Journey to the Hunza Valley and Karakorum in Northern Pakistan (Travelogue)
A travelogue of a journey with a small group, April 2019
Our journey through the Hunza valley and the Karakoram mountain range to northern Pakistan began with a midnight landing at Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan. 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 Karacorum Highway, which would take us almost our entire journey north. It is considered the highest asphalt mountain road in the world. It connects 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.
The journey to our first stop in the village of Chilas took about 22 hours, which we had not expected. It turned out that parts of the road were undergoing major 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 actually already in the province of Gilgit-Baltistan, the administrative area we would be exploring over the next few days.
The next day, we proceeded to Karimabad, the administrative capital of the Hunza Valley, also part of the Gilgit-Baltistan province. The first place we stopped was the the junction of the three mightiest mountain ranges, the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindukush. 2400 km long Himalaya Range stretches into Pakistan, China, India, Nepal and Bhutan. 500 km long Karakuram Range is shared between Pakistan and China, while Hindukush Range is spread across western Pakistan and Afghanistan. Here is also where the Gilgit River and Indus rivers merge and ways of Gilgit and Skardu splits 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 see the peak, as it was shrouded by light clouds, 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 nice, with great views of Karakorum, 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 cut out often, with most shops and hotels running on generators and batteries in the evening.
The next stop on our trip was the Baltit Fortress, just a few hundred meters from our hotel. The fortress offers spectacular views of the surrounding mountains and magnificent peaks. The fortress itself is an important 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 well-read, with very good English and a great sense of humor. We definitely had fun with it 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 levity after the more serious tones of the history our fortress tour guide had told us.
We continued to the next fortress, Altit, built on a rock rising about 300 meters above the Hunza River. It is even older than the Baltit fortress. The steep cliffs and mountains naturally protected it from attacks in the past. The fortress has unique architecture, built in stages over 800 years. It was originally 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 main hill, however, was interesting. We learned that soldiers used to have their courage tested at this rock, forced to jump onto it. It was a rather crude way to measure courage, since those who failed to hold on to the rock simply fell into the abyss several hundred meters down, where they’d remain forever. Those who survived the challenge were lucky to stay alive and be a part of an elite army. I certainly would not have jumped, but our guide said that a few years ago, a tour guide tried it for for the entertainment of his group and succeeded…
The two fortress 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 with them in public life. The women served us drinks, were very kind, and the place was really beautiful, nestled amongst a lovely park.
The hotel that night was the highlight of all our hotels throughout the trip. The surrounding panorama just left us breathless. In addition, there was plenty of hot water and the beds were equipped with heating devices, which made sleeping very 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 slight adventure 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 there 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. It is said that there are trout suitable for fishing. A wonderful place in general.
After the lake, we stopped in the village of Gulmit, one of the largest settlements in Hunza. By chance, we found a modest restaurant, where we were offered some bread and sweets. We threw ourselves at the food, as if we had not just had breakfast two hours ago. This place was a lot of fun.
A little further down the alley, in a sheltered corner, we visited the local women’s cooperative specializing in weaving rugs and anything else that could be weaved. Several women showed us their skills. It was interesting 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 made up of a strange amalgam of mud, sand, and ice. From time to time, the stones collapsed or we heard a crack in the distance. It was a very strange place for trekking, but definitely magical. The whole transition took about two hours with stops to take photos and breaks. Its end point is Borith, a saltwater lake about 2,500 meters away. There was coffee at the lake, where we drank tea and rested briefly.
Then we descended to the village of Husseini. There, we chatted with a group of 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, then continued to the village of Passu, the end point of our route that day.
