When someone hears about Pakistan, probably does not recall an idyllic scene in mind. The media only bad news use to publish regularly. Bombing attacks, Talibans, extreme fanaticism, Osama Bin Laden, violence, rapes, human rights abuses, attacks to activists, poverty, natural disasters. With such a “C.V.” it’s hard for the traveler to choose this destination. Indeed, tourism in the country is minimal and limited to few points.
I insisted hard to convince my travel buddies for this destination. The conclusion of whether the effort was worth it, I hope is clear.
This trip started from Nepal, which was a pleasant setback to deal with my travel friends. Then through India, we crossed the only land border of the two countries that are officially in a state of war for decades. Although this border is crossed by very few, it’s perhaps the most grandiose border establishment. On both sides of the borderline, there are two amphitheatrical tiers, with the Indian being quite larger. Every afternoon, at the flag ceremony of the two countries, a military parade takes place, with a bizarre ritual act by soldiers with impressive uniforms and unparalleled choreography, provoking with their kinesiology the “enemy” and giving the “show” rather a sense of comedy. We watched the parade on August 14th, Pakistan’s Independence Day, the eve of the according day for India, and the events were even more celebrating. In spite of the initial plan, we were on the Indian side as we were delayed 5 minutes from the border gate and refused exit. This delay, due to my insistence on cheap means of transport, has disturbed the mood of our trip, added time stress and caused the anger of my travel buddies.
Late in that morning, we were the first and almost only ones to cross the border line.
The Attari-Wagah border, Indian and Pakistani side
Border guards welcomed us with kindness, excitement and less bureaucracy than India, even though the non a.c. room was reminiscent of a sauna in that heat. Getting out, we had to wait for a while until some vehicle transfers the few people to the parking lot. Surprisingly, it was a wagon vehicle, like the touring “trains” in some cities. But the next parking was also inaccessible to the outsiders. We waited a lot of time in vain in the heat, while a cleaner wiped the soil on our luggage and ourselves. We had arranged a car to rent but had no possible contact there, so we turned to the rangers who called the next gate with an obsolete crank phone while at the same time someone offered to phone call.
At some time our guy came and exhausted entered the pleasurable air conditioned car that would carry us for the next 14 days.
The first pictures from the country are representative of chaos, poverty and an Islamic-style architectural disorder that strongly resembled Iraq.
After 300 kilometers on a state-of-the-art motorway, we reach the capital city. It consists of a twin city, the old part named Rawalpindi and the modern, Islamabad, designed by the Greek architect and urban planner Konstantinos Doxiadis. The cultural gap of the two cities is enormous. Arriving at Rawalpindi we wanted to see some of the sights and walk around its bustling outdoor markets. However, traffic chaos made our huge car impossible to pass, and the unprecedented number of men with long beards and women with burqa made the spot look somewhat inhospitable. Despite our good travel experience, we always need a little time to overcome the first shock of such a different social environment. Which turned out to be true soon. Among other things, we tried to buy a local sim card with internet, necessary for routes and hotels. The bored employee, after a lengthy passport registration process, assured us that the connection would be triggered after an hour, which never happened.
Islamabad has a totally opposite look from Pindi. Impeccable layout, organized traffic, luxury villas and plenty of greenery. It easily reminds a suburb of a European city and hardly resembles to typical Pakistan.
One of the most important monuments of the city, as well as a symbol of all Pakistan, is the Pakistan Monument, an impressive floral shaped architectural structure, with embossed interiors, on top of a hill in the city center. North of the city is the large futuristic Faisal Mosque, which was built in 1976 by King Faisal of Saudi Arabia. In the courtyard of the mosque, we began to become the tourist attraction, with dozens of people welcoming us and asking to take a photo with us. This will follow us throughout our journey, to the extent that it makes me wonder if I eventually photographed or was photographed more.
In the afternoon, once we visited the telecommunications company once again, after a lot of research, we found a relatively cheap hotel and went out for food. Hidden behind a strait was a series of local street restaurants with cleanliness comparable to a typical third-world country. A dwarf who barely reached the grill where and a transgender beggar, added to the surrealism of the spot.
