I KNOW THAT THERE is always trouble in Pakistan and that you need to be careful when you travel there, but my sixteen clients and I are a little concerned to hear that the Pakistan military has decided to engage the Taliban on the Afghanistan border, and that the Taliban have called foreigners “fair game.”
My group is adventurous and we take comfort in knowing we will not get close to the conflict on this June 2014 trip. Nonetheless, I try to stay far ahead of the news with ears to the ground and my eyes wide open.
Our trip to the Baltistan region of Pakistan starts in the western Chinese town of Kashgar, an oasis city in the middle of the desert that has seen many rulers due to its key location on the ancient Silk Road, but has since remained relatively unchanged for generations. As an adventure tour leader based in Sausalito, I used to bring clients through this area on the way to Pakistan quite often in the 1990s. I am shocked by the transformation that has occurred since my last visit in 2000.
The exotic desert town that once conjured images of silk caravans and Marco Polo has become just another large, overcrowded, high-rise city with traffic and terrible pollution. The old Sunday bazaar I used to love has been moved from the center of town to the outskirts. This place I used to love to bring clients to years ago is now a city better left in the rearview mirror.
But when we start the drive toward the border with Pakistan, sweet memories come back. The mountains here are spectacular and the people friendly.
The first two days of our 17-day trip are spent traveling to Pakistan by car from Kashgar. The first day we follow a road that winds high in the mountains past small villages, with an incredible view of Mustagata, the second highest of the mountains that form the northern edge of the Tibetan Plateau. You cannot help but admire the Chinese for building a road in such a harsh, cold and unfriendly environment. We stop by Lake Karakol for a lunch spent looking at the incredible scenery and the reflection of the mountains on the lake. To my surprise, there are actually souvenir salesmen here now.
At the border town of Tashkorgan, we spend the night just five minutes from the Chinese side of the border. Early the next morning we cross through Chinese customs and immigration, which is not an easy process; then, with military escort and strict orders that photos are not allowed until we are on the Pakistan side, we drive for five hours. After yet another Chinese check post, we are finally out.
“Welcome to Pakistan,” our Pakistani representative, Didar, and his partner, Shifa, a logistical genius, say to us with a big smile at Khunjerab Pass. We are at an altitude of about 16,000 feet and there is a big table with tea, cookies and a wonderful walnut cake. The whole crew is there, including Didar’s son Furqan, an aspiring photographer and a student at the University of Karachi. Everyone’s apprehensions about being in Pakistan are immediately eased. Our representatives are from Karimabad, the capital of Hunza, a small and beautiful mountainous area in northeast Pakistan where people are hospitable and welcoming to foreigners. Hunza was closed to the outside world until the late 1930s, when it was annexed and became part of Pakistan.
The drive to Karimabad from the border is always thrilling, as the Karakoram Highway is one of the most dangerous and breathtaking drives in the world. I have been on this highway at least 16 times and every time the trip includes some new surprise. In some areas the road is literally carved into the side of the mountains and I am always in awe of the engineering, perseverance and will it took to build it — 26 years of construction with a death occurring every kilometer, more than 1,400 lives lost in all.
On the trip toward the Pakistan border near the village of Sost I have a surprise for everyone. I know there is a snow leopard close to the highway and ask Shifa if we can stop to see it. The animal, 19 months old, was found by a villager. She was apparently abandoned by her mother or her mother was killed. The poor cat is in a large cage and looks sad and lonely but the keepers tell us that there is no way to let her go free because she does not know how to hunt. All of us decide we want to do something for this creature but any kind of transfer would be difficult because of all the red tape in dealing with government officials.
The Karakoram mountain range is unstable and landslides are commonplace. Sure enough, we come upon a huge road blockage a couple of hours into the drive past Sost. With the highway obstructed, gushing water has created a river of fast-moving freezing glacial runoff. Shifa and I take our shoes off and try to walk across to check the conditions. We make it halfway but the current is too strong and the water is freezing cold — I do not feel my toes anymore, so I decide this is too risky for the clients. Didar tells me there is a small village nearby where we can spend the night; in the morning, low water levels might give us a better chance. We arrive at a small guesthouse, where the innkeeper kindly cooks us dinner.
