Fairy Meadows

Fairy Meadows

It was the first day of Ramzan (Ramadan), and the Fairy Meadows were completely abandoned. Down at Raikot bridge it had been a sunny, clear-skied day, but up here, at 3300m, the 9th highest mountain in the world dictated the weather. Nanga Parbat (8126m) hid its slopes in a shroud of white fog and even Raikot glacier was hidden from view. A few guesthouses were scattered along the Meadows, looking cold, sad and abandoned. An ominous Thursday afternoon in May on the first day of Ramzan is not the best day to visit one of the most touristic places in Northern Pakistan. Or is it?

Today I decided on a different tactic to arrange transport in Pakistan. Last time I took the bus here in Gilgit I waited hours before the minivans finally started departing the bus station. I was passed on from bus company to bus company like an unwanted piece of carry-on luggage while people curiously stared at me. Not this time. I had decided I would finally start using this tourist thing to my advantage, so I walked out of Gilgit to the first Military checkpoint about a kilometre down the road. There I introduced myself to the soldiers, shook some hands, drunk some chai, held an AK47 to pose for a selfie and told them some random facts about Belgium, then explained that I wanted to go to Raikot bridge. They stopped the first bus that passed by and basically obliged the driver to take me along. And that was that. ‘One hundred rupees please sir’. Here you go my friend, I said handing the driver the equivalent of 0,70€. And on my way I was.

Snapshots of rural life whizz past while the bus makes its way down Karakoram Highway. Quaint little villages with roadside stalls selling watermelons. A shepherd guiding his herd of goats along a dusty trail overlooking the highway. Wrinkled faces under Pakistani woollen hats smoking cigarettes while talking over newspapers with beautiful calligraphic headlines in Arabic script. An argument in a barbershop, presumably about a messy cut or an arranged marriage of sons and daughters that would forever stay strangers to me. Driving through Pakistan is never a dull affair.

A group of men are sitting around at the  dusty trailhead to Fairy Point, the closest mechanically accessible point to Fairy Meadows. They hold a monopoly over the only road up the mountain, thus prioritising money over hospitality, something unheard of in Pakistan. A negotiation, some waiting around under a blazing midday sun. Then giving in from my part and a sudden departure. 

As I climb into an old Toyota Land Cruiser 3 locals that have been sitting around nearby this whole time jump up and put bags of groceries in the backseat, climbing in themselves as well. They are locals from the village up there, I realise, and they are freeloading on my behalf. Or is it hitchhiking without asking permission?

Endless switchbacks taming an impossibly steep mountain slope. Raikot bridge and it’s jeep gang reduced to the size of ants. One side of crumbling, overhanging rock, the other a sheer vertical, several hundred meter drop. In between, a rough path exactly the width of the car. The driver clearly doesn’t mind. Talking on the phone half of the time and looking back shouting to the passengers in the backseat the other half this was just another day at the office for him. At one particularly memorable moment he literally took a deadly curve steering with his elbows while lighting a cigarette. I’d never imagined dying because of well… passive smoking.

On some of the steepest sections of the hiking trail that follows the jeep ride my driver, who also turns out to be my guide, nimbly leaps from rock to rock with his hands behind his back, a posture that seems to be patented around the world by guides and pensioners alike. Most of the time he’s talking on the phone, probably making a monthly appointment at the hairdresser or something. Meanwhile I can only focus on his heels, out of breath and buckled under the load of all my worldly belongings. With every step my conviction that I actually need any of that stuff diminishes. Comeback, or that’s what it sounds like when he pronounces his name, will stay up there for two nights as well and the only thing he carries is a plastic bag with 4 carrots inside.

The heating room is full of bearded men laughing and joking around a central wood stove. Two AK47’s lie forgotten on a pillow in the corner. Police presence is everywhere in Pakistan, but it’s impossible to tell who the guns belong to. We’re all sharing iftar, the breaking of the fast after sunset. Most of the conversation is in Urdu but every now and then one of the guys switches to broken English, shoves some of the dishes in my direction and insist that I help myself to yet another portion of rice or chapati. We stay up late that night, huddled around the fire. At 2.30am breakfast is served and people light up their final cigarettes. Right after  they one by one start falling asleep on the mattresses that are scattered around the stove. It is clear to see how this holy month brings Muslims together in families and communities all across the world. To celebrate, discuss and share. It’s my cue to retreat to my sleeping bag too. That night, just like my body, my mind feels very full. 

