk for around 10 days before Chilam Joshi in large silver vats. Women and children in their traditional colours eagerly collected the milk to be shared with their families. Drums continued a steady beat and Kalash women, with their arms wrapped around one another, danced and sung on the uneven slopes of Brun.
Unevely lined homes covered in yellow flowers and true green leaves looked on as the gaudy procession danced it’s way along snaking dirt paths. Those not partaking watched on, leaning on walking sticks with looks of nostalgia hovering on wrinkled faces. Chilam Joshi had begun.
Grey clouds moodly swarmed overhead as I walked onwards to Batrik, somewhat tipsy after downing a bottle of Araq during the morning. I’d been drinking happily for the last two days. The araq would come accompanied by amazing plates of fermented cow’s cheese, which I imagined would steal a french connisuers attention. Araq and mulberry wine came much appreciated in the land of the dry – which funnily enough has its own brewery in Rawalpindi.
Skipping the Bamburait Valley road, I took the scenic but short trail over the top of the village. Kalash had assembled from Rumbur and Birir Valleys also… but seemingly in smaller numbers then I expected. That didn’t take away from the sound of drums, laughter and singing on the final day however.
Drops of rain pattered down on my woolen Kalash jacket, as the women danced their dance. And what a dance it was… Happiness caressed them as they swirled in circles, turning the ring of dancers into a colour wheel. Young women and old women alike, grinned and greeted each other across the throng. Kalash men were completely surrounded, and seemed a little subdued in the middle of the floor. Gaudy shekhyok’s (coloured sashes) were wrapped around shoulders and waists, and large feathered plumes stuck out from their Pakuls.
The rain continued unrelenting, as both young and old Kalash men made their way to the next field. To me it seemed, that only made the women more joyous, who then appeared to pick up their feet and dance faster. I can only equate that to when I’m out clubbing and there is finally a nice space with room enough to dance without touching another sweaty body… but maybe that’s not really the same thing as a cultural festival!
Onlookers had begun to disappear under the moody grey sky – the cold drops were ceaseless now, pelting down from the cloudy grey sheet overhead. The Kalash men had made their move… and were now slowly moving back toward the women, waving small branches of leaves.
Slowly, slowly they made ground. Closer and closer the men crept, feet and bodies beating to a steady beat as both sides chanted. 10 metres. 5 metres. 1 metre… Only a foot separated them and then before I knew what was happening, leaves and flowers were being thrown at one another amongst loud cheers… before the dancing began anew. Ace.
The leaving bit
Usually it’s not a difficult thing to leave a new place. I know where my home is, and that will always be the most comfortable place. I also know that the road will bring me many more beautiful places that will always appear to be more beautiful then the last. However that wasn’t the case with Kalash, or should I say Brun.
Had I stayed as requested by several new Kalash friends, I probably never would have left… and to be honest I didn’t really want to leave.
Brun is the only community on the face of this planet that I’d considered staying for a much longer undesignated period of time. I could give you all my reasons why, but if I did so, I wouldn’t have any secrets of my time in Brun to share with you later.