Like every day of the trip, we had early wake-up, trying to catch up on the unknown route that awaits us. From now on the road will be hard, narrow, winding and with many unexpectancies. From the traffic chaos of small towns, to the snake-shaped mountain roads at altitudes above 3500m, the endless rocks and landslides. After a few hours we arrive in the city of Abbotabad, which has been imprinted in my mind as the hideout of Osama Bin Laden.
Here we will change oil for the car and have a walk around the city of friendly people. As everywhere in the country, we only received smiles and interest questions about our country of origin. It’s hard to imagine that this place hosted the head of Al Qaeda. Of course we didn’t go into the process of asking where Osama’s house is. But upon leaving the city, curiously I checked the map and to my surprise I found it! Although we are already delayed for long way ahead us, we decide to go. The massive Land Cruiser finds it difficult to fit into the narrow streets of the small village on the outskirts of the city and the driver is resentful. The road ends and we continue on foot. Osama’s neighbors smile by saying his name and showing us the direction.
On the night of May 2, 2011, US Special Forces invaded Pakistan’s airspace with helicopters invisible to radars and captured the place, eliminating their target. One of the helicopters fell into the perimeter of the building without victims. Osama’s corpse was taken to Afghanistan for verification, from there to an airliner and eventually to his wet tomb in the Indian Ocean. In addition to the corpse disappearance by the Americans, the Pakistani government demolished the house, discouraging the creation of a place of worship. It is really strange standing on a point of historical events where the terrorist enjoyed his coffee for 5 years or more, in this remote neighborhood of the quiet village, but also a breath away from a major Pakistani military academy.
On Osama Bin Laden’s compound
The road gets worse and becomes mountainous. It was an utopian scenario to reach Gilgit on the same day, but with so many delays it is unlikely that we will even reach Chilas. Rain begins, making the route even harder. At some point we reach the town of Naran, a mountain resort with beautiful hotels and nature activities such as rafting. Unfortunately, we do not have time to stay, but a few kilometers after we are notified that a landslide happened and the road is closed. We insist to continue on to the point to judge the situation. The road has turned into a mud river, hard to reach on foot. Many people are gathered, there is worry. In the background, we see giant rocks fallen on road, cars trapped, unknown if there are victims and the torrent that has broken a part of road downhills. The initial shock gives way to frustration. We are blocked with a sole solution to return to Islamabad and miss northern Pakistan. We return to Naran, we find a hotel and we satisfy our hunger in a nice barbecue restaurant. We place two alternative trip plans on paper considering time safety. One for the – unlikely, despite local assurances – road fix possibility and one for returning back and visit only the Kalash area. Unlucky factors may overturn a trip, but I had a good feeling. And miraculously, in the morning the road was open. And as it turns out, every obstacle adds something to the adventure and unique experience of an independent trip that tests the traveler’s versatility, determination and inventiveness.
The road continues alongside the river, in mountain landscapes of infinite beauty that would have not seen if we crossed it the night before. Moreover, the route is not easy, with many turns, landslides and altitudes reaching 4100m at some point. Police checks and registrations are frequent from now on. We are also given a compulsory armed escort, which does not makes us happy because we have to get less space in the car.
Indus River runs through the barren landscape. This important ancient river flows here before the creation of the Himalayas, with its current course starting from its sources in Tibet, passing through Ladakh, continuing through Pakistan and flowing in the Arabian Sea. At one point it joins the Gilgit River and this marks the reconciliation of three of the world’s largest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakorum and Hindu Kush.
The armed escort gives changes duty with the next one and we continue on the Karakorum highway leading to China’s border, this important pass of the silk road. With the funding of the Chinese government, the road is in excellent condition, with a big tunnel, but curiously without a noticeable commercial traffic. Immense mountains, some with snowy peaks and altitudes over 7,000 meters, surround the Hunza Valley, the “paradise on earth” as the locals call it. It is difficult to describe or capture in photos, the awe that feels between these gigantic earthly volumes. The spectacle is unreal and recalls similar memories from Ladakh.
Hunza, this northernmost valley, has been an independent state of the Mir dynasty for 900 years, until its conquest by the British in the 19th century and eventually its incorporation with Pakistan just in 1974. People here do not look like those in the rest of the country. Light skin, hair and eyes are common here.
After the tunnel, suddenly a lake with a turquoise fluorescent shimmers. The Attabad Lake, 21 km long, is a rare phenomenon since it was only created in 2010 from a large landslide that displaced a population of thousands and swept part of the Karakorum Avenue till 2015 when the new tunnels were delivered. The place is a summer resort for the Pakistani, but nevertheless we met few tourists mostly locals and only two westerners on bicycles.
