The Hills of Murree (Murree, Pakistan)

The Hills of Murree
(Murree, Pakistan)

I left Islamabad at 6am to get an early start. Besham was the target for the day and it was going to be a long drive. I was expecting to see my first Police escorts at some point along the way as well.

The morning drive up past Murree was very pretty. It is a popular summer destination up in the hills which had me salivating at the prospect of more great views waited me on the Karakoram Highway (KKH). After Murree I passed through the hills of Nathia Gali which were beautiful, before dropping down the valley to Abbottabad. Famous or infamous as Osama Bin Laden’s final home depending how you look at it. Next was Mahsehra before I eventually reached the hills that seemed to signify the proper scenic start of the KKH. Not long after I passed Battagram and my escorts began. I’d been moving through Pakistan in a fairly low profile manner until this point. Then my escort took great joy in putting his lights and sirens on to show everybody they were escorting a foreigner. Nice one. Finally though common sense prevailed and they just stuck an armed guard in the passenger seat. This meant I could go my own pace and I had some company for the journey.

Enjoying the Murree Views (Murree, Pakistan)

Enjoying the Murree Views
(Murree, Pakistan)

Pakistan Police Escorts (KKH, Pakistan)

Pakistan Police Escorts
(KKH, Pakistan)

I reached Besham at 3pm and checked into the Besham Continental Hotel. Moin had arranged a discounted price and I settled in for the evening. I was the only guest and enjoyed dinner in the restaurant all by myself. My planned 6am start the next day was foiled by the late starting chef, and the late rising security guards that I required to get underway. By 7.30am we were finally on the move. The drive in the morning sun was pleasant but the road wasn’t the best. As I found out later that day the Pakistan government is responsible for the road up to Thakot Bridge, just past Chilas. Then you get this pristine road all the way to the Chinese border. This section has been built by the Chinese, rather unsurprisingly.

I made it to Karimabad in the Hunza Valley just before darkness set in. It was well worth the effort as the drive was stunning after Gilgit. I was warned that I would fall in love with the Hunza Valley. I could see why. The autumnal leaves gave the region a fantastic colour contrast to the rocks that dwarfed the road from both sides. I was blown away.

Waiting for me in Karimabad was Mahmood. He was a good friend of Moin’s and he was my local guide. He also worked at the Hunza View hotel so that’s where I stayed. Mahmood helped me settle in. Later that evening I caught up with Mohy (Moin’s brother) and his friends Noman and Sonya. They all just happened to be riding bikes in the area so it was great to catch up and chat with some more friendly faces.

Winter views with Mahmood in the Hunza Valley (Karimabad, Pakistan)

Winter views with Mahmood in the Hunza Valley
(Karimabad, Pakistan)

The following morning I woke up to some amazing views. After breakfast I made my Pakistan TV debut on Samaa.TV. My first Urdu channel interview. Apparently I was on TV that night but I missed it. Later Mahmood took me up to Eagles Nest view-point. Great views but the weather had just switched to winter. Literally the day I arrived. With the quick changing temperature I’d managed to catch a cold. My days of wearing just a t-shirt, shorts and jandals were coming to an end after six gloriously sunny and warm months.

My planned departure for Passu got off to a bad start as I had the flu. I decided to flag the early start and go for a 1pm boat crossing of Attabad Lake. I got a couple of extra hours sleep before packing up and departing with Mahmood. He was a complete legend, organising everything for me and getting me cheap deals as well.

The boat ride across Attabad Lake was insane. First I had to drive Boris onto the boat and then watch as Boris gently rocked back and forth on planks laid across the deck, of our rather small boat!! I was praying the handbrake didn’t fail. It was a spectacular ride though. The scenery is awe-inspiring. You feel so small and insignificant in these great mountains ranges. The Karakoram was no different.

