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.

Read: Things you should know before traveling to Pakistan

Afghan village

 

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.

Kalash girl
A beautiful Kalash girl

 

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.

Blonde Afghan kids
Most kids in Sheikhandeh are blonde

 

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. 

(SARCASM)

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.

Sheikhandeh

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.

Afghan girl

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.

Afghanistan Pakistan border
The mountain right at the end is 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?

Blonde Afghans
Yes, this dude is also an Afghan-Pakistani

 

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…

Everybody: Hahahahahahaha.

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?

Kalash Valley

 

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.

More travel stories

Visiting a Syrian refugee camp in Iraq
The day I was accused of being an Islamic State spy
Visiting Baikonur without a permit
Tales of Backpacking in Iraqi Kurdistan
Airbnb in a Palestinian refugee camp

 

Afghan village

 

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8 comments

  1. this is the kind of attitude that causes problems for future travelers.. its why in other areas of Pakistan we have trouble because of naive people who break the rules. its why army trys to force foreigners to have guards even when its not needed .. Pakistan is a great county to travel in I loved it there but be more responsible especially in border area if something had happened it would of caused much problems for local people not just you.. I had wanted to visit some shrines on the border and was not permitted because of this sort of problem that happened previously

    1. Well, I am pretty sure that tourists get private guards for more major reasons, such as recent Taliban activity and stuff like that (that’s what the military told me), and not because 3 tourists try to sneak into such a peaceful village. If you are crying and trying to find a responsible for not being able to visit your shrines, then go somewhere else and don’t come here to insult and call me naive… This is just a funny story, nothing else; and yes, we disobeyed the law but, if it was as bad as you say, the captain would’t have let us go so quickly. Cheers,

  2. Arsalan Ahmad

    I love you blogs man they are awesome but i have to agree with Jason to some extent if anything would have happened to you the locals and army persons who let to pass would have been in big trouble it would have caused an international event causing massive trouble for all Pakistan and you have no idea how dangerous some areas can be just like in any country you go if army or police stops you to go there it means it is dangerous one should listen to it.
    Also saying “A lot of people in Pakistan believe that Saudis are superior humans beings and the creators of Islam” i have to say its just bullshit and i find it extremely offensive being a Pakistani myself please don’t use such statements without a full insight its opposite to what you say in your writing i.e. basing an opinion without full facts. I still have to say i love you pieces and you may find my above points rude or harsh but that’s the truth you can also consider to understand.

    1. Hi Arsalan,
      I can see you are a pretty educated Pakistani and my statement about Saudis is more related towards non-educated, local people, especially the ones from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa. You just need to see when any high Saudi authority comes to Swat Valley to offer a speech, how crazy people become, for the only reason that they believe them the creators of their Wahabi religion, especially in the region of Swat and other Pashtun areas. Actually, these are not my words but it came from the mouth of quite a few people I met in Swat Valley and the rest of the region, including the guys mentioned in this post, who were extremely proud of having Saudi descendance. I don’t know about the rest of the country to be honest, especially in Sindh, Punjab or Balochistan, as I didn’t have this conversation with anyone but perhaps you could explain to me.

      As per the first part, you will know more than anyone that the army exaggerates a lot and many places are forbidden just to follow the normal protocol. We talked with a few local guides (one is very famous tourist guide in Pakistan) who we met in the Kalash Valley and told us that that village was totally safe. There was a Taliban accident which happened back in 2010 but now the area is totally secured and anyways, that accident not only affected that village but a large part of the Kalash Valley. The risk was low and sometimes, as travelers, we like to push our limits in order to know where they are. In the end it just turned to be a funny story and even for the local army it was not a very big deal, they actually pretended to be very mad but they were not. In any case, I appreciate your concern

      1. Arsalan Ahmad

        Thanks for staying calm man cz my above statement looked a bit fierce in writing more than i meant it to be atleast lol…there are two groups in Pakistan Shia & Sunni, almost all Shia thinks Iran is on right on the other hand Sunnis who are in v large majority have two different openions either they hate Saudis or they just love them. These two openions are caused by political influence of both Saudis and Iranians which is very strong in Pakistan as this maybe the one of only few countries in which both Shia and Sunnis are comparitively in peace with each other (keeping in mind turmoil situation in other muslim countries like Iraq, Syria etc its way better here) so these two countries find as an opertunity to make their move although both of them have no right doing so and both are equally to be blammed not only one country. They take advantage of unstable situations and try to turn Pakistanis against each other by giving benifits in the shape of money & resources so thus causing these two different openion and its spread through resepctive religious leaders. As everyone know Talibans or people influenced by them were funded by Saudis on request of America during soviet war so they have a tilt towards Saudis even today and maybe they say they are Saudi decendents just to tease others to not undermine Saudis which now a days is becoming v common i.e spreading hate against Saudis all around Pakistan and ofcourse they can say this cz they are un educated too. But that being said i just wanted to say dont put all or Most Pakistaniz in this pool (u did say most Pakistanis), many of us may think high of Saudis due to financial support they provide during hard time and its human nature to like the giver in return (may it be political move but still they did help alot during hard times unlike any other country who only likes to observe and criticise) but we certainly don’t think they are some superior beings or creators of Islam. Islam came from this region but Saudis themselves have nothing to do with it except they are rulers of holy cities and we understand that. BTW im not a supporter of Saudi family but i am wise enough to not base an anti Saudi openion just because some one wants us to have one due their own political reasons soni tend to stay neutral i may even be criticising them in some other article where they are supported haha. Lastly on venturing the dangerious areas I’ll say you are right mostly abt pushing boundries and breaking stereotypes but better play safe first time and without multiple source information, talibans are known to very hospitable themselves untill they are not due to some agenda. Finaly ill like to appreciate you taking time to understand it more clearly.
        PS: Its a lretty big debate so i took some time and its just my openion. 🙂

  3. You’re a twat mate, the pictures in this are amazing but you should show some respect to the people who are there to protect you. They made accommodations for you and you threw it back in their face.

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