Pakistan Travel Story

Written by Hajar Ali, Be Movement issue 1 – SINGAPORE, published October 2012

North-West Frontier Province

I travelled to Pakistan in May 2011, right in the wake of the raid on Osama bin Laden. The news on Osama was still being discussed in Pakistani media, on the TV channel over breakfast in my hotel in Islamabad and books extolling Osama’s virtues in Chitral.

The trip to Pakistan, through the North-West Frontier Province (NWFP), was designed to coincide with a festival in the famed and romanticised Kalash valley, a place called Kafiristan (translating into ‘Land of the Infidels’), where the women dress all in black punctuated by colourful beading in their hair and around their necklines. This particular festival consists of a few days of ceremonies where the Kalash and visitors would dance together in honour of the fairies who would hopefully bless their crops.


My journey began with an indeterminate flight to Skardu. No one knows ‘til about an hour before if the flight would actually run as scheduled, since it is weather-dependent. The last time I’d faced a similar situation of not knowing if there would indeed be a flight, or if I’d be able to get a flight back in time for my next trip scheduled a few days after, was to the Burmese Himalayas; fond memories and my kind of travel in no small part due to it all working out so well ultimately.

I have my favourite landing strips and airports: those in Argentinian Patagonia, with a scenery so beautiful and an air so dry it immediately stopped my sinus problem from my sleepless nights in Buenos Aires; Bhutan for its reputation as the most difficult landing in the world; or the more remote landing strips in the bushes of East Africa with its unexpectedly prissy toilets. Out of these favourites, I reserve the term ‘ruggedly beautiful’ for the airport in Skardu; arid, desolate mountainscapes reflecting beautiful colours under the light of the sun.


It was to be an initiation to my journey through the NWFP, long drives with the Hindu Kush as a backdrop, school children stopping for a quick drink from water sources flowing from glaciers and magically disappearing into the mountains once you stop for a photo opportunity or to talk to them, and places so poetically unexpected : the construction of dams around breathtakingly beautiful lakes funded by the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID); a group of boys playing cricket in a military school deep in the mountains; and a helicopter landing spot ‘in the co-ordinates of nowhere’ in the mountain range.


There are plenty of magical moments, from a ‘hotel’ where guests have breakfast overlooking incredible views and sleep to the sounds of a gushing stream and where a meditation room substitutes for a hotel gym, or how upon accepting an invitation for tea out of politeness in the local bazaar in Chitral the landscape changes from the squalid, concretised bazaar to lush green fields, small streams you have to hop over, ducks swimming in ponds and butterflies flitting around as you’re taken through a short, narrow alley that mirrors the scene of Harry Potter’s jaunt through Diagon Alley.

Magic aside, the reality of issues in the NWFP include the preservation of Kalash culture. Access to festival grounds are framed by a metal detector door; purely symbolic, of course, as it didn’t seem to work, but which addresses the concerns of the government to prevent fanatics, who believe the Kalash activities to be unacceptable to Islam, from attempting to disrupt the ongoing festivities.

That said, the Aga Khan foundation, which focuses on a small number of specific development problems by forming intellectual and financial partnerships with organisations sharing its objectives, has done incredible work in the NWFP.

There are efforts to create infrastructure for the people, from roads to schools to hospitals. This is apparent especially in Hunza, with possibly the highest level of literacy in highest level of literacy in Pakistan and where the people are the most accustomed to tourism (Pre-9/11).

“By my reckoning it’s the top right-hand corner of Afghanistan, not more than three hundred miles from Peshawar. They have two and thirty heathen idols there, and we’ll be the thirty-third. It’s a mountainous country, and the women of those parts are very beautiful.”

– The Man Who Would be King, Rudyard Kipling


‘‘If we have not found the heaven within, we have not found the heaven without.’’
– Lost Horizon, James Hilton

photography and words by Hajar Ali (First woman to cross the Empty Quarter in the Middle East)

Urbane Nomads organizes trips to Chitral, Pakistan, for the annual, no-rules polo match, reputedly on the highest polo grounds in the world.






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