Khambach sets a steady pace as we set out through the pine woods of Fairy Meadows. It’s rained all night and now snow falls in thick flakes all around us. It’s hard to imagine down in the valley it must still be 25 degrees, but the mountain weather is unpredictable, and we’re reaching the 4000m altitude point again. Our original plan of getting to Nanga Parbat basecamp has been abandoned before it even became a real plan. The snowfall of the last weeks made it inaccessible this early in the season, so we settle for the viewpoint. Comeback seems to have borrowed a rain jacket from one of the other guys working at the guesthouse. I am sporting my favourite hat today, one of those dead weight items that has barely left my backpack during the past 9 months. Today it’s cold and proves its service. The muddy trail goes slowly up, and the landscape changes with the altitude. 

By the time we get to Behal camp I am confused wether we are still in Pakistan or wandering across the Swiss alps. Wooden chalets are scattered across the green and fertile landscape. Small streams of crystal clear water crisscross all around us and cows wander about freely, grazing lazily and indifferent to the layer of virgin snow that is turning the green to white. Only the big bells around their necks are missing.

Nanga Parbat is covered in mist when we arrive at the viewpoint. The glacier is visible though, a river of sharp angled blocks of ice shaped by centuries of seasonal freezing and melting cycles. Khambach squats on a rock, cigarette between the lips, seemingly unphased by the beauty that stretches further than our eyes can see. He’s been here numerous times, I’m sure.

I spend the rest of the day in the kitchen of the guesthouse squeezed between the chimney and  the windowsill. Most of the other guys that are working here are around my age, and they take turns in the second seat that is close to the burning fire in the fireplace. Whenever I try to make room for someone else they insists I stay where I am. They make tea, even though they can’t drink it themselves because of Ramadan. The continuous murmur in Urdu slowly shifts to the background as I stare deeply into the flames and my mind takes me back, reminiscing about all these past months of seeing and experiencing incredible things in so many places. I realise I’m truly fortunate to have the resources to make these sort of things happen. I am thousands of miles away from home in a country that is considered a hellhole by western media, and an uncivilised poor people’s land by most of the rest of the world. It’s a holy month full of traditions of a religion that is not mine. Yet the guys that are sitting all around me are just like me. Trying to stay warm, talking about girls and joking about their mates’ terrible knowledge of the English language, among other things. Hospitable and kind and curious, despite having led a life that couldn’t be more different from mine up to this point. 

Towards the end of the afternoon some older guys show up and also gather in front of the fireplace. The young crowd makes way without protest. Respect for the elders is unquestionable here. One of the older men is a police officer as it turns out. He tells me about how his 40 years of service in the force have gotten him a painful knee and not much else. The flames dance around in his emerald eyes while he seems to contemplate this chapter of his life, just like me. Fires are enchanting like that. They have a hypnotising effect that seems to resonate with our primeval instincts as human being inhabiting harsh surroundings.

On the way back to Gilgit the next day I’m accompanied by policeman Ali. He’s going to see a doctor for his knee, he tells me, but at the same time I suspect him from wanting to keep an eye on me. His AK47 is hanging around my shoulder on our two-hour hike back down. He just pushed it into my hands pointing to his knee, gesturing that it’s painful enough to walk downhill without any heavy objects to take care of. Ill at ease I carry it down, careful not to accidentally shoot it and cause an avalanche or something. Guns are a surreal something to me. It feels like they might just as well have given me a ticking nuclear time bomb in my opinion. Back down in the sunny warmth of the valley near Raikot Bridge I gladly hand it back to him. I attract enough stares on the bus without an extremely efficient assault weapon in my lap, thank you very much.

Practical 

  • The drive from Gilgit to Raikot bridge takes a little less than 2 hours. Take a minivan from the main bus station (most of them leave early morning or around noon) or hitchhike like me, which is probably way faster!
  • The jeep track from Raikot bridge to Fairy Point takes 1,5h and costs 7000PKR (50€) return, which can be split between 4 people. If you travel alone you can try to wait around for other tourists to show up to split the costs, but take into account that you shouldn’t leave after 2pm since there’s a 2 to 3 hour trek after the jeep ride and you want to arrive before the dark. Your best chances to split costs are to arrive early morning during the weekend outside of Ramadan.
  • There are a few guesthouses on Fairy Meadows, but mid-may only one of them was open (Raikot Serai Guesthouse). The owner quoted 4000PKR (30€) for a cabin which sleeps 4 people. I pitched my tent for a fee of 400PKR per night (3€).
  • Alternatively you can also stay / camp a little higher up in Behal Camp. There’s one guesthouse owned by the cousin of the owner of Raikot Serai. It does get quite cold here during the night and I’ve been told there’s no heating room, so bring a good sleeping bag.
  • There’s a kiosk selling some basic things like water, Coke and cookies next to Raikot Serai Guesthouse, but you’re best to bring some dried fruit and nuts if you don’t want to eat in the restaurant of the guesthouse.

