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Taking the high road through Northern Pakistan


What first springs to mind when one thinks of Pakistan: Islamic extremism?  Tribal unrest near the Afghan border?  Kidnappings in Swat?  Corrupt officials?  The half-hearted response to the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir? 

All of these things crossed our minds in the weeks leading up to our arrival in Pakistan, none more than the seemingly ubiquitous security threat that the Western media devotes so many column inches to.  Our first hand experience, driving through Northern Pakistan, could not have been more different. 

The Karakoram Highway

In August 2009 we crossed the Chino-Pakistan border at the Khunjerab Pass, at 4,700 metres the world’s highest border crossing, and drove the length of the Karakoram Highway, one of the world’s highest and inaccessible roads. 

Looking up the Ishkoman Valley

The Karakoram Highway was originally built in 1986 by the Chinese, a monumental feat of engineering given the terrain it crosses.  Along its course the road winds through the densest profusion of mountains above 7,000 metres on earth, through dramatic scenery ranging from angry, jagged snow capped peaks to serene valleys packed with wildlife; wooded hillsides to mighty rock falls; glaciers to raging torrents of black, mineral rich floodwater.

The original road has now endured nearly a quarter of a century of extreme and unforgiving weather conditions (it is only open from May to October each year, when the snows recede) and rock falls.  It is currently being restored at a painstakingly slow pace but despite this, it bears the scars of this unforgiving climate: it is often partially blocked by landslides and is perpetually potholed.  Even the smooth bits are slow, thanks to the sheer number of hairpin bends required to carve a course through these mountains.

From the top of the Khunjerab Pass, the road follows an impossibly narrow and treacherous course down the Khunjerab Gorge, surrounded on either side by innumerable rocky and snow clad peaks, many well over 7,000m.  The scenery is desolate, austere and wild: little vegetation can survive in these conditions and the only signs of agriculture we witness are a handful of windswept and gnarled shepherds, guiding flocks of craggy, fleet footed sheep and goats between meagre patches of pasture.

The Hunza Valley

Our first night’s stopover is the charming village of Gulmit, towards the northern extremity of the Hunza region.  It is a well tended community surrounded by lush crops of wheat and a profusion of heavily laden apricot trees, all nestling in a steep valley overlooked by the enormous Ultar Glacier.  We are staying in the simple yet delightful Silk Route Hotel, a two storey affair in which every room has a peaceful and private balcony overlooking the ‘Severn Sisters’ – a ridge of piercing, jagged peaks that form an imposing backdrop to the north of the village.

In the Hunza Valley

Hunza used to be an independent state, ruled by a succession of blue blooded Mirs until they finally acceded to Pakistan in 1974.  Its people are very different in appearance to their regional neighbours: their fair skin, high cheekbones and Romanesque noses give them a distinctly European countenance. 

The Hunza people are experts at irrigation: the only possible means of making the altitudinous scrub here fertile is to divert the mountain streams and rivers into numerous contour-hugging water channels and then use them to irrigate painstakingly dry stone terraced fields that line the mountainsides.  They have been doing this for centuries; indeed the majority of the vegetation in the Hunza valley emanates from these meticulously irrigated villages.

Karimabad

The highlight of Hunza is Karimabad, the regional capital and home of the Baltit Fort, the residence of the Mirs (rulers) of Hunza for 700 years until the 1950’s.  Although a regional capital, it is essentially a large scale version of the valley’s other villages, a cornucopia of immaculate terraces scaling their way up the hillsides until the inclines become too steep for even the most determined agrarian.

We spend two nights in Karimabad, the first in a clean and friendly hotel in the centre of town and the second in the aptly named Eagle’s Nest Hotel, perched 300 metres above the main town, commanding jaw-dropping views of the angular peaks with their emery faces that continually threaten to envelop the valley.

Local delicacies

Apricots drying in the sun

Pakistani food is consistently nothing short of excellent.  A typical supper here is a veritable feast consisting of marvels such as apricot soup, spiced mutton with noodles, tender spiced chicken shashlik, curried green beans with liberal lashings of cumin and chillies, peas pulau, salads and local coleslaw – always enough to feed a small army.  

Family life

Unsure of the local situation before we arrived, we hired a local guide, Murad, for the duration of our journey.  Through him we met a number of charming and welcoming locals from various nearby tribal areas.

