It’s been a while since I last wrote any personal story but, over time, I have realized that, besides your mother and some other close friends, nobody cares about your travel diary, unless you tell specific crazy, different stories, such as visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Irak, the day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy or my Airbnb stay in a Palestinian refugee camp.
For this reason, over the last few months, I’ve been exclusively writing informative guides and articles, with the sole objective of providing you guys with useful information which, hopefully, will help you throughout your travels in the Middle East and Central Asia.
However, just for a change, today, I wanted to tell you guys a personal story which, even though it may not be the craziest thing that’s ever happened to me, I believe it deserves to be told, because I had so much fun and it involves Afghans, forbidden areas and pissed off military.
It all started one beautiful spring afternoon in the Kalash Valley, Pakistan.
Sneaking into an Afghan village in Pakistan
Located in the northeast of Pakistan, in Chitral province, and bordering Afghanistan, the Kalash Valley is home to an ethnic tribe, who don’t practice Islam, but worship a different god and have some religious beliefs which, for centuries, have been classified as pagan. Unlike the highly conservative Pakistan, in the Kalash Valley, people drink alcohol and women have a completely different role, represented in greater independence, their freedom to choose and their super colorful, beautiful dresses.
The Kalash Valleys are composed of different villages and we were in a tiny, cute village, named Rumbur, located 10-15km from the Afghan border. It was 5pm and, after a long trekking day, I decided to go back to the guest house, along with my Italian friend Giorgio.
It was there we met Syed Imran Schah, one of the most famous tourist guides in Pakistan, recommended and mentioned in an endless number of forums, who had come to Kalash with some tourist clients.
Learning about the last community in Nuristan
Whatever you want to know about Pakistan, ask Imran and he will reply wisely.
Me: Hey, I’ve heard about a village named Shiekhandeh. Do you know anything about it?
Imran: Of course I know it 😉 What’s up?
Me: We just would like to visit it tomorrow.
Imran: Mmmh… The village is right next to the Afghan border and, for security reasons, there’s a military checkpoint a couple of kilometers before entering the village. I doubt that foreigners are allowed to get in but you can try.
Shiekhandeh is a very small village located 7 kilometers from Rumbur, whose inhabitants are originally from Nuristan (a province in Afghanistan) and who, for historical reasons, ended up building a community in Pakistani territory but still keep the culture and language of Nuristan.
Nuristan province, which is the one bordering this region, is today under Taliban control and, for this reason, it has all those insane safety measures. That village was a real off the beaten track spot in Pakistan and we were not going to miss it.
Me: What’s the real story behind the inhabitants of Shiekhandeh?
Imran: Long ago, there were two kinds of Kalash: Red and Black. Black Kalash are the ones you know who live here in Rumbur and around and, as you can see, they have kept their pagan culture and tradition. However, on the other hand, in the 19th century, most Red Kalash were converted to Islam and expelled from today’s Nuristan. That’s how they ended up in that village which, after Pakistan independence, became part of the country. Unlike the Kalash people you already know, people in Shiekhandeh have barely mixed with anyone, which means that most of them are blonde and blue-eyed, but practice a highly conservative and fundamentalist Islam.
After hearing that mini-history lesson, we could not be even more excited, so, the next morning, together with Giorgio and Yh Neoh, a Malaysian guy who we just met at the guest house, we started walking towards Shiekhandeh, which was around 4 hours away.
Sheikhandeh, an Afghan village in Pakistan
After 2 hours walking, we found the famous military checkpoint.
Military: Where are you going?
Us: Nothing, we just wanted to take a couple of pictures around the valley.
Military: Foreigners can’t go after this point.
Us: Come on please, we just wanted to take some harmless photos.
Military: OK, but you just can go 500 meters away and come back after half an hour.
Us: Sure, sure, no problem.
We went like 7 or 8 kilometers away, even beyond the village, and we spent the whole day there.
A few hours after the military checkpoint, we arrived in Sheikhandeh. As we expected, it was a rural village composed of wooden houses.
When the locals saw an Italian, a Malaysian and a Spaniard wandering around their village, we quickly became the center of attention in Sheikhandeh.
Indeed, like Imran said, most people were blonde and you could easily feel the super conservative atmosphere, as women wore the Afghan burqa and even little girls were covered, as they try to teach them when they are very, very young.
No one spoke English but, suddenly, a blonde guy just showed up who could speak it reasonably well:
Blonde Afghan: Welcome to our village. What are you doing here?
Us: We are tourists, so just wanted to walk around.
Blonde Afghan: No problem, you are very welcome. I will show you around.
The Afghan guy, whose name I can’t remember, told us that they receive tourists once or twice a year and we actually were the first ones in 2017. He learnt English because he studies in Chitral, the main provincial town. Together with his friends, we walked around the village, until we left it behind and entered again the valley towards Afghanistan.
Blonde Afghan: You see that mountain? That’s Afghanistan.
