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Pakistan's Swat Valley - My extraordinary journey into another world

Stop! Wait!

I turn around in surprise. I am about to leave my hotel to buy water and to look around the town a bit. One of the hotel employees runs after me excitedly. He makes me understand that he will come with me. I am not sure why. I already got a police escort on the way here. Isn't it more dangerous here than you thought? After all, I am not anywhere, but am in the middle of Pakistan.

The place I got stranded in is called Chilas. I'm just passing through here. My destination is the Swat Valley, which many have told me on my previous trip that it might be the most beautiful region of Pakistan. Two friends on the way to Lahore took me with them until the junction to Chilas. I got the escort at the police checkpoint there. Which means that the police stopped a car for me and let one of them drive along. Foreigners are well taken care of in Pakistan.

The main street in Chilas.

There are only men in the hotel. I'm used to that by now. They usually look curious, if you speak to them they are almost invariably friendly. So I am invited by them to tea here, too, including a few selfies. I've lost track of the number of Pakistani cell phones that now have photos of me. I ask why I wasn't allowed to go out alone earlier. Because of the security?

No, no, this place is very safe. It's a cultural thing.

Chilas is one of the most conservative cities in Pakistan. In order to avoid cultural misunderstandings, foreigners are not allowed to walk around here alone, and certainly not women. I don't see local women here either - a strange feeling. Later I found out that there are occasional incidents in the region and that is one of the reasons why foreigners get police escorts here.

View at Chilas.

The owner of the hotel offers me to do a little tour. Sure, why not, I'm not allowed out alone anyway. He shows me some petroglyphs that are hundreds of years old and we stop to buy pomegranates. It's the best I've ever eaten. At some point the previously relaxed mood changes. He asks me about my relationship status. I claim to be married and have a young daughter. In the past, this has helped stifle advances by unmarried Pakistani men in the bud. Not this time. He asks if he can come to my hotel room later. It would only be one night. I vehemently refuse. He tries again.



I'm not scared because he's more scared. He asks me to keep the conversation to ourselves.

If my father would know, he would kill me.

The people here are stuck between their beliefs and modernity.

New and old rock drawings in Chilas.

Back at the hotel, two Pakistani tourists from Lahore have moved into the room next to me. We start a conversation. They invite me to join them at dinner. The men are educated and very respectful. It will be one of those evenings where complete strangers talk about very private things. The two are around 40 and have never had a date or a girlfriend, like almost everyone who lives in Pakistan. One is single, the other divorced. The arranged marriage didn't work. We talk about God and the world and get on well, despite cultural and religious differences. You say goodbye with an invitation.

If you come to Lahore, call us! You will be our guest.

“Ping” a WhatsApp. It's Julien, a French guy I met a few days ago in Gilgit. He is also on his way to Swat and is coming through Chilas tomorrow. Do I want to wait for him? Clear. After the experience with the hotel owner yesterday, I have no objection to male company.

The next morning the two of us set off. First, we need to register with the local police. We know the procedure by now. What is new around here is the question of our father's name. We do not understand them and the police officers do not understand that we want to know what exactly they want to do with the names of our fathers. Our data is handwritten in thick books. The Pakistani secret service is said to be one of the best in the world. It is a mystery to me how this is supposed to work without a computer system. The locals have confidence in the system.

They always know where you are!

This is probably more because foreigners are still so rare here that their stay in any place immediately spreads like wildfire. Where do we want to go? The policemen ask.

Swat Valley.

Ok come, we will help you.

They stop the right bus for us on the street. The police, your friend and helper.

View from the bus, on the road between Chilas and Besham.

We drive to Besham, where we want to spend the night, because we can't make it to Swat today. We need 7 hours for 200 kilometers. Our way leads us through a never-ending gorge. The river must have drilled its way through the rugged rock giants for centuries. The view is as grand as the road is bad. We stop countless times so that we foreigners register at various police checkpoints. Sometimes it goes faster, sometimes longer. Foreign tourists are so rare here that the police officers sometimes cannot do anything with our passports.

Do you have a Pakistani ID Card?

