Heading up the Hindu Kush

Saying farewell to the Hunza, we returned to Gilgit after stopping to load up with some cherries from the tree in Saaed’s cousins garden. Gilgit was a bustling metropolis compared to Hunza and the bazaar was in full swing. We stopped to take more photocopies of our passports for the multiple checkpoints we would encounter en route to Chitral with stops at Phander and Mastuj to break up the long days driving. It is one of the great road trips of Asia – heading over the Shandur pass, and I was very much lookig forward tot he landscape

Buddha in Pakistan

We detoured near Gilgit to see the Kargah Buddha – impressively carved in the side of the mountain. The highlight of the visit was a crew of young guys who were determined to have Steph take a glamorous headshot of each of them.

Camels, Weddings and Pulleys

The road from Gilgit to Phander is well trafficked, half paved with lots of potholes. It follows the Gilgit river up the Hindu Kush. Much of it was spectacular – particularly around Gupis – but it was tough going. We stopped in Henzal at a very grubby truck stop for lunch and I didn’t fancy the chicken kebabs which were piled high half precooked and covered in flies – didn’t look particularly hygienic. I opted for a greasy omelette and chapati. (Truck traffic is pretty slow these days as the Chinese border is still closed for covid, so food turnover at the truck stops is not high). We stopped again in Gahkuch. I had asked for a pee stop and so Saaed found us a nice hotel with a washroom. So we had to have tea. So a pee break takes 45 mins and makes me want to pee again. I learnt to ask for a photo stop and then find a rock – much more efficient :-).

The road is dusty! Really dusty. I had wondered why so many people were wearing masks. No one is remotely bothered about covid but the widespread mask availability has been a boon for those who don’t want to inhale the road dust. The road is also a big game of chicken. Driving is no problem on a wide road, or an entirely gravel road – chicken kicks in when the road (like from gilgit) is half asphalt – about wide enough for 1.5 cars – and half rocky gravel. No one wants to put their left wheel in the gravel so they accelerate towards each other and try to hold on to the asphalt. Inevitably both drivers have to slam on the brakes, swerve and they both end up with one wheel in the dirt. Even Saaed our very zen driver can’t resist the temptation every time and the last minute braking wears thin after many hours in the 4wd

We did stop to experiment with one of the many pulley systems the locals use to pull themselves and their gear across the river. Saaed was lucky there was a kid with him as he got stuck half way back. We also met a camel man who was walking from Lahore to Peshawar selling milk. Our highlight was stopping to chat to a wedding party (we actually passed three). The women had a chat to me from the back of the car. They are very joyous occasions.

The rest of the road was bumpy but spectacular- meandering through tiny villages with pretty painted houses and passing through sheer red rock gorges along the Gilgit river

Pausing in Phander

We bumped into Phander as the sun set after 10 hours on the road and met the lovely owner from the Hilltop Hotel. What the hotel lacked in soundproofing and hot water it made up for in innovative coloured lighting tubes on the ceiling. We had fried river fish and vegetables for dinner and went to bed. Apparently the govt workers in the other room had a dance party until midnight but I didn’t hear it, I did hear the vigorous nose and throat clearing at 7am

I got up early for a stroll – passing lots of kids going to school, women taking the cows to graze and men making bricks. The view from the top of the hill was lovely down over the Phandur valley.

After breakfast of omelette and chapatis we headed out, stopping often to take photos. The road today is much easier as while very rough and bumpy, it is less trafficked and we are in less of a hurry. It is also entirely gravel so no need for games or chicken with the few cars coming the other way

Scaling the Shandur Pass

The road up through Shandur pass was spectacular. Beautiful red and green riverine valleys with increasingly steep sides up to Tero (home of Tero Rest House – which made us giggle). From the check point at Barset you pass through a high flat valley with beautiful ridgelines along each side – no trees but lots of grazing animals. The road is closed in winter and pretty bumpy in the summer

We stopped for lunch at a small shack in Shandur. Omelette, chickpeas, tea and paratha. Kausar and Steph entertained themselves taking atmospheric photos of Saaed smoking. The cook was most amused. Shandur pass is the highest polo ground in the world – home of fierce battles between Gilgit and Chitral, but a literal killer for the horses given the ferocity of the game and the lack of oxygen.

Onwards to Mastuj

The descent to Sor Laspur was very steep and I was immensely grateful the only oncoming traffic we met were a mad German couple cycling up the hill with all their gear. It’s narrow and would involve a lot of reversing and manoeuvring to get passed anyone. The views over Sor Laspur were incredible

The road from Harchin to Mastuj sidled along a steep c.600m high scree slope for about 15km with stomach wrenching drop offs to the river below. You had to keep your left eye on the steep drop off as the road fell away from time to time and your right eye firmly uphill to avoid any landslides (we saw a few). Saaed was careful and I was delighted to get to Mastuj. We are staying in a very peaceful guesthouse – the Noor Mahal – with excellent wifi, so spent the late afternoon in the garden enjoying the sun and catching up on the blog and email. The rooms were basic and I am not sure how often the linens are changed – but the showers were hot and the roses were beautifully tended. The lovely staff served us more excellent fish and daal, and wonderful naan from the fresh tandoor around the corner

