Down the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and over the border from China with a Finnish lawyer, a Portuguese lawyer, a stubborn retired teacher and an environmental scientist with anger issues. Our hardworking guide is called Attar. He says he is not Pakistani, he’s from Hunza. The self - administrating area of Gilgit-Baltistan is, like Kashmir, a political hot potato. It used to be part of Kashmir and is now claimed by both India and Pakistan. It is ostensibly ruled by Pakistan but its people are not citizens of Pakistan. Indeed some of them have light hair and blue eyes (as does Attar) and are said to be descended from Alexander the Great’s Macedonians or the (next door) Persian Achaimenids. They have two national days to make the point - Pakistan’s and their own, in November.
Everything is better on the 'other side' according to Attar. The mountain views are certainly incredible. This is rated the most stunning mountain road in the world by some. The renowned Karakorum Highway, named after the mountain range it traverses, is a feat of Chinese engineering that was advised against by every survey report commissioned. The terrain is too unstable and the upkeep unrelenting. But the Chinese like their transport routes and the opportunities for political and economic negotiation they bring. It is one of the highest paved roads in the world, and here at the Khunjerab Pass (15,397 ft) is its highest elevation. Whoever wrote the Wikipedia article says it is often referred to as the Eighth Wonder of the World.......
The Upper Hunza Valley. The views might be better than in China, the quality of the accommodation is more debatable. The first grubby hotel is in Gulmit - I’m looking forward to sleep after consuming all that MSG in China - but there’s a light on the veranda outside that I can’t find a switch for and a window in my bathroom banging. I find an aeroplane mask and stand on the toilet to shut the window. It comes off its hinges, but it’s not banging any more.
Sleep now, but no, something is crawling over me in bed - no - yes - a giant beetle - all bedding off - two more on the floor. I throw them outside, but then there is a loud buzzing and thumping as more drop from the curtains and scurry out from behind the wooden panels. I collect a mug full. I am just contemplating trying to sleep again when there is what sounds like gunfire all down the valley. It's dynamite blasting.
The mountains are utterly divine. There are terrifying swaying wooden suspension bridges and another stunningly gorgeous turquoise lake. Attabad Lake was formed accidently by a giant landslide which blocked the KKH and diverted a river. You had to ferry across here until they rerouted the highway.
Karimabad was a Silk Road caravan halting place for people who were travelling through the Hindu Kush mountains to the Vale of Kashmir. Here, the Hunza Valley is as amazing as I had hoped. Mount Rakaposhi dominates, but there are six other peaks over 7000 metres. Our hotel is perched high up the valley, but even so we scramble up a small hill for optimum sunset views. So do hordes of other tourists, all of them Pakistani. There are very few international visitors - the FCO advises against travel to parts of the Karakorum. Folk at home are shocked I’m travelling here, and the tour is certainly not full. Guide Attar spends most of the time on his phone. I expect he's trying to work out what to do with his recalcitrant tour group. And he's seen this view many times before.
I can see most of the peaks from my hotel balcony. It seems that all the Pakistani tourists know this too. The adjacent rooms are packed with noisy families who have put mattresses on the floors. The revels, indoors and out, continue well into the night
Karimabad is made up of stone walled steep sloping large terraces. This is an Ismaeli Moslem area of Pakistan and the mosques are simple. There are a scattering of tourist shops offering local honey and a European style café. We visit the two Altit forts clinging to the brink of the valley and wander through the fabled apricot orchards - the apricots are supposed to be the secret to the long life enjoyed by the locals. (Wikipedia says it's a myth and they just don't have any birth records.) We can see the apricots drying on the roofs as we peer down from the forts. Carpet weaving follows (of course). But wandering the winding streets, sitting in the fragrant gardens and talking to the locals is the most rewarding part of the visit. The air has that delightful alpine freshness. It's sublime.
South, towards Gilgit city - the capital of this area of Pakistan. Parts of Hunza once had a strong Buddhist influence. The Sacred Rock of Hunza has a variety of ancient scripts on it. There are Buddhist etchings to be seen nearer Gilgit and glaciers with gushing streams to be enjoyed.
At Gilgit we are venturing into Sunni territory and the men sport longer beards. There is a bustling central market and a practice session for the local sporting obsession, polo, underway at the central ground. There’s also a cemetery with the gravestones of several of the explorers who participated in The Great Game. Fascinating. There's another cemetery with the graves of 140 Chinese who dies building the Karakorum Highway too. The upscale Serena Hotel is a welcome refuge.
