Exploring the Hunza Valley

Mountains, mountains and more mountains. It's a good job I can't get enough of them as I am surrounded by them in the Hunza Valley. As you cast your eyes upwards you are engulfed by the massive snow capped peaks set against a brilliant blue sky. It's just breath taking. Whilst I had expected mountains I was surprised to find there are so many glaciers here too and forts and blossoming trees and the most welcoming and hospitable people. It has all made for a fantastic week in the Hunza Valley. So where did I start. First I thought it would be useful to learn a little history of the place. The Hunza Valley used to be the home to a number of Princely States. In Karimabad they have restored two of the forts from one of these States. One of the forts, Altit was over 1100 years old and the other Baltit was nearly 800 years old. The forts or palaces were small (certainly compared to the grand Maharajah palaces in India) but showed how the States royalty used to live. Life revolved around one main room, where people sat around, cooked, ate and then slept. A fire was kept in the middle to keep everyone warm and to cook on. Baltit fort had two such rooms, one for the summer and one more enclosed for the long hard winters. The views from both of the forts across the valley and to the mountains was magnificent. You could also see the Karakoram Highway skirting along the valley floor. After the Chinese rebuilt this road a few years ago it's a wonderful smooth ribbon of tarmac. On the way down from the forts I thought it only made sense to buy some of the produce of the local valley. So I returned to the truck with walnuts, pistachios as well as dried apricots and cherries. Both Alisha and Lucy love these so I only need to stop myself from eating them before we all meet up again. For the next couple of days it was time to put my hiking boots on and climb further up into the mountains. First I headed to Eagles Nest a small settlement with great views up the valley. I had thought about driving the truck up and at the start of the walk saw no reason why I couldn't but as I got further up the road it narrowed significantly and at the tiny villages wires were strung across the road that the truck certainly would not have got under. This week I have really appreciated both the advantages and disadvantages of our truck. Each day after been out it has been wonderful to come back to the sanctuary and comfort of the truck with my own space. The disadvantage has been it's too big to take on the winding roads into the side valleys. My second hike was much tougher. I had seen a sign on the way up to the fort that said path to a meadow and a base camp for one of the nearby mountains so I decided to tackle it. It was 1100m uphill along a boulder strewn "path" but it was worth it. The views back across the valley to the mountains on the other side were fantastic. Unfortunately the tops of the mountains on my side were covered in cloud. Most of the walk was up the side of the glacier that had carved the deep valley I was walking in. Arriving at a flatter area I was able to admire the glacier up close and right in front of me. I left Karimabad the next day and headed further up the valley. A few kilometres further up I came to Lake Attabad. This is a very new Lake in that it was formed by a landslide blocking the Hunza River a number of years ago. Up until recently the only way further up the valley was to put your vehicle on a small boat to get across. Now it is easy, the Chinese have built some wonderful tunnels and you can just drive around it. Shortly thereafter I found a quiet place to camp. It was lovely been completely on my own. I took a short hike in the hills overlooking where I had parked the truck and didn't see anyone all day. The next day I continued further up the valley and before I knew it I was in the border town of Sost. I say border town, it's actually over 80kms from the border but this is where all the border formalities take place. Whilst been in the town was useful to be able to get my washing done I still had a number of days to kill. Fortunately I received an email from some other travellers who had done the same route a couple of weeks ago and this contained some great suggestions. So for two reasons I drove 80kms back down the valley to Karimabad. The first reason was that internet is not great in the valley and also my phone didn't work in Sost. As I needed to pick up some emails and also buy some insurance for further on in our travels it made sense to head somewhere to where this was possible. Not that the internet is any good in Karimabad it's just that it's bad as opposed to very bad in Sost. The second reason was to take up one of the recommendations from the travellers email and to take a car to explore the Hoper Valley. Like many of the side valleys around here the valleys are set deep between wonderful high mountain peaks but on the valley floor at this time of the year it's green and the villagers are busy planting crops. It's also tree blossoming time and the apricot, cherry and apple trees were in full blossom giving the valley a riot of colour. The villages we passed through were very friendly with people waving, stopping to chat , asking to have their photos taken and a number of invites to stop and have tea and discuss the cricket.   