Friday, 11 March 2011

High Road to Hunza

Travelling in Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan

Originally published in Asian Geographic Passport, December 2010

Say you’re going to Pakistan for a holiday and most people will think you’re joking – or crazy. Chronic instability and bomb blasts in major cities have seen the South Asian nation drop off the world travel map in recent years. But here’s the good news: Gilgit-Baltistan, in Pakistan’s mountainous far north, remains totally unaffected by the troubles further south. The region has some of the most jaw-dropping upland scenery on earth and is home to some of Asia’s most hospitable people.

Until recently Gilgit-Baltistan was known as the Northern Areas. According to locals this led not just foreign travellers but even domestic tourists to confuse this peaceful region with more restive areas such as Swat, which also lie in the north of Pakistan. So let’s clear up the confusion once and for all: the only danger you’re likely to face in Gilgit-Baltistan – besides the stomach-churning mountain roads – is of tooth decay from the endless cups of super-sweet tea you’ll be offered.

Gilgit-Baltistan is defined by its mountains. This is the place where the world’s highest ranges – the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush – lock together in one mighty knot. The region contains the greatest concentration of peaks over 7000 metres anywhere in the world. Icy giants loom over journeys in Gilgit-Baltistan, but you don’t need to be a mountaineer or a hardcore trekker to make the most of a trip here. Backbone of the region is the Karakoram Highway a mindboggling 1300 kilometre strip of tarmac that winds along perilous gorges all the way from Islamabad to Kashgar in China. As long as you’ve got a strong head for heights you’ll get views from the window of a bus or jeep that you’d have to hike days to enjoy in other parts of the world.

Capital of Gilgit-Baltistan is the town of Gilgit, the hub of the mountains where tenuous trails north, south, east and west come together. It’s a charmingly ramshackle place, hemmed in by hard brown peaks. The chaotic markets are full of chatter in a dozen languages, and the scent of grilling kebabs. Here an invitation for chai (Pakistani milk tea) from a stranger in the street can be taken at face value and a stroll through the bazaar will be a succession of warm greetings and hearty handshakes.

If there’s a polo match on while you’re in Gilgit don’t miss it! The “game of kings” is a passion here, but it’s a world away from the gentile sport played by British royalty. In Gilgit-Baltistan they play free-style polo, best described as wrestling-cum-rugby on horseback, and there are few more thrilling sights that the two five-man teams going at full tilt in a welter of hoof-beats and dust. If you visit in July you can catch the famous Shandur polo tournament, a three-day contest played on the saddle of a 3735 metre pass.

A trip west from Gilgit will lead you to the beautiful valleys of Ishkoman and Yasin – remote fastnesses where saw-toothed ridges rise above thickets of poplar trees and willows. This is an area almost untouched by tourism where you’ll be taken in by local villagers and given a place to sleep in the family guestroom. Like many people in Gilgit-Baltistan the residents of these valleys are tolerant Ismaili Muslims, members of the Shia sect led by the Aga Khan.

Head east of Gilgit if you’re looking for serious trekking. Skardu, a bleak township on the banks of the Indus River, is the heart of the Karakoram. This area was once part of Tibet, and though the people are Shia Muslims now, they still speak a Tibetan dialect. Here the superlative extends both horizontally and vertically – the longest glaciers in the world outside the polar regions snake beneath K2 and a clutch of other monstrous mountains.

But for scenery that surpasses all, travel north from Gilgit, along the Karakoram Highway. Here an ice-blue river cleaves a deep valley between two kingdoms – Nagar on the east bank, the fabled fastness of Hunza on the west. The landscapes are of a kind usually only found in the cover art of fantasy novels. Impossibly high mountains, Rakaposhi, Ultar, Golden Peak and Diran, tower over mud-walled villages where amber apricots dry on the flat roofs. Irrigated terraces are a blaze of white blossom in spring or a flaming furnace of reds, yellows and golds in autumn. The people of Hunza – also Ismailis – are famous not only for their hospitality but also for their music, and for the fiery liquor they brew from their home-grown apricots. Karimabad, once the seat of Hunza’s royalty, is the main settlement, but don’t miss the chance to head further north. Where Pakistan begins to fade towards China you’ll find the villages of Gulmit and Passu, and the even more remote side valleys of Shimshal and Chapursan, wild, beautiful, and overwhelmingly hospitable places. Up here, with memories of thunderous polo matches, of breathtaking roads, and of a pomegranate, a cup of tea or even a bed for the night offered by a chance-met stranger, the idea that Pakistan is a dangerous, hostile place will seem almost ridiculous.

© Tim Hannigan 2011

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