Pakistan doesn’t exactly sound like the number one tourist destination. In fact most people associate it rather with talibans, drone attacks and suicide bombers, not exactly the kind of place you’d like to spend your holiday at. But in a strange way it’s thanks to these very things that Pakistan, especially the northern parts is an unspoiled paradise with virtually no tourism. It’s in many ways like India but there is much less hassle. Landscapes are easily as amazing as in Nepal but without the tourist impact. So it’s a little slice of heaven that you can have almost to yourself. You just have to go to the right places. One place that comes to mind first of all is the Hunza Valley, a small valley in the Krakoram mountains.
The main town for tourists is Karimabad. In the pre-9/11-days trekking-tourism was just starting to catch up in northern Pakistan and this beautiful little village saw a huge increase in trekking companies, guesthouses, internet cafes and traveller hangouts. But ever since 2001 people stopped coming since the country’s reputation has taken a turn for the worse. There are still some Japanese and Koreans traveling to this part of the world. Westerners however are getting fewer and fewer each year. I saw exactly one British and one French guy in over a month in Pakistan. But still Karimabad is a great place to use as a base to explore the Huza Valley. There you find some comforts like an Internet Cafe (that works whenever there is power) and some beautiful and extremely cheap guesthouses. But as you can imagine it is still far away from being a touristy place.
It’s a place to stay at and never leave. I met one Japanese girl that had already been there for the 3rd time, staying a few months each time. There is nothing like waking up in the morning, stepping outside and being surrounded by all these 7000 or 8000+ Peaks. Then it’s time for a first cup of chai while watching the sun rise over the Himalayas. Nights can be really cold since the town is located at about 3000 meters above sea level. But as soon as the sun rises it gets nice and warm, except for the winter months when snow is common.
The people in Hunza are amongst the nicest people I have met anywhere in the world.
Their hospitality amazes me every time. It is sometimes hard to pay for things because everybody just wants to invite you. I hardly ever paid for lunch. I only had to take a walk through some village and people just invited me into their homes to offer me food and chai. I almost felt bad at times but didn’t want to insult them by declining their offers. So sometimes the 2 hour walk from Aliabad (nearest larger town) back to Karimabad took me 6 hours with 3 meals in between :) Absolutely nobody ever seems to be in hurry up there. It’s a fact that Hunza people have almost the highest live expectancy in all of southern Asia. Must be the fresh mountain air and the generally relaxed atmosphere.
Almost 100% of the population in Hunza is Muslim. The kind of Islam practiced is very tolerant to other believes. Before the arrival of the Moghuls this area used to be predominantly Buddhist and a lot of the old buddhist ways of life still life on in the peaceful, compassinate lifestyle of the Hunza people.
Tips for travellers
How to get there:
The easiest way nowadays is to come overland from China. The border is open from may to december. From Sost, the first town on the Pakistani side Hunza can be reached within a few hours. It’s easy and fun to hitch a ride with a pickup truck. When I crossed the border in the end of 2010 I got the visa upon arrival without any problems. But this should be verified for visa regulations tend to change all the time. Unfortunately it has been getting harder obtaining Pakistani Visas in other countries. So unless one plans to come from China the visa should be applied for at home. Sometimes they might even ask for a letter of invitation, which is easy to get from any Karimabad travel agent but is still a hassle. I didn’t need to have any of this when I got my first Pakistani Visa at the embassy in Switzerland. When coming from Islamabad it takes about 20 hours to Gilgit, which is the capital of the northern areas and from there another 3-5 hours to Karimabad. It very much depends on the road conditons. Lately the Chines have been building on the Karakoram Highway but when I was there the road was still....well bumpy to say the least.
A good place to stay is Kosho Sun Guesthouse or Karimabad Inn which are connected to each other. Kosho Sun (name of the owner) is an amazing cook and the most peacful guy ever! Every night he cooks up a feast that is famous in all of Hunza! Views are absolutely stunning!
With Karimabad as a base it’s super easy to explore the surrounding villages and also to go on extended Himalaya-Treks.
Karimabad itself is worth spending at the very least a week at. There are some great forts to explore in Karimabad and nearby Altit. Some good dayhikes are the trek to Eagels nest (about 5 hours both ways) or the Glacier trek (10 hours both ways).
Don’t let the idea of traveling to Pakistan put you off. I didn’t have any problems anywhere in Pakistan but especially in Hunza there is absolutely nothing to worry about.... except for getting stuck and never leaving.