From Gilgit on we are travelling against FCO advice. I had assumed this was because of problems with the Taliban or other hostile groups, but it seems it is more of a topographical issue. The Karakorum Highway is beset by landslides. Not only is this life-threatening, but there are massive traffic queues as bulldozers battle the debris and the roads are shored up. We are told the slides are caused by thunderstorm induced tremors.
The confluence of the Indus and the Gilgit is where the three highest mountain ranges in the world meet - the Himalayas, the Hindu Kush and the Karakoram.
Our next destination is Fairy Meadows, high up in the Himalayas, boasting views across to Nanga Parbat, the ninth highest mountain in the world by height, the tallest by vertical drop and the largest in terms of sheer mass. The trip dossier bills this as magical and says we head into the hills in jeeps. This is the biggest understatement ever. The most terrifying ride of my life in an old contraption with a slippy clutch, no suspension and a need to stop for water every ten minutes, as the engine overheats. On the worst road you ever saw, bumpy and rock strewn above precipitous drops of hundreds of meters to the river below. We are covered in dust to boot as we lurch along and reverse around U bends. At one point two guides hang into the bumper in front and more locals cling on behind.
Terror finally over, the precipitous path narrows and it’s time to walk. So I opt for a horse. He is clearly not keen and has a propensity to walk as close to the edge of the path as possible. The drops are still vertiginous If I hadn't already been on the jeep I would have been absolutely terrified. Moreover, the second we set off the heavens open and it buckets down for the whole two hour ride, which was probably quite scenic. I wouldn't know.
I arrive soaked through to find all my luggage and spare clothing is also sodden. There is a bonfire monopolised by local tourists who are encamped in tents that cover every square inch of the much eulogized meadows. They have strewn any remaining green patches with rubbish. My ‘wonderful log cabin’ would have a view if it wasn't obscured by a row of canvas. There is a wasps’ nest outside and the temperature inside runs at a steady four degrees. No need for a fridge for my water. Needless to say there is no sign of Nanga Parbat.
I get to see Nanga Parbat at six am next morning and it and the surrounding peaks are beautiful. The main peak emerges through scudding clouds and there are lakes with shimmering reflections. But it's sun, rain, cloud alternating all day so the temperature changes dramatically from minute to minute and it's impossible to stick to an activity or go for a walk without the risk of getting sodden again. The braying of donkeys, the bleating of goats (who eat the hair from my hairbrush) and the incessant whine of a chainsaw all add to the atmosphere – magical is unfortunately not. We clamber down again next day with 300 Pakistani tourists, accompanied the whole way by gun toting guards.
Finally down, we venture on in our minibus, over 4000 meter passes that we frustratingly can’t see, as its still raining. It's bleak country occupied by Afghan and Kutchi nomads. The Afghans herd fat tailed sheep and there are serried rows of bee hives. The Kutchis herd goats. We rescue a woman who has got stuck in sinking mud. Or rather Attar does while we find rope and give him instructions from the safety of our bus. Her family are just all screaming by the roadside terrified they will get stuck too if they go to her aid. Attar still has to ask their permission to touch her.
The side effects of Fairy Meadows are still with me. I’ve been throwing up all day.
Down the Indus Valley the impact of the last earthquake in Pakistan in 2005 is very evident still, with crumbling and cracked buildings. All the bazaars and shops are bedecked with green national flags. National Day, August 14 approaches. Most of the cars and scooters are waving pennants. The clothes stalls are covered in green and white shorts and T Shirts and the bakeries are crammed with green cakes.
Further south it is sunny again. The gorgeous mountains here are greener (matching the clothes) there are more landslides, more honey and some pretty bad driving. There are numerous waterfalls and fords, most of them doing double duty as fridges and car washes - crates of bottles in the water and hoses provided. There are more terrible traffic jams at the end of the highway, before we turn off to see what remains of the ancient city of Taxila .
Taxila was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1980 in particular for the ruins of the four settlement sites which "reveal the pattern of urban evolution on the Indian subcontinent through more than five centuries". The oldest ruins date back to to the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the 6th century BCE. It's an interesting rather than exciting wander round the crumbling remains of walls and stupas. It's obviously a place of great historical interest, but I'm somewhat surprised to learn that this is the number one tourist attraction in Pakistan. I'm less surprised to learn that it's on the list of twelve most threatened ancient sites in the world.
