The Karakoram Highway to Hunza & back    Thursday 16 – Tuesday 28 February 2012

After a few miscellaneous delays -as ever! - we finally left Islamabad on Thursday 16 February.  First stop was Abbottabad, a 19th century British established army town, which catapulted to international fame when Osama Bin Laden was (allegedly?) shot dead there last year.

 

We have to say it really does seem unbelievable that he was really here for all that time -it's a real army town and the area where the compound stands (stood ...since we were there it's been razed) is slap bang in the middle of various army buildings.

 

 We drove in past St Luke's church &  pulled in for a quick look. As old as the town it's an attractive stone church -all very British. Coming out again we were just starting to wonder where we should park that night when Ali drove past and sorted us out. Ali and family live in Islamabad but also own a house and boutique hotel in Abbottabad, and this is where we went back to, to meet Ali's mum and share a delicious home cooked pizza for lunch.  They very kindly treated us to a night  at their beautiful hotel even though it was still officially shut for the tourist season..so we moved in for a night of luxury and unlimited hot water!  We needed it ..though at 1220 meres it's not really that high here, it certainly felt colder than Islamabad especially at night. Have a look at their website for a great place to stay in Abbottabad www.lavistapk.net

 

That night we headed out for fish for dinner, guided by Ali's local knowledge. Fish -from local rivers -is a specialty here and we'd already seen it getting the tandoori treatment around town - but we'd never have got to appreciate the real McCoy like this without Ali's help.

 

The restaurant was just a little wooden shack on the side of the road, it certainly won no prizes for style (and it was FREEZING!) but the huge crowds showed that the food was likely to be good and it was. First off you had to go in the back room and choose your fish, then it was cleaned de-scaled and chopped up expertly by the guy with the worst job in the place -his hands must have been freezing! Once done "your" filleted fish joined a queue to be dipped in chilies and other spices then into the deep fryer.

 

 At the same time the man with perhaps the best job sat over the warm oven and churned out hot naans. Absolutely delicious ..best fish I've tasted..thanks for that Ali - no one spoke any English ..we'd never have found this place without you.

Next morning we had a great breakfast (thanks again to Ali's mum) admired  the great view from the balcony, and looked at  pictures from Ali's past road trips, picking his brain as to the road to come  before heading off. Our car had been  in safe hands (paws) that night as  Ali's little white dog was on patrol. This meant we were marooned in our room until he was tied up..he might look cute but he was a bit intolerant of strangers and had a history of biting Ali's friends so we gave him a wide berth! Thanks so much guys for a great stay.

 

Heading on we passed scores of orange stalls, and even a few strawberry sellers.. reflecting the cooler temperatures I guess. On Ali's advice we'd decided to aim for the town of Besham for that night..as the road after that point can apparently be a bit ropey (a few robberies have taken place) so we didn't want to travel into this area after darkness.

 

The road climbed up growing more scenic as it went. Fairly early on we hit a traffic jam  ..but we just stopped to ave tea at a conveniently placed little  store. Everyone was very friendly and interested in us and our car ..especially our old fashioned horn ..always gets a lot of attention that!

 

Apparently we found out the tail back was because of a protest about the current power cuts/load shedding. I've not got around to mentioning it  but power outages are a daily part of life in most of Pakistan ..you get a schedule which is generally adhered to (i.e.) in Lahore power was always off from 8pm to 10pm amongst other times) and you just work around it. The problem is bad at this time of year as the snows have not yet melted to drive the hydro power plants. There's a need for both more to be built, and the existing power to be more fairly shared around, and understandably the frustration with all this sometimes builds up to result in demonstrations. It all passed by without any trouble thankfully and we were soon on the move again.

 

 

On a similar note diesel here is way more expensive than in India at 103.5 PKR it's just over a $1 Aus. per litre, compared with around 80 cents in India. Makes a difference on these long journeys. Diesel is actually more than petrol here, a reversal of the norm… we can't wait for Iran -it's around 5 cents a litre there….oh joy!

 

After climbing up through pine trees we reached the flat bowl of the Chattar Plain and then climbed on up  hills and across rivers, it was  all very scenic. The cable cars here which cross to the villages on the other side of the river must have saved a lot of time and made life easier but I wasn't keen on the idea especially when they were laden down with people and goods, some of them looked really rickety.

