Shangri-la is a mythical place that was first described in James Hilton’s classic 1933 novel, Lost Horizon. He describes a utopia tucked away in the mountains in isolation, where its inhabitants have resisted aging, living years beyond a normal lifespan. There are speculations that Pakistan’s Hunza Valley was the inspiration for the setting in the novel, where Hilton spent time travelling. Having cycled and trekked through this spectacular region, I think I may have found my own personal Shangri-la.
A misrepresented country
Pakistan has long suffered from a poor image in the West. Up until the terrorist attacks of September 11th, many visitors flocked to the region. Now the country struggles to get tourists. During the three weeks I spent in the country, I didn’t once feel unsafe, even as a solo female. Though there are still some unsafe regions in the country, the Hunza Valley is definitely not one of them. The kindness and generosity I received from the Pakistani people day after day was humbling. They wanted to communicate to the world that they are good people and travellers to their country are welcomed guests. I was often asked what I thought of the country and was given numbers to phone if I needed any help. Strangers bought me food and drink and I was welcomed into family homes. This country left such a strong impact on me and I want the world to know that this is not the place that the Western media portrays. The region of Gilgit-Balistan is a paradise in every sense of the word.
The Karakoram Highway – the beginning
My entry into Pakistan was on a overpriced bus made mandatory by the Chinese government. Since 2008, cyclists have been banned from riding the 200km stretch of no man’s land between Tashkorgan in China and Sost in Pakistan over the highest point on the highway, the 4693m Khunjerab Pass. With the Muslim holiday of Eid just around the corner and a quickly expiring Chinese visa, I was stressed out that I wouldn’t get a seat on the bus. After hours of lining up and misinformation at Chinese customs in Tashkorgan, I finally got my ticket. It was a scenic ride to Sost, that left me itching to cycle it. Sost was a tiny place, and one of the more mellow border towns that I’ve been to. The next day I started my ride on the Karakoram Highway to Passu.
The Karakoram Highway is an incredible feat of engineering and a unique mountain experience for cyclists. Northern Pakistan has the highest concentration of 8000m peaks in the world. Since the road usually doesn’t climb much higher than 2000m, these mountains tower high above, filling the sky. Riding out of Sost, I quickly felt dwarfed by their immensity. My first day cycling on the Karakoram Highway was bliss and for me, the highlight of the route.
The road rolled up and down and I passed a few friendly green villages on the way to Passu. I stopped by two women on the road with 2 young boys.Their smiles ran deep into the creases of their faces. They were gathering fresh water from a stream and offered me some mixed with peach juice crystals. It was delicious in the hot weather. I rode on and the farther I travelled, the more spectacular the scenery became.
I was looking forward to seeing the famous “Passu Cathedrals” – a large expanse of barren, jagged peaks. When I arrived in Passu, I explored the tiny, desolate village. There were narrow dirt lanes surrounded by greenery and tiny rock houses. Women in colourful dress walked quietly in and out of sight.
I really loved the place and its stunning surroundings. I pitched my tent in the backyard of the famous Glacier Breeze restaurant overlooking the “cathedrals”. This was one of those moments where I had to pause and ask myself if it were real. And then came the stars at night – another wonder to behold.
The next morning I was back on the smooth, rolling road to Karimabad. Today was much hotter than the previous day, which made the ride quite tiring. A highlight of the ride was a the crossing of Attabad Lake.
The lake was created in 2010 when a massive landslide blocked the Hunza River near the village of Attabad, flooding over 20km of the Karakoram Highway. The new highway around the lake was set to open in August of this year. The Chinese have spent the last few years blasting through the mountainside creating a series of insane tunnels. I really enjoyed the boat ride across and the conversation with a few friendly passengers. One younger guy wanted to know all about my experience so far in the country and made it clear that Hunza’s people were laid back, liberal and “different from the rest.” At the other end of the lake I was invited into the world’s tiniest restaurant for a drink and snacks. At first I was unsure if it was it acceptable for me to crowd into this tiny restaurant with a bunch of local men, but I immediately felt very comfortable. I was asked the usual questions about where I was from and if I was enjoying Pakistan. I was offered rides by several people if I was too tired to continue. After climbing away from the lake I had a glorious descent into the Hunza Valley. The mountains were as majestic as ever.
I passed the Sacred Rocks of Hunza, which are hundreds of carvings into the these rocks made by travelers since 200AD, when the gorge connected the ancient kingdom of Gandhara (northern Pakistan and eastern Afghanistan) and the Tarim Basin (Xinjiang, China). A short, but steep and scorching climb followed up to Karimabad. Soaked in sweat I arrived at the Old Hunza Inn, which would become my home away from home in the spectacularly situated town.