We drive to Passu, with the same named glacier, looking for accommodation. But the area, beyond the mountain scenery, did not offer a better view than the lake and so despite the fatigue we returned and we found clean rooms with a blue view.
It is the first moments of respite since we entered Pakistan, here in the isolation of the mountain giants, in the pleasant climate away from the humidity of the summer monsoon. It is the moments of the journey that I regain strength and bless the craziness that led me to this idyllic paradise, away from the beauties of my homeland, my friends and my loved ones. I feel so happy in my temporary loneliness!
Early in the morning we start to browse the area, with the Passu glacier being the first target. It belongs to the seven biggest, non-arctic glaciers of the world, 4 of which are here in northern Pakistan. An uphill narrow dirt road leads us to the beginning of the path. The driver is clearly stressed with the road, the Land Cruiser’s owner rents it for weddings. The foot path leads us higher, giving an amphitheatrical view of the valley and the village, as well as the imposing frozen river with the sharp white spikes. It is a strange phenomenon of glacier coexistence next to trees in the temperate zone as well as the temperature that allows you to wear t-shirt. We decide to continue the uphill path for a few more miles. After 3 hours of walking the view becomes even more impressive and if we had no time limit, we would definitely continue. Suddenly we hear a buzz and looking behind us we see a landslide, almost at the edge of the cliff where we had stood before. Returning, we met some students of the last village before Afghanistan, on their school trip.
What did you do last summer? We went for boating in Pakistan. We could not miss a relaxing boat ride on a big traditional wooden boat in the turquoise lake, surrounded by the peaks of Karakorum.
The village of Karimabad (or Baltit) is the capital of Hunza. A picturesque village with several shops selling semi-precious stones and handicrafts of the area. The Baltit fortress, which was the residence of the monarch, dominates the top of the village and has been restored by the Aga Khan Foundation. Pakistani monarchs still maintain a prominent social position and business activity in the country and abroad. In the village there was a wedding and a football match together. The majority of the population are Ismaili Muslims, with progressive attitude and loose dress code, while the head scarf for women is not often seen.
Gilgit – Phunder – Mastuj – Chitral
Next stop from Hunza, arrived at Gilgit late evening. The capital of the northern Pakistani province bordering on Indian Kashmir, Xinjiang and Afghan Wakhan was lower than our expectations. Built on the banks of the same name river, it hosted us in a dirty hotel with moderate food.
But the adventure begins the next day, on the longest and most difficult part we traveled. The road outside Gilgit was a narrow asphalt, parallel to the river, with frequent landslides as everywhere in the country. But it soon gave way to an endless, rugged, mountain dirt road that is the only link between the northeast and northwestern Pakistan. The scenery became alpine soon, with stunning scenery, snowed peaks, plains with horses and yaks, with very small settlements such as Phunder and Mastuj. Police blocs have become routine for us, even more at this isolated point and unfortunately their information on the state of the road is disappointing. Despite of the route that was tiresome for both vehicle and passengers, the driver was no longer much stressed about the car, even when the rear bumper struck the ground and deformed, on a river passing. At the 3500m elevated desolate plateau, we were relieved by the presence of other jeeps on duty of public transport. It is terrifying to think of a mechanical problem in such a remote place. For the 400 km of the journey, we spent 13 hours and our driver Akhtar, with a little switch we offered, made it through, non stop, offering us valuable time for the rest of the trip.
Arriving late night in Chitral, we were looking for a decent hotel. There was no courage to search much, but neither was mood for sleeping again in junk rooms. Fortunately, after fruitless questions about a good hotel in the city, someone suggested following some unmapped alleys towards the river bank. Indeed, there, next to an old fortress, is the Pamir Inn riverside hotel, both owned by the Chitral mukhtar. An idyllic place beside the river, with a lush garden, blooming roses and comfortable rooms with a lounge. The price we negotiated was the same we paid everywhere in the country, which generally did not seem cheap to us in terms of accommodation. My daily cost for the single room was €20 or a little less.
Chitral is a beautiful village and is predominantly inhabited by the indo-aryan Khoo tribe speaking Khowan dialect. There is also a minority Pashtun (Afgani).