Meandering around Mastuj

After paratha and omelette (our breakfast staple – we always get asked what we want for breakfast so we always ask what they have. The response is always omelette or fried egg, chapati (or paratha), jam, coffee or tea. We wandered around chatting to the local men. We didn’t see any women in town as it was a largely Sunni village. Ismaili women tend to be a little more out in society and they mostly smile back when I wave at them (hence I have dubbed them smiley Ismailis – rhymes perfectly). Sunni women in Pakistan are a lot less friendly to foreigners in passing. Looking at the women is pretty much how I figure out the dominant religion in a village – the guys all look the same, Sunni women are less visible and more veiled (this was confirmed by our guide). We took lots of photos of the local men. It is extremely rude in these parts to point the camera, but very well received if you have a chat for a few minutes, ask to take a photo and then show them the photo. This only works for men, women are mostly off limits though sometimes they are happy to have a photo taken with me. Our favourite photo this morning was a lovely old gent with kind eyes who said we could take his photo ‘but, don’t show it to anyone in America as they will think I am osama bin laden and come and kill me’

Cruising to Chitral

We had been warned that the road to Chitral was under construction so the drive may take five hours. We made good time until just before Booni and then we’re stuck for 30 minutes in a queue waiting for works to halt so we got out and enjoyed the dust with the locals. No one was cross or agitated with an unspecified wait – my fellow Londoners would be less zen with road works. I had taken the left over hot water from breakfast in my swell thermos so made a cup of coffee (carrying coffee, a spoon, thermos and collapsible cup is probably not in keeping with the ultra light packing of my younger days, but it is nice to always be able to have a brew – and it all still fits in carryon)

We arrived at the Booni checkpoint at 11 and then lost an hour as Saaed and Kausar decided we should detour for ‘10 minutes’ to see Qaqlasht meadows. They got lost and took a wrong turn and ignored Stephane when he tried to set them right with Google maps. We eventually got there after almost an hour – and I am sure is lovely in the spring but in June it was just a dry dusty bowl with an ok view of the valley. So after a wasted hour we continued on the way to Chitral where I was excited about the posh hotel we were staying in – owned by a local prince.

With the aid of downloaded maps on stephs phone we shaved 30 mins off the journey to the hotel as we found a bridge that Kausar and Saaed didn’t think we could cross – and we arrived at the hotel at around 2.30 (5.5 hours after leaving Mastuj for a three hour drive). We had sort of missed booking lunch and they had cooked the buffet to order for the five guests they had. Fortunately, they let us clean up the leftovers at the buffet and we ate most of the fresh cherries on offer. we then did our laundry and had long almost hot showers and enjoyed the views down over chitral from our enormous suite.

The sites of Chitral

As the day cooled we headed down to check out the sites – the mosque was lovely but hard to photograph as the electric company had installed pylons in front of the domes. We snuck into the chitral fort (officially closed to the public) and had a look around. I loved the orange colour.

Chitral shopkeepers and trucks

Next up the bazaar where we met some lovely shop keepers and had tea. And then we mostly fan-Ed out on the trucks. I am quite smitten. The only weird thing about chitral was how few women we saw. Few Pakistani women outside of the middle classes work. There are lots of girls schools but you literally see no women working in commerce (you do in the fields) . They don’t even really get out in the more Sunni towns and villages to buy groceries – the men do it. I can never quite fathom why a culture would decide not to use half of their intellectual capacity and workforce…… seems a bit bonkers to me.

Staying with royalty

Dinner was lovely (when it arrived half an hour late – the entire hospitality industry here is consistent in its lateness – from posh to downmarket places). Delicious soup, naan, curry, kebab and salad all fresh from their garden, followed by an exceptional crème caramel. We also met the Prince of chitral and his wife who own the place. I complimented him on the wonder of Pakistan’s mountains, and said I felt disloyal to NZ to say such a thing. He complimented me on Jacinda – the NZ prime minister. I mentioned she wa a lot less popular these days in NZ – so he offered to swap her for the mountains ‘the mountains can’t govern our country but she could!’

After a delightful sleep with the door open for the breeze, I was up early so they delivered coffee to the room. Breakfast was fresh cherries and apricots, home made cereals, marmalade, parathas and brown bread, and it was delicious – I scoffed my face. Next up …. We are up the remote Kalash valleys …. More on that later

Chitral, 31 May 2022

Hanging out in Hunza

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.

