“Is Pakistan safe?” – these were the words I was to hear again and again as I made my way across Europe, hitchhiking up through Turkey, into Georgia and then Iran. Tourism in Pakistan seemed to be almost none-existent… for me, this was perfect. For years, I had dreamed of travelling in Pakistan, this is a country with towering peaks, stunning rivers, impenetrable fortresses and just enough danger to keep you on your toes…
Travelling in Pakistan offers a rare opportunity to visit a country that has not yet opened up to mainstream tourism, this is adventure backpacking at its finest and, if you have the right connections, Pakistan is an extremely exciting, extremely cheap, country to travel in.
Ultimately, to get the most out of your Pakistan backpacking adventure, you are going to need some Pakistani friends. Luckily, Pakistanis are some of the friendliest people you will ever meet.
And so dear friends, pull up a chair, crack open a beer, light up a bowl and prepare to meet Rehman…
The mini-bus sped away from Karimabad, taking to the polished roads of The Karakoram Highway and passing row after row of pink cherry blossoms guarding the foothills of the Himalayas.
The jewel of Hunza Valley, Karimabad is an ancient crossroads in times gone by for conquerers and explorers, merchants and artisans – this is the heart of the Silk Road.
The cobble-stone town is dominated by the 13th century Baltit Fort, solid and immovable despite the frozen winter winds that howl from the north and the mountain gods who cause the earth to shake and stir as earthquakes rock the land.
Today, the land is still, Baltit Fort stands strong, a silent sentinel watching over the mountains.
There’s only two backpackers in all of Pakistan, or that is how it seems; myself and my French friend, Arthur; a slightly crazy ex-military lad filled with a youthful exuberance that I met whilst trekking in Colombia to the legendary lost city.
We sit chatting to Rehman, our guide and new friend as we depart the small town and head deeper into the mountains.
Rehman is tall, well over six foot and just a little bit shy. He lives in a small village called Gulkin, a place I had never heard of which he describes as “Very basic Sir, but we have one of the best views in all of Pakistan”.
This is the first time Rehman has met a backpacker in over a year. He used to work in Pakistan’s tourism industry and speaks good English but tourism in Pakistan was hit hard in 9/11, a fateful day which shook many countries.
Just as tourism in Pakistan had started to improve, the country was hit again.
In 2014, a Taliban insurgent group killed nine foreign climbers and one Pakistani guide at Nanga Parbat, an incredible mountain which I had visited just a week before meeting Rehman.
The resulting backlash in the media had bought tourism in Pakistan to it’s knees and many had lost jobs.
Rehman, scrabbling to find a job to provide for his young family had journeyed to China and, with a couple of Pakistani friends, opened up a small restaurant close to the border.
We had chatted upon Facebook and, hearing I was in the area, Rehman had raced down from China especially to show me around.
I looked out the window as we chatted, the mountains marching into the horizon…
Once, The Hunza Valley was a place frequented by many tourists in Pakistan, the halfway point for the ancient silk road leading from China to Europe, this is a place where time stands still and traditions remain strong.
Small towns and snapshots of rural life whizz past the window as our driver tackles sharp curves at jolting speeds.
An old man leading a young donkey, laden high with supplies.
A youth with an impossibly perfect hairstyle, talking excitedly into his phone.
Psychedelic trucks, bells tinkling and paint jobs swirling, chugging up the road.
A drive in Pakistan is never a dull affair…
I jump out of the minibus and, shouldering my pack, follow Rehman away from the road and up into the hills, the scent of rosemary and other herbs, wild marijuana and the crisp mountain air mingling in my nostrils and refreshing me instantly.
We trek past rows of apricot trees, passing a diminutive man hunched over with age as if the very mountains themselves were pressing down upon him. He stops, startled and then smiling. Moving towards me, he shakes my hand and invite me into his home for a cup of chai.
Slowly but surely we make our way closer to Rehman’s village, passing a small gurgling river, an abandoned watermill, and a few more of Rehman’s neighbours.
Everybody who meets us smiles shyly and then, as is slightly unsure of what to do, invites us in for chai.
Unfortunately there isn’t time for chai with everybody but, after three cups nonetheless, we arrive at Rehman’s house and I am instantly attacked by his wonderfully boisterous kids who want to use me as a climbing frame.
I dump my pack and follow Rehman into his house, a striking women in a cardigan rushes to meet me, insisting I take the prime spot by the fire whilst she starts to make chai.
From the corner of the room, an older lady, Rehman’s mother in law, proudly sporting a painted conical hat, watches us from beneath a heavy blanket, the first cold of the night beginning to creep in as the last rays of the sun disappeared.
Content that me and Artur are conformable and have plenty of chai, Rehman’s wife introduced herself as Sitara and, in perfect English, asked us questions about our journey, our feelings on Pakistan, our travels around the world.
The night lengthened as plate after plate of food was produced by Sitara, a skilled cook and font of information on life in Northern Pakistan.
One of Rehman’s friends arrived, with an instrument similar to a sitar except this had been crafted by hand using a lump of rough wood and a gasoline can; the music was hauntingly beautiful
The generator was not working and we had no electricity so Rehman set out candles which cast flickering patterns across the room.