 

Maintaining the KKH is an ongoing task and Pakistan is very much helped in this by neighbouring China who provide a lot of expertise in the form of trained personnel. We passed road gangs everywhere and saw their sparse  little camp sites ..not an easy life out here in this cold. Stones with tributes to these workers the  FWO (Frontier Works Organization) dot the KKH.

 

 

Next we entered the desolate Indus Kohistan gorge. The IK cuts through a very inhospitable barren area of the KKH with some parts of the gorge so deep the people never see the sun. The winding KKH is surrounded on high on all sides by  stark high crumbling rock walls ..with barely any greenery. A pretty tough existence out here, and a reputation for lawlessness, perhaps the reason why there is quite a heavy police presence.

 

We crossed the river at Thakot using a smart looking Chinese built bridge and headed on to arrive at Besham just after dark..not bad going considering we'd left Abbottabad so late! As I said far more police check posts out here ..we had to do one each side of the bridge filling out realms of paperwork on each occasion..groan!

 

We'd targeted the PTDC at Besham as a good camp spot and that was just short of town, though we had to go through another  pretty strict police check point on the road down to the hotel for some reason.

 

As well as seeing all our documents they actually looked in the back of the car which doesn't often happen.. they're more security conscious out here. There was a huge earthquake here in October 2005 and much of the PTDC was destroyed and has since been rebuilt. Thankfully (as it was very dark by now and would have been a nightmare to drive on) the manager made us very welcome and we set up camp in the very large car park area, before having a typical chicken curry type dinner. Getting very chilly out here of a night by now and we're very grateful to have our hot water bottles!

 

As we settled down for the night the wind got up and absolutely howled around us…and we thought we heard an avalanche of some sort. At the time we were a bit freaked as to how much worse the weather would get, but we later found out this area in particular is renowned for strong winds and it's generally better each side of it.

 

Whilst I'm sure it wasn't what he intended Ali had scared me a bit talking of the security issues on this next stage of the road, renowned for banditry, so we were quite pleased when just on at  the little town of Pattan, we were given the first (but by no means last) police escort of our trip. We had about 3 on from this section, until we were told we were ok to go it alone.

 

 

 This section of the KKH apparently cost more lives per km than any other, which we could well imagine. The conditions were incredibly stark the KKH being just a strip chiseled out of the rock face. There were huge piles of logs everywhere which apparently are from way higher up and are sold on the highway.

 

 

All along the road we passed men women and children collecting fire wood...the temperatures are going down even more...you'd want a warm fire of a night!

 

 

The next stop was Chilas a bit of a bleak town ..but then to be fair anywhere would feel a bit grim as it was getting dark in single digit temperatures. We tried to find the Government Rest House as they're usually a good bet for camping ..but our LP map was a bit confusing and we couldn't find it. Next try was the Shangri-La, one of a wannabe upmarket chain  and they eventually said we could camp but tried to charge us 500 PKR ..so it was 3rd time lucky we camped at the next door Panorama Hotel. We're starting to get into the heart of trekking country here ( in warmer climes!) and we saw all the stickers from the various adventure companies.

 

We also saw our first Ibex -a local form of mountain goat ..a somewhat motley looking one stuffed in the Panorama's reception! Actually whilst we were to see many stuffed or drawn examples we never did see a live one …maybe as they're all stuffed in hotels! The other popular ornament you see is a curly horned sheep called the Marco Polo Sheep ..named after the great explorer though we never saw a live one of those either- maybe they've all hibernated!

 

After the usual dinner (chicken curry & naan- again)   we had a good night ..it's getting ever colder here..definitely time to wrap up warmly we're wearing as many clothes in bed as out of it!

 

 

 

 

 As we left we went via the nearby petroglyphs which are ancient stone carvings ..effectively graffiti from the early users of the KKH. In order to get to the carvings there was a suspension bridge.

 

 

 We were assured that it would be fine for us to drive over so I got off letting Andrew drive down to get the "driving over the bridge " picture….when he got there he saw that there were a few planks missing in the middle ..so instead we got an "about to drive on the bridge" picture, before reversing back and walking  over the bridge!   