Boris takes his first dingy ride (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Boris takes his first dingy ride
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Attabad Lake (also known as Gojal Lake) is located between Karimabad and Gulmit. The lake is in the Gojal Valley of northern Pakistan and was created in January 2010 by a landslide that dammed the valley. Unfortunately it also wiped out a couple of villages. As a result one of the worlds highest and most unlikely port / boat services instantly came into existence. It is now a busy location with boats ferrying people, vehicles and goods back and forth across the lake. It has provided a useful business opportunity for many that have been hard hit by the recent downturn in tourism. Most notably the terrorist attack on Nanga Parbat in June this year that saw a number of tourists and local guides killed at Base Camp. It was the first terrorist attack on tourists in the area and understandably has wrecked the tourist season, along with the livelihoods of many of the local people.

We made it safely across the lake and I drove off a relieved man. I said farewell to Mahmood as I headed for the Passu Ambassador Hotel for the night. The drive just got better and better the further up the KKH you went. Before dinner I went for a stroll into Passu old town. I chatted with a friendly old-timer and met a curious young lad. The Wahki people live in this part of the world. They are close relations with the Wahki on the Chinese border and in the Wahkan Valley (Afghanistan), who I had met back in June. That evening my host was able to provide me a 500ml can of Chinese beer for the princely sum of $5 USD. I found food and beverage prices rose pretty steeply due to the geographical isolation create by Attabad Lake.

The next morning I woke up to the fantastic views of Passu Cathedral or Cathedral of Cones or Tapopdan, as the locals call it. Right outside my hotel window. Wow!! Today was the drive up to the border with China at the Khunjerab Pass. The top of the KKH. I was a rather excited.

My curious friend (Passu, Pakistan)

My curious friend
(Passu, Pakistan)

Khunjerab National Park Entrance (KKH, Pakistan)

Khunjerab National Park Entrance
(KKH, Pakistan)

The Chief of Police at Khunjerab National Park Entrance (KKH, Pakistan)

The Chief of Police at Khunjerab National Park Entrance
(KKH, Pakistan)

The drive north in the early morning sun was great. I hit a snag at the entrance to the national park though. The security wouldn’t let me pass because I had a British passport. No Americans and British were allowed up to the pass for sightseeing (unless they are crossing the border I assume). It was time for me to put my full-blooded kiwi accent to work and put on my New Zealand beenie. I got myself in front of the boss after the guard had said no. In I went with a big ‘Gidday Mate, I’m Jonny from New Zealand’. Allied with my trusty NZ beenie we were mates in no time. The conversation quickly turned to cricket as we discussed how good Ross Taylor and Brendon McCullum are. I countered with my praise for Shahid ‘Boom Boom’ Afridi. Next thing I knew tea was being served and permission to proceed soon followed. Hurray, that was a close call. I was even provided with my own escort for the drive up so there would be no further problems. They never did ask to see my NZ passport (though I did offer it). That’s a first for NZ beenie diplomacy.

The rest of the journey north went smoothly. We even added another guard to the passenger list at the last check point. I think he was bored. The scenery is some of the most beautiful I’ve ever seen but if you have to stare at it all day long from a cold hut, then I’d probably get pretty bored too.

Freezing but happy at the Khunjerab Pass (KKH, Pakistan)

Freezing but happy at the Khunjerab Pass
(KKH, Pakistan)

Roaming Ibex (KKH, Pakistan)

Roaming Ibex
(KKH, Pakistan)

We spent an hour freezing our butts off at the top of the Khunjerab pass. In 3 hours I had gone from 2770m at Passu up to 4730m at Point Zero on the border at Khunjerab. I’d made it and I was happy. Looking on the map I was a just a few hundred kilometres from the points in Afghanistan and China I’d passed back in June.

The return journey back down was a continuation of great views. We even saw some ibex on the way back down. After dropping off my escort I stopped at a check point that also doubled as a wildlife protection reserve. Here they had a 14 month old Snow Leopard, an injured Vulture and an injured Eagle.