I played with the kids; rock, paper, scissors at first and then a Hunza counting game which I did not understand but which involved me and Arthur being jumped on a lot.
Tired of these games, we then taught the five children crowding us a new game; slapsies…
Rehman approached me and rescued me from a small mound of children, bringing out his most prized possession; photos from his adventures in the mountains.
Ice axes, Germans, Glaciers…. Each of the creased and aged photos, carefully preserved in a binder of plastic wallets, told a story.
Rehman pointed out his father, a world-renowned mountain climber who had helped dozens of European explores conquer the peaks of Northern Pakistan, back in the day’s when tourism in Pakistan was booming.
Once upon a time, this promised land of jagged peaks and perfect lakes had been one of the world’s most popular climbing destinations; this is still true, in the summer groups of hard-core climbers make the pilgrimage here and tourism in Pakistan is slowly recovering, in the winter however; it is dead.
Seeing we were tired, Rehman showed us to a guest room and provided me with half a dozen blankets, I zipped into my sleeping bag, dived under the mound of blankets and drifted off to dreams of adventure.
Rehman took to the slope, marching forwards with confident, calculated strides as the scree slipped and slid like a living thing, a mountain serpent ready at any moment to fling a careless soul to their demise.
I looked behind me once more, the quaint calmness of Rehman’s home still just about visible; the promise of warm food and endless chai pulled me back momentarily before I turned, committing to adventure (oh the challenges I must overcome!), and following Rehman.
I stepped out, using the handle of my ice-axe to dig into the ground and stepping forwards, an abyss of jagged rocks and fatal tumbles stretching out to my right.
Ahead, the glacier seemed to sense our presence, groaning gently in the midday sun, the clouds swirling about the mountains in an ethereal haze.
We had crossed a jagged and tarnished cliff of black ice and cold stone to reach this place and, up ahead, I could make out a ridge of crushed rock, a moraine marking the edge of the glaciers territory.
I slipped and slid down the side of the mountain, following Rehman as he jumped nimbly from rock to boulder to loose gravel; the man was like a god-damn mountain goat. I was not quite so nimble and struggled to keep up but he urged me on, expertly picking out the best route across the rough terrain.
When I next looked away from my feet I had hit solid ground and, just a couple of hundred meters away, I could make out a rough building of stone and wood.
A shepherds hut in the mountains; no electricity, no running water, no worries…
This is what I had come for.
We part ways, Rehman and Artur trekking further up the valley whilst I pause for a cheeky smoke. The clouds dance over the mountains, I sit upon a boulder, surrounded by a soft breeze and the warming ray’s of the sun. The glacier creaks and moans, snaking down from between two colossal mountains, their peaks scraping the sky, in a blinding display of dazzling white.
The shepherds hut, a pair of Ibex horns proudly displayed above the front door, is owned by a friend of Rehman’s and we all spend the night, soaking in the night skies, smoking, passing a bottle of coca cola around, chatting, joking, eating.
The cold of the night creeps further into the hut but we periodically feed the fire to keep it at bay, it’s kind of like a game; ‘keep the fire alive or freeze to death’.
I awake the next day with a well-deserved headache and, blinking, emerge to sit atop my rock once more.
The views are simply stunning. Snow-capped peaks peeking from behind veils of dancing mist, the first rays of sunlight falling across the patchwork quilt of greens that cover the fertile lands in the distance.
I am surrounded by giants, huge rocky faces, carved with lines, watching me as they join the mountains in a frozen embrace… It occurs to me that I might be slightly mad but then again; this landscape is nuts.
Shattered piles of ice and Tolkien-esque rock formations cast in shadow, a dozen eagles floating upon the wind, an Ibex, perhaps, in the distance, his horns curled tightly to the wind.
The jagged teeth of the mountains smile at me and silver alluvial sands swirl around my feet, caught upon the breeze.
I soak it in.
This is Pakistan, it is filled with wonderful, generous and kind people. It is home to some of the world’s mightiest peaks, it’s clearest lakes, it’s brightest glaciers…
This is real adventure, and this is why I am here.
Tourism in Pakistan
Tourism in Pakistan is making a slow comeback, this is an incredible country with a warm and generous people and I strongly recommend that those visiting Hunza get in touch with Rehman.
I spent a wonderful five days hiking across glaciers, camping under the stars, hanging out with his family and getting to grips with the realities of a more relaxed pace of life.
Rehman is a skilled guide and knows all of the best places in the Hunza valley.
If you choose to visit they will make you feel incredibly welcome and will provide you with food, a place to sleep, and take you on adventures. They will not ask for money but please, if visiting, make a donation of at least $20 per day per person. if you want to go on a real adventure; Rehman is your man! The best way to contact him is over Facebook, tell him you found him through The Broke Backpacker and please only get in touch with him if you can definitely meet up.
This is a genuine, word of mouth, recommendation and I hope that, in some small way, it helps to grow tourism in Pakistan.
Pakistan is a country which I am truly passionate about, this is a land I shall shortly be returning to and a place where I hope to, eventually, lead adventure backpacking tours – watch this space!