Leaving Shangri-la: Karimabad to Lahore


Crossing a glacier from Rakaposhi Base Camp to Diran Base Camp

To really experience the soul of a country’s landscapes, one needs to travel away from the roads. I was enjoying every minute of cycling Pakistan’s incredible Karakoram highway, but my experience was made that much richer by my travels on foot. From Karimabad I cycled towards the village of Minapin, the base for the 2-day trek to Rakaposhi Base camp. Out of Karimabad the mountains continued to soar high above and the road was lined with apricot trees. Being apricot season I took every chance I could to gorge myself on the delicious fruit. Minapin was a small detour off of the main road and I climbed past tiny villages and friendly locals.


Hiding out in one of Hunza’s many apricot trees

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I pitched my tent in the beautiful garden at the Diran Guesthouse while waiting for my Russian friend Semen that would accompany me on the Rakaposhi base camp trek. The garden was like a mini orchard of apple trees and I ate far too many. I immediately regretted my actions and I lay awake all night with horrible stomach cramps. I got up the next morning feeling far from 100 per cent, but I wasn’t willing to miss the trek.

It was a very hot morning and we started the long ascent to Rakaposhi base camp. The higher we climbed, the cooler the air became. We were surrounding by steep hillsides of small conifers.


The continuous ascent to Rakaposhi base camp

_DSF2752  On the way up we met several locals from Minapin that wanted to hike to Diran peak base camp – a few hours further from Rakaposhi. To get to Diran, we would have to cross a glacier and to do so technically required a guide. We were lucky to run into these guys, who were willing to take us across. They spoke the Pakistani language Urdu, a tiny bit of English and the local language Burushaski, which has no relation to any other language group.

The bad apples from the previously day were wrecking havoc on stomach and it was a very challenging climb to the top for me. We stopped several times to drink from the icy clear streams and soak our heads. The ascent was continuous, swerving through bits of pine forest and rock cradled by the steep hillsides. As we neared the crest of the climb, our local guides suggested that we follow them up to a particular viewpoint. I scrambled up some loose rocks and what I saw next was nothing short of jaw-dropping.


It is sight that will be forever etched into my memory. I have seen a lot of extraordinary mountain scenery in my life, but this glacial field was something truly unique.

We continued hiking high above the glacier and then started to descend to a small meadow. Then we could see the base camp, with a view of Rakaposhi – one of the most beautiful mountains.


Rakaposhi Base Camp, 3568m


Rakaposhi, 7788m

We set up camp for the night and decided to hike to Diran Peak across the glacier the next morning. We were all well taken care of by other locals and their families camping. We enjoyed some local curries while a bon fire raged in the background. A crowd of locals gathered around yelling and singing in Burushaski, playing makeshift drums made out of plastic containers. I eventually fell into a deep sleep in my tent, the evening songs fading away into silence.

Semen, our local guide and me left Rakaposhi Base Camp around 9am and headed for Diran Base Camp. It was beautiful morning, with Rakoposhi in full view, filling the sky. We scrambled over small fields of boulders before making contact with the glacial ice. Once on the glacier, it was exhausting work scrambling up and down its steep curvatures.


The many forms of glacial ice


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Rakaposhi in all its glory

Sometimes we had to jump across rushing streams carving a path through the ice. I wondered about the safety of our mission and whether or not crampons would have been useful. The sun was intense, creating a blinding glow. Our “guide” paused often, often walking in circles and we started to feel like he was lost. Later, we learned that new crevasses had formed and the usual path to base camp was no longer safe to cross. With the language barrier, he wasn’t able to explain this to us. This led to a bit of improvisation and we could see that our local friend had grown tired and frustrated. After close to three hours of walking, we reached Diran Peak. We laid out a mat and took a nap on the green meadow under the face of the mountain.


Taking a break at Diran Base Camp

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All three of us were quite tired at this point and tried to muster up some energy for the return journey.

On the way back we met some people from the previous night at Rakaposhi base camp. They also had trouble finding their way and navigating around the crevasses. My legs grew increasingly heavy and it was tough knowing that we still had a long descent back to Minapin. We arrived back at base camp in the early evening, our guide collapsing onto the grass near his friends. We gave him a few rupees and thanked him. It was a challenging but thrilling experience to cross a glacier. Before our journey back, we were given some instant noodles by a local  – the famous “Maggi” brand that was found all over Pakistan. If we had wanted to stay for dinner, he would feed us also. The kindness of Pakistani people was never ending. We said our goodbyes and started the knee-knackering hike down to Minapin.

We walked at a quick pace, racing against the darkness. We stopped for a break near a stream before continuing the hike down. Half an hour later I noticed in a panic that my camera was not with me. My only thought was that I had left it in the spot where we had taken a break. The light was fading fast and I sprinted back up the steep hill that I had just so happily descended. Some nice local men offered to help me find the camera.Thankfully I found it and ran back down.

At this point Semen and I quickened our pace, our knees taking a hammering with each step downward. We finished the last few kilometers in the dark. finally arriving in Minapin. I was so incredibly hungry that I wanted to eat everything in sight at the first shop that appeared.

A couple of hundred meters further, we spotted the world’s smallest ice cream shop. After such a long day, that bit of soft ice cream was the simplest and sweetest reward.