 

 

 We soon picked up a young guide who took us around all the best sites. The pictures were amazingly fresh considering they dated from 1,000 AD, carved by early travellers on the grueling KKH trek they mainly depicted the local animals (Ipex again) and Buddhist symbols as well as one great picture of what is apparently a Chinese warrior.

 

 

So on we drove, past more stunning if stark scenery. Passing Tato Pani (same as in Nepal meaning hot water) was interesting ..especially as it's now way too chilly for a car shower..the heat exchanger cannot rise against the freezing temperatures and we've not had a shower since leaving Islamabad.

 

Andrew had a go to fit up our shower but it didn't really work..too hot and anyway we'd be in the way of the constant heavy traffic.  Shame they don't have a bath house set up here like the one in Nepal …bliss!

 

Driving on we hit the road up to Fairy Meadow which looks to be incredibly scenic but it's  too chilly to do it now. There's nowhere up there open this season and we didn't want to be stuck up there as darkness fell.

 

 Further on we hit another traffic  jam (due to road works -there was a concrete pour going on) as we passed through the village of Talechi.

 

 

This village has some particularly amazing views over the many peaks in this area, including Nanga Parbat (NB) one of the world's highest mountains. NB  is known as "killer mountain" as so many people have fallen to their deaths attempting to climb it.

 

We didn't really catch a good view of it on camera, we got glimpses but they covered over and vanished in an instant. Ferocious looking mountain ..you'd have to be crazy to want to climb it!

 

Before reaching our next destination, Gilgit  we passed a monument at Jaglot, which marks the spot where 2 rivers (the Indus and Hunza) and 3 mountain ranges (Karakran, Hindukush & Himalayan) meet up. Incredible views.

So finally we arrived in Gilgit the main town in this region, hemmed in by mountains. The first thing that really hit us was the overwhelming police and army presence in the town.

 

For the couple of days we were there there was a police ute with a flak jacketed guy on a mounted machine gun in the back flanked by armed guards driving around the town in a constant lap. The town is a mixture of the 3 Islamic groups Sunni, Shiite and Ismaili, and tension leading to violence between the Sunni & Shiites is ongoing, though we saw no trouble when we were there. A bit confronting at first, but like the locals you quickly get used to it!

 

We'd met a couple of overlanders from Austria when crossing from Nepal back into India one time, and they'd told us that the posh Gilgit Serena Hotel was a great place to park. I had my doubts as we drew up ..it was VERY posh..and yes the manager very politely told us that they didn't offer a camping service…and offered us a special rate for a room which was more than 500% of the highest rate  we've ever paid before! I guess someone with overlander sympathies on the staff has moved on ..that's the usual story. Still..they were very nice about it and gave us a very good tip when they pointed us in the direction of the Madina Hotel and Guest House in the centre of Gilgit which was where we headed next.

UPDATE March 2012: We found the misplaced brochure the guys we met in Nepal had given us and the mystery was solved. The hotel they camped at was the Serene Guest House near the theSerena Hotel ...not sure if it's still there even but as I say ...puzzle solved! 

 

The Madina is an excellent budget guest house which also runs a trekking operation Madina Guides. The rooms were all spotlessly clean and they kindly let us park in their courtyard and have a hot shower for a small fee. There was a wood fuelled water heater which quickly came up with the goods giving us our first hot shower for days……fantastic!!!

 

Mr. Yaqoob who runs the Madina was a really nice guy, who obviously puts his heart and soul into ensuring his guests have a great time. Sadly the decline in tourism in this region post September 11 2001 has really affected business, as it has for so many in this beautiful region. He was on the point of shutting down, when his rent was put up..but thanks to donations from a delegation of faithful past visitors who wanted him to survive  he was kept afloat, though he has had to plan a move to different premises.

 

Gilgit was a pleasant enough little mountain locked town..very friendly, as ever it was hard to make much progress due to the constant offers of tea, or a local variation chicken soup ..good stuff in this weather! Lovely friendly people.

 

We had a wander round trying to find an ATM..but we could only use our visa as opposed to our maestro card, a real last ditch option for cash withdrawal due to the huge charges..ouch! There was another Ibex statue in the town Centre .they get everywhere!

