My intrepid adventure deep into the northern mountains of Pakistan started with a train journey from Lahore to Rawalpindi, crossing the northern part of Pakistani’s Punjab region in the process. I would then make my way by shared taxi the 5km to the main bus station (Pirwadhai Bus Station) which services much of the country. I was not quite prepared for what followed; a 24 hour, 565km, overnight bus ride along narrow, rough, windy mountain roads (an experience in of itself). In the 60’s and 70’s Pakistan and China began to carve, what is now the Karakoram Highway (KKH), through some of the most remote and desolate mountain ranges on earth, including the highest paved road pass – the Khunjerab Pass (4,730m). There is even a sign claiming it’s the 8th wonder of the world, now I don’t know about that, but forging a 1,000km road through this terrain certainly was an amazing feat! Many travellers cycle the length of the KKH, which is a great idea, but I’d give it a few years as the Chinese and Pakistani crews are making major upgrades on the road at the moment which will hopefully make the journey a little easier and more accessible for the locals and tourist, if not a little less intrepid.
My first stop, after leaving Rawalpindi, was Karimabad and I don’t think I’ve ever been so glad to arrive somewhere, except of course for this one time in southern India when I had an upset stomach and badly needed the toilet… To be fair, the scenery was ‘other worldly’ on account of the ingenious people (of these high mountain desert areas) creating a network of water canals along the mountain sides to channel glacial runoff for irrigation. This creates a real ‘desert oasis’ look and feel, with green channels running across the desertscape to fertile green valleys.
Life up here is simple, revolving around the basic needs of life and family, although nearly everyone I saw in Pakistan has a mobile phone, so life’s probably not much different to the rest of us! Karimabad is an area of the world well known for its fruit trees: apricots, cherries etc. almost as famous is the former Royal Palace (Balita Fort) which overlooks Karimabad; the modern day capital of Hunza region.
One of my day treks from Karimabad up one of the side valleys looped back along a water channel carved high into the cliff overlooking the valley, as the pictures show – a sketchy walk not recommended for those with vertigo! The snow covered Rakaposhi Peak (7,788m) stands tall on the opposing side of the Hunza valley. I wasn’t able to speak with many locals in the area, as English isn’t wide spread and my Arabic is nonexistent, but from what I read the people of the Hunza valley are Ismaili Muslims; notably more liberal than the majority of their Sunni or Shiite counterparts. Many of the people in these mountain regions look almost European (as the story goes they are descendants of some of Alexander the Great’s troops that stayed after their campaign petered out).
From Karimabad I ventured further north, again by local bus, to Pasu. From Pasu there are several good day treks, one involving two long swing bridges across the Hunza River which wouldn’t look out of place in an Indiana Jones movie. Another day, and another trek, into the surrounding mountains from Pasu provided a great vantage point of the Baltura Glacier; at 56km it’s one of the longest glaciers in the Karakoram region. Its surface is grey on account of the stone debris brought down along with the melting snow and ice. At one point along the KKH you can see the three biggest mountain ranges in the world in one swoop: The Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindukush. The collision of the Indian and Asian tectonic plates forms these mountain ranges so for the geologist in me I found that rather fascinating.
Next, I wanted to visit a place called Fairy Meadows; a day’s trek from the Nanga Parbat Base Camp. It’s a rather inaccessible region, only really viable by jeep from the Karakoram Highway. During my last evening in Gilgit, while looking into the prospect of visiting Fairy Meadows, I was fortunate to be invited to join a group of locals from Islamabad and Lahore (as they were also going there). So the next day we all headed off together up the precarious route. Halfway up, recent rock slides would block the way; so while repairs to the washed out culvert were made, we would walk the rest of the way - such is life in the mountains.
Fairy Meadows feels like an oasis in the mountains, strangely there is more greenery on these high plateaus than the lower reaches of the mountains, on account of snow and some rainfall. As a result, Birch and Conifers grow at higher altitudes on the Himalayan Range, but not lower down where it is too dry. From Fairy Meadows you are afforded perfect views of icefalls on the North Face of Nanga Parbat that feed the Raikot Glacier. At 8,126m Nanga Parbat is the world’s 9th highest mountain and was first made known to me as the mountain that Brad Pitt, in the movie ‘Seven Years in Tibet’, attempted to climb in the opening scenes – “Nanga Parbat, ‘our mountain’, climbing it has become somewhat of a German obsession”. Not being Austrian, I would not attempt to climb it this time. After the successful trip to Fair Meadows with "The boys” (Ahmad, Nazeer, Shehid and Nazir) we headed back down to Gilgit where we would all enjoy an amazing BBQ atop the roof of an old construction site overlooking Gilgits dusty, but busy main street as the sun set; a simple setting, but an unforgettable experience. Many thanks to the you all for making my time in the Karakoram’s so rich and memorable.