Loli the snow leopard was 4 months old when she was found last December as a cub. Abandoned by her mother Loli is being raised by the wildlife protection people in the area (with help from WWF and Wildlife Pakistan). She is 14 months old now and will be released back into the wild at the age of 2 next June/July. The Vulture and Eagle were aptly named Vulture and Eagle. Poor Vulture had an injured stomach and poor Eagle was currently unable to fly. Both were being nursed back to health. (birds in the KKH – Hawk)

Loli the Snow Leopard (KKH, Pakistan)

Loli the Snow Leopard
(KKH, Pakistan)

Loli the playful and deadly (KKH, Pakistan)

Loli the playful and deadly
(KKH, Pakistan)

Vulture the Vulture (KKH, Pakistan)

Vulture the Vulture
(KKH, Pakistan)

Eagle the Eagle (Or Hawk?) (KKH, Pakistan)

Eagle the Eagle (Or is it a Hawk?)
(KKH, Pakistan)

Continuing back down the valley to the hotel I arrived just as the sun disappeared behind the clouds and the cold started to bite. It was the first time I’d needed to use the heater in Boris for six months.

The following morning I sat by myself in the hotel restaurant. After 3 cups of coffee and a fair bit of time for reflection I was ready to go. Passu had been the central point of my excursion to the top of the KKH. A place so quiet and still, where I had so much time to think. Removed from mobile and internet coverage for several days it was a pleasant escape from the online world.

Boris' Roll on Roll Off Ferry (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Boris’ Roll on Roll Off Ferry
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Unloading a few boxes of explosives (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Unloading a few boxes of explosives
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

The return journey across Attabad Lake (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

The return journey across Attabad Lake
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

The Southern Port (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

The Southern Port
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

Hard at work loading trucks (Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

The locals hard at work loading trucks
(Attabad Lake, Pakistan)

I arrived back at Attabad Lake at 1pm as agreed. The owner and then the boat eventually showed up. Unloading and loading ended up taking 1.5hrs this time. I guess it’s prudent to be careful when you are unloading explosives. The ride back was smooth and enjoyable but I was relieved to have completed the journey nonetheless. On arrival I was off the boat in a flash only to be trapped by more trucks being unloaded and loaded. After 2.5 hrs waiting for the trucks to finish loading we were finally underway again and back in Hunza by nightfall.

Baltit and Altit Forts were worth a visit on my rest day. They came with guided tours and an explanation of the history of the region. The forts were keys defence sites for King Girkis of Hunza, who shared a mutual hatred each other, with this twin brother the King Maglot of Nagyr, just across the valley. Both Forts were used to hide the royal family in times of strife.

Hunza Valley Dreaming (Karimabad, Pakistan)

Hunza Valley Dreaming
(Karimabad, Pakistan)

Eventually it was time for me to depart Karimabad. It was tough as the place was so beautiful, so relaxing and the locals so friendly. They refer to the area as the safest place in all of Pakistan. And there is a classic local saying: ‘Arrive as a guest, leave as family’. I had certainly been made to feel like family. Mahmood had been a brilliant host and guide. It made the stay all the more memorable.

Gilgit was my next destination. Manzoor’s cousin Nasir had offered to host me so I thought it would be rude not too accept. I rolled into Gilgit in the afternoon and found myself near the polo ground. Polo is huge in the region. Each year Gilgit and Chitral battle for the Shandur Cup. The festival surrounding the match is one of the regional highlights of the year. I jokingly thought to myself how nice it would be if they organised a game for my visit. Well, I kid you not, they had. I walked into the polo ground to find the annual Army vs Police match underway. Sweet!! The ground was packed with screaming locals. The police raced out to a 5-1 lead but just when everybody was writing off the Army, they came storming back into the match to draw level at 6-6. With the local fans obviously behind the Army team, the noise levels went through the roof when the Army finally went in front. Such was the crowds enthusiasm they were encroaching on the field of play and then racing back off, as ten horses and riders came barrelling down the field towards them. It was a bit Pakistani madness and loads of fun!! In the end it was a thriller that went right down to the wire. The Army finally triumphing 9-7, much to the satisfaction of the crowd. The winners were raised up on shoulders and given a hero’s welcome. It was brilliant occasion that I was lucky to enjoy.

