Our journey through the Hunza valley and the Karakoram mountain range in northern Pakistan began with a midnight landing in Islamabad, Pakistan’s capital. Our partners greeted us with flowers and a group photo, then we loaded into a bus chartered for our group and headed for the famous road called the Karakorum Highway. It is considered the highest asphalt mountain road in the world, connecting China and Pakistan through the Karakoram Mountains and is also known as the Friendship Highway. During construction, which took place from 1959 to 1979, 810 Pakistanis and 200 Chinese workers lost their lives. The route of the Karakoram Highway coincides, in part, with one of the branches of the ancient Silk Road. (A great book about Silk Road – “The Silk Roads: A New History of the World”.)
The journey to the village of Chilas in Gilgit Baltistan took us about 22 hours, which we had not expected. It turned out that parts of the road were undergoing significant repairs, amongst other delay-causing circumstances. Fortunately, the hotel in Chilas was very comfortable, with great views of the snow-capped mountain peaks. This was the first time we saw and felt what an amazingly beautiful part of Pakistan we’d be traveling in the next days. In Chilas, we were already in the province of Gilgit-Baltistan, the administrative area, we would be exploring over the next week.
The next day, we proceeded to Karimabad, the Hunza Valley administrative capital, also part of the Gilgit-Baltistan province. The first place we stopped was the junction of the three mightiest mountain ranges, the Himalaya, Karakoram, and Hindukush. 2400 km long Himalaya Range stretches into Pakistan, China, India, Nepal, and Bhutan. 500 km long, Karakoram Range is shared between Pakistan and China, while the Hindukush Range is spread across west Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here is also where the Gilgit River and Indus rivers merge, and the roads to Gilgit and Skardu split in different directions.
The next stop along the way was the observation point, from which we could see Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest peak in the world (8,126 meters above sea level). We couldn’t quite enjoy the summit, as light clouds shrouded it, but we at least got the idea.
We paused briefly for a coffee and to admire the Rakaposhi Peak. They call the site, a base camp, but it’s more of a starting point to access the base camp to the top. At the local souvenir pavilion, they offered items like a goat scarf for about $500. Our local guide explained that it is most likely a tourist scam, as wild goats are extremely timid animals, and collecting wool is a practically impossible task.
Massive mountain peaks surrounded us along the way. For us, they were indistinguishable, but in this stretch, we should have passed the peaks Diran (7,266 m), Spantik (7,027 m), Ultar (7,388 m), and Lady Finger (6,000 m).
The hotel in Karimabad was lovely, with great views of the Karakoram, though it was about 15 degrees, a little cool for us. Hotels in the area start to welcome guests in late April, as winter is quite cold, and they cannot be heated due to a lack of wood or access to any other energy source. Electricity can often be cut out, with most shops and hotels running on generators and batteries in the evening.
The next stop on our trip was the Baltit Fortress, remarkable with the spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and magnificent peaks. The fortress itself is a famous historical and cultural landmark dating from the 12th century. It was home to the family of local Lord Mears of Hunza, who ruled the area for centuries. The main building has an impressive stone structure and detailed wooden features. The architecture reflects its Tibetan influence, which is quite pronounced in the area. The local guide turned out to be extremely knowledgeable, with excellent English and a great sense of humor. We had fun with him and made sure to sign the guestbook before we left.
On our way down to the town, we came across a school where two teams of young people were pulling a rope in the school’s dusty yard. A little further on, a group of young boys performed traditional Pakistani dances under the guidance of their strict blonde teacher. We gave her pens and other little trinkets we had brought for the children. We played a bit with the kids in the dust, laughed, and took pictures with them, a moment of happiness after the history lessons our fortress tour guide taught us earlier.
We continued to the next fortress, Altit, built on a rock rising about 300 meters above the Hunza River. It was even older than the Baltit fortress. The cliffs and mountains naturally protected it from attacks in the past. The fort has unique architecture, built-in stages over 800 years. It was initially designed as a palace but later became a fortress.
