Plotting out our time in China while in Kyrgyzstan, and trying to put together an itinerary for a couple friends who said that they might join us out in Xinjiang (although in the end they couldn’t make it), we decided on a week-long side trip to northern Pakistan on the Karakoram Highway, or KKH. In this post, I will cover not only our route and some of the highlights of our trip, but also some of our considerations in planning our time in Pakistan.
First, a key question: Is it safe? There have been many bombings in Pakistan recently, and the political situation has been uncertain for some time. Although it is tempting to say that a particular tourist’s odds of being near an explosion are quite low, we actually met a fellow tourist in Kyrgyzstan who said that he was within 100 meters of a bomb in Lahore, and was thrown against a wall by the concussion. While the risk is small, it is certainly greater than in many other destinations. In the end, we felt comfortable proceeding with the trip because we would be visiting only the Northern Areas, which has been safe despite more turbulent conditions to the south. We knew that the religion of most of the areas we would visit was Ismaili Islam, a peaceful and tolerant sect led by the Aga Khan (see post of 7.13), and that there was essentially no recent history of violence in Pakistan north of the city of Gilgit. As it turned out, we ended up spending one night in Gilgit, which was in quite a tense security situation, but as we figured the rest of the Northern Areas was completely at peace and totally safe.
Second, we had to figure out the visa situation. We were planning the Pakistan sidetrip early enough that we could have, if we had to, made a detour to the Pakistan embassy in Bishkek, but we had not really been planning on visiting Bishkek, much less staying the three or four days that would have been required. We learned from the internet that the government of Pakistan had recently started giving visas on arrival at the border with China. For U.S. citizens the fee is pretty steep at USD 150, but visa on arrival saved us a long detour. (The processing at the border ended up being tediously slow, but we imagine that will be resolved soon. I should also note that the Chinese authorities had no problem letting us continue to Pakistan without a Pakistan visa in our passports, a concern that has been expressed in the past.)
Preliminaries aside, our trip on the Karakoram Highway.
We started from Kashgar’s long-distance bus station on a morning bus for Karakul (Lake), a four hour ride, where we spent the night in a Kyrgyz yurt. Given the problems with the yurtstays (see post of 7.11), we would recommend for now that you not stay the night, just staying at the lake long enough to enjoy the view and fresh air and then continuing on to Tashkurgan, the last Chinese city on the Karakoram Highway.
Long-distance bus station, Kashgar
From Karakul to Tashkurgan, another couple hours, we hitchhiked with a truck driver, although buses pass by occasionally as well. We ended up staying almost 24 hours in Tashkurgan, perhaps longer than ideal, but it is not a city without interest. For one, Tashkurgan is a Tajik-ethnic city, an oddity even in Turkic Xinjiang. Second, Tashkurgan’s namesake “Stone Tower,” a mudbrick fort near the center of the city, is believed by some to be a key point on the Silk Road identified by the likes of Ptolemy, and is set on a beautiful site overlooking a green pasture dotted with Kyrgyz yurts.
To get from Tashkurgan into Pakistan, you need to find the bus that departed from Kashgar for Pakistan, which overnights in Tashkurgan. In our case, a friendly Tajik attendant at the bus station helped us locate the bus. The best place to find this bus is the customs office, which lies on the Karakoram Highway just south of its intersection with Tashkurgan’s “main street.” The bus will likely be at the customs office for an hour or two between 9 and 11, depending on how quickly it passes through all of the formalities.
KKH’s name in Chinese, Tashkurgan
From Tashkurgan up to the 4700 meter Khunjerab Pass is a fairly short drive amidst beautiful Pamiri/high plains scenery. On the Pakistani side, the road abruptly deteriorates but the views get even better, as the peaks sharpen and valleys deepen. After a few hours in no-man’s land, the bus pulled into Sost, where the Pakistani immigration and customs procedures took place. We had no serious problems with visa-on-arrival, although a couple procedural mistakes on the immigration officer’s part, and a poorly-timed power outage, ended up in an hours-long delay (causing us and our bus-mates much anxiety).
The bus from Tashkurgan into Pakistan, run by Pakistani NATCO, goes all the way through to Gilgit, but drops off passengers anywhere en route. Although we had purchased our tickets only to Sost, we ended up staying on the bus until Passu, an hour or two further down the road.
Passu is a very peaceful and quiet village in the shadow of a dramatic set of peaks known as the Cathedral on one side and mountain glaciers on the other. We stayed at the Passu Peak Inn, a basic but comfortable guesthouse run by a very friendly retired Pakistani army officer. The people of Passu are Wakhis, coming originally from the Wakhan Valley in Tajikistan and Afghanistan. Although they speak their own Iranian language of Wakhi, they are Ismaili and to a certain extent consider themselves related to the people of the (also Ismaili) Hunza Valley to the south. We greatly enjoyed the food at the Glacier Breeze Restaurant, run by charismatic but also somewhat puzzling Mr. Khan.
