The Right Side of the Border

Down the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and over the border from China at Sust. I'm 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 Achaemenids. 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. They are financing a warm water port in the far south of Pakistan at Gwadar. The route from here to Xinjiang is known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The KKH 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 Hunza Valley, Gulmit

They might be right. The views in the Upper Hunza Valley are stunning. The Passu Cones (also known as Tupopdan and Passu Cathedral) rise to an altitude of 6,106 metres. Their spiky peaks are so steep, that they are known as Hot Mountains. The snow doesn’t sit long on top of their pyramid-like tops.

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 for my eyes 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 - yes - no - yes - a giant beetle - all bedding off - two more on the floor. I scoop them up and 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. Now I have 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.

Attabad Lake

The mountains continue to be utterly divine. There are terrifying swaying wooden suspension bridges and another stunningly gorgeous turquoise stretch of water. 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.

The Hunza Valley, Karimabad, Pakistan

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.

Gilgit, Pakistan

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 (see the book by Peter Hopkirk). Fascinating. There's another cemetery with the graves of 140 Chinese, who died 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.

Getting to Fairy Meadows

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 metres 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 rain buckets down for the whole two hour ride, which was probably quite scenic. I wouldn't know.

A Room With a View

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 which 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.

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 it unfortunately is 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, which 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 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.

Preparing for Independence Day in Pakistan

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. This, of course, commemorates the day when Pakistan achieved independence and was partitioned from India, following the end of the British Raj in 1947. 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.

Taxila

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 even worse 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 at Taxila date back to the time of the Achaemenid Empire in the sixth century BC.

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.

Islamabad, the Capital City of Pakistan

Then onto Islamabad, for museums, monuments, government buildings and a huge, very modern, mosque. The Faisal Mosque is the fifth-largest mosque in the world and the largest within South Asia. The mosque is 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, which 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.

(Islamabad 2023

The only way to describe the Serena is splendid. It’s the swankiest hotel in the country. The only 5 star de luxe. And I got a free upgrade with my booking, so I’m in the executive wing. Executive lounge with free food. Not too exciting. It’s a bit like an airport lounge though more comfortable, with views over the Margalla Hills. Free swimming pool (no children) and spa.

Room with a sitting area - what the Americans like to call a junior suite; you have to use your imagination. Dark wood and heavy brocade curtains. A tiny canopy over the bed. Free minibar. Though it’s only soft drinks. You can order pints and quarts of spirits if you’re not a Moslem. Fruit basket. (a grandiose way to describe two apples covered in clingfilm.) Free phone. I’m constantly chased by folk asking me if I would like more drinks, more fruit. It never arrives, but it’s nice to be asked.

At least, that’s what I get eventually. after some argument to get into my room early. They do their best to get me to pay another night – I’ve arrived at 8 a.m. Apart from that altercation, everyone is keen to chat. I'd forgotten how friendly Pakistanis are. I’m spoken to constantly, on the plane, at the airport (the bags take an age to arrive) and at the hotel. I close my eyes by the pool, as the man on the next door sunbed tries to monopolise me. For some reason everyone has decided I’m airline crew. And sure enough,, my BA stewards turn up round the swimming pool too.

Said Pur

I’m also reminded that Islamabad is greener and more spacious than other cities in Pakistan. It’s very much a diplomatic enclave, with modern parliament buildings and the colonial turreted prime minister’s house. I’ve already seen the Faisal Mosque and the Pakistan Monument, which are really the only two sights in the city. So, we call in at Said Pur, a traditional village in the Margalla Hills, very much after the style of Darband in Tehran. There are some old gaily painted buildings, some tiled doorways and a couple of restaurants. It’s very much a tourist trap. Somewhere pleasantish to eat Sunday lunch maybe.

Rawalpindi

Rawalpindi is the twin city to Islamabad; you almost slide (traffic permitting on the seven lane highways round the capital) from the modern to the old. Larger, it is the fourth most populous city in Pakistan, after Karachi, Lahore, and Faisalabad, and older. Though not terribly ancient. It dates back to the Sikh Empire, based in Lahore, but was developed mostly as an army base under the British Raj, as its slightly higher altitude climate was deemed to be more conducive.