The guide here was not as good as the previous one, speaking poor English. One rock about 2 meters away from the hill, however, was fascinating. We learned that soldiers used to have their courage tested at this rock, forced to jump onto it. It has been a rather crude way to measure courage. Who failed to hold on to the foundation simply fell into the abyss several hundred meters down. Those who survived the challenge were lucky to stay alive and be a part of an elite army. I would not have jumped, but our guide said that a few years ago, a tour guide tried it for the entertainment of his group and succeeded.
The two strongholds were instrumental in the founding and management of the Hunza Kingdom.
There was a lovely cafe with a beautiful view and nice waitresses near the Altit Fortress. Our leader was particularly proud that, in Hunza, women are equal to men and participate equally in public life. The women served us drinks, were very kind, and we felt excellent.
The hotel that night was the highlight of all our hotels throughout the trip. The surrounding panorama just left us breathless. Besides, there was plenty of hot water, and the beds were equipped with heating devices, which made sleeping enjoyable.
In the late afternoon, our group did a light trek of about an hour-and-a-half to a holy spot near the hotel, a good exercise before bedtime.
The next day, we continued along the Karakoram Highway. Our first stop featured a few ancient inscriptions carved in rock, the Ganish Rock Carvings, or, as the place is better known, the Sacred Rock of Hunza. The inscriptions date from the 1st millennium AD. The rock, divided into two parts, features caves, which were once inhabited by Buddhists. Today, these caves are gone, with only ancient inscriptions remaining.
The next stop along the road was the bright blue-green Attabad Lake, located in the Gojal valley. The lake was artificially created in January 2010. Recently, it has become one of the major tourist attractions in Gilgit-Baltistan. We saw tourist boats floating along its quiet waters. Locals say there are trout suitable for fishing—a beautiful place in general.
After the lake, we stopped in the village of Gulmit, one of Hunza’s largest settlements. By chance, we found a modest restaurant, where we were offered bread and sweets. We threw ourselves at the food as if we had not just had breakfast two hours ago.
A little further down the street, we visited the local women’s cooperative specializing in weaving rugs and other handmade stuff. Several women showed us their skills. It was exciting and somehow cozy in the small sheltered space where women worked.
There was a short walk through the village of Gulmit, from which we went up to the Gulkin Glacier, along the so-called Ghulkin Glacier Trek. After a slight climb, we reached the glacier Gulkin (Ghulkin). The views were stunning! The glacier itself was kind of a strange amalgam of mud, sand, and ice. From time to time, the stones collapsed, producing a peculiar crack heard in the distance. The hike took us about two hours with stops to take photos and breaks. Its endpoint is Borith, a saltwater lake (about 2,500 meters). There was a little cafe at the lake shore, where we drank tea and rested briefly.
Then we descended into the village of Husseini. There, we chatted with about 20 locals who worked together on a piece of land. It turned out they were all relatives planting potatoes together. We took photos with them and then continued to the village of Passu, the end point of the route today.
We stopped along the way to enjoy the spectacular view of the Passu Glacier. Passu village itself is a small, picturesque, and typical village in the Hunza Valley. We strolled through its narrow streets lined with low stone fences, enjoying the tiny houses, meadows, and pieces of land planted with different crops, mostly countless apple trees in full bloom. The Hunza River runs through the village. The whole place is surrounded by impressive mountains with peaks over 7,000 meters. This was probably the place that gave birth to the idea of Shangri La.
We were met on the street by a local teacher who, after a short conversation, invited us for tea with him and his family. We accepted, agreeing to meet him a little later at the only shop in the village. After about an hour, the man was actually waiting for us there, and he took us to his home. The house itself was modest, with a hearth in the middle where he lit a fire to brew herbal tea. His wife showed up too, bringing apples from last year’s harvest. Both were teachers, very kind and humble people with five children, about whom he spoke with particular tenderness and pride.