 

Due to the security situation we were encouraged not to travel far at night so we ended up eating at the local kebab joint every night. Despite flouting every hygiene regulation going (had there been any!) we enjoyed several tasty meals there without any dire after effects ..which was a relief!

 

The "sport of kings" is big in this whole area, and Gilgit has a polo ground..sandwiched between the town's 2 main mosques, though we were early for the season (October is when it's really happening) we had a look at the ground which was being used by the local kids for cricket /soccer games.

Just nearby was the British Cemetery, which the gloomy looking (goes with the job I guess!) caretaker showed us a round. A few recent mountaineers, alongside the explorers of old ..many of whom were murdered ..showing that it's always  been  a tricky area to travel in.

 

The bumpy roads up here had taken their toll on the poor long suffering car and we had a couple of broken  axel studs, so we went looking for a mechanic. Mr. Nisar not only helped us out whilst refusing payment "you are our guest" he also  insisted we go to his home that night  for dinner.

 

We had a great  evening with him his wife and 3 lovely children. True NW hospitality they served us a delicious meal and made us lovely gifts a local hat for Andrew, a woven shawl for me..thanks guys we really enjoyed it.  

 

Finally before leaving Gilgit we took a drive out to the Kargah Buddha an ancient (5th 6th or 7th century according to various sources..take your pick!) Buddha statue dating from when this whole area was Buddhist.

 

 

Next morning we drove on towards the Hunza Valley -one of the most scenic areas on the KKH. There is an abundance of fruit up here- mulberries, cherries, apricots apples ..and allegedly in the Spring the whole area is a sea of pink and white blossom. We had to imagine this from the odd early starter that  we spotted!

 

We hadn't gone far when we ran into some extreme weather conditions. We had just gone through a police checkpoint when we pulled over as we saw a glacier or the tail end of one.

 

When we left the car the wind was blowing so hard I nearly fell over and we could hardly stand upright. It was a real struggle to get back in the car and it took 2 of us to  pull the door shut. Andrew went to help the policemen who was really struggling to hang onto his tent. I was scared in the car as the wind (in excess of 150km an hour ..strong enough we later found to sandblast both of our mirrors) was battering it so hard I was really thought we were in danger of  being blown over. Then we saw why everyone was parked there the next section of road was rocky and stones the size of footballs were bouncing down all around. We waited it out and got moving again but it was pretty hairy ..some of the most extreme weather we've been through this trip, and I was terrified that we'd go sailing over the cliff.

 

 

The KKH in general is always at threat from landslides and keeping the roads clear is an ongoing task. Many times we saw damage caused by flooding and rock falling and land slippage..tough conditions out here.

 

Anyway we survived to travel on through a scenic route becoming increasing cold and snowy. Once we hit the Hunza Valley we stopped at a little town, Nasirabad and filled up our water tank..with delicious spring water ..piped down from high in the mountains in a German aided project.

 

There were quite a few projects supported by foreign countries  ..US Aid dominated - to help this area which was good to see, as in this region earthquakes and landslides combine to make a tough life even tougher. The Hunza people are very charming, again numerous offers of tea! They are largely Ismaili, a branch of Islam which was formed by an 8th century breakaway   from the Shiite faith. Their spiritual head Prince Karin Aga Khan a direct descendant of their original Imam (number 49 in line) is alive and lives in Paris. He is extremely progressive, funding a lot of educational agricultural and medical charities. In the Ismaili version of the Islamic faith meeting halls or jamaat khana replace mosques, prayer is seen as more a personal than group activity and women seem to be  more emancipated. Really nice people.

 

 Anyway we drove on having a pit stop for tea in Aliabad on the KKH before climbing to the capital town in this area Karimabad. This area is the real centre of tourism ..in season! When we got there it was virtually deserted ..all the coffee shops were shut as were most of the hotels. Most of the cheaper hotels many of which  allow camping in season couldn't accommodate us as they didn't have  a working loo as all the pipes were frozen!