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Fairy Meadows

It was the first day of Ramzan (Ramadan), and the Fairy Meadows were completely abandoned. Down at Raikot bridge it had been a sunny, clear-skied day, but up here, at 3300m, the 9th highest mountain in the world dictated the weather. Nanga Parbat (8126m) hid its...

read more

Rakaposhi

Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world at 7788m. It’s name means ‘snow covered’ in the local language, and for good reason. I hiked to its basecamp in May and encountered lots and lots of the white cold powdery stuff. It made for an interesting ascent......

read more

Rakaposhi

Rakaposhi

Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world at 7788m. It’s name means ‘snow covered’ in the local language, and for good reason. I hiked to its basecamp in May and encountered lots and lots of the white cold powdery stuff. It made for an interesting ascent…

During my time on the slopes of Rakaposhi not a soul was to be found anywhere except for a few local shepherds and lots of cows. I seemed to be alone in this vast landscape of grass, rock and ice. During this rather isolated time I was alone with my thoughts, which shifted back and forth between pushing my body to make it up the mountain and assessing my overall journey since leaving home in July of last year. Below I’ve tried to park my train of thought in a poem-like manner, and I couldn’t help but see a few parallels between both experiences.

‘Which day is it?’

‘It’s today,’ squeaked Piglet.

‘My favourite day,’ smiled Pooh.

 

I keep climbing

for a taste of fresher air.

Somewhere halfway I’ve lost track

of what it is I’m looking for.

My lungs crave a beach somewhere

but my heart refuses to skip a beat.

Did the mountain beat me

or is it the other way around?

 

Some people find contentment in the ordinary, but not me.

My biggest fear is mediocrity.

To be stuck in an alternate reality

from the one that holds my destiny

escaping from which

is like going camping under the stars

even on a cloudy night.

Only for the sake of doing so.

 

Sometimes I’d like to be a cow

somewhere in a meadow.

Blissfully unaware

of a world gone by in the blink of an eye.

Nowhere to be, except here and now.

Yet everywhere to go and so little time.

So my feet keep dragging me forward.

But my mind lingers.

 

Eventually I’ll have to turn around

‘cause what goes up, must come down.

And when everything does come crashing down

in that split second

when the world reveals its bigger picture

the only silver lining I can truly hope for

is to find the morning’s beauty also

in the evening’s sky.

 

And tomorrow

well tomorrow is really only just

the next today.

Practical

  • Karakoram Bikers is a travel company based in Gilgit and Lahore. They rent out motorbikes for 2000PKR / day, no license needed. Get in touch through their website or social media. www.karakorambikers.com
  • The trek to K2 basecamp takes between 14 and 18 days and can be arranged online. Permits are necessary, so inform yourself well beforehand. In my opinion it would be better to arrange the trek starting from Skardu instead of Islamabad. Prices vary, I’ve read everything between 1000 and 3000$.
  • If you do get a permit, which you can request in Skardu, you can drive from Dassu to Askole. I’ve been told the 40km take 3 hours by motorbike, so time your trip well if you don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Askole has a camping ground mostly used by mountaineers as the starting point of their trek but I’m fairly certain you can camp there for a night before returning back to Dassu as well.
  • To do this trip I needed 3 passport copies, one for each of the police / army checkpoints along the way.

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read more

Fairy Meadows

It was the first day of Ramzan (Ramadan), and the Fairy Meadows were completely abandoned. Down at Raikot bridge it had been a sunny, clear-skied day, but up here, at 3300m, the 9th highest mountain in the world dictated the weather. Nanga Parbat (8126m) hid its...

read more

Rakaposhi

Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world at 7788m. It’s name means ‘snow covered’ in the local language, and for good reason. I hiked to its basecamp in May and encountered lots and lots of the white cold powdery stuff. It made for an interesting ascent......

read more

Hushe Valley, land of giants

Hushe Valley, land of giants

I followed Paco Ali like a shadow, jumping from rock to rock across a raging river. The river wasn’t deep, or particularly broad, but the water was freezing cold and one misstep would mean an emergency retreat to the Refugio 10km further down the valley where we started our hike early this morning. The river is created by melting water from the Masherbrum glacier, overshadowed by Masherbrum itself, a 7600m tall beast of a mountain that looked down on us, threatening and deadly. The continuous creaking of the ice made my hair stand on end. We climbed further, swiftly like an ibex. Paco Ali at least. I followed a bit slower, struggling for breath. The air is already thin at 4000m altitude, and I am only a city boy from a mountainless country.

The previous day I had gone through the same routine as before my trip around Shigar Valley two days earlier: buy some water, food provisions and fill up the tank of the motorbike. Strap the backpack to the bike and wave goodbye to the guys of Snowland guesthouse. Avoid all the chickens, goats, children and reckless drivers in bazaar morning traffic, then exit the town from the other end. The highway was empty, the weather good and my spirits high.