Then onto Islamabad, for museums, monuments and a huge very modern mosque. The Faisal Mosque is the fifth-largest mosque in the world and the largest within South Asia. It's named after King Faisal of Saudi Arabia, who financed its construction. The Turkish architect took a Bedouin tent as his inspiration. It's heaving with sightseers and worshippers and we are stared at unremittingly.
Islamabad is only the ninth largest city in Pakistan, and was built as a planned city in the 1960s to replace Karachi as Pakistan's capital. The other must see that we move onto, is the Pakistan Monument, a museum located on the western Shakarparian Hills. It's a lotus shaped construction, built to symbolize the unity of the Pakistani people.
The Karakorum Highway finished just outside Islamabad, but our last stop in Pakistan is Lahore. Lahore is the capital of the Pakistani province of Punjab and is the country's second largest city after Karachi. It's a very old city, having been controlled by numerous empires throughout the course of its history. Lahore reached its peak as the capital of the Mughal Empire between the late sixteenth and early eighteenth century and is still a historic cultural centre. This is reflected in the red-stone colonial buildings, rooftop restaurants and the mosques on every corner.
The Lahore Museum is the most visited museum in Pakistan. It's stuffed full of Buddhist relics and miniature paintings. The markets and narrow streets are fascinating. And there's a huge garden on the outskirts (traffic notwithstanding to explore too).
Lahore is also one of Pakistan's wealthiest areas, as well as one of Pakistan's most socially liberal, progressive and cosmopolitan cities. There are huge flapping Bollywood style banners. Though here, of course, the film industry is called Lollywood. It’s also very humid. If Beijing is the sauna, then Lahore is the steam room.
Dinner in a smart roof top restaurant over looking the atmospherically illuminated Badshahi Mosque and the Lahore Fort along the outskirts of the Walled City; two of Lahore's most iconic landmarks.
Independence Day in Pakistan is frenetic and the army are on full alert. We are stopped and searched 15 times on the road to the border at Wahga. Once there we are made to leave our bus and take a toy train to the frontier with India. Attar pays a boy to porter our baggage. Naturally, the boy has disappeared and we have to drag it ourselves. The crossing is almost deserted.
Shangri-La is punctuated by stops at border crossings for more passport checks as we inch closer to China. There is the pre-border check in Kyrgyzstan, then the stamp the passport Kyrgyzstan stop, then into No Man's Land and five checks spread over 140 kilometres in China before we actually officially arrive in Xinjiang. We have to change transport again. This involves dragging my bag uphill a kilometre and a half to get to the first Chinese checkpoint. (I’m beginning to think that this is an endurance test rather than a holiday). My passport is inspected 15 times.
There's a dramatic change of scenery when we do enter China. (Well, the border zone.) The terrain is still mountainous, but it is brown and barren, with patches of striated rock reminiscent of The Painted Desert. The road is excellent, but still empty apart from a few Chinese trucks. I'm not surprised when getting through the border is such a trial. The Chinese also paid for the new road we followed from Osh to the border. They want to extend their haulage network into Europe. The Kyrgs took the money, but are wary about too much Chinese influence. Perhaps this accounts for all the hassle.
This is autonomous Xinjiang Province, in and out of China like a yo-yo, and increasingly home to millions of Han Chinese being imported to Kashgar to dilute the local Uighur Moslem population. The Uighurs, speak the Uighur language, which is more like Uzbek or Kyrgzish and dress very much like Emirati Arabs with high backed headscarves for the women, though their clothes are much brighter.
We are not allowed to take photos in the border zone. Apparently the locals snitch on you if you do. And despite the brand new road (dual carriage way for much of the distance) and the absence of traffic, we travel at snail's pace. The speed limit is low and the traffic laws stringent. The driver is keening. I think it's a sort of Chinese singing.
The endurance theme continues when we arrive in Kashgar. It's a hotel this time, I suspect it saw its best days during the Russian Revolution. It's certainly pre-revolution in style; to say it is ornate is an understatement. Sadly, it smells musty and there are holes in the shower curtain and sheets. The hotel beds are extraordinarily hard. Not surprisingly, the TV in my room won't work. (Not that there is anything to watch). The receptionist laughs when I ask for a hairdryer. I won't go on...I’ve discovered it's due for demolition.
No hot water this morning. Breakfast is in the ex-Russian consulate (built in 1890 and untouched since then by the looks of it) across the road.
