In a region full of dramatic scenery, Swat stands out as a particularly beautiful corner of northern Pakistan. A broad fertile valley just touched by the monsoon, it stretches nearly 200km from the Malakand Pass to the high reaches of Swat Kohistan. A magnet for hippies in the 1970s (‘the Switzerland of the East’), it’s often overlooked by today’s travellers, although not by domestic tourists who flock here every summer for the clean air and fine landscapes.
Rich farmland fans out along the wide Swat River basin, centred on the twin towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif that together form Swat’s urban hub. It’s hardly the first big town in Swat, as the valley was the site of many previous civilisations, including the Kushan kingdom of Gandhara and the Hindu Shahis, each of whom left behind a multitude of historical sites to be discovered. North of here, the mountains start to close in past Madyan, squeezing the river into a leaping torrent, and forcing villages down to the banks or up the valley walls. The deodar-forested, snowcapped northern peaks are dominated by 5918m Falaksair. The Pashtuns of the valley floor become replaced by Kohistanis (literally ‘people of the mountains’) and nomadic Gujars who tend flocks on the high pastures. It’s a popular area for hiking, and its streams are thickly stocked with trout.
Swat is accessible year-round, although it is snowbound from Bahrain northwards between the months of November and March (even then transportation is occasionally possible and some hotels are open). Summer is mostly fine and hot with some rain in July and August.