Sleeping in the airport
Our flight to islamabad was two hours delayed – no explanation – or at least no explanation until we were on the plane and half way to Pakistan. Apparently Imran Khan’s protest machine (he recently lost his role as Prime Minister) had led to road closures all over the country. BA decided safer to arrive a bit later (midnight in this case, though unclear why midnight was safer), and Virgin cancelled their flight entirely (leaving their crew who were in country from a flight earlier in the week stranded for a few days). I bought on flight wifi and whatsapped our guide, he had not been able to reach Islamabad from Peshawar the day before. So he had started out again in the morning at 9am – in the end it would take him 18 hours to make the two hour journey. He managed our expectations that we might not get to our hotel for the night (it’s an hour from the airport in normal traffic and we had to be back by 5am for our next flight).
We landed and cleared formalities with no bother just after midnight (limited effort by officials to check our visas and no one asked for the arrivals forms). After struggling to get wifi and not finding Kausar (our guide) we reccie’d the airport for the best place to make camp. Like most third world airports – you aren’t allowed in unless flying so we couldn’t get back into the international departures area, and the domestic departure security would not let us in until 4am. The nice security man pointed us in the direction of the ‘visitors gallery’ which had lots of shuttered shops and dirt, but air con, some seats and loos. We weren’t successful at sleeping but we had somewhere to rest and Kausar arrived at 3am with peach juice and crisps. Our fellow squatters were all up at 3.30 for morning prayers. Steph reckons I am bragging about the airport dossing, and I guess I am, it makes me feel like a proper backpacker when I have to sleep in the airport
On zero sleep we headed into the domestic departure where Kausar let us know the flight to Gilgit often didn’t go (or went and then came back) due to visibility. Luckily that didn’t happen today as it is a two day drive to gilgit on a good day, and today it would have taken hours to get a car to the airport. The flight up was stunning – through the Himalaya, Karakoram and Hindu Kush ranges, weaving up the river valleys. Stunning Nanga Parbat towered above us as we flew by (my favourite of all pakistans peaks, though the most dangerous).
Flying through the valleys to Gilgit
Gilgit valley was a delight – a lovely preview for the Hunza – lush fertile green valleys stuffed with cherry and apricot trees with incongruous sheer cliffs rising up on either side. We headed out of Gilgit and up the infamous Karakoram Highway (KKH), built by the ingenuity of the Chinese and Pakistanis to facilitate trade. The villages are clean and lovely, friendly school kids in neat uniforms, men with ridiculously movie star good looks in flowing shalwar kameez with the characteristic northern hat. It was a lovely drive up to the Hunza with a tea stop to admire Rakaposhi.
In the heart of the Hunza
Tempers were fraying at this point from the fatigue, so I refused to go on and demanded a three hour nap at the hotel – a good call as I was falling asleep on my feet by the time we bumped up the road to the Fairy land hotel at the eagles nest at 3000m. Somewhat restored we headed down to the valley for a late lunch of local vegetable pie (chapa sour) at a women run restaurant and then a stroll through the village areas only reached by foot admiring the neat planting and irrigation
We headed back up to Duiker for sunset. The views from here down the Hunza are spectacular. In the evening there are local tourists taking the requisite selfies. We chatted with the locals and then headed back to the hotel for outstanding chicken handi and chapatis and an early night. There was a ruckus of non stop shouting between 11-2am – apparently a family argument with someone with ‘mental issues’ (how it was described to us by the hotel) – it wasn’t a restful evening.
I woke up at 6 and headed back out to the view point – which I had entirely to myself. The view up to lady finger in the morning light was unrivalled, so I sat on a rock and enjoyed the view and tapped out the blog
Forts and faces
We headed down into Hunza to see the forts. First up the smaller Altit fort, which is set in lovely gardens and has a sheer drop off of about 300m down a cliff side to the Hunza river (the obvious way they used to despatch traitors – of which there were many). The fort was nice, with lots of Tibetan buddhist influences (including many swastikas) but the highlight of the morning was wandering around the old town.
We asked lots of the residents if we could take photos, and offered tips when we had (all of which were refused). Apparently they don’t mind foreigners taking photos (we are apparently polite) but the ‘domestics’ (as local tourists are known) are less well received.
After a restorative chai, we headed up to the Baltit fort – the original home of the King of Hunza (the region was seceded to Pakistan in 1947). The fort has been restored by the current Aga Kahn (of the Ismaili sect of Islam – though our Sunni guide doesn’t entirely rate them as real muslims). Our fort guide had the perfect voice for radio and was entertaining in his telling off of some of the ‘domestics’ who were trying to take the guns off the wall to take selfies.
