Jovago Pakistan interviewed Vanessa O’Brien, a popular British-American mountain climber, explorer, and a lot more. She also visited Pakistan with the challenge to climb K-2 carrying American, British and Pakistani flags on top of the world as a sign of solidarity, integration, friendship and respect for one another.
Read her interesting sotry here.
Who is Vanessa?
I am a British-American Mountain Climber & Explorer, a Fellow of the Royal Geographic Society and Member of The Explorers Club. Previously I worked in finance in London, New York and Hong Kong.
How many countries you have visited so far?
How do you finance your trips?
My trips are self-financed. Recently I have sought sponsorship, but only after achieving a Guinness World Record (for climbing the highest peak on every continent in 295 days); and achieving the Seven Summits with the North and South Poles in 11 months. However, many climbs I undertake are seen by some companies as too risky, so the best sponsors are those comfortable with risk, like insurance companies.
Any 3 money saving tips while traveling you would like to share?
1. Traveling in groups allows an expense to be divided by more people. Many costs are fixed vs variable like transportation. Transportation is taking place regardless, so the marginal cost of one more person is very little. Food, however, is variable, and costs more with each person.
2. Here are two extremes – either book your travel six months in advance or ‘just-in-time’ – those are when the best deals can be found because in the first case occupancy is wide open and in the second case, it is less likely to be filled.
3. Try to dine locally and avoid the big touristy hotels which are overpriced – not only will you experience more of the culture, but you will eat more authentic food. If you are going somewhere you are worried about hygiene, ask for recommendations from people you are engaged with who you trust.
What do you like the most about traveling?
I like the sense of adventure, seeing new places, and meeting new people. I also like learning about different cultures and points of view. There are always historic landmarks and sights in cities and beautiful mountains, glaciers or lakes in the country. Or perhaps there is an ocean or a sand dune. The planet is so diverse and that is what makes it so fascinating.
What do you dislike the most about traveling?
Moving my ‘stuff’ from place to place. It doesn’t matter if it is luggage or tents or a backpack moving from camp to camp on a mountain – I dislike having to move physical stuff between locations.
What was the primary reason to visit Pakistan?
Initially it was to climb K2. In 2015, El Niño and the warm weather only allowed us to climb to Camp 2. In 2016, avalanches prevented us from getting any higher than Camp 3. I am not sure if I will return in 2017 yet, but I will say if it was the mountains initially that brought me to Pakistan, but it became the people and friendships that brought me back.
What was your perception about Pakistan before your trip?
Before my trip in 2015, my perception about Pakistan was not favorable because the Western media influenced it. However, the Western media couldn’t have been more wrong about the Pakistani people. The Pakistani people are the most hospitable, gracious, funny, lovely, and generous group I have ever encountered.
How will you describe your trip to Pakistan in three words?
I loved it or challenging (K2), exciting, humbling.
What makes Pakistan different from countries you have visited so far?
No other country I visited (of 73) came with a warning– ‘don’t go’ – there are extremists, terrorists, ISIS, etc. It’s an Arab country, they said. What I have had to educate people in the West is that Pakistanis are Indo-Aryan, not Arab. And there are random acts of violence everywhere.
Which cities have you visited in Pakistan? Which one you liked the most? And why?
I always enter Pakistan through Islamabad. I’ve had a wonderful day trips to Taxila, sampling the salty corn on route, and Rawalpindi, looking for army plates to commemorate fallen climbers. But mostly since I am there for the mountains, I go to Skardu and then on to Askole to trek down the Baltoro glacier to K2 Base Camp.
I like Northern Pakistan because it is home to some of the world’s most breathtaking ‘must-see’ landscapes. Among these attractions are glaciers and mountains in abundant supply. Pakistan Geographic estimates that the country’s glaciers constitute the biggest collection of ice anywhere outside of the North and South Pole regions. As much as 37% of this collection of ice lies in and around the Karakorum Mountain Range.
If you get a chance to visit Pakistan again, which 3 destinations you would like to visit?
I would like to visit Lahore because I’m told it is the cultural and artistic hub, Karachi because the American Pakistan Foundation has some partnerships there, and Hunza because that is where most of my porters and my liaison officer live, and where many climbers come from.