One hundred percent of the children in the valley go to school. They all greeted us in English. People are actually lighter-skinned, some with blue eyes and startlingly European-like features. The subject of the origin of the Hunza Valley people is long, controversial at times, and not fully understood, which is why I will not dwell on it here.
Asked what caused the famed longevity of the Hunza Valley residents, our host explained that this was a phenomenon from the past. It was mainly because people produced their own food and belongings with their own hands, he continued. Nothing was imported from the outside. Yes, drinking glacier water and consuming large amounts of apricots have contributed, but the main factor was the hard work outside. That would be bad news for anyone believing that consuming apricot kernel oil regularly or using expensive pharmaceuticals with similar ingredients, will live a hundred years. Today, of course, especially in big cities, it is impossible to lead this lifestyle, even in the Hunza Valley. Our host emphasized that their longevity was a thing from the past, not today. However, the message and knowledge remain: go back to nature for a longer, more meaningful, and fulfilling life. This meeting was the quintessence of our journey through the Hunza Valley. It wasn’t planned, but I knew it would happen.
Our elderly host also showed us his 100-year-old house, which, in architectural terms, was much like the new one: an ample space with a centrally located fireplace and a smoke hole in the ceiling, as well as a few more rooms for different purposes.
We were able to peek into the Hunza people’s intimate world, learn interesting facts, and eventually discover the recipe for long life: outdoor work, clean, high-quality food, and friendly relationships with other members of the community. Does it sound achievable today?
The next day, we continued our tour of the valley. We stopped by Batura Glacier, the fifth-longest non-polar glacier in the world (56 km). We could not distinguish the peaks surrounding us, but we knew that among them was Tupopdan (6,106 m), also known as Passu Cathedral, which was located north of the village. This is the most photographed peak in the area. The mountains of Passu sir, Shispare, and Batura are also nearby.
We continued north along the Karakoram Highway to the Khunjerab Pass (4,733 m), where the Pakistan-China border is located. Khunjerab is the highest altitude asphalt border crossing globally and the most upper part of the Karakoram Highway.
Before the pass, the last settlement is the village of Sost, where we stopped for a toilet and lunch. The entire area is heavily Chinese-influenced, with all the shops in the town selling mostly Chinese goods. It looks like a place out of the Wild West, where travelers could rest at a hotel, eat at a small pub, and buy travel necessities.
The passage through the pass was completed in 1982. Along the way, we saw marmots, wild goats, and yaks. At the end of February, the villagers take them to the highland pastures. They usually return them back to the villages at the beginning of the winter.
At the last police post, our passports were again thoroughly checked on a person-by-person basis.
The Khunjerab Pass itself is nestled amongst ice peaks. The border point is an arch, behind which is China. People were not visible across the border, unlike in the Pakistani part, where tourists came specifically to see the border arch and the passage. There was a truck converted into a cafe where we had tea. We froze a little (it was about 4 degrees) but still strolled around. Here is the most highly placed ATM in the world (5,000 meters above sea level).
It was the northernmost point of our journey through northern Pakistan, 825 km from Islamabad.
On the way back, we stopped at a dramatic suspension bridge with a relatively large distance between the boards. There are other rope bridges in the area, but this one is truly picturesque. Passing it would be like a real adventure. I personally did not try to walk on it, but the group members who reached the other side of the river said it got quite windy and a little scary in the middle of the construction. In winter, the river does not freeze. In spring, with the snow from the high mountains starting to melt, the water level can rise dramatically, making crossing the bridge quite dangerous. Our guide said that some peasants had died in similar circumstances.
The next day, we went back south. We left two of our group members at the small airport in Gilgit to fly to Islamabad. It was a chance for us to see the small mountain airport. As we waited for the plane to take off, we sat at the airport cafe, a small, cluttered room with a few dirty tables and chairs. The cafe is actually located just beside the local prison.