Umm, no.

Guesswork and wild discussions in Urdu. Telephone calls are being made. Until they agree to let us go.

Ok, you can go. But please, first, one selfie?

We have a guilty conscience towards the other passengers. Your journey will be delayed by at least an hour because of us. You wave it off.

You are our guests here!

Arrival in Besham.

The next day we make our way from Besham to Mingora, Swat's capital. There is no bus going here. We have to take a shared taxi. The same sight as always at the taxi stand, a chaotic bustle made up of only men. And me. The city is a mixture of browns and sand, my pink outfit is a screaming splash of color. Julien and I now claim that we are married. That makes it easier for me. The fact that a woman travels alone is simply incomprehensible to the people here.

As a precaution, the men here only talk to Julien. At first they don't know what to do with my presence.

On the way to Swat we dive into another world. We drive through dusty towns where the lives of the people who live there pass by like a film. Old trucks that feel like they could fall apart any second drive past. People pull fully loaded wooden wagons or carry sacks on their backs. They drive goats and cows through the streets. Riders on horses and donkey carts cross our path. Meanwhile women can also be seen on the streets, but only heavily veiled. Most are wrapped in burqas. Here and there a couple of dark eyes flash out, but nothing more of them can be seen. The men wear salwar kameez, the traditional clothing. Western clothing, which was still common in Islamabad and northern Pakistan, has completely disappeared here.

Street in Mingora.

When we arrive in Mingora, we meet Hamad * for a chai tea. I met him before my trip through the Backpacking Pakistan Facebook group. He's open-minded and friendly, and I take my chance to ask about women. He and his friends love to go hiking in the Swat Valley. Are there never women?

No, they have other interests in our culture.

I think briefly of Samina Baig, the first Pakistani woman to climb Mount Everest and who is revered as a heroine in the north of the country. But then I don't want to discuss that any further. That is not my place.

I change the subject, albeit a much more delicate one. The Taliban ruled the Swat Valley until the army was liberated in 2009. One of the reasons why tourism came to a complete standstill and is only hesitantly picking up speed again. What was life like for the people here back then, can he tell me something about that?

Sure, no problem, you can ask me anything!

They weren't allowed to wear jeans or listen to music. Hairdressers were no longer allowed to offer beard shaves. In principle, women were not allowed to go outside without a male companion. Friends of his were once caught by the Taliban wearing jeans and listening to music. Fortunately, they only received one warning. At night people were sometimes hung up along the streets for their “offenses”. Mingora is the home of Malala Yousafzai, who campaigned for education for girls and was shot in the head by the Taliban for this. She won the Nobel Peace Prize for her commitment and now lives in London.

We leave the dark chapter of the region behind us. He drives us out of town and shows us one of the few remaining Buddhas of Swat, which was carved into a rock in the 7th century. It was partially destroyed by the Taliban, but restored a few years ago.

Swat was Buddhist for many centuries until the religion was supplanted by Islam and Hinduism.

I meet with Ihsan in the evening. He and his friends are college students and founded Swat Valley Backpackers. You want to be on hand with help and advice for tourists who find their way here.

We want to encourage tourism in Pakistan!

Ihsan from Swat Valley Backpackers is super helpful and gives us a lot of information and tips.

Ihsan invites me to join him and his friends in the mountains, where they grill every weekend. We drive up winding roads, through villages nestled on the slopes, until we set up camp on a river. Here, too, I am the only woman far and wide. I sit by the fire with the boys, they tell each other stories, grill 2 chickens. There is no alcohol. That is why people smoke. Marijuana grows by the roadside all over Pakistan. Later they invite more friends to play a concert with traditional folklore music especially for me under the endless starry sky. In between the boys say goodbye again and again to pray.

Julien and I want to go to Kalam the next day. In the northernmost town in the Swat Valley, the landscape is said to be particularly beautiful. We take the bus, which, like all buses, only leaves when it is full. It feels like we pile up with other people, small children, boxes and bags full of groceries.

Waiting for the bus to fill up. The men behind me are apparently a bit skeptical about my presence.