The number one “activity” in Passu, and one of the most famous short hikes off of the Karakoram Highway, is the “two bridges walk,” which goes from Passu over a couple of cable suspension bridges to the village of Husseini a bit further south on the KKH. The views while a bit different are perhaps no better than from Passu itself (which, frankly, would be hard to beat), but the bridge crossings are unforgettable.
The planks are so far apart that at times you are forced to walk on one of the cables as on a tightrope. At the bridges’ lowest points you can hear the river crackling below you, and the fast motion of the water creates the uncomfortable and dizzying illusion that the bridge itself is moving in the opposite direction. There are several cables, however, so actually falling through is very unlikely.
Trail created along cliffsides from stacking numerous pieces of flat rocks; we had seen these “overings” earlier along the Wakhan (see post of 6.23).
From Husseini, we hitched a ride (with a group of young men from Karachi and their armed guard) down to Karimabad, where we stayed at the wonderful World Roof Hotel. Karimabad is the quiet and well-touristed capital and heart of Hunza, which was a princely state in British India and has an identity quite independent from the rest of Pakistan. The Hunza are Ismaili, speak a unique language unrelated to any other and are clearly visually different from their compatriots to the south. Thanks largely to the efforts of the Aga Khan, northern Pakistan enjoys higher levels of education and other social development than most of the rest of Pakistan. In some ways, it is unfortunate that northern Pakistan is suffering a downturn in tourism due to instability in the rest of the country, and some people in the north were quick to point out that we were in “Hunza, not Pakistan,” and totally safe.
Karimabad is located several hundred feet uphill from the Karakoram Highway, and enjoys a commanding view of the Hunza Valley, all the way across to Mt. Rakaposhi. Up “behind” Karimabad are yet more snowy peaks, while Karimabad itself is an Eden of terraced fields and orchards.
Truck driving up downtown Karimabad
View of Karimabad
View from Karimabad, afternoon
We enjoyed the wonderful climate and scenery of Karimabad not only from the perfectly placed balcony of our hotel room but also made a day hike up to Ultar Meadow, where we enjoyed tea with the local herders while hearing the occasional breaking of snow and ice from the nearby glacier. This hike is characterized as “easy” by the Lonely Planet, but we had difficulty finding the way until a very energetic 12 year old offered to act as our guide (for the usual $5 rate). Even if you knew the way, it would be a stretch to call the short hike “easy,” but it does offer incredible views of the nearby peaks, glacier and across the valley.
Glacier, Ultar Meadow
Trail up to Ultar Meadow. This section of the trail follows a man-made water channel, which directs snowmelt from the mountains into the lush irrigated fields of Hunza. But for these channels, the Hunza Valley, with little precipitation, would be a mountain desert.
One night, we hired a jeep up to Eagle’s Nest at Duiker viewpoint for dinner. The Eagle’s Nest is a comfortable hotel with a truly spectacular location that really merits a long stay–just you (and your loved one), the priceless view (like that from Karimabad but higher) and a pile of books. Food was tasy, and great value.
Terraces near Eagle’s Nest
The principal historical site of Hunza is Baltit Fort, beautifully refurbished by the cultural projects wing of the Aga Khan Foundation–perhaps the best such restoration job we’ve ever seen!
Old house restoration at Baltit Fort. Note the similarity to Pamiri homes from Tajikistan (see post of 6.23).
It being summer, there were apricots absolutely everywhere in the Hunza Valley, ripe for the picking. Dried apricots and apricot pits are used widely in Hunza cooking, including in the delicious apricot soup.
Ganish Village, downhill from Karimabad, also well-restored with the support of the Aga Khan Foundation. Ganish is Shiite Muslim, and not Ismaili like the rest of Hunza–they did not convert to Ismailism with the rest of Hunza in the nineteenth century.
We decided to catch the Kashgar bus from its origin in Gilgit, and so hired a car to take us down the night before. The couple hours’ drive was memorable for the views of the old vertiginous trails and roads heading southward from Hunza as well as Rakaposhi Viewpoint, where we enjoyed a simple but tasty meal.
Old roads/trails along the way
Gilgit itself came as something of a surprise. We were told that there has been some sectarian violence in Gilgit, but did not know that there had also been a very recent assassination attempt. There was extremely heavy police/military presence, including a sort of military bunker set up in the town center and pick-up trucks with armed soldiers cruising down the main road every several minutes. The somewhat rough crowd populating the town was nonetheless friendly, joking with us by pointing to their friends and saying that they were Taliban and suicide bombers. (Indeed, most of the people in Gilgit did fit the western Taliban stereotype, in terms of facial hair and dress.) [To avoid spending a night in Gilgit, you can easily pick up the bus to Kashgar as it passes through Karimabad. Or, if you want to fly into/out of Gilgit to start/finish your trip, it is perfectly possible to have a Karimabad hotel pick you up/drop you off to avoid an overnight stop in the town.]
The bus from Gilgit to Kashgar takes one long day, departing from Gilgit around 6 AM and arriving in Kashgar almost at midnight. Watch out for the Chinese border officials and their x-ray machine!
Our bus had some trouble starting!