A Successful Crossing
The next morning sees us back at the landslide, where the water is still running strong but indeed is much lower. Again a few of us try to cross but the conditions aren’t right. I notice a Chinese engineer nearby using a Caterpillar to clear the road of debris and rocks and Shifa and I beg him to help. After some “negotiating,” he agrees. It is an amusing sight to see all these Westerners crossing on the tractor, but we make it across dry and uninjured. We switch to another car on the other side and start driving toward Hunza.
A couple of hours later, we come to Lake Attabad. Another of the area’s frequent landslides cut off land access to the other side a few years back, so we need to get there by boat using an improvised ferry system that has been in place for about two years. We unload the baggage and equipment, load it on boats and cross. The water is deep and a gorgeous turquoise color; the crossing takes about an hour and a half and we pile into waiting Land Cruisers. The landing site resembles a busy Indian Ocean port with trucks, people unloading and loading cargo, and the “usual suspects” that hang around every port. Our military escort is also waiting for us there — officers with AK-47s and T-shirts bearing slogans like “No Fear” or “Antiterrorist Squad.” The senior officer is Mazrab Shah, who became a hero a few years back after jumping into a river to save some people whose car had flipped over into the water. He got a medal from Pakistan’s prime minister and is well respected in the area.
Despite the officer’s fame, I do not want an escort with guns because it attracts attention. The Pakistan government insists, however, and my clients enjoy taking photos with the soldiers. These images will no doubt be a big hit back home.
Three hours later we finally arrive at Karimabad and the wonderful Serena Hotel. The town has not changed much since my travels here in the 1990s except for the addition of Internet and cellphones. The people of the village are appreciative that American tourists are visiting and we see smiles and hear welcoming words everywhere.
We spend a couple of days here exploring the village and visit a wonderful girls’ school (uncommon in the area) built by Karim Aga Khan; the old Baltit Fort, nicely restored by the Norwegian government; and the surrounding areas. The mountains are majestic, with snowcapped peaks up to 24,000 feet.
Our next stop is Skardu, with an overnight in Gilgit, which has always been a military town and isn’t that interesting to tourists. The security is very tight and the Gilgit Serena Hotel is no exception, but it’s a beautiful place to rest for the night, and we all enjoy the wonderful gardens and the incredible barbecue. Most of the tourists also staying there are Pakistanis on short holiday to escape the heat and humidity of what they call the “downcountry” of Islamabad and Karachi.
Another Cliffside Adventure
The drive from Gilgit to Skardu takes 10 hours on a road that sometimes gives you the feeling of hanging over the raging river below, with breathtaking views of the sheerdrop mountains above. We are lucky with the weather and have a nice view of Nanga Parbat, which at 26,660 feet is the ninth highest mountain on earth and the western anchor of the Himalayas.
We spend the next two nights in the wonderful village of Shigar, in a hotel that was once literally a fort. Again we are the only foreigners, and the locals welcome us with smiles and friendly greetings.
In the afternoon the villagers invite us to watch a local polo match in the soccer field. The playing is animated and aggressive, with few rules, and lasts about two hours, providing plenty of photo ops.
Everywhere we go, our military escort is with us, which sometimes makes me uneasy because everyone comes out to see why. News travels fast in parts of the world like this. There are a few signs on the walls that are not very complimentary to America, but our guide says that some crazy people wrote them. Not totally reassured, I keep my guard up.
On the Way Home
The time we spend in Baltistan is wonderful and full of good experiences and adventure but it is time to reverse course, across the Kunjerab pass and back into China.
The return takes us via Gilgit again, but this time we take the high road across the Deosai plateau, another treat for the senses, crossing an expanse where nomads are taking their livestock to greener pastures for the summer. It’s mostly dirt road and the trip to Gilgit takes a full 15 hours, the last three with dangerous road conditions.
After a well-earned good night’s sleep in Gilgit, we drive all the way past Hunza to Sost on the Pakistan side of the border, where we spend the night before crossing the 40 kilometers of no man’s land back to China.
We reverse back over the pass and say goodbye to our nice Pakistani friends, meet our Chinese guide on the pass and, after an arduous three-hour processing at Chinese immigration and customs, spend one last night in Tashkorgan before driving back to Kashgar, where we catch our flight to Beijing and home.
Travel in Pakistan is always full of trials and tribulations, but the beautiful landscape and our encounters with the peaceful and friendly Baltistan people make me inclined to recommend giving it a try.
Check out the gallery below for more photos from Pakistan.