I'm very confused about what the time is. The whole of China works on Beijing time. Officially. Except that Kashgar is closer to Tehran than to Beijing and the Uighurs use local time or Kyrgzish time. Surat, the guide, has told us to stay on local time, but my phone has automatically changed itself to Beijing time. So, to my disgust my alarm went off at 4.30 a.m. today.
Kashgar is schizophrenic. There is an old town (rapidly diminishing as the Chinese bulldoze it) and a new, cuboid high rise town, bisected by a central highway. Crumbling mud houses one side, plenty of neon and Chinese characters, red balloons and Chairman Mao on the other. The people continue to provide the main interest, on family days out, shopping and touting their wares in the handicraft streets. As well as dual carriageway there are scooter lanes divided from the pavement by low fences. The fences are generally ignored and drivers and pedestrians use both lanes with impunity. As most of the bikes are electric you can't hear them coming, so walking in town is a little fraught.
We visit the main, Friday mosque and a mausoleum. For a change these are several hundred years old, not recently constructed or renovated, and are therefore considered to be mini Hajj destinations for Moslems in Central Asia. The Imam was knifed to death three days ago - there have been separatist issues in the province for a few years. In the big square opposite families dressed in their best clothes, congregate for photographs on double humped Bactrian camels, or in painted carriages drawn by horses or goats with fancy harnesses.
I sleep reasonably after a rocky start. The person in the next door room to me has their TV on really loud. It's Surat, the tour leader. His idea of turning the volume down doesn’t equate with mine. I suppose I should be glad for him that his TV works. Surprisingly, the Wi-Fi in the hotel is operating, some of the time. But many sites, including Google, Hotmail and Twitter are blocked.
Today is shopping day. First, the livestock market, out of town. We join the streams of motorised carts stuffed with animals heading up the freeway and join the melee at the site. There are cattle, sheep, goats, donkeys, horses, yaks and a few camels for sale. (Camel season is in the autumn.) The vendors congregate in the allotted areas and mill around, holding onto to their merchandise. It's thrilling, but heart rending, watching the animals packed in together, knowing many of them are going to slaughter. Nannies are separated from their kids, bleating at them through the bars. Most of the owners seem to take great care with their animals, even if they are not exactly tender. Raising money obviously means a great deal to them and some of the old men seemed bewildered by the whole experience, gripping their animals tightly. Deals are struck with handshakes and cash and goats and sheep are trundled off in different carts or even trussed and lumped into car boots. Kebabs in the market cafes are delicious.
Next, the legendary Kashgar Bazaar. This takes place in two huge warehouses in town and ithey maks Leeds Market look tiny. It's where all the locals shop, everything from fridges to spices is on sale, but for me it's a little disappointing. Modernisation has led to some loss of atmosphere and it's all very utilitarian. The more interesting stalls litter the pavement at the entrances- smoky barbecues, snakes and scorpions, scuttling in plastic bowls..
Chinese food for lunch (hurrah - we had to force Surat to eschew Uighur for once) in the equally crumbling old British consulate. Then a wander through the old city (a dusty trail in what is left of the old mud dwellings) and then through local bazaars (much more interesting than the much hyped central market), hawking furs, spices, silk and woodcarvings. Ice cream stands that play We Wish You a Merry Christmas. The Chinese, with an eye on tourism, are busy ‘reconstructing’ much of this area. There are fake carved facades with elaborate shutters on most of the buildings. This part is now officially labelled The Old City. Which makes the part we saw just now The Old, Old City I suppose.
Onwards through Xingjiang. I've noticed that all the petrol stations in Central Asia have gates. Entry is controlled by little men at desks. Customs is quicker but wearisome. We push our bags back down the hill to Kyrgzstan.
What has changed since 2014? There are banners along the road celebrating 60 years since 'liberation'. More of the old old town has been bulldozed. The replacement of new old town facades has been accelerated. The animal market has been slightly more organised. This visit I have time to test the kebabs, fatty and delicious.
The drive to the border with Pakistan is possibly even more scenic than last times's journey back to Kyrgzstan. We overnight at Tashkurgan and visit a Mongolian theme park. At immigration we are again treated like children at school, lined up and instructed not to talk. A weary Dutch guy declares that everything in China is fake. Though I’m sure that parts of the lofty fort at Tashkurgan are original and there is nothing fake about the stunning views of the snow-capped Pamir range and turquoise Karakul Lake. Curiously, Karakul means Black Lake.
Stay in touch. Get travel tips, updates on my latest adventures and posts on out of the way places, straight to your Inbox.