Pakistan's Pagan Valley

A Kalash man laughs while dancing with women during the "Joshi" (spring) festival in the village of Batrik May 16, 2008 in the Kalasha Valleys, northwestern Pakistan. Credit: Warrick Page / Reportage by Getty Images

High in Pakistan's Hindu Kush mountains, the ancient Kalasha tribe is attempting to protect its pagan culture from the encroachment of conservative Islam by sharing its story with intrepid tourists. Visitors who journey to the three green valleys the tribe has occupied since Alexander the Great stopped by some 2,300 years ago are welcomed with open arms and grand vistas. The area, threaded with mountain rivers and thickly forested slopes, is as striking as its people, who use local timber to build traditional homes and carve idols representing their gods and ancestors.

The largest and most-touristed valley is Bumboret, followed by Rumbur, the most solidly traditional, and tiny Birir. The Kalasha calendar is dominated by festivals, which are invariably inclusive. Aim for the harvest festivals of Utchal or Joshi, in July and May. Women wearing embroidered gowns sewn with cowrie shells and plaited locks dance most nights – performances sharpened by too much sticky-sweet, home-brewed wine.

An essential part of a trip is a visit to the grand Kal'as'a Dur in Bumboret, a cultural center built in archetypal stone and wood, and partially paid for by – rather shockingly – the Greek government. Guides can teach you about traditional taboos and show you a little of the Kalasha alphabet devised to help preserve this dwindling culture.

Locals serve as guides along the trails that cross barley fields, high pastures, and ridges clad with oak and pine. Adventurous souls may get a kick from knowing the area inspired Rudyard Kipling's great story 'The Man Who Would Be King,' wherein two British adventurers (Sean Connery and Michael Caine in the movie adaptation) cross the Khyber Pass to set themselves up as rulers of this pagan land.

There's also slight frisson in knowing that Afghanistan is just a crow's fly across the next mountain ridge – backed up by knowing that the Pakistani authorities no longer allow independent travelers to enter the valley, but trusted tour guides can easily arrange the logistics (ask to stay at Kalasha-run guesthouses where possible) as well as allay any lingering security concerns.

More information: Arrange trips to the Kalasha Valleys via the well-connected tour operator TravelPak. The boutique Hindu Kush Heights Hotel outside Chitral offers the most comfortable accommodations in the region.