Us: Can we get closer?
I looked at my GPS and, indeed, we were at, perhaps, less than two kilometers from Afghanistan. However, both countries are separated by a pretty high mountain, with a militarized border just behind it. We walked 500 meters more but, apparently, if the military saw a local walking around there with foreigners, he could get in real trouble.
Blonde Afghan: We can’t continue as there might be soldiers on the top of the valley hills.
Us: Can you cross the border?
Blonde Afghan: Sure, we do it constantly. We have a lot of friends and relatives across the border, in Nuristan. We can cross it without any problem but, it takes 10 hours to climb that mountain and get down. Anyways, would you like to come to my house for lunch?
Amidst laughter, chai, sweets and hugs
Predictably for Pakistan, they wanted to bless us with their hospitality, so we went back to Sheikhandeh.
On the way back, we came across a group of women who, when they saw us, reacted very wildly, running away and hiding behind some rocks. It was such an over the top reaction, I kept on looking behind, to check how long would they hide behind the rocks and they actually didn’t get out until we were very far away.
Protecting their women didn’t end up here. Just before getting in Sheikhandeh, I wanted to take a photo of the whole village’s perspective, including all the houses. But when I was about to shoot…
Blonde Afghan: No, no! There are women!
Me: Yeah but they are like 200 meters away, are covered and you can barely distinguish them.
Blonde Afghan: Sorry, you can’t take pictures of women.
Me: OK, OK.
We entered his house where, as we excepted in this part of Pakistan, the guest room is at the entrance of the house. This way, they avoid you seeing their women.
Blonde Afghan: What’s your job?
Giorgio worked at his dad’s farm back in Italy. Since most Pakistanis work on the field, he likes saying that he was also a farmer, aiming to get in the same level as the Pakistani people, as a sign of humility, which I think it’s very cool.
Giorgio: I am a farmer.
There were a few seconds of silence in the room.
Blonde Afghan: I think you have too much land then…
Obviously, apart from the biggest landlords, no Pakistani farmer can afford to have a good phone, expensive clothes and, especially, traveling abroad.
Consequently, we started talking about our respective ages. We all were around 30 years old and, as per their physical appearance, we thought the Afghan guys as well. However, he surprised us with his response:
Blonde Afghan: I am something between 18 and 20 years old.
We didn’t know what was more shocking: the fact that he didn’t know his age or that he was 18 but looked like more than 30. Actually, it was not the first time I saw something like that in Pakistan. In the mountains, everyone looks like 10 or 20 years older. I met people who I thought were around 60, but were barely 40 years old!
He also didn’t know the day of the year he was born.
I also wanted to ask him about the history of his people, so I could it contrast it with Imran’s version.
Blonde Afghan: We are direct descendants of people from Saudi Arabia. 50 or 100 years ago, they all came to these lands and left descendants.
Me: But you are blonde and blue-eyed and Saudis were Bedouins who had barely left their houses.
I told him about Imran’s history, saying that, originally, they were Kalash people who, eventually, converted to Islam. However, I could see on his face that he was not enjoying my version of the story, so I just didn’t insist anymore.
Blonde Afghan: Kalash people are rubbish and we come from Saudi Arabia.
A lot of people in Pakistan believe that Saudis are superior humans beings and the creators of Islam, so it’s very understandable that they like to believe this version of the story.
Ironically, I asked Yh Neoh and Giorgio:
Me: Which version of the story do you believe: his or Imran’s?
Giorgio: Well, this guy doesn’t even know when his birthday is, how is he going to know about history?
We remembered that the military may be worried
After more chai and laughter, we said goodbye to each other. It was getting pretty late so the military might be wondering about us.
But we didn’t need to say it.
When we left the house, we suddenly saw one soldier and a policeman who were actually looking for us. The policeman was pretty nice but the soldier was particularly pissed off.
Soldier: We told you half an hour, what are you doing here?
They forced us to leave and took us to the military checkpoint, where we would have a chat with the captain.
I was quite happy so, on the way, I took a photo with them, without giving time for them to react.
Me: Selfie, selfie!
The policemen seemed cool but the soldier made me delete it immediately. Luckily, he didn’t know that, when you delete a photo from your iPhone, it goes to a deleted items folder which you can recover it back easily.
Before getting back to the checkpoint, I said:
Me: All right, when we talk to the captain, we just let Giorgio speak with his Italian accent.
Therefore, when we arrived and the captain came to yell at us, Giorgio jumped in.
Giorgio (in a VERY strong, overstressed Italian accent): Oh sorrrrry, sorrry, we didn’t knooow, we didn’t underrrstand, sooorrrrry, sorrrry.
With such a reaction, the captain just said:
Captain: You are the last foreigners who ever cross this point.
He made us waiting there for 15 more minutes until a military car came to pick us up and, more than happy and very satisfied, we went back to the guest house.