“Are there any mountains in Pakistan?” “Isn’t it always hot in Pakistan?” “Is it safe to travel there?” are some of the most common questions I hear after living for almost 9 years in Europe. I have traveled to many countries around the globe and the questions do not change, weather you are in Europe, America, Africa or even the rest of Asia. Mostly people believe what they see. And unfortunately, the image we see of Pakistan through international media (cinema, TV and news) is not the complete picture. There is so much more to this country that is double the size of Germany, inhabits 160 million people and speaks more than 70 languages. There is sea, there are mountains and deserts and some of the most hospitable people of the world. And, it is not in the Middle East 🙂
Since I started this blog, I wanted to write more about travel gems of Pakistan. I did travel a lot within Pakistan while growing up, but either that was when I was a kid or the times when I did not bother to capture the details. Past 9 years since I moved out of Pakistan, going back mostly meant spending time with family there and just using the time to be in my hometown. But as I started showing more of Pakistan to my husband, I planned travels to new towns or travel destinations within Pakistan for him to see.
This time we went to explore a region that I always wanted to but somehow did not manage. I heard so many nice things about it and saw so many breathtaking pictures, but I wanted to experience it on my own. So, this summer, we decided to make a trip with family to the Northern Areas of Pakistan (now Gilgit-Baltistan). This is the region of the world’s highest mountain ranges, Karakoram and Himalayas. Mountains like K2, Nanga Parbat and Rakaposhi can be excessed from this region. But given our fitness for trekking, our only bet to see those this time was either via viewpoints or during the flight 🙂
So, without any further delay, let me share our 10-days trip to the Northern Areas (Gilgit-Baltistan) with you. There is so much to share that I will cover the whole trip in 4 parts.
Part 1: Islamabad to Hunza
Part 2: Hunza to Rama Valley (via Gilgit and Astore)
Part 3: Rama Valley to Skardu (via Deosai Plains)
Part 4: Out and about in Skardu
General security situation and logistics:
So, I know a lot of you are having this question in mind that is it safe to visit these areas. So, let me tell you that Pakistan is huge and there might be certain cities or areas that you definitely should explore with locals. Also, some areas you should avoid – not just as a foreign tourist, but also as a Pakistani we might not visit (like in many other countries and regions in the world). But the Northern areas are tourist friendly and safe. Current government is working hard to boost the tourism so you have many tourist companies who can arrange the whole trip for you from the moment you land there till you board your plane back. Local people are very friendly and want more tourists to visit. There is a lot of domestic tourism, but the locals really want foreign tourism to boom and that is why you will see the extra hospitality and care you will receive while there.
At the moment, most of the foreign tourists who visit are the climbers and hikers who crave for these highest mountains of the world. But the region offers so much to explore and do even if you are not into extreme sports. The facilities are building up, the hotels situation is improving, and the tourist companies have grown dramatically to help you with everything you need. If you are not visiting with any local, the easiest and most reliable option would be to plan your trip via a tour agency. One agency that I can recommend is FINDMYADVENTURE. The website has contracts with many tourists’ agencies with the country and can send you 2 to 3 proposals and you can choose the one that fits your needs and budget.
And as I help you with a lot of planning in these posts, you can also just book hotels and flights on your own. And book a car and a driver with some local agency. This is what we did. I booked flights and hotels myself (my brother helped me locally) and booked a 4WD jeep and driver via a tour agency. Make sure you rent only a 4WD, and if visiting in summer, with air-conditioning (June-Sep).
About the Gilgit-Baltistan:
Gilgit Baltistan, also known as the Northern Areas of Pakistan, is the northern most part of Pakistan. It is part of the larger Kashmir region. It borders Azad Kashmir to the south, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west, and the Xinjiang region (China) to the east. It became a separate administrative unit in 1970 with the name “Northern Areas”.
Other important things to know:
- I would say best time to visit is June. If you visit in July/Aug, be prepared that during the day it can get very hot (unless you are very high up). The evenings are chilly.
- You will always be more or less 2500 meters high.
- Hiking or trekking is different than you might be used to otherwise. The height adds a lot to the difficulty. So, you will need more time as walking would be slow.
- If you are flying, keep a margin of at least 3 days for your return flight outside Pakistan because the flights to Northern Areas are very much dependent on perfect weather conditions and cancellations are very common.
- For hotels, Hunza area is extremely well organized for tourists and you will find many hotels, campsites and restaurants. When we explored Rama valley and Skardu area, restaurants are most of the times limited to your hotel. This adds to the beauty of the area that it is not overrun by buildings everywhere.
- If you plan to stay in some of these very nice and famous hotels, book well in advance as they get booked out quickly.
- Hotels cost vary depending on how much comfort and luxury you want. Most of them are very clean and with great service. If you are visiting from outside Pakistan and compare it to the prices in many other countries, you can stay in best of the best hotels in very affordable prices. You should plan somewhere between 7K to 11K Pakistani rupees (40 – 80 Euro) for a room per night if you want to go for comfort and a bit of luxury.