Socotra Yemen part 2 – Hiking and Wadi swimming

Day 5 Hoq Cave, Arher beach  and Ras  Erissel

I was looking forward to today – a hike uphill to the very deep Hoq Cave.  Many of the tourists skip it in may due to the heat, and the guide book said it was about 2 hours to get there, but also that it was 3km and 350m of hiking to the cave entrance, so I was pretty confident we would get there in an hour or less.   We parked at a village and there were three women there in full black abbayas who were also planning to hike.   I kept a headscarf and skirt on for the first 100m and the stuffed them in my bag when out of sight of the ladies as It was ferociously hot.  I was in shorts and t-shirt and was soaking wet after 20 minutes.  But the views were absolutely stunning.  And there were lots of gorgeous bottle trees in flower as well as Stercula Africana.  Our local guide Abdullah bounded up the mountain, and we only stopped for a short break in the shade, and I made it to the top in 47 minutes with Steph a few minutes behind.   It was very hot.  The cave was enormous, with excellent stalagtites ad stalagmites, but the highlight for me was the walk up and down.  However the cave did provide a respite from the heat.   The three Yemeni ladies took a full two hours and change to get up the hill – but they must have been cooking in all the layers of clothing.  They had run out of water so we gave them some and a snack.    When we got back to the car, Ahmed had cooked us lovely fish, rice and potatoes, so we sat in the shade and fended off the goats while eating. 

Next stop was the Arher dunes which were phenomenal.  We stopped as a fresh water creek came through a crack in the dunes and flowed into the ocean.  It was Friday so the beach was ‘crowded’ (probably 50 people) with locals who had come for the night with all the camping gear.   The women didn’t seem to be swimming (and were in full niqabs), but the kids were loving it.   It was definitely the best beach swim of the trip.  

And finally we went to the end of the island to Ras Erissel – a spit of land that is wind blasted by the Indian Ocean to the south and the Arabian ocean to the north.    There were hundreds of dead puffer fish, which are lethal to your feet (even through sandals with their sharp spikes), they die as they like to swim close to the shore but the waves often crash them down on the sea shore.  It was hot and with fiery winds, so we retreated to the AC in the 4wd and meandered back to Hadibo taking photos of some shipwrecks on the way.   Dinner was at the local – chicken, beans, liver and bread, and we made sure the local kitten was well fed and watered (she was fiesty and hissed at the goat)

Day 6 – Killisan, Qaria and Dihamri

Billed as a tough hike, we headed for the best swimming pool on Socotra – in Wadi Killisan.  The trail head was 90 minutes from Hadibo, and while the guide book said it was c. 45 mins each way on a goat track to the pools from the start, it was about 20 mins each way on a well made (by kiwi standards) path, measuring 1.1km each way with 100m of descent/ascent.  There was another car at the trailhead, which was disappointing as meant we might have company, but we met the couple who belonged to the car climbing the trail – which meant we had the pools to ourselves.   Or we did until 5 adorable boys who had walked a couple of hours from a nearby village arrived and started practicing English on us.  The kids here are very low key, they don’t ask for money or anything, and they are happy (in most cases, as I always ask first) to have their photos taken.

We played around in the pools for an hour, swimming, and watching the boys somersault off the steep sides of the wadi.  The Steph and I walked up and down both sides of the wadi taking photos of the waterfalls and the rocks, before swimming again.     We headed up the path at 12.30 and Ahmed had prepared an excellent lunch for us.  The kids were about 20 minutes behind us and were delighted to be the beneficiaries of a lot of leftovers (they didn’t ask, we offered, but they hadn’t bought any food with them, and Ahmed always cooks a lot). 

I had already had a perfect day, but we headed to Dihamri to see the nature reserve.  Sadly there was a lot of rubbish, and it was baking hot, so we passed on snorkelling.   We then headed to Qaria village to take photos of the lagoon and meet some local kids.    

Day 7 Homhil and Hadibo 

It was another baking hot morning and I had an early breakfast and sat in the AC’d reception piggy backing on the managers phones wifi to read the Sunday papers.   Ahmed and Ali arrived at 8 and we did our tour of the local market to buy lunch ingredients.    It is hilarious as Ahmed just drives around shouting out the window what he wants and people bring it – Yemen has drive through/ drive by shopping. 

We headed east and stopped at Ali’s village in Qaria for tea.  I went to the womens room with his mum, wife and two sisters in law and all the kids – about 6 at the beginning and probably 14 by the time I left, as they had all heard about the farangi in the house.  My Arabic is woeful, but we had a lovely chat about Socotra and Ali the guide.  They asked via hand signals why I didn’t have kids and I thought they were asking in hand signals if I wasn’t sleeping with my husband enough ( hand signals in English definitely have different meanings), but it turns out they were asking if I had a husband.   They were impressed when Ali arrived and told them I had a job, and one of his sister in laws remarked that she would love to go to work and have her own money.   They have no electricity, no internet, not much in the way of education, no way of changing their circumstances, but they were wonderfully hospitable, though I did get told I was being haram for not covering my mouth with my scarf when Ali came in the room (only eyes should be showing).  While in town I dress appropriately (head scarf, long pants, long sleeved baggy long shirt), Ali has seen me in a swimsuit, so I wasn’t worried about him seeing my face.  

Next stop we bumped up the homhil plateau.   The 4wd needed all the juice so we had to turn the AC off.  The plateau has all the delights of Socotra – red rock, dragon blood trees, bottle trees and lots of frankincense.   Our local guide Saha (11) took us down the dry river to the infinity pool – a natural rock formation which creates a swimming pool with a view down 700m to the sea.  Unfortunately it was a bit dry, but still enough water for a quick dip.   We then ‘relaxed’ in the shade while the locals cooked our lunch.