Linking Pakistan and China through the Hindukush, Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, the Karakoram Highway is one of the most alpine, remote, and beautiful roads in the world. This is what life is like along its mountain passes.
Karakoram Highway is one of the highest paved roads in the world. I am sure there's no need to further elaborate on the facts and figures of the KKH because what makes a road good and worth to visit is the people and nature who live and strive to be more beautiful on either sides of a road. So if you're looking to read about the quality of the road, just look at the pictures I recommend, because I will write about the nature, its brutality and beauty; and the people, that strive to be better and as much welcoming as possible so that the roads become a pleasure to drive on.
(Warning: Long post)
The environment is very dry and the water network is simply: You put a pipe in the streaming glacial water or the natural pure water springs running nearby and drink, swim and shower in it, but the town of Hunza, home to KKH has a different type of water known as 'Hunza Water'.
There are two types of Hunza Water so be wary in case you're there. One is an alcohol drink made in Gilgit-Baltistan and the other is water of Hunza. The water in Hunza is of dirty brown color and at first, you'll be afraid of it sighting obvious health concerns but the entire population drinks and showers in it for far generations gone. The dirty brown color of the water, according to the people is due to the minerals present in it. You can though buy bottled water but what's the point of living a life without the basics of the people KKH. So we tried it, and it was good. We tried both of Hunza Water and water of Hunza....the former quite sucked for me but for the regular drinkers, they brought a lot of it back.
Hunza however, was our last stop, as our initial plan in the North was to go to the Sust Border of China and Pakistan on the KKH via Hunza-Atabad (the lake, whose pictures of trucks and SUVs on wooden boats you see)-Passu Lake-Sust. But when we reached Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit-Baltistan, the people who are more friendly and welcoming than you can ever imagine suggested us go forget Hunza and KKH and go to Nartal, Phandur and Rama Lake.
Confused on what to do as every local we came by said that Hunnza and KKH is over rated, the real and under-rated beauty lies in the places they told us. These places are still have relatively lower level of access to them. (Despite the Chinese working to make roads and hydro-electric projects).
So the other day, we woke up a bit late and went to the bus stop where we boarded a Jeep in which we were stuffed in like goats and cattle on a flat-bed. To make it financially viable, the drivers have to load with as much as they can in-order to make some money of the trips. Majority of the people in these areas are poor. You'll know how poor in the later part of this report.
But they don't complain. Their only complaint is not the cold or poverty, rather education. They fear for the lack of education of their children. KKH and surrounding roads in the locality for us are amusement and driving roads, but when you'll be there, you'll spot girls, boys and everyone going miles up and down the treacherous terrain, just to get education. An inspiring sight. So if, and whenever you go, do take some books and stationery along to distribute among the children. They are a prideful bunch but they'll accept education. Even the teenage boys and girls who run daily chores in hotels and drive taxis do it so they can finance their education.
Even this guy, who shared the street with this dog was writing, and seemed as though was trying to teach or merely show the dog what he had written, who wiggled his tail as he stared at the paper.
This dude though, we took his picture because his attire and style was quite awesome.
This though, was the main park of Gilgit City, where almost every sport was being played except skating. The skating area had kids playing tires and stick.
Some buddhists came and carved this Budha in a mountain wall in the Gilgit City. Buddhist still frequent this site. It looks quite a small mountain but it was big, and the Buddha was carved some hundreds of years ago in the middle of it.
I forgot my camera's battery when we went out to tour about the main Gilgit city, what even more sucked was that, that day, the communities of Gilgit had illuminated the entire city in Tron style fashion.
Back to the ride to Nartal Valley, we travel in local transport amongst locals to experience what little life be like if we lived there. Most of the men and women of Gilgit-Baltistan were either in the army or retired from it or died serving it. Some call it Shuhada Valley (Martyr's Valley) because of the sacrifices NLI has given. Gilgit is home to the tough NLI (Northern Light Infantry) of Pak Army, a regiment to have achieved two Nishan-e-Haider (Pak equivalent to Medal of Honor). How tough the training of NLI is you imagine? A lot. It is a mountain regiment tasked to defend the northern mountains, and they are known to be the bloodiest in the world (K-2 and Nanga Parbat). A former Pak military brigadier was quoted as saying after the Siachen Glacier Disaster, " [T]he fact of matter is that 70 per cent of the people have died because of natural causes, and I think this is the time we ended this damn conflict, which has absolutely no explanation."