Murad kindly invites us to spend some time with him in his home valley, Ishkoman, a few hundred kilometres north of Gilgit.  This represents a fairly substantial deviation off the Karakoram Highway, but by this time our experiences in Pakistan had allayed any fears that we may have had about venturing forth to some of the more remote areas – indeed they had merely whetted our appetite to explore more of this beautiful and diverse region.

Ishkoman is inhabited by different faces again – entirely unlike the people of Hunza or Gilgit whom we have come across so far.  The region is comprised of the wealthier Ishkomani and still semi-nomadic Dardic peoples – the latter easily differentiated from the dark, rounded countenance of the Ishkomani by their narrow and gaunt faces, long, unkempt and wiry hair and their wispy, weathered beards.

The Ishkoman Valley forms a more gentle landscape than anything we have witnessed to date:  it has been gently carved out by the river bearing its name for millennia and its comparatively shallow lower slopes are a verdant profusion of poplar, apricot, mulberry trees, interspersed with colourful patches of wild thorn, their hardy leaves turning shocking pink in the summer sun and providing an agreeable contrast to the greens elsewhere. 

The ‘Seven Sisters’, Gulmit

But even here the mountains are huge, stern and ubiquitous: further from the river, the fertile lower slopes suddenly give way to vast cathedrals of rock that soar to the heavens; their snow blessed peaks basking in the transparent thinness of the mountain air.

A spot of fishing

The Ishkoman River is apparently a veritable, abundant trout stream.  However, during the summer months this river, like others throughout northern Pakistan, runs grey – thick with alluviate from the mineral rich mountains all around.  The best times for fishing are spring and autumn, when the waters run clear and the local spinners (or ‘spoons’ as they are known here) are more visible in the water.

Nevertheless, we have our rods with us so decide to try our luck.  One of Murad’s oldest friends from the village, Ayub, is apparently a bit of an expert and cheerfully accompanies us to his favourite spots.  Predictably, he catches a nice little specimen immediately: we however, are not possessed with the local know-how and report a blank afternoon.  But it matters little – in such a beautiful area, the fishing is almost an excuse just to do nothing except admire the view and get your feet wet in the refreshingly cold waters.

On parade: Independence Day

Our visit coincides with Pakistan’s Independence Day: 14th August.  Mindful of the area’s history and understanding that Independence Day generally comprises a lively and colourful military and ceremonial spectacle, we arrive at Gilgit’s ceremonial parade lawn at 8.15am sharp, ready for the expected 8.30am start.  It turns out proceedings will formally get underway at 10.00am, so we watch the rehearsals, which in many ways are as interesting as the ceremony itself.  The poor soldiers in charge of the assembled schoolchildren have the worst job: trying to get 100’s of excited children to stay sat cross-legged and in the right place for two hours is damned hard work, irrespective of whether you have an automatic rifle slung over your shoulder or not…

Gilgit Scouts, ready for parade

10.00am arrives; with it the Commander-in-Chief (Northern Areas).  The Gilgit Scouts, proudly held in high esteem locally for their instrumental role in the 1947 pro-Pakistan uprising, produce an exemplary Guard of Honour for the Commander in Chief – as well drilled and turned out on parade as guardsmen – unlike the rather comical police band which escorts them, shuffling along in an ungainly manner, embarrassingly out of step. 

Half way through proceedings, a police officer singles us out and approaches us.  On Murad’s word, we have been taking dozens of photos; immediately we suspect (thanks to our previous experience in China) this may not have been such a good idea…  But no, he welcomes us warmly and invites us to accompany him to the memorial monuments at the end of the lawn, so that we may get better photos of the formal wreath laying ceremony with all the local dignitaries.

“Take as many photos as you like, please go wherever you want!” he beams enthusiastically.  Hugely touched and a little embarrassed – if not for being singled out, then for our lack of dressing suitably for the occasion – we leave our seats and proceed in front of the substantial audience to take up our prime position.  Everywhere we look, locals smile and wave at us, as they have done throughout the entire country.  It is impossible to convey how moving this treatment is, in a country where, before entering, we were unsure of the reception we may receive.

Few tourists dare to read beyond the heavy handed articles of the Pakistan-wary media; those that do invariably fall head over heels for this friendly and beautiful land.  We certainly did.

More by this author at http://www.nojobwilltravel.co.uk/ 

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