Synchronised Polo  (Gilgit, Pakistan)

Synchronised Polo
(Gilgit, Pakistan)

Polo Action (Gilgit, Pakistan)

Polo Action
(Gilgit, Pakistan)

Nasir and his Dad (Gilgit, Pakistan)

Nasir and his Dad
(Gilgit, Pakistan)

After the match I headed up to Nasir’s home to meet him and his family. It was a brief stay but I was thankful for their kind hospitality. Dinner and breakfast afforded me the chance to chat with Nasir, his dad and his mum. As quick as I’d arrived I said my farewell’s and returned to back down the KKH to Besham. Another night at the Besham Continental followed before my journey back to Islamabad.

The drive south was uneventful until I decided to take an alternate route via Muzaraffabad. Unfortunately I didn’t realise that it was in Kashmir so they wouldn’t let me cross the border when I rolled up. I turned on all my border crossing charm that had been so successful in recent months, and then failed spectacularly. No NOC, No Entry. Very sorry sir but you’ll have to retrace your steps to Mansehra (Mansehra, sehra what ever will be, will be, I sang as I drove back to Mansehra). At least I’d seen Kashmir from the Pakistani side. The rest of the journey passed quickly as I made my way back to Islamabad the same way I’d originally come 10 days before. And what a 10 days they had been.

Summary

The KKH is the one place that I wish I had a decent DSLR camera so I could do true justice to the scenery. It is undoubtedly one of the highlights of the journey. Both from its geographical and historical significance. And of course the current history is still as embroiled in controversy, as it has been for the past 200 years and beyond, back to Silk Road times. The beauty of the Hunza valley in autumn was very special. I’ve been told that the summer is even better. I will have to go back again one day. If your thinking about visiting Pakistan, the KKH has it all. It left a massively positive impression on me. In time, I may consider this to be the driving highlight of the expedition!!

—->
p.s: If you like the pictures you see in this post. Watch out for the next post titled: The Karakoram Highway – The 50 Best Scenic Photos. If you don’t already want to visit the KKH you will after you seen these pictures.

16 Responses to “The Karakoram Highway – Wow Wow Wow, 3 Cups of Coffee & 60 Minutes on a Leaky Boat”

  1. Awesome Stuff Jon, so very jealous. Views look incredable, especially Attabad Lake! Wow!

    I think I better practice my best NZ accent, seems to be diplomatic dynamite!

    Let’s get those pictures on the map m8!

    • Hi Pete, You’ll want to check out the pictures I post on Sunday. You’ll be buying your place ticket straight afterwards!!

      I’ll get onto the map stuff.

  2. Graham Naismith says:

    That picture of your wheels on that boat is brilliant! Anyway – want to go to that valley! Did u drive past Bin Laden’s old place?

    • It was one hell on a ride Graham.

      I drove through the town Osama was staying but I didn’t check out the compound. Apparently its been flattened.

  3. I’m glad to read this 🙂

  4. Mansoor Azam says:

    Fast becoming Fan of yr writing skills …. When is the book coming out ? 😉

  5. I can’t believe you had to pretend to be a Kiwi just for diplomatic purposes. As a proud Brit(isn passport holder) that must have really hurt you!

    • Yes, it hurt for about 3 seconds. Then I came to my senses and realised it’s awesome being a kiwi. The accent alone is better than most passports around the world.

  6. This is the best yet Jonno!

  7. Biren Thapar says:

    Great snaps great diplomacy :-))

  8. Hey man. Unbelievable scenery dude. Great post and I love your spirit and positivity despite the what at times must be trying circumstances. Pity you didn’t record yourself singing “Mansehra, sehra what ever will be, will be…” Or did you?

  9. The curious boy in passu is my cousin. 🙂 Hope you enjoyed passu. P.S. we have a new tunnel now, so no more atabed lake journey.

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