Day 1 – Dublin to Islamabad
The night before leaving I saw a news article on the BBC website about the arrest of the ex-PM in Pakistan, Imran Khan, and the subsequent rioting that had kicked off. So heading for my early morning flight I was understandably a little anxious!
My flight was from Dublin to Abu Dhabi and then onwards to Islamabad. The flights themselves weren’t too bad but Abu Dhabi Terminal 3 seemed a bit of a warren and it took quite a while to find and then get to the correct gate. Thankfully I had 3 hours transfer time.
We landed into Islamabad airport at 3am in the morning. An American woman on the flight (who’s husband lived there) was extremely concerned about the riot and subsequent road blocks and was keeping everyone updated on which zones were experiencing the most trouble. After meeting our driver (and the 4 others on the trip who had also been on the flight) we set off for the hotel. However it quickly became apparent the 20-30 minute trip it should have been was not going to happen. Main through roads were blocked by stacks of containers and a couple of times the driver had to do a u-turn and re-route. After driving on the wrong side of the carriageway (into oncoming traffic), hitting another road block, and taking a very roundabout route through small bumpy back lanes, we finally arrived at our hotel at around 5.30am with dawn breaking!
Day 2 – Time in Islamabad
After a few hours sleep I headed down for a late breakfast and was joined by one of the group. After some much needed coffee we decided to head off for a walk to see if we could change some money for Pakistan Rupees. Its a closed currency so you’re not able to exchange anything outside the country.
After about an hour of wandering in the heat and sun (high of 33°C today) we finally found somewhere. Thankfully I’d brought both my passport and visa both of which were required to change money. Then it was back to the hotel, stopping for a iced smoothie at a cafe on the way back, for a rest in the aircon and think about where to go for Dinner.
In the end, as we got to the hotel at dawn last “night” and had a 7am early start tomorrow, a couple of us opted to keep things simple and eat at one of the restaurants attached to the hotel which served Afghan food. It was classic and tasty, and considering the amount of food, not bad value for just £13/$17 for the two of us!
Day 3 – Islamabad to Swat
After an early breakfast, we started on the drive out of Islamabad. Although the ex-PM, Imran Khan, had been released several roads were still blocked and on the main route towards the airport we got stuck in some congestion as drivers on the blocked road switched to our side of the highway in order to get around the obstruction!
Once free of the Islamabad traffic, it was on to the motorway to the Swat valley, amusingly billed by one advertisement we saw as “The Switzerland of Pakistan”!! As we entered Swat, we stopped at a police checkpoint where they reviewed our documents. They then insisted on giving us a police escort as we drove on to the Shingardar Stupa – a remnant of the area’s Buddhist past.
The reason for the police escort whilst partly bureaucratic was also because the Swat valley was taken over by the Taliban not too long ago. In fact its the home of Malala Yousafzai, the young girl who got shot in the head for wanting to go to school, and is now a female education activist and the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize laureate.
Our hotel for the night was originally a Prime Ministers house built in 1935. Then in 1984 it was turned into a hotel for tourists. As a result its got a definite colonial feel but seems very nice. I suspect as we move higher into the mountains, as well as getting cooler, the accomodation is going to get more and more basic!
After checking in and getting a quick lunch, we then headed to Butkata, an ancient Buddhist site. Thought to date from around the second century BCE the main stupa has been rebuilt five times. There’s not too much left of the site now however wandering around you can still find the odd carving and Buddhist imagery.
Finally, before heading back to the hotel for our dinner, we spent a short while wandering the streets of Swat. It was Friday so although many shops were closed the streets were very busy.
Day 4 – Swat to Ayun
After breakfast we had a long drive today into the ancient kingdom of Chitral. Again, due to the proximity of the road to the Afghanistan border we had to wait for police escorts a couple of times. Whilst the risk is extremely low and there haven’t been any issues I suspect the police want to make sure there aren’t any, and as mentioned previously, part of this is just bureaucracy.
Eventually we arrived at the home of Maqsood Ul Mulk, one of the princes of Chitral. His home had an amazing garden and he was very proud to tell us about all the different species he has, many not native to Pakistan.
Day 5 – Ayun to Kalash
Today we switched to the Willy Jeeps that we’ll be using for the next few days due to the state of the “roads”. We left Ayun, saying our goodbyes to the prince, and headed up into the Rumbor valley to the Kalash village of Balanguru.
After a short but bumpy ride we arrived and dropping off our bags at the basic guest house run by the chief spokesman for the Kalash, we went for a wander around the village to get our bearings. The main Joshi festival we were there for had alreay started but would culminate tomorrow.
Day 6 – Kalash Joshi Festival
The area the Kalash live in is right on the border with Afghanistan. This morning we went for a walk to one of the further villages closer to the border, but couldnt go much beyond that due to police checkpoints.
The afternoon was spent on a hilltop above the village watching the culmination of the Joshi festival. This involved the women, dressing is colourful outfits, and the men peforming a variety of circular dances. These repeated several times and sometimes seemed little more than barely controlled chaos! Finally, at the end of the day, everyone grabbed walnut branches and waved them to shoo the bad spirits out of the valley. At a certain signal they then threw the brances over the edge of the hilltop into the river below. The final dance involved everyone linking to the person in front of them with a piece of fabric and following the leader, still holding a large walnut branch, as the looped and whipped around the dancing area.
Day 7 – Kalash to Chitral
After a couple of days enjoying the friendly hospitality of the Kalash people it was time to move on. Climbing back into our jeeps we headed back along the bumpy road and through the town of Ayun, before joining the main road to Chitral city.