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 small houses, meadows, and pieces of land planted with different crops, mostly countless apple trees that were in full bloom at that time of year. The Hunza River runs to the village and, behind it. 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. 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 and 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 people of the Hunza Valley 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 residents of the Hunza Valley, our host explained that this was a phenomenon from the past and that it was mainly due to the fact that people produced their own food and belongings with their own hands. Nothing was imported from the outside. Yes, drinking glacier water and consuming large amounts of apricots have contributed, but the main factor is working outdoors. This is bad news for anyone who thinks that, by regularly consuming apricot kernel oil 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 true in the past, but not today. The message and knowledge, however, 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 older, 100-year-old house, which, in architectural terms, was much like the new house: a large 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 intimate world of the Hunza people, learn important and interesting things, and, eventually, we discovered the recipe for long life: outdoor work, clean, high-quality food, and friendly relationships with other members of the community. An impossibly perfect life.
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 peaks 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 in the world and also the highest part of the Karakoram Highway.
The last settlement before the pass 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 town selling mostly Chinese goods. It looks like a place out of the Wild West, where, before China’s influence, 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. The yaks are taken at the end of February to the highland pastures and returned to the villages in the valleys.
At the last police post, our passports were again thoroughly checked on a person-by-person basis, photographed, and entered into computers.
The Khunjerab Pass itself is nestled amongst ice peaks and is an expansive space. 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 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. We also saw the the most highly placed ATM in the world. Overall, the visuals were a bit surreal and the elevation was almost 5,000 meters above sea level.
It was the northernmost point of our journey through northern Pakistan, 825 km from Islamabad. We had a return trip to the Pakistani capital, in which we would spend the rest of our days in the country.
The last stop of the day was a very interesting rope bridge with a fairly large distance between the boards. There were other cable-stayed bridges in the area, but this one was very picturesque and passing it was a real adventure. The bravest of the group crossed the entire bridge. They said it got quite windy and a little scary in the middle. The bridge itself leads to several levels on the other side of the river and the local villagers use it mostly for river crossing. In winter, the river does not freeze. Spring weather can raise its level quite a bit, which makes crossing the bridge quite dangerous. Our guide said that some peasants had died in similar circumstances there a while ago. We had a lot of fun on this bridge, shooting pictures in all kinds of poses. It was generally a party.
The next day, we went back south. We left two people from the group at the small airport in Gilgit to fly to Islamabad. It was a chance for us to see the small mountain airport and also how the small planes land and take off. As we waited for the plane to take off, we sat at an airport cafe (which no one from our world could imagine to be an airport cafe), a small, cluttered room with a few dirty tables and chairs. It was authentic, however, and definitely interesting to us. The prison is located near the airport. We walked around, looking at graffiti along the airport fence, apparently from a competition of local artists. In fact, the graffiti was quite original and pretty, though some resembled Banksy.
After watching the plane with our friends take off, we continued on our way south.
After a while we reached 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 piece of 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 true skill. Fast-paced, resourceful, and focused, he pushed the van like a virtuoso through the chaos. 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 difficult 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 hard work. I, somehow, felt a deep and spontaneous gratitude for them all!
The cacophony of the road 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 again with small motors hauling massive amounts of water, ice cream and other loads. A man in one such vehicle had chosen Beethoven as background music to announce his approach, further adding another nuance to the situation.
The next day, we continued our journey to Islamabad. The first stop for that day was a memorial to those killed during the construction of the Karakoram Highway, a stop which offered great views of the entire area.
The most remarkable stop 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 almost its entire length. It was a very lively and 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. The experience was really great. Our guide said that, in the past, when the Taliban network from neighbouring Afghanistan was active in the area, the town was not entirely safe. Today the place is safe.
We continued south on our journey, reaching Taxila Museum, one of Pakistan’s largest and well-maintained museums. It was built in the center of an area with important archeological finds, most of them dating from 600 BC to about 500 BC. The site was important during the Buddhist period, during the ancient kingdom of Gandhara, when sculpture, architecture, and education flourished. Remnants from the Greek period of settlement were also remarkable: sculptures, household items, and other artefacts were housed in the museum’s nearly 100-year-old building.
This was followed by afternoon traffic to Islamabad, accommodation in a nice hotel in the city center, a small walk around the market, and dinner, which our partners organized for us in a wonderful outdoor garden.
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.
We finished our tour in Islamabad.