This was our ride, the maroon Land Cruiser:
And this is to show how we were given 'seats' just because we were their guests (Don't doubt their sincerity though, simple people living in poverty and yet, they will invite guests to join them in dinner, whatever little they are having, as they did to us but thankfully declined as we knew and understood their hardships):
One of them, a retired Military soldier said as we took the picture (Not pictured as he as standing on the tail-gate), 'Tum sheher jakay dekhaogay to log hamay taliban samjheingay behn***d, drone matt bhijwa dena." (When you'll show our picture after going back to the city, people will mistake us for taliban !@#$%, don't fucking send the drone). Jolly bunch these guys, worry for their children's education.
Here, we stop because of road works.
We had high expectations after what we were told about the beauty and once we were there, our expectations were surpassed and though we went further into the valley, yet, it required atleast a full week stay in Nartal to fully enjoy the beauty.
Nartal is just a two hours drive up from Gilgit. It is a ski-town. Girls and boys, everyone skis there and Pakistan Air Force is building up a ski-resort in the valley which will bring much needed jobs and education opportunities for the young and the children.
Ski-resort or hotel of PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corp.)
The best time to visit Nartal is between now (April) and up til October because the day is warm (we were sweating) and the night is damn cold to which we were exposed to after just ariving, as left late in the day and arrived at dusk (thus, the night long-exposure pics). But come winter season, this becomes a ski-resort so you can imagine how cold.
My friends didn't even pack their jackets in their day-bags which we brought here as we didn't suspect such high cold during the night and had to buy used jackets ('Lunda', local word) from a shop in the village. Didn't even bring my tripod along and had to find level spots here and there for long exposure.
Entering side of the village and Nartal valley above.
The other side of the village. Where ever you look, there's a mountain beyond it and beyond it and beyond. Sometimes while taking photos, the frames became monotonous but every sight was different. Of all the time taking photos, our only complaint was that I wasn't able to capture the beauty which we could see with our naked eye. It was impossible.
Sun-light began to unravel the beauty hidden in the dark of the night.
We settled down for breakfast in early morning, embracing the shivering cold.
We hired a Jeep for a tour of the Nartal Valley and back to Gilgit, for 5000 Rupees or (about 50 dollars) which was cheap enough as the real beauty lied ahead.
The village where we stayed during the day:
Lake, drinkable and tasty water.
That's the dead water lake. Was unbelievably transparent.
We move out of Nartal Valley and back to Gilgit to pack up once again and head back out to see the Phandur Valley. Again, the valley is home to many soldiers (serving and retired) in the military.
Phandur and both Nartal Valleys are like a fairy tale dream come true. You can't lie or over state about their beauty. But like a dream of a beautiful place, you can't capture the true beauty seen through naked eye in your lens.
The road leading to Phandur Valley is not the KKH but has been built the same way. It is a very pleasurable road and we were ranting at the driver of the Hiace for having all the fun and not sharing it. He was young and so well trained, that often on bends, he pushed the tail out on his diesel Hiace to show-off in-front of his friends in the night just after we crossed a stream of glacial water dripping downwards.
The Hiace is the local transport between Phandur (and all such remote valleys) and the main city of Gilgit. The fares are set by the government and they leave the Gilgit beginning from 12 in the afternoon til dusk (the last car) and leave from remote valleys like Phandur very early in the morning.
We came by these kids playing cricket on the Hiace's stop for lunch.
We reached Phandur quite late at night and after reaching, hungry and tired we decided to hit the bed as the moon was up and there were no stars to be seen and we wanted to see as much as we could in the day. So we hit the bed and woke up to this view of Chashi Valley:
There was a match going on between the high-school of Phandur and Chashi on that day. We reached at the top of a mountain overlooking the stadium and sat down to see the sport. I went down to get some shots and the teams quickly gathered around us for a picture and then they invited us, along with the organizers as chief guests.
Once they invited us to be guests, and wanted their team's pictures taken, I lined both the teams up for a shot. (I didn't bring my tripod along here so couldn't get in the shot myself.)
The greens from Chashi Valley won after a good fight. It was 1:1 till 20 minutes of the total 25 minutes until the greens' star forward shot one in the nets after a sneaky pass from the mid-field. But there was drama though, like any other match there was fight as well when one goal was denied, and rightfully so.
