Primarily as a travel writer and storyteller, the reasons for my travels have always been about people. There is nothing I enjoy more than meeting people in foreign lands, leaning about their history and culture and sharing stories and over the years I have been lucky enough to meet many interesting characters. However, few have made a bigger impact on my life than meeting Saifullah Jan, 23 years ago, in the higher reaches of the Hindu Kush. This meeting really did change my life.
Having trekked for weeks through Afghanistan I stumbled into the Kalash valleys in Pakistan and took revue with Saifullah and his family. As the chief spokesperson for this remote pagan tribe, he introduced me to the community and through the three months I spent there a lifelong friendship was formed. But perhaps more importantly he was the person that gave me the idea for setting up Wild Frontiers, convincing me that bringing tourists to visit his home would be a win for everyone; by providing my clients with a fascinating experience and his community with much needed income.
I sat with Saifullah and worked out our first tour, our Hindu Kush Adventure, and a year later Wild Frontiers was born.
Chance encounters with total strangers can produce a fun and interesting ten minute chat, or they can change your life for ever.
Q&A with Saifullah
How did you get into tourism? Was it something you had always been interested in?
I noticed tourists starting to visit our valleys from the early 90s. But while local tourists only came to have fun, and weren’t really interested in our culture, the western tourists were different. Mostly they wanted to stay and learn and as there were no guesthouses in Rumbur – only Bumburet – I decided to start one myself. We as the Kalash don’t like it when tourists just come into the valleys for a few hours to take photos of us and then leave. We like it when they stay, and talk to us. We learn from them and they learn from us.
How has tourism changed in Pakistan in the last 10 years?
Not really at all. With all the political issues the region has had over the past two decades, tourist numbers have been very low for a long time. Only from Wild Frontiers! But now we are starting to see more tourists again. While this is good, and local people can earn much needed cash – by guiding, cooking, driving and things – we need to make sure it is managed well as we live in a fragile environment.
Were people happy when the Royals decided to visit Pakistan?
Yes of course – I don’t think a lot of people know who they were but those that did were pleased. It showed the Kalash and our culture is still important and worth preserving. I have been to London, and seen their home [Buckingham Palace]; ours are a little different!
How did you end up becoming a spokesperson for the Kalash people?
Long ago very few Kalash were educated. My father knew that someone from the community need to learn or we would be overrun by local businessmen keen to exploit out natural resources. So I was educated and became a lawyer. I then fought for the rights of the Kalash, with our lands and forests. I never really aimed to be a spokesperson, that is just how things came to pass.
How challenging do you find it to maintain and protect the Kalash culture?
The Kalash culture is strong, and all of us are very proud of being Kalash. And the right kind of tours help, as people visiting makes us realise how special our culture is. In the seventies there were only 2,000 of us; now there are over 4,000. People used to say the Kalash will be gone in a decade, but we are still here.
What’s your favourite Kalash festival?
Chamos, the winter solstice festival, of course – this is the biggest and most important festival of the year, it lasts for 5 days and involves a great feast, dancing, and the whole valley gets purified. It is a lot of fun.