Deciding on the Mamobar valley
Saaed and Kausar debated plans for the afternoon, Saaed won so we decided to head up the Mamobar valley to see the Diran glacier (a wiser choice than Hopper valley as it was stunning and deserted). We loaded up with walnut cake from the Hunza Mountain Cafe and the bumped over the river on a rough track to have some lunch at the campsite. The chef promised lunch in 20 mins, but I wasn’t optimistic when I saw him hop on his motorbike, I am assuming to head to town to get supplies. It was probably a little over an hour and we were served up delicious spinach, lentils and chicken, after a snooze in the shade (snacking on some cherries from a nearby tree).
We then bumped up the 4wd track as close to the glacier as we could get, stopping frequently for photos and to chat to the shepherds (we had a goat roadblock at one point) and the astounding crews who build the roads (individually hacking out the rocks for the retaining walls). Wall building is definitely a forte of the locals. The Karakoram is a glacial desert – hot and dry in summer and cold (sub minus 20s) and dry in winter. Every green thing you see has been painstakingly wrought by the hands of the Hunza who tend the fields and manage the water flows (with the exception of some natural greenery where glaciers have receded) . Without the irrigation system of drystone walls and channels which are an amazing feat of human engineering evident everywhere you turn, the valleys would quickly return to barren glacial desert.
Returning to the hotel, we had one last stroll up to the eagles nest view point to watch the sun go down, had another chicken curry and headed to bed. Unfortunately Steph spent most of the night throwing up his last four meals – we suspect his spicy chicken from the night before as that was the only thing I did not eat (and his gut is far more robust than mine). It wasn’t a terrific night.
All the way to Attabad
Setting off through the cloudy morning, we meandered our way up to the Attabad lake – a stunning glacial blue ‘accident’ created the a huge landslide in 2010 killing 21 and burying many homes. The Hunza’s flow was completely blocked for five months and the water rose displacing thousands more and submerging several villages. Eventually the water stopped rising and a spillway was created to restore the Hunza’s flow. It took another 5 years for the KKH to be restored (ferries across the lake were used in the interim for the chinese/pakistan lorries). Now it is a ‘pleasure lake’ with lots of life jacketed domestic tourists on jet skis, colourful boats and pedals. We installed Steph in a room at the beach hut -esque Luxus Hunza with imodium and fluids and headed north
Chickening out on the suspension bridge
First stop the Hussain suspension bridge, used by the locals to cross the river. Tourists can pay 100 rupees to cross. Tickets are sold by the road, cleverly before you see the bridge. I made it about 20 metres in, most of the other tourists didn’t even step on it, a couple of hardy polish dudes made it there and back. It was windy, the handwires were not tight and the gaps between the planks where more than big enough to fall through. To compensate for chickening out, I challenged Saaed to a race back to the car – I won, but he let me. I managed to jog about 80 metres (it was a steep uphill incline and we were already at 2500m) before petering out to a fast walk. The locals were pretty impressed I tried though, and Saaed let me get ahead on the jog on the flat bit back to the car.
Uphill to the Passu Glacier
Continuing north, we headed up a steep 4wd drive track to the lovely Borith lake – where we stopped for lots of photos. Then we reached the trail to the Passu Glacier viewpoint – an easy 1km stroll with stunning views. The glacier is receding but still very lovely. And when you face the Hunza there were wonderful views of the famous Passu cones or cathedral spires that tower above the Hunza river. The trail was well graded so Saaed and I decided to jog back – apparently Kausar said that was a tourist first.
Lunch was an ok meal of vegetable curry, chapatis and fried followed by excellent cake. I was amused as we had tried to be too organised today and had called ahead an order for spinach, Dahl and mixed veg. We arrived and were given rice, salad and chow mien, with some mixed veg. Oh well. The local apricot cake was delicious and we ate a whole one, warm from the oven (It was just like my mum’s apricot pudding). I observed my favourite Pakistani phenomena to date – the ‘tea’, which is tea (obvs) served with fries and a sweet thing (here it was apricot cake, but elsewhere i have seen cookies). It is novel way to get more fries in your day.
Getting to drive a beautiful truck on the KKH
We had time to spare, so headed up to the Batura glacier. Unfortunately it is mostly covered in dust so not much to see. However there was a local there with his truck, and we got chatting. Kausar asked if I could drive the truck and he encouraged me to do so (bonkers). It was really fun, though the clutch was very heavy, and he made me reverse it back to where I started. Two ladies who ran the tea house came out to tell me they were proud of me that I could drive. It was quite a moment – certainly one to remember, I wasn’t expecting to drive a truck on the Karakoram Highway (another tourist first for Kausar).
Saaed let me drive his Prado back to Attabad, but the tight corners and dodgy overtaking of the locals on those corners encouraged me to cede the wheel about half way back. I spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying the view of the lake and the Lollywood tunes emanating from the boats, and trying to get Steph to drink his rehydration fluids.
Tomorrow we head over to Phander…. Hopefully with a restored Stephane……
28 May 2022, Attabad
Tour booked with Untamed Borders – my go to travel agency when I don’t have time or energy to sort things out. James and Kausar are excellent.