The funny thing was, after we were back to the hotel in Gilgit, the hotel's owner who was a experienced old man asked as we settled down for coffee, how was the trip. We told him excitedly about how we were chief guests and what not to which he blurted, 'Did you announce prize money? of course you did.'. And now we understood what had happened but still, people were sincere and we announced the prize money quite later on in the match when it occurred that the biggest prizes were just 50 or 100 rupees. Not even close to a Dollar.
Regardless, this post is getting bigger and bigger so I'll try to quickly rap it up now. We left the match once it was over and after distributing the prizes towards Phandur Valley.
This is Phunder Valley from the road on the mountain leading to the valley.
Here, we walk towards the main bazaar.
Phander Valley itself was a fairy land. And like everyone else, you do not respect what you currently have, some people we met, hated the place despite its beauty but beauty wasn't easy. It demanded a rough and tough life from its inhabitants. Cold, dryness, lack of education, jobs, etc contributed to the problems.
We didn't move into the real beauty (The famous Shandur Polo Festival of Shandur, the route goes through Phander so you can imagine, and though we were in time for the Polo Festival at world's highest Polo Ground of Shandur, but the event had been cancelled or postponed since Gilgit's government didn't release finance for Gilgit's team so Chitral couldn't play on their own.) and instead just settled down in the main town as the locals came about (who were in the army) and we chatted til dusk. The following views were from the main (small) bazaar. Behind it was the river stream where Trout fish was in ample quantity but we couldn't find it as this wasn't its season, due the water being dirty.
That's Mazhar trying to fish, one of the locals, a footballer and a Naval candidate who welcomed us and made us feel at home.
That's it for Phunder as we just relaxed, drank tea and coffee and chatted with the locals about the place. It was too late to go to Phander's main beauty spots which were two hours into the valley from the Bazaar and we were short of time.
We now leave for Hunza after reaching Gilgit, through Karakoram Highway, which is one of the best roads you'll ever come across for driving but the excitement doesn't end there.
Whole of Gilgit's roads are being developed in a similar fashion, even higher as work towards Diamer Bhasha Dam comes close and a new path is being carved out in the mountains even higher as the Dam itself would be world's highest concrete dam. The current road includes curves, hairpins, bends, tight bends, long straights leading to all those different things but one miss shot and you'll end up in the freezing cold glacial water below.
A lot of KKH would be disturbed due to the Diamir Bhasha Dam, and 142 KMS of KKH is being carved and built on a higher altitude.
This is the Rakaposhi point on the Karakoram Highway, the first main tourist spot. And if you're there, do get those Cherries. They are the best in the world and cheap too as you'll see them growing on trees on the KKH valley of Hunza and other small villages.
You can actually go, drink the glacial water. Even the taps around this point has the same water. Remember that Saudi in Audis video? Where they put a pipe in the ground and fill up their Audi with petrol? Well on the KKH, you put a pipe similarly into the ground and clean, drinkable, pure with minerals, water comes in the tap. Every hotel has done it.
We reached late after dark. So once we had dinner and, we went out to the hotel gallery, to check the view out and this what we saw and took.
In the morning:
Above is the front view of the valley from Hotel's gallery. The following is the back view, from our window. The hotel costed us 500 rupees per bed in a room with three beds. So about 5 dollars a bed but I guess foreigners would have to pay a bit more. There were plenty of tourists around, on our floor there were few white girls, and well the Chinese were a lot because of the development projects on the KKH and beyond.
KKH is very significant and important to Chinese as a lot their trade transport comes through KKH and once Gwadar-Karachi-Lahore motorway is completed, Gwadar port will be the most strategic and viable for them as ships wouldn't have to go all the way over the top to reach and instead, just port in Gwadar and send and receive stuff through KKH.
The next day, we woke up early and got our day-bags ready to go to Sust via Atabad Lake and Passu. But unfortunately, the road after Atabad was blocked as a glacier had melted and flooded the road making it inaccessible for vehicles. So instead, we hit off to the three best tourist sites out of four within Hunza.
The Altit and Baltit Forts, Duikar Point (Highest viewing gallery in Hunza), and a place where black and white glaciers were neighbors but we didn't fancy that because we were tired and world cup was on and that place was two hours away from the city.