Some of my most memorable times in Pakistan took place in the mountain paradise of Karimadbad. Karimabad is completely surrounded by massive peaks, some of which are over 7000m. I met several foreign travellers at the Old Hunza Inn from Germany – one was Sarah. another rare solo female traveller in Pakistan. I also met one fellow Canadian, Karim. From Pakistan I met Hadia, Sarah and Khizer from Karachi, who were students fortunate enough to have a work placement in Hunza. I also ran into my Russian friend Semen that had taken the bus with me from Tashkorgan. He was hitchhiking across the country. All of these people became like family over the next few days. It was here in Karimabad that I also got to experience the festivities of Eid for the first time. Sarah from Karachi turned out to be an expert henna artist and decorated our hands in beautiful designs for the occasion. The following morning we dressed up and had a mini breakfast celebration with the owner of the hotel and his family.
There was also a dinner and music night planned and I was persuaded to stay one extra day so that I could take part. Karimabad was also surrounded by the some excellent opportunities for trekking and I felt like it was great way to further explore Northern Pakistan’s mountains.
I had read in my bible, Laura Stone’s Himalaya By Bike about Duikar, a town 500m above Karimabad where you could have a wonderful view at dawn over the Hunza Valley. Karim, Khizer, Sarah and Hadia had all planned to do the hike and I was happy to join. For three hours we climbed up the spiralling road past picturesque villages in a light rain that provided much needed relief in the heat. It was a steep climb and we were tired and ravenous when we got to the top. I was also reminded that the muscles used for walking and cycling are very different indeed. At the top we found a semi-luxury tent camp near the posh Eagle’s Nest hotel, where the viewpoint was. We had a great time hanging out in our massive tent and enjoyed some absolutely delicious food. I ate probably the best chicken curry in all of Pakistan. We also walked up to the viewpoint at night and had a glimpse of the large expanse of Hunza shrouded in cloud. Dim lights in surrounding villages shone through the mist. In the fading light, it was a wonderful sight.
We hiked back to Karimabad to prepare for that night’s Eid festivities. For dinner we had a massive amount of Chicken biryani followed by a custard type desert. Quickly, my friends became aware of my bottomless appetite and any leftovers were offered to me – “Tara will eat it!”
When dinner was over, the common area of the Old Hunza Inn was cleared to make space for the local musicians from Hunza. Many people from the village came to see the band play. The music was strange, almost dissonant – but I enjoyed it. Several different types of flutes were played, a drum and a reid instrument that sounded like a clarinet, but more shrill. Soon the first local man got up to dance. The movements were very simple and precise – strangely graceful. The audience cheered the dancers on and sometimes walked up to them to stuff small Pakistani rupee notes into their hands. Eventually I worked up the courage and joined fellow Canadian Karim in the dance. The music carried on until about 2am. I had retired early (12:30am) because Semen, Khizir and I had planned to trek to Ultar Peak base camp the next day.
It was a slow start after the previous nights festivities (not that festive, Pakistan is a dry country). The three of us started our trek towards Ulter base camp. Eventually the trail crawled across a precarious ridge with the river raging below. With my fear of heights emerging, I stuck as close to the inside as possible.
After some steep trail and a few rock scrambles we reached the picturesque Ulter Base Camp. The mountain itself sits at 7388m. Still keen to keep hiking we had the idea to ascend higher, where where we could have a better view over Hunza from another small summit.
We paid for our keenness in due time, when symptoms of altitude sickness started to strike. It was another 1100m up from Ulter Basecamp to the top, which would put us at over 4000m – and we weren’t acclimatized. Semen still had the energy, but Khizer and I felt like we had been hit by a ton of bricks. We decided to turn around and head back to Karimabad. This involved a steep scramble downhill back to the basecamp.
The way up to the basecamp had seemed simple enough. But on the return trip we made a wrong turn and ended on a very high trail. The trail soon turned into a faint line overgrown with bushes. It was something even a goat would probably avoid. The width was reduced to less than a foot at some points, with a long vertical plunge to the river below.
We pressed against the rock face and tiptoed across to rid ourselves of the sensation that we would fall off the cliff. Eventually we agreed that this adventurous alternative route was taking us nowhere, except higher. We carefully backtracked and found the junction where we had taken the wrong turn.
It was a very adventurous day. Back on the correct trail, the walk back to Karimabad was amazing.
Foolishly we changed our plans without telling others, so we arrived back in town about 4 hours later than expected. Our worried friend Hadia had even climbed up to look for us! We were exhausted. But through our wearied faces crept small grins – it was a great day indeed.