On the way we stop for lunch. Only men sit in the dining room of the restaurant. We are asked one floor below, there are the so-called Family Rooms. Here the women eat with their husbands and families and so do we. I don't think about it that much now. I'm hungry and the food is simple but incredibly tasty.

Street restaurants like this one are endless in Pakistan.

When we arrive in Kalam, we check into a simple hotel. The owner has an open smile, his rooms are cheap, the cleanliness leaves a lot to be desired. But the terrace scores with a view that gives us a mountain glow every evening at sunset, which is second to none. We leaf through his registration book and find 7 foreign guests in the last 3 years. Including us.

Mountain lights in Kalam, view from the terrace of the Mehboob Hotel.

Kalam is a dusty, chaotic city. Life takes place at the bazaar in the city center. I stand out like a sore thumb. Foreign tourists rarely get lost here, and even more rarely women. Julien notes that although he's not my real husband, he doesn't like the way men look at me. We're going to eat in a restaurant in the middle of the bazaar. The owner pulls down the curtains for us in a corner. Women do not eat with strange men. Still, they are just as curious about strangers as they are in the rest of the country.

Where are you from?

France and Germany.

Wowww! She’s your wife?


Benevolent nods from everyone.

Any children?


Disappointed shaking of heads on all sides.

Ooohhhh. Maybe next year!

If they only knew.

The bazaar in Kalam.

Swat unfolds its ultimate beauty behind Kalam. We rent a car with a driver and head towards Mahodand Lake. The way there is an incredible experience. We drive through villages so remote that I can hardly describe it in words. The small villages nestle against the green slopes along the Swat River. The people here live in the simplest of accommodations, the houses often thrown together from walls, wood, corrugated iron and tarpaulin.

Village in the Swats Mountains.

Men, women, children, everyone has to lend a hand here. The men work in the fields, their wives wash clothes and dishes in the river, the boys drive goats through the streets. Little girls with headscarves look after their younger siblings. In our world we can hardly imagine how hard life has to be for people here.

Even the youngest have to help out in the remote villages of Swats.

The landscape is as breathtakingly beautiful as we have been told everywhere in the country. The river that runs through the valley looks like it was painted. Left and right the green mountains stretch upwards, behind them the naked mountain giants made of stone and rubble. In places their tips are already covered in snow. Winter comes early and goes late in the Swat Valley. It's only the beginning of October but the nights are already very cold.

View of the Swat Valley.

On the way we meet a group of local tourists. They wave to us, want to take selfies, invite us to tea in a restaurant. They are men from Karachi on a journey through their own country. The question of women does not let me go. Where are their wives?

They are housewives, they don’t like to travel.

Alone among men: completely normal situation when you travel through Pakistan as a woman.

On the way back we meet Ali and Salman, two other local tourists from Islamabad. You are young and adventurous and want to take a trip to Kandool Lake the next day. Would we like to come with you? Clear. They pick us up the next morning in the rented jeep. We drive into another valley, again through villages, so remote that the term end of the world takes on a new meaning for me.

In the mountains of Swats.

Some villagers accompany us for a while on our hike. We take a break, I distribute our biscuits. Hospitality goes both ways here. The landscape is beautiful, the sun shines on the mountains, the trees and the meadows, and makes the rivers and waterfalls glitter. Somebody is playing music somewhere in the village. If time hadn't stopped here anyway, I would stop it now.

While hiking in the Swat Valley.

On the way back, Ali tells me his story. He is 23 and engaged to a cousin. She is studying in the USA, the two have never met. Like most marriages, his is arranged. But he wants to get to know his future wife first. In November he flies to Thailand to meet her. Neither his nor her parents know about it. His fiancée wants to go to Harvard, he proudly tells me. I ask carefully if she will be a housewife after the wedding. No, he says. I support her career, we both want to work. So that is possible in Pakistan after all. Then he asks me about the recipe for my successful marriage with Julien. I evade. It doesn't feel good to lie to him. But it's more relaxed for me. Western women who come here alone are known to be easy to come by. Or to have it at all, in contrast to the local women. Ali has applied for a Schengen visa. If it is approved, he will visit us in Europe. Inshallah.