At the end of the valley at the last village a guide took me down the valley side to walk on the glacier that gave the valley its name. As you walked on the black moraine you could hear it creaking and cracking under your feet. Occasionally there was a loud bang as pieces of rock or ice crumbled. The view staring up the valley was magnificent you could see all the way to the mountain tops and where the ice you were standing on had started its journey many years before. I slowly wound my way back towards the border town, stopping to admire the views along the way. I decided to stop on a gravel patch and spend the afternoon and night by the river. It was quiet but I was visible from the road although traffic was very light. In the evening I had two visits from plain clothes "security" and a policeman. They were very friendly, just wanting to know what I was doing, where I was from and slightly confused I did not want to stay in a hotel. It was all very friendly though. Arriving in Sost on my last full day in Pakistan I again decided to hire a jeep with a guide to head up the Chapursan. Valley. The trip almost never started as at the checkpoint I was told I needed a special permission to head up the valley as it led to the border with Afghanistan some 50kms away. After a number of calls I was allowed to proceed up the valley to the last village about half way to the border. This valley was much starker and as we entered it the steep mountain sides were devoid of vegetation. The road was narrow but my guide and driver was from the valley so was used to driving his jeep along it even accelerating to avoid the stones falling from the mountainside above. The guide spoke excellent English so he was able to tell me about life in the valley. He seemed to know everyone so as we went along we would stop and give people lifts between the small villages dotted along the valley floor. On the way back down the valley we met his cousin who invited us into his traditional family home for afternoon tea. He and his family were wonderfully hospitable hosts. From the border town of Sost it's over 80kms and a two hour drive up the Khunjerab Valley to the actual border with China at the Khunjerab Pass. The pass is famous for been the highest tarred road border post in the world. After quickly clearing Pakistan customs it was a pleasant drive up the valley. As I reached the top of the valley the road started to twist up hairpins and I entered the snow line. Fortunately the road had been cleared so I could enjoy the views as I drove. The pass is at about 4,700m and there is a big entrance gate as you cross into China which makes for a great photo opportunity. All had gone well leaving Pakistan, as for entering China, well let's just say that's a story for another day. I am really looking forward to meeting up with Gilly, Alisha and Lucy again but I am also going to miss this part of Pakistan. It's astonishingly beautiful and the people are wonderfully friendly without been intrusive. I have felt really safe all the time. I know we were been prudent in just having me drive the truck through Pakistan on my own but having experienced it I think if I was making the decision now we all would have come. I definitely think we will be back.

Machine Gun Escort on the KKH

First, before we can go, we must have some tea, please come with me said the policeman with excellent English. I had been stopped just outside the town of Besham on the Karakoram Highway in Pakistan. The UK foreign office advises against all travel on the road north of Besham until Gilgit but there was only one road so what choice did I have. Anyway from here it looked like I was going to receive some police escorts. As the policeman explained "it's not really dangerous although we occasionally have problems but you are a guest in our county so you need to be properly looked after". Fuelled with tea and paratha we set off. It was not long before he jumped out and handed me over to a more serious escort. This one was a pick up truck with a machine gun mounted on top and six policeman in it. Follow them I was told and so the pattern for the day unfolded. After dropping Gilly, Alisha and Lucy off at Amritsar station I had headed to the India/Pakistan border at Wagah. This was where we had all been a few weeks previously to watch the lowering of the flag ceremony. As it was morning and well before the ceremony started all was quiet. Clearing the border was polite and ordered if a little slow and then I got to drive through the gates where the ceremony took place. One last stop parked in front of the empty stands and then I was through and into Pakistan. The Pakistan side was much quicker. All the customs official wanted to know was whether I had any whisky, I didn't, and then to change some money for me! I had thought about