The whole airport neighborhood was pretty impressive. There was lots of graffiti along the airport fence, apparently from local artists’ competition. In fact, the graffiti was original and artistic, though some resembled Banksy.
We continued our way to the south, reaching a bit later the border point of the Gilgit-Baltistan province. They asked us to sit in the police station for a while. At one point, it became clear that the way down was closed by striking local peasants. Over time, it became clear that the dispute between the local tribes was about a forest that led to the road being blocked. We waited around three hours with another small group of Westerners. Their guide turned out to be quite talkative and gave us a great deal of local knowledge. At one point, the road opened, and we witnessed one of the most exciting action scenes I had ever seen.
Everyone rushed down the narrow road in disarray, in complete chaos. Here, our driver showed his real skill. Fast-paced, resourceful, and focused, he pushed the van like a virtuoso through the mess. This was one of the best drivers I’ve ever seen. He was a quiet, unobtrusive, and humble little man who walked us through this super complicated and challenging journey without scratching the bus or causing any discomfort. I thought of all these small, inconspicuous people I’ve met on the roads of the world; those who earn their money working unbelievably hard. I, somehow, felt sincere and spontaneous appreciation for them all!
The road’s cacophony continued for at least an hour or two until hundreds of trucks, bikes, buses, and animals had accumulated in both directions. In some places, congestion was forming with small motors loading with big water tanks, ice cream, and other loads. One such vehicle had chosen Beethoven as background music to announce his approach, further adding another nuance of absurdity to the situation.
Due to the delay, we arrived in Besham at midnight. We fell asleep immediately.
The next day, we continued our journey to Islamabad. The first stop for that day was a memorial to those killed during the Karakoram Highway construction, a spot that offered great views of the entire area.
The most remarkable halt that day was in the town of Battagram. I had spotted the market on a small pedestrian bridge when we traveled north, so I decided we would stop here. The bus left us at the beginning of the market, which we went through on foot almost its entire length. It was a lively, real place, filled with noise and exclusively men. The whole area is relatively conservative with stricter rules. For the first time, the women in our group put their scarves on their heads. Our guide said that, in the past, when the Taliban network from neighboring Afghanistan was active in the area, the town was not entirely safe. Today the place is safe.
We continued south on our journey, reaching the Taxila Museum, one of Pakistan’s most extensive and well-maintained museums. It was built in the center of an area with significant archeological findings, most of which date from 600 BC to about 500 BC. During the Buddhist period, the site was part of the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, when fine arts like sculpture, architecture, and education flourished. Remnants of the Greek period of the settlement were remarkable: sculptures, household items, and other artifacts were housed in the museum’s nearly 100-year-old building.
On our way back to the hotel, we were able to briefly see the largest mosque in Islamabad, Faisal, which was also the largest mosque in the world from 1986 to 1993. Today, it is the fourth largest. The mosque features contemporary design, in the shape of a Bedouin tent. That was the end of our journey in northern Pakistan.
HOW CAN I USE THIS TRAVELOGUE
The best way would be a guided tour.
We usually have one or two small groups (max 7/8 participants) per year traveling to Pakistan on this itinerary. If you are interested in joining a group setting out from Europe, please drop a line. We will provide more information, like dates, a program, and other details.
The best time to visit Hunza Valley is from April to October but avoid June to August if you do not like crowds. The Hunza Valley can get rather crowded during the midsummer months as both the local and the Chinese tourists flock the place when the temperature is nice and warm
The best way would be a guided tour in northern Pakistan. It could be combined with visiting Lahore, Islamabad, and other places in this part of the country.
Most probably you would need a visa for Pakistan. Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior introduced the Single-entry Tourist eVisa for citizens of 175 countries. This eVisa has a validity of 3 months and allows travellers to enter the country for tourist purposes and it enables them to stay in Pakistan for up to 30 days. You can check out the procedure here.
You can also use the VisaHQ world service. They will provide full assistance in applying and obtaining the needed visa. Check directly the requirements for the Pakistani visa here.
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