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From left: me, my hiking buddy Semen and one of our generous hosts Akif with his son Mahd

I spent most of the next day relaxing at Minapin guesthouse, recovering from the trek. I met an amazing family from a small town called Liaquat pur in the Punjab province. My friend Semen and I were invited to spend lunch with them. I had a great time chatting and sharing a delicious meal with Sarwat, her husband Akif and their four children Zahra , Smeet, Mahd and Rebecca. This was muslim hospitality at its finest. In Islam, travellers are given very high priority and are always treated like honoured guests. The next morning was my final cycling day in Pakistan – to Gilgit.


A kind man fetching me some delicious Hunza apricots near Minapin

The ride to Gilgit was overwhelmingly hot. Only a few kilometres from the guesthouse a local man waved to me, asked if I was enjoying Pakistan and if I would like some Hunza apricots. He climbed a tree and brought me down handfuls. They were a delicious snack in the morning heat. Not very far from Minapin I had a spectacular view of Rakaposhi from the road. I went to a tourist shop to buy a few postcards to mail home to family. They were covered in dust and the designs reminded me of the early 90s – I guess the last time the country had large amounts of foreign tourists. I had a few local men aski to take photos with me – a solo female on a bike in Pakistan is a novelty indeed.


I stopped many times for cold drinks and felt like I was melting away in the heat. From Gilgit onwards cyclists required a police escort which they would have to pay for themselves. I opted to take a bus to Islamabad and onward to Lahore. The reputation for general unfriendliness towards foreigners in the area and the extreme heat had put me off from cycling it. The closer I got to Gilgit the less dramatic the mountains become, but the scenery was no less awe-inspiring.

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Gilgit itself was a fairly busy place, chaotic in comparison to the Upper Hunza Valley. It wasn’t a place I would want to spend much time in. I went and bought a bus ticket, not looking forward to the 18 hour plus journey that lay ahead.


Dozer the bike didn’t want to go either…

You know you are on an adventurous bus route when the driver walks on with a rifle and tucks it under the spare seat beside him. Sectarian violence has been an issue in the past in the Indus Kohistan area, between Besham and Chilas and I guess it was a “necessary” precaution. Buses also travel in a tight convoy through this area.


In the convoy through Indus Kohistan

But the only act of terror on that road was against my stomach.  The combination of sketchy food from the night before and motion sickness from made it a tough journey for me. It led made for a not-so-lovely scene with me getting sick in front of a large group men at one of the stops. Luckily the people on the bus took good care of me, the only foreigner on the bus. They gave me medicine and made sure I had enough to eat. The good road stopped South of Gilgit, and the bus rode like a jackhammer down the Karakoram Highway. This area felt very different from the Northern Karakoram Highway as it was much more conservative. At one restaurant at a rest stop the men sat outside at the tables and they women were seated separately in a small room on a carpeted floor.  This was something I hadn’t really experienced North of Gilgit.

About 17 hours of hell later, I arrived in Islamabad at the ungodly hour of 3am. I had made a contact through Facebook that was going to pick me up when I arrived. I don’t know what I would have done without Shahzeb, who came to the bus terminal in the middle of the night. He told me back to his home, where I met the rest of the amazing Sarwar family. Here, I wasn’t a stranger – I was treated like a daughter. Unfortunately I was sick for my entire stay, and I felt bad that I couldn’t be a more energetic guest. I didn’t see much of Islamabad – that will have to wait for another visit. Next stop was the intriguing city of Lahore.

Islamabad was insanely hot and Lahore worse. Being Canadian, I have much more experience dealing with cold weather and in 40 plus degrees my body almost shuts down. Laziness takes over and all I want to do is remain indoors. This was how I spent a lot of my time in Lahore unfortunately. Though it was a fascinating city, the heat and chaos during the day was too much for me to handle. I did, however stay at a great hostel called Lahore Backpackers. The manager, Sajjad, was one of the most welcoming and generous people I’ve met. He told me that I had arrived on a good day, because it was Sufi Night in Lahore. Not knowing what to expect I went with another guy that worked at the hotel across the city for this event.  The atmosphere was electric. Hash smoke clung to the heavy air, encircling the dense crowd. Sweat poured down faces, people dancing frantically to the rhythm eyes locked into a heavy trance. The drumming was very fast-paced and captivating. The heat was so intense that several boys lingered by with rags to wipe the sweaty faces of the musicians.

The music was intoxicating and its effect took hold of the crowd.

The following night I visited parts of the old city and had a view of the Badshahi Mosque – the fifth largest in the world. Then, it was time to leave Lahore and head to the Indian border at Wagah.


Badshahi Mosque, Lahore


Pakistan was everything I had wanted it to be. As a country it offers so much to the traveller and its people and its people are waiting to welcome you. Riding the Karakoram highway was a long-held dream come true. Its people and landscapes have found a special place in my heart and will stay there forever. Out of about 22 countries I have visited, Pakistan is my #1 favourite. One day I will return to this amazing place, Inshallah.

Pakistan’s Karakoram Highway: My Shangri-la


On the way to Passu, Karakoram Highway

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.


Friendly faces of Hunza

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.

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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.


Passu Cathedrals

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.


Passu village


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.


Passenger boats on Attabad Lake

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Pakistani motorcycle stud

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.


Into the Hunza Valley


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.


Social scene in Karimabad


On the hike to Ulter base camp from Karimabad


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.


From left: Karim, Sarah, me, Sarah, Hadia and our hotel owner

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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.

_DSF2604We awoke at 3am to more cloud and unfortunately did not get our sunrise. But the in full light, the view was worth every bit of effort we made to get there.


View from Duikar over the Hunza Valley

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.

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This calf was quite fond of us

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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.


Baaaaad idea!


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.


Where’s the trail?

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.


Rakaposhi, 7788m

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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.