What were some of the problems you faced in Pakistan as a foreigner?
I remember being unable to get flights with PIA and having to take a bus through the Karakoram Highway (KKH) to and from Islamabad to Skardu. I think because our group consisted of foreigners we had to take a much longer route that had security checkpoints. I remember seeing another map with alternative routes but being told we could not go. That was a bit disappointing.
What will be your answer if anyone asks you, “Why Should I visit Pakistan?”
First, to meet the people. Make one Pakistan friend and you will have a friend for life.
Second, to see the largest glaciers outside the North and South Poles. Third, to experience the highest concentration of the largest precipitous peaks in the world.
Among the most famous glaciers is the Siachen, second longest in the world (75 km), in the eastern Karakoram Range. The Biafo (63 km) meets the Hispar to create the longest glaciated highway (100 km), from Askole in Shigar valley to Hispar in Nagar Valley. The Baltoro (62 km) forms the ice highway guiding trekkers to and from Concordia. Here tourists can admire the vast range of mountains, including four of the world’s 8,000-meter peaks.
There are over 160 peaks above 7,000 meters, with the majority of these peaks located in the Karakoram mountain range near Concordia. This area represents the densest collection of the tallest and most precipitous peaks in the world – even more so than in the Himalayas. Most are clearly visible from space.
Gilgit-Baltistan (GB) Tourism Secretary Jehanzeb Awan recently commented on how tourism has skyrocketed in a recent article in Dawn. “For a few years, between 10,000 and 20,000 tourists would visit GB each year, but in 2015 over 600,000 people visited GB; and this year, it is expected that around one million people will travel to GB.” Tourism generally peaks after Ramadan until mid August.
You must have researched on Pakistan before visiting. What is different in the real Pakistan?
The real Pakistan is vibrant and growing. You can see it when visiting the cities like Islamabad, whether you go for a kebab at Monal or at Kabul – places are packed. Pakistanis are social and tables are rarely for two. They will bring their friends and relatives and friends of friends. I am very excited about Pakistan’s future with CPECand the excitement of the Youth Market – Pakistan has something like 65% of its population under 26 years of age. The tourism numbers in GB seem to support Pakistan’s overall growth. The country’s economy is growing at its fastest pace in seven years, the local currency is stable against the USD, and interest rates are at their lowest in 42 years. Pakistan is a country with a powerful consumer base of 200 million people. It only makes sense that tourism is on the rise.
Out of the different types of cuisines you had in Pakistan, which one was your favorite?
Share one of your most memorable moment or incident in/about Pakistan.
When I originally planned on traveling to Pakistan, I was warned not to go. But I went anyway, inspired by JFK’s Why Climb The Highest Mountain, Go To The Moon Speech. I too, wanted to do something special and that was to be the first American Woman to climb K2. My first day there, I took a piece of hard candy from the front desk at the hotel and jumped in a taxi to meet the US Ambassador. As I bit into it, I felt my tooth loosen and it fell out. I panicked as I couldn’t climb to altitude with a missing tooth (think of all those spy novels), and it was during Ramadan so I didn’t know if I could find a dentist. After our meeting, the US Embassy Healthcare information line found a dentist in F/8. Luckily, he knew exactly what to do and secured the tooth in place.
When I met the dentist, we started talking. I told him I was trying to climb K2, and take the American and Pakistan flags to the summit, as a sign of friendship, unity and peace between our two countries. He proceeded to tell me that he had been in the USA 10 years prior and that someone in New York had been very kind to show him how the subway worked, help him exchange money, etc. As it happened, he had been waiting to repay that kindness, too – and now here I was, the recipient of that universal debt – 10 years later. He would not let me, but he did say it would be very good if I could get to that summit with the flags because twenty years ago, his friends and relatives from the USA could visit him in Pakistan and he could visit them in the USA. Now, he hadn’t seen them for ages. He was very sad about that and he felt Pakistan needed Ambassadors.
I have never forgotten his kindness, the symbolism of the flags or the message of the summit. But this is one example of why the people of Pakistan became more important to me than the mountain.