Part 1 of the Northern Areas of Pakistan: Islamabad to Hunza
There are two possible ways to get to Hunza from Islamabad. You can either go by road which takes about 18 to 19 hours and goes through some beautiful mountain areas (the road till Hunza is very good and newly built). Or, take a 45 minutes flight from Islamabad. We chose the flying option as we wanted to spend more time in the Northern Areas and had quite some road travel planned for later (you will know in part 2, part. 3 and part 4).
So, how was the flight?
Being very nervous about our flight, we left home at 5am to catch our 7am flight from Islamabad international airport to Gilgit. The nervousness was about the weather conditions for the flight and if the flight will be on time. Also, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) flies the small ATR planes on the route between Islamabad and Gilgit and this is the only flight option you have. In summer there are two to three flights per day.
TIP: Take the earliest possible flight of the day so you can take the next one in case of cancellation. Also, book the flights well in time as the ATR plane has not that many seats, and the flights get booked quickly in summer. We booked 3 weeks before travel and were the last 4 seats available.
Luckily, our flight was on time and the weather condition was also perfect. We had a clear blue sky and sunny day. Ten minutes into the flight, I forgot all my fears as we entered the mountains and the view from my window was exceptional. The flight was a big treat in itself and the pilot always gave info about the area and the mountains we were seeing on both sides. As I already mentioned, the region hosts some of the highest peaks in the world and during the flight, we were clearly able to spot the ninth highest peak in the world, Nanga Parbat, among others. That was absolutely one highlight of the trip.
The flight is around 45 minutes long. After a smooth landing, our car (a 4WD jeep) and the driver from SILKWAY company was already awaiting outside the Gilgit airport.
From Gilgit airport, we drove directly to Hunza and were at our Hotel (Nexus Grace) in about 2 hrs. The drive was extremely scenic with some nice stops on the way like Rakaposhi Mountain Viewpoint and Old Silk Route. The hotel also provided some nice views of the mountains around Hunza valley.
After checking into our hotel (Nexus Grace), our first visit was to the Eagle Nest Hotel as it has the Eagle Nest Viewpoint from where you can spot 6 mountain peaks. I was particularly excited for The Ladyfinger Peak. Eagle Nest Hotel is also a good spot for a snack, tea or a meal with awesome views. We wanted to stay here but unfortunately the hotel was booked out for our dates.
After this, we went to visit the Altit Fort and did the evening stroll in the famous Hunza Bazaar (Karimabad). You have many handicraft shops here, local eateries and tea stalls. Do stop by at the Café de Hunza for their famous Walnut cake (good to share between 2/3 people as it is heavy, but worth it). And do not miss the food (especially Chapshuru) from one of the most famous food stalls in Hunza bazaar, run by local women, Hunza Food Pavilian.
TIP: Do check the opening/closing times of the forts before visiting. Mostly they close for visits around 5pm.
We took it easy and started day 2 at about 11 am and drove to the most picturesque Attabad Lake. The lake was formed in 2010 after a huge land sliding that blocked the Hunza river flow. The road going in this direction is part of the new Pak-China road project and is really good.
At Attabad Lake, we took the boat tour and also did the jet skis. After few hours at the lake, we continued to Hussaini Bridge which is one of the few oldest hanging bridges in the world still in use by the locals. To get to the bridge, you have to walk an unpaved path (up and down) for about 15/20 minutes (not tough). So, come prepared and wear good shoes. Actually, you should have good walking shoes or sneakers all the time when visiting Northern Areas of Pakistan.
After Hussaini Bridge, we continued our drive to the Passu Cones and a small lake close by. On the way to Passu cones, we also stopped at some glaciers that you can see from the road.
And then we headed back to Hunza but stopped for one of the best chicken karahi at one of the roadside restaurants. I. cannot recall the name but (maybe Khan Karahi). The name had “Karahi” in it. Mostly outside sitting area right next to the road. You pass (must try).
After that, we were in Hunza Bazaar again to visit the Baltit Fort. It is a 10 min walk up from the Hunza Bazaar. It closes around 4 or 5pm depending on the season.
The evening was again spent in the bazaar buying some presents and dry fruits. The dried apricots and walnuts are very famous from this region. And one more thing, if you do some shopping, bargain is the key. Sometimes the shopkeepers quote double the price as they expect you to bargain. Weird, but true 🙂
TIP: Do bring some warm jacket and hoodie for the evenings. The days were pretty hot in July, but evenings got chilly. And on Day 2, you can also start really early in the morning (like 6/7am) and go to Pak-China border and do Passu cones, Hussaini bridge and Atabad lake on the way back. The same road where we returned from Passu cones to Hunza, goes further to the. Pak-China border. But it takes 3-4 hrs till the border gate. We did not do that as we had a lot planned for the upcoming days. It is a long drive and a gate at the end where you can take pictures. Did not excite me too much. I am generally never excited for the borders 😉
Day 3 continues in Part 2 of the Northern Areas stories.
- Old Silk Route
- Rakaposhi Viewpoint
- Nexus Grace Hotel (stay)
- Eagle Nest Hotel and View Point
- Altit Fort
- Hunza Bazaar (Karimabad)
- Attabad Lake
- Hussaini Bridge
- Passu Cones
- Baltit Fort
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