staying at the border to watch the ceremony from the Pakistan side but instead decided to push on. Skirting Lahore I entered the motorway to Islamabad and what a delight. It was quiet and the traffic drove in an ordered way. Motorcycles, tuk tuks and tractors were not allowed, it was just like driving in Europe and completely different to India. I arrived that night at a small town just outside Islamabad, Taxila and slept in the car parking area of a local hotel. The next day was the start of an 850km drive up the Karakoram Highway. This Highway connects Pakistan with China and was built in the 1970's. Because of the terrain many lives were lost and the road is in constant need of attention as it suffers from landslides regularly blocking it. It is regarded as one of the most scenic drives in the world. As I set off in the lower reaches the valleys was lush and green. I passed through the town of Abbotabad, famous for being where the US Seals caught and killed Osama Bin Laden and started gently climbing up to the town of Besham. As it was mid afternoon and supposedly the start of the "dodgy" bit I decided to park up for the night. Everything seemed friendly so I decided to go for a walk. People were very friendly, shaking my hand, saying hello and asking me where I was from. After about a kilometre two guys on a motorbike came up to me. They said I had to stop. They were hotel security from where I was parked and they said it was very dangerous and I had to go back with them on the back of the motorbike. I said that I thought that was far more dangerous so I would walk back. They followed me all the way. The next morning was the start of the friendly escorts. As we wound our way up the Indus Valley the views became ever more spectacular. Every few kilometres the escorts would swap over to a different one, some been a policeman in the vehicle and other been vehicles in front. As we drove we could see how wild the Karakoram Highway was and how difficult an engineering feat it was. There were cleared landslides, waterfalls cascading onto the roads and traffic hazards too.   After about 70kms the escorts inexplicably stopped and I was waved on my way. As I stopped at some road works the locals came over to chat. They were curious and friendly but some police came over and chased them away. I understood they were told not to talk to me. Free of escorts I stopped for lunch at a spectacular spot. Later that afternoon as we entered the province of Gilgit- Baltistan the escorts started again. Some spoke English so we were able to chat along the way. They even helped me find the best spot to take a photo of Nanga Prabat, the 9th highest mountain in the world. The views along this section of the road were even more stunning and as we came out of the narrow valley we entered a broader plateau with snow capped mountains on either side. Shortly after Chillas the escorts stopped. I was told they were not needed any more and I could drive on to Gilgit without them. The road had also considerably improved. I had now reached the point where the Chinese had recently rebuilt the road to from the border and I was told it was going to now be smooth tar all the way to the border. It had been a spectacular days driving but a long one. As I entered Gilgit after 13 hours driving it was getting dark and I needed to find somewhere to stay. As I toured the narrow streets in the dark I was worried about overhanging wires and been on my own I could not do anything to lift them up while driving the truck through. Luckily it all passed without incident and I found a place to park and promptly headed to the restaurant for dinner. I spent the next day wondering around Gilgit. There was not that much to see but it was pleasant enough wandering around. For lunch I spotted a cafe full of old men with their long beards and felt hats so I wandered in. Inside I was shown a number of pots with different dishes in. I went for the chick peas with some meat in it, all served with fresh Nan bread. It was delicious and a bargain at only $1.20. From there I headed over to the sweet shop. I was only intending buying a few sweets to try but there was such a dizzying array. I saw the man in front of me get a box with a selection in and as they were so cheap decided to do the same. The only problem is back at the truck there was just me and I had no one to share them with. Whats one to do? I made them last two days. As there was not much to do in Gilgit I decided to continue on to Hunza. The weather had changed from the hot sunny day the previous day to cold and rain. As I was heading up the mountains it felt a lot colder. Although the scenery was still beautiful it was more raw and gritty in the clouds and the snow capped mountains were nowhere to be seen. I have driven over a thousand kilometres in Pakistan in the first few days, some of it with the most stunning scenery. There is now less then 200kms to the Chinese border and I still have a week until I can cross so I need to go and see what there is to do other than just admiring the mountains out of the window.