 

We ended up at the upmarket Hotel Hunza Embassy. Whilst we didn't want to splash out on the 1,000 PKR they wanted for a shower ( there was no one else there so they'd have had to heat the water just for us hence the high charge) they kindly let us camp for nothing. We were keen to try the Hunza cuisine (apricot soup is a popular delicacy) but again ..off season so the menu was just…..chicken curry! We did try  some Hunza noodle soup -good for the cold.

 

 

This was car camping at its most extreme -one night we were there the mercury plunged to minus 20 ..brrrrrrr!!!! Thanks to the Hunza Embassy for making us so welcome, please follow the link on their site for details of the hotel www.hunzabusinesses.com

Hunza was a lovely little town - will definitely come back in the summer . Spring (apple blossom) and autumn (golden leaves) are allegedly equally beautiful..as is winter it's just too cold!

 

 

 Most of the tourist shops selling carpets, shawls etc. were shut though we did find one wood carver selling a selection of wooden objects, spoons and some gorgeously hand carved musical instruments made out of local woods mainly apricot and mulberry, as well as a healthier looking Ibex!  We also managed to track down the last jar of local honey in Hunza ..the bees must be frozen out.

 

 

Just a couple of hours drive away is  the   border town (with China) of Sost.  Once you could drive all the way there but since a massive landslide in January 2010 there is a dam-created 26km lake to be crossed on the way. The border is actually shut until May due to the weather but boats are crossing as I write ..though we have heard some concerns re: their safety.

 

Anyway we drove as far as we could to the new lake, stopping on the way to see some  more "rock art" on the KKH just out of town. The lake is named Attabad after the village of that name which slid down in the landslide  killing 20 plus people. Two more villages were submerged in the water and altogether thousands of people displaced in the disaster.

 

The army were there hard at work in very dangerous conditions.  They planned to drop the water level of the lake by opening the spillway in a few days  and reclaim the 2   destroyed villages now underwater. This is very dangerous work as it could go wrong if the whole lake escapes ..it's 150 metres at the deepest part. Scary!

 

 

The officer who showed us around told us that one of his men had been hurt by a falling rock the day before, and certainly we were told not to linger under many areas which were liable to slide at any time! The army unit was working 12 hour days in really tough dangerous conditions, we didn't envy them at all ..especially when we heard the temperatures plummet to minus 30 out here at night.

 

Returning to Karimabad we next  went and had a look at the 2 local forts ..first Baltit which was up a steep but attractive stone paved walkway.  Dating from the 13th century this was beautifully restored, an effort which won numerous awards.

 

 

 

Descendants of The Royal family lived here until 1945, and their pictures still adorn the walls. They have now shifted to  a nice looking pad in Karimabad -no doubt more comfortable.  

The fort restoration was  really well done with interesting displays, though as a builder Andrew was concerned about its long term future as it was built on an old glacier..not a great base! Hope it lasts into the next century. The guy in our picture was the senior carpenter who helped make it all happen. There were various restored artifacts on display from old cannons, to clothes and some ancient looking polo sticks -it's definitely worth a look.

 

 As part of your ticket price (400 PKR about $4 Aus.) you got a local  guide and he gave us lots of information. As mentioned tourism here has really felt the pinch post Sept 11, demonstrated by the fact that there were over 17,000 visitors to the fort in the year before, and just 400 in the year after. Really sad for these people trying to make a living out of tourism. Have a look at the following  site for more information about the fort.  www.baltitfort.org

 

Balit fort has a view of neighbouring Altit Fort and we headed there next. The village around the fort, also Altit is over 1,000 years old and it was completely renovated with the help of the aforementioned Prince Karin Aga Khan. This initiative stopped people building on the nearby centuries old terraces by making the old town habitable with the introduction of a water and sewerage system (Japanese funded) so all homes have drinking water and toilets.

 

 The Prince also introduced  some educational initiatives providing local ladies with training in  word processing, weaving & woodwork. Altit won  the Unesco 2011 Asia Pacific Award for Cultural Heritage Conservation. The fort which is over 900 years old was pretty imposing set dramatically on a craggy rock face. Again we had a good guide who took us for a tour, which was interesting, though the subzero temperatures were a bit distracting!

 

We took a drive along the river and up to the nearby village of Nagyr, which due to its positioning was far snowier than Karimabad. Everyone was very friendly, don't think they see many vehicles like ours up here (no surprise there!) and we got mobbed by the local kids.