Our driver's name is Sohreb. He's from the hotel and enjoying his day out immensely. He hasn’t been here for five years. Most of the guests don't wander beyond Islamabad.

This is much more Pakistan, as I remember it. The streets are not dissimilar to those of Lahore. Crumbling Mughal architecture, muddy surfaces, with the odd peeling tower jutting out, jettied wooden balconies, banners, some colourful tiled minarets and miles of tiny winding alleys, brimming with shops. We wander the Rajah Bazaar for some time, exchanging grins and salaams with the ever friendly Pakistanis. No other tourists here to muddy the waters. Wedding Dress Street; beautifully embroidered gowns for about £700 direct and made to measure from the tailors. Jewellery, Drug Street, Carpet Alley, goats wandering and roti stands.

Onto the coach works area, down by the river, sparks flying from the welding gun and the bright and beautifully decorated ‘jingle’ trucks being painstakingly restored. The term "jingle truck" is said to have been coined by the American troops serving in Afghanistan. Other sources say it dates back to the British colonial period (no comment....). The name refers to the jingling sound that the trucks make, as a result of the many chains and pendants dangling from the vehicles.

Rawalpindi is a major hub for truck art, along with Karachi, Swat, Peshawar, Quetta and Lahore. Each centre has a different style, with trucks from Rawalpindi and Islamabad often featuring plastic work. This is big business. Truck owners spend thousands of dollars customising their trucks, so that they are reminded of home, on their long and arduous journeys.

Finally, Food Street. A bit of a disappointment, to be honest. It’s not a row of enticing street food stands, but a few restaurants adjacent to the Rawalpindi cricket ground. Still, it’s interesting to see the stadium.

Lahore

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 (see above) 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 sprawling, but crumbling, bazaars, 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. 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 of Asia, 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.

Shalimar Gardens

And there are the huge Mughal Shalimar Gardens, on the outskirts of Lahore (traffic notwithstanding), to explore too. These date from the time of Shah Jahan, a favourite place for the locals to wander. They are laid out as 'a Persian paradise garden, intended to create a representation of an earthly utopia in which humans co-exist in perfect harmony with all elements of nature'.

Leaving Pakistan

Independence Day itself, 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 lad has disappeared and we have to drag it ourselves. The crossing is almost deserted.

From Kashgar to Pakistan on the Karakorum Highway

I'm about to travel down the Karakorum highway with a small group. To begin, I'm returning to Kashgar in China. I was last here, in Xinjiang province three years ago. Read about that trip here. Kashgar is about as far west as you can get in China. What has changed since then? There are banners along the road celebrating 60 years since 'liberation'. More of the Old Old Town has been bulldozed away. The replacement of new old town facades has been accelerated. The endemic Uighur population (an ethnic minority in China) is now increasingly being subjected to human rights abuses.

I revisit the new Old Town, the mosques, the mausoleum and the bazaar. The animal market has been slightly more organised. This visit I have time to test the kebabs,  fatty and delicious.

Skirting the Pamir Mountains

The drive to the border with Pakistan, across Xinjiang, skirting the Pamir Mountains, as they spill over from Tajikistan and Afghanistan is possibly even more scenic than last times' journey back to Kyrgzstan. They are truly stunning.

Lake Karakul

A relaxing halt at Lake Karakul. Curiously, Karakul means Black Lake. From here, in the distance, we can see Kongur Tagh, (Brown Mountain) the tallest peak in the Pamir mountains. It contrasts with the amazing snow white slopes sliding into the lake. Someone has thoughtfully left an armchair on the beach here and it's gently warm. There are yak and camels to watch. It's hard to tear myself away.

Tashkurgan

We overnight at Tashkurgan, the last town in Xinjiang before the border. There's a stone fort straddling the hill here. It purports to date back 2,000 years. From uptop, there are views across the floodplains to a pair of waterwheels. They're modern - part of the town's irrigation system. And there's a sort of Mongolian theme park beyond all the boardwalks and bridges. Sheep, horses and smoking yurts

Crossing from Xinjiang into Pakistan

The Khunjerab Pass at 4,600 metres above sea level, takes the Karakorum Highway from Xinjiang Province to Pakistan at Sust. This is the highest border crossing in the world and it's only open from May to October because of snow. You also have to get a special permit to travel to this stretch.

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.

(And read more about China here.)

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