Once there we visited a small local museum featuring local ethnographic displays and information about the British support in the area during the war. After lunch in a local restaurant we continued a little out of town to the Chitral National Park to see if we could spotted any Markhor – a mountain antelope with twisted horns, that’s the favourite prey of local snow leopards. Although we did spot a couple of Markhor they were a long way up the hill and very difficult to see properly.
We’d stayed at a property owned by one of the princes of Chitral, but there are four in total, including the crown-prince. Our beautiful hotel for the evening was owned by another of the princes and we got the chance to have a brief chat before dinner. The rooms all had balconies with great views that looked out over Chitral valley.
Day 8 – Chitral to Mastuj
Time to move on again, and this time another long drive in the jeeps to our final destination of Mastuj. The “roads” – if you can call them that – are often just flattened rubble tracks hanging off the side of a mountain. As a result the drive was very dusty and bumpy but afforded amazing views.
Our destination, Mastuj, is located in the Yarkhun valley, at the top of which lies Afghanistans Wakhan Corridor. The accomodation, after such luxury in Chitral, was basic wooden cabins next to an old ruined fort. However where we ate they had a wood burning fire and big armchairs which, after such a bumpy ride to get there, we all collapsed into and soaked up the heat as the night cooled.
Day 9 – Mastuj to Ghizer Valley
Because our final destination of Gilgit and Hunza was too far to reach in one day, I think today was a kind of transit day. The main viewpoint was crossing over the Shandur pass at 3,800m.
On the plateau at the summit of the pass is the worlds highest polo field and every summer the plateau become a tent city as players, spectators and distinguished guests all arrive for the summer polo festival.
Day 10 – Ghizer to Gilgit/Hunza
Today we began to leave the Hindu Kush mountains behind and moved into the Karakoram mountain range. The Gilgit province was once considered the furthest outpost of the empire. Its also where the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates collide.
After traversing Gilgit we continued on to Hunza and specifically Karimabad where our hotel, located at 2,850m had spectacular views of several 7,000m+ snow covered peaks.
Day 11 – In Hunza
This morning, after opting to skip the 4.30am wake-up to watch the sun rising over Rakaposhi and the other mountains I did get up a 6am to get some shots of the amazing panorama before the clouds formed over the peaks.
After a short walk through the town of Hunza, and lunch at a local restaurant we braved the uphill slog to see Baltit Fort, restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and now a UNESCO World Heritage site. Then it was time to wander around the bazaar and grab a drink at the lovely Café de Hunza, which as well as serving great coffee is famous for its Hunza Walnut Cake!
Day 12 – Attabad Lake
This morning we went for a drive to visit some nearby glaciers. First stop was the Hoper Glacier. As with all glaciers nowadays its receding, and at the view point, much lower than it has been previously. Also, due to the dust in the air, rather than being white and blue it was just a mass of cracked and splintered blackened ice.
Driving further we arrived as Attabad Lake. This bright blue lake is fairly new after a massive landslide in 2010 blocked the Hunza River. The water backed up and formed the lake, initially much higher, but after the government dug out a spillway, it dropped to its current level. A little more driving brought us to the Batura Glacier, the 5th longest in the world, but like the Hoper Glacier its receding and coloured black.
A little further on and the Passu Cones greeted us, a stunning section of mountains broken into sharp peaks. Nearby we climbed the steps to the Glacier Cafe to sample their delicious apricot cake. There were a lot of steps, but I can say it was worth the climb!
Day 13 – Hunza to Gilgit
Today we left Hunza and began our drive back south to Islamabad. Out first stop was back to the town of Gilgit where we spent the night in the beautiful Gilgit Serana hotel. There’s not a huge amount to see in Gilgit but it was nice to rest in some luxury after the the bumpy roads and basic accommodation we’d had earlier in the trip.
Day 14 – Gilgit to Besham
The Babusar pass was closed. There’d been an avalanche last month and a nearby glacial dam was threating to burst. So instead we drove down the Karakoram Highway (KKH) towards Besham.
Along the valley, Pakistan are building two huge dams. As this means the existing KKH will flood, a new road is being created further up the mountain. However this had two impacts for us. Several times we hit road blocks due to construction. There’s no choice but to switch off your engine and wait patiently for them to clear the road. The first couple took about a hour, but the third took much longer. We arrived just prior to them blowing up part of the hillside with explosives! Following the boom of the explosion a huge dust cloud appeared and rolled down the valley. As they tried to clear the road they discovered some of the rocks that had fallen were too big, so they had to blow those up too! Eventually after just over 3 hours waiting we continued on our way again.
With the delays due to the road blocks, and the overall condition of the road, due to the construction traffic for the dam and new road, after leaving at 7am that morning, we finally arrived at our hotel for the night in Besham at around 10.30pm.
Day 15 – Besham to Islamabad
We continued the final stage of our journey today, leaving Besham and heading to Islamabad via the ancient Buddhist university town of Taxila which dates back to the age of Alexander the Great. There are no longer and Buddhists in Pakistan but the ruins of the once great centre of learning still remain and are now a UNESCO world heritage site.
Day 16 – Islamabad and Home
This morning there was just time to visit a few key sites in the capital Islamabad. First we headed up to Daman-Koh park in the hills above the city which has a great viewpoint overlooking the whole of Islamabad. Then it was across to the Faisal Mosque, one of the largest in the world.
Finally we explored the Lok Virsa museum which outlines the diverse and interesting ethnology of Pakistan and the country’s living traditions. After a quick lunch it was time to head back to the hotel, finish our packing, and head to the airport for our flights home.