 

 

 

Finally back down in the valley we took a look at the village of Ganish, whose inhabitants were once great foes of Nagyr with a history of raids between the two.  Again the village was a recipient of a Unesco award due to the amazing restoration job. The old village included a watch tower and 4 ancient wooden mosques, and as it was still a working village felt like a living museum. As ever we were shown around by a mob of kids!

We left Hunza after 3 days (driven down by the cold!) and relished a hot shower back in Gilgit. On the way back down the KKH we didn't stop in Chilas but fell short of getting back to Besham so we stopped at a very lonely PTDC in Barsin, with a bit of a cold welcome sign!

 

 We thought the place was shut but thankfully the locals came to our aid.  This area is apparently not that safe hence the presence of this hotel to service marooned travelers.

 

 

 

 We were bombarded by local kids "aunty give me pen …school pen aunty.." We used to have loads of pens but stopped giving them out after reading that this encouraged begging ..as it had here..but we found one old box from those days and divvied them out just as we left. These kids don't have a lot of treats and they were thrilled..quite humbling.

 

 

Next day was Sunday and as we set off all was normal until we hit Besham where the streets were deserted and armed police wearing flak jackets were everywhere. Shortly after this point we were given an armed escort ..who stuck with us all the way back to Abbottabad ..though we kept saying that there was no need. There were armed police stationed all the way along the KKH too.

 

 Once we hit Abbottabad we stopped for a meal and thought we'd be "released from custody" but to our surprise  they insisted on remaining outside whilst we ate. Ali wasn't there but he'd kindly said that we could stay again and his mum made us very welcome when we checked in for a night of luxury back at La Vista.

 

 

Next morning we were just finishing breakfast (thanks again to Ali's mum!) when Ali's little white guard dog started barking and we saw that our police guide had arrived!

 

 

We were surprised to see them back again but they stuck with us ..again in convoy one car pulling in and another taking over at each check post  all the way to the freeway back to Islamabad when we were on our own again.  We were really puzzled as to quite why we needed this  VIP treatment, and could only think that it related to Osama Bin Laden's compound being destroyed which had happened that day. We managed to avoid a few toll fees as we sailed through with our siren flashing escorts….that's the way to travel!

 

So on Monday 27th February we arrived back in  Islamabad and headed to Toyota to get some of the ever needed maintenance on the car done (problems with the fuel consumption…new injectors??)  and to  check our email.

 

On the way we made a stop at Rawalpindi to pick up our new truck art, which was very good, we  just have to fit it now. Tomorrow we plan to travel to Murree the "Queen of Hills" -they're all called that! - a hill station 50 odd Km to the north to see some more snow.

 

After this it's back to Islamabad and then back to Lahore on our way south, where we're really looking forward to seeing Sajjad and all at Lahore Backpackers again.

 

Update: Wednesday 29 February 2012:

Had a bit of shocking news yesterday from which we're still reeling. When we stayed  in Lahore Backpackers we mentioned I  think that all the travellers we met seemed to be either Aussies or Chinese. One of the Chinese was a very lovely kind intelligent lady Katherine. We had quite a few chats with her, and Suliman her Pakistani partner, who was studying at Lahore University. An accomplished sportsman he hoped to represent his country one day in athletics. Yesterday picking up the paper we read that both of them had been shot dead by a gunman whilst strolling in Peshwar's old city.

We also heard that the day after we travelled this way 16 Shiite Muslims had been pulled off buses between Islamabad and Gilgit in the deserted Kohistan valley mentioned above, and shot dead as a revenge attack by a banned Sunni group following the death of 2 Sunnis in Gilgit.  This would explain the OTT police presence on the KKH when we passed through and our omnipresent police guide. Gilgit is now in shut down mode with more retaliatory violence thought to be likely.

This news has really upset us both ..nothing to  add really just prayers and condolences to the families of Katherine & Suliman and all the other victims. What a senseless waste.

 Update Friday 2 March 2012:

A section of the Taliban have claimed responsibility for Katherine's death ..saying it was in retaliation for the treatment of a section of Chinese Muslims by the Chinese Government. So they kill 2 innocent people. Bloody idiots!!!