Village in the Swat Valley.

It is time for us to return to Islamabad. Early the next morning, while Kalam wakes up and the first rays of sunshine carefully cast their rays over the surrounding mountains, we make our way to the main road. We take a taxi to Mingora. The driver speaks English, like almost everyone in Pakistan.

I'm proud to have foreigners in my taxi!

The journey takes us over the bumpy, dusty road through the long valley and the villages of Swats. There are children everywhere on their way to school. Little boys in Salwar Kameez, little girls with headscarves, who always look a little more serious than their brothers. They run, run or jump on passing trucks.

Beautiful swat.

Urdu Music?

Yes, sure!

Our driver turns on the radio. The oriental sounds fill the car with music and our souls with Pakistan. Outside the mountains pull past us, accompanied by the Swat River, which sparkles turquoise as if diamonds were flowing in it instead of water.We have to stop again and again to let the beautiful colorful Pakistani trucks pass. For me, her beauty stands for the beauty of her country.

There are probably nowhere more beautiful trucks than in Pakistan.

My thoughts pass by with the landscape before my eyes. I have a feeling that is difficult to put into words. I've seen places more remote than ever before. I experienced curiosity and hospitality and got to know a country that is probably more misunderstood than hardly any other in the world. How little we know about this country, and yet how strong is the opinion that we have formed about it. Without ever having been amazed to see its breathtaking beauty, with the highest mountains in the world, green valleys and turquoise rivers. Without ever having had a conversation with his people. Who are so educated, so proud of their country and at the same time so infinitely hospitable.

The taxi driver turns to us.

You like Pakistan and Swat?

There can only be one answer.

Yes. It's perfect.

Daewoo buses take you from Islamabad and Lahore to Mingora, Swat's capital. The journey from the north is possible from Gilgit via Besham. You can get there by bus from Gilgit or Chilas, from Besham you take a shared taxi (called 2DCar) to Mingora. From there you can either take the minibus or a shared taxi to Kalam.

I stayed at PTDC Hotels in Besham and Mingora. They belong to the government and are a bit more expensive by Pakistani standards (3,500 PKR / approx. 23 € for a double room) but very well equipped and clean. There are hotels of all price ranges in Kalam. Here I stayed at the Mehboob Hotel, which is very cheap (600 PKR / approx. 4 € for a double room) but not very clean and only has a bucket shower.

From Kalam you can hardly go on hikes. You can rent cars or jeeps to all of the well-known excursion destinations in the region. The prices are a matter of negotiation and are around 2,500 PKR (16 €) for a car and 4,000 PKR (26 €) for a jeep.

Ihsan and his friends from Swat Valley Backpackers are super helpful and love to meet those tourists who find their way here in Mingora. They help to find accommodation, give tips on activities and hikes and answer all questions, even in advance.

Since I was traveling alone in Pakistan, I had actually planned to travel to Swat alone. In between I kept asking myself whether I had actually made it to Kalam on my own. Since the area is really super conservative, and the fact that only Julien was checked at the checkpoints in his role as my "husband", I doubted that. In Kalam I went to the bazaar on my own every now and then, that wasn't a problem. The men in the shops did not speak to me on their own in this case, but were very friendly after the first speech from me.

Back home I started a call via the Facebook group Female Pakistan Travelers to ask for testimonials. Then June got in touch with me, an experienced traveler who has been to almost every Islamic country in the world and who has traveled to Mingora on her own. They were no longer allowed to take the bus, but instead were brought to a hotel in Mingora in a private car "for their own safety". In addition, a police officer was placed at her side as an escort, who has not left her side, has accompanied her everywhere and has also "watched" in front of her hotel room. She only got rid of him when she found accommodation with friends and made it very clear to him that she did not want his company.

In retrospect, my acquaintance with Julien was really a very lucky coincidence. Traveling to Swat alone as a woman seems to be a challenge, at least at the moment. If someone else has had other experiences in this regard, I would be very happy to receive a message or comment.

* Some names in the text have been changed to protect the respective persons.

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