Halfway up the Hindu Kush, a journey to Northern Pakistan

Oasis Operations director Mark, recently travelled where few others have...Northern Pakistan:

“Oktoberfest, Munich 2014 – We’d talked about it for nearly 8 years and never really had the time, and we were both very aware that from a safety point of view, it probably wasn’t the place to go at the moment……or was it all just media hype? After several large Bavarian beers, a plan was loosely made and it was left to chance if we’d both keep our word and make it happen.

Islamabad July 2015 – Dressed in a Shalwar Chemise, the local Pakistani clothes, and both sporting copious amounts of facial hair, my friend and I jumped in to a 1970’s ex-military jeep and headed north. Due to the potential instability of the area and the delicate cultures we were to visit, we’d decided to do a tour of sorts. Local knowledge really cannot be beaten, and our driver and guide proved invaluable in all manner of things, from what areas we could sensibly reach, to what to say and how to behave in the company of each ethnic area. It is to be remembered that not only were we in an area of potential terrorism, but more dangerous in many ways were landslides, floods and the very real issue of a road traffic accident. These are all good reasons to invest your money in people that know the area and dangers, and that have up to the minute information and vehicles to cope with the terrain.

Gilgit was our first major stop – it’s a hustling city in the heart of the far north, and is kind of the travellers’ hub to all other areas – well it would be if there were any other travellers! Our guide Ehsan, who lives in town, announced that we were his 2nd and 3rd western guests this year! It became very apparent the more we travelled, that since 9/11 and the demise of tourism in the area, local people are really struggling to survive.

We were told that tourism stopped like ‘turning off a light switch’ in 2001 and it hasn’t returned. Pakistani’s do venture north on holiday, but it seems that locals much prefer ‘foreigners’ due to their friendliness and appreciation of their country, and from our experience, certainly not for their potentially larger wallets! Once there, Pakistan was a very cheap country to travel, with excellent food, friendly people, and actually very little to spend money on! If wild party nights are your thing, then this is not the place for you!

Venturing north on the Karakorum Highway (KKH) we travelled to Karimabad, where 2 Tibetan style forts, from almost 900 years ago, sit atop high rocky outcrops, surveying the valley down below. Landslides are a real hazard in the area and can quickly change travel plans, so our itinerary was fairly fluid and anyone travelling this area should take this as part of the adventure. As an example, 5 years ago a slide on a biblical scale blocked the road south of Passu, flooded several villages and created Lake Attabad. Entrepeneurs in the area quickly had wooden boats transported up from Karachi, adapted them with planks to transport vehicles, and started a ferry service on the 45 minute journey over the lake! So this was to be our ride too – I have to say my heart was in my mouth as Matu inched the Jeep on to the planks, and came to rest with a rock behind each wheel, across the boat with both front and rear axles stuck out over the water! Our initial plan was to travel the entire KKH to Kashgar in China, but both visa and weather issues were to make life difficult. With hindsight our time was well spent in Pakistan itself and it gave us more time to appreciate its people and landscapes. 

We did eventually make it up the Khunjerab Pass to the Chinese border at 4700mtrs, on the one day it opened, and just before the river completely took out the road again! Like I said, it’s all part of the Pakistan experience! On reflection, cycling down from this height to a little under 3000mtrs on a local bike with a wobbly wheel and traditional ‘non disc’ brakes, was a bad idea. Think hairpin bends, oncoming Chinese trucks driven at full throttle, rocks the size of small bungalows sat on blind corners, and you have an idea of the next 45 minutes of our lives! Apart from freefalling down the Karakorum range on a bike, one of the greatest memories I will take away with me was our trek to Rakaposhi base camp. It was quite a slog carrying our gear the 1400mtrs in elevation from Minapin to 3800mtrs in an afternoon, but once there, I really cannot think I have ever sat in a more impressive landscape. Our guide Ali, who said he was ‘the best’, proved his worth on our 2nd day, as he took us across several kilometres of glaciers, winding his way around crevasses and over melt-water channels that were spilling down from the 7000mtr peaks of Diran and Rakaposhi, and all without any climbing gear or crampons! As with all great adventures, our time in Pakistan had to come to an end, but I certainly only have amazing memories. Of course we cannot forget that terrible things have happened in this, and other, parts of the world, but unfortunately in my opinion they have been dramatised in the media, mainly due to one man being in the cross hairs of the USA.