So here's Altit Fort:
The pass for both the Forts are for 200 rupees for locals and 600 for foreigners which include a guided tour of the fort and the history (which includes history of Hunza, KKH and the fort). You best go yourself to have a look but 80% of Forts' restoration costs were given by Aga Khan Foundation and rest by different governments of the world. Norweigan, American (some trust fund) and Pakistanis (not he government).
I couldn't snap a picture of Baltit Fort but it looks over the KKH the best way. Here are some views of KKH and Hunza Valley.
Next stop was the Duikar point or Eagle's Nest because of the super expensive and prime Eagle Next hotel. But there were cheaper options beneath it as we reckon the view from cheaper place, little bit down is situated at a perfect view as well.
View form Duikar point:
That's it for Hunza, we head off to the hotel, watch Mexico's Goalkeeper deny Brazil their much needed win and the ride back to Islamabad for the bus back to Karachi.
For you folks who plan a similar trip, here's something to learn, an error we made. There are two ways back to Islamabad, one straight on KKH through Chilas and Diamir, and the other is through the scenic Kaghan and Naran Valley. We got ourselves a Corolla Taxi (whose driver was Master's in Linguistics, which he did because he didn't have proper guidance of what education to pursue and he thought he'd learn the English language) for 9000 rupees for the same route. Back to Islamabad via Kaghan. But unfortunately, we got in the taxi at 2.30 PM and we would've reached those places by mid-night so it was of no use. The road is the same KKH to there as the other. So if you are not catching the flight from Gilgit, hire a taxi and go by Kaghan and Babusar Top and you'll thank me, but you have to leave very early in the morning.
So, we head back through the route we came from and there's this point where you can stand and see all three mountain ranges on the KKH: Hindukush, Karakoram and Himalayan range.
Right and left views from this point:
Yeah, the left side view was occupied by the taxi driver(cowboy hat) and the Chinese worker doing some digging across the road with local labors for something with another Chinese. He had some major stomach problems and was jumping all over the road.
The drive back on after a short stay at this point, was just awesome. Despite our attempts to calm the driver, he was enjoying all the curves and what not. It was pure bliss for him and a butt clenching moment for us. Wasn't dangerous but still, you know how the passengers feel regardless of who and how the good the driver is.
Security for foreigners is very tight. Even these two Chinese were escorted by a policeman who was bored, just as these two Chinese engineers. Even though, there are no visible threats to foreigners, but people of Chilas are mad (Even locals don't like them) and Armed forces has visited again and again tightnening their screws and after the Fairy Meadows slaughter of those tourists. Gilgit's government is very concerned and the check points were too many on the KKH. Everywhere, you have to check yourself in. Foreigners follow a different protocol and have to be known by the police of the district about their presence so they can ensure their safety.
When you're there, you'll see how pleasant and friendly these people are but it only takes one to disturb the peace. And hopefully, it will come soon.
Another village on the other side of KKH:
This is the small town of Dassu. When you get off with a camera, you instantly become a recipient to VIP protocol as everyone wants a picture taken.
This was the last town til which I was awake. The KKH travels above all these small towns, illuminated along the star filled skies. I so wanted to stop the car and take a long exposure shot of the stars because the sky was flooded with them. We could see the milky way with naked eye without our eye's pigment adjusted for light or dark. Imagine, what could've we get if took a shot but he had a time to beat to catch our bus to Karachi from Islamabad-Pindi which we manage to did thanks to it being a bit late.
KKH is an experience, just so you can get an idea; there are around 16 languages with different dialects spoken just around the KKH, then there's the nature. While going to Nartal, you will cross an area where it rains constantly while sun shines across the other side of the road. Its magic. Then during the day, you will sweat you shirt but at night, you'll be shivering from cold. You'll come across dirty brown water which is drinkable and generations of people of Hunza has drunk it but a clear and transparent as glass lake (the green dead water lake picture above) isn't drinkable. It is a fairyland and after the Diamir Bhasha Dam is completed sometime later in the decade, the KKH would've climbed even higher. (Excavators and other heavy equipment could be seen carving new paths for KKH high above the current altitude of KKH.)
We were short on time and there was so much to see around it, didn't even have time to actually put thought into taking pictures. The roads were enticing to press the accelerator and enjoy the bends and curves, I am pretty sure you can find every famous corner from GP circuits of the world there. Even Corkscrew but next time, we come on our car. A good car. A good rear wheel drive car.