The people of the beautiful Alai Valley are Pashtuns, probably driven out of Swat in the 16th century. They had their own nawab (Muslim ruler), and were left alone until the late 1970s, when the area came under NWFP control and the nawab was demoted to parliamentary delegate. Alai Valley is actually in the Mansehra district, not Indus Kohistan, but its only road access is from the Indus.
Though surprised to see foreigners, people are instinctively hospitable. If you respect their Sunni orthodoxy – especially by dressing modestly – you may enjoy some legendary Pashtun hospitality. Try out your Pashto, as there is little English spoken.
You get to Alai from Thakot on a road so lofty and exposed that near the top you can see about 20km of the Indus River in one sweep – reason enough to go. The valley is a bonus, lush with cornfields, terraces and orchards, and rising to pine-forested mountains. The optimal visit is probably a long day trip from Besham.
Alai is cool even in summer, so take an extra layer. From November to April it’s very cold, with snow by December.