After 20 minutes I passed the point where I had taken a left towards Shigar a few days earlier. This time I continued straight. The first snowy mountain tops already appeared before me, but I still had a long drive ahead of me. I followed the valley of the broad and azurish brown Shyok river that lazily carved its way through the dry landscape for 100km until I reached Khaplu. It was nice to drive. The road was in a good condition, there was barely any traffic and a mesmerising beauty presented itself behind every corner.

This was the easy part though. It took two and a half hours to make it to Khaplu, but the last 40km would take 3 more hours. I crossed the mighty hanging bridge over the Shyok river. The road to Hushe is steep, beautiful and only accessible to 4x4’s and the occasional motorbike. The ride was exhausting. In most part the dirt road was terrible. It changed to pure rocks sometimes, too. Or sand. Or small streams of water crossed it. Combined with the steepness it sometimes became too much for the engine of the Suzuki, which had a hard time dealing with the terrain.

I also hit a little kid at some point, which made my heart stop and turned my legs into mud. I was only driving 25km/h when a little boy ran blindly across the road from inside a house, right in front of my motorbike. I managed to avoid hitting him with the front wheel out of sheer reflex, but he ran with his head straight into my thigh and fell to the ground. My heart skipped several beats. I stopped immediately and took off the helmet. The boy had already gotten back to his feet and was crying in his fathers lap, who was hanging around with a group of other men on the other side of the street. The accident had literally happened right I front of them. When I stepped towards them at least ten men stared at me angrily. I tried to explain helplessly, with a lot of hand gestures that I was sorry, that he had suddenly appeared out of nowhere. ‘It’s ok,’ the father said with cold eyes, and he dismissed me with one simple hand gesture. Leave.

Eventually I reached Hushe. I was tired and so was the bike. I asked a few locals for a camping place and they pointed to the very end of the road, where a large hotel appeared in sight. The Refugio. There I met Paco Ali and Ashraf, the two jolly caretakers. They invited me for tea and insisted that I took a room instead of camping out in the cold. The hotel was empty, with the start of the climbing season still a few weeks off, and I could pay whatever I wanted for a room.

That evening during dinner we talked about the mountains and the guys showed me pictures of all the famous mountaineers that had conquered them. Hushe village is the end point of the 14-day hike from Askole to K2 basecamp, across Baltoro and Gondogor La glaciers. I hadn’t made it to the starting point in Askole a few days ago, but at least I’d seen the end station! That night we discussed possibilities for a day hike, around a gas stove that served as the only heating in the cold and empty hotel. Then I retreated to my bed, covered in a double set of blankets. And before I shut the curtains I looked into a starry night. The mountains were waiting.

There are so many famous peaks in this region of Pakistan that mountaineers face difficult choices here. K2, Gasherbrum I and II and Broad peak are the most famous ones, four of the world’s 14 eight thousanders. Masherbrum, Sebas tower, Trango towers, Laila peak, are other well-known alternatives. It takes several days to actually go to the base camp of one of these mountains, and requires a permit from the military, a guide, porters and a cook. I didn’t have the time or the money for any of that, so Paco Ali and I just walked 10km up to Masherbrum glacier and back.

I brought my own lunch consisting of some dried fruits and nuts to get me through the day. We drank water from the crystal clear streams we crossed. It was a strange kinda day, the kind where it seems like you are alone in the world. There were no sounds except the creaking of the ice, the flow of water and the howling of the wind. No distractions on a phone or in the form of human interaction. Most of the time Paco Ali and I walked in silence, and we were both perfectly fine with that. The mountains all around us seemed to have a gravitational effect, preventing anything that happened here from getting out. It must be awe-inspiring to spend 2 weeks crossing these mountains, I remember thinking.

Practical

  • Skardu to Khaplu (100km) takes 2,5 hours by car/motorbike and the road is in good condition. Khaplu to Hushe (40km) however takes an additional 3 hours on a terrible road. Road works are ongoing and in two years time the whole road to Hushe will be asphalted, according to the locals.
  • In Hushe, there are several guest houses and camping sites although most of them don’t open until the high season, from June to August. Refugio, the biggest of the guesthouses offers 12 double rooms with private bathrooms (and even occasional hot showers) which go for 4000PKR (30€) per night in high season. No WiFi. In the off-season prices are highly negotiable, I paid 1000PKR (7€) for a room mid-May. Call the guys at 05816482488 for information.
  • No special permits are necessary to reach Hushe, but I needed 3 passport copies for the several police checkpoints between Skardu and Hushe (and 2 more for the way back).
  • From Hushe day hikes are possible, but staying at the basecamps of Masherbrum & co does require a permit and guide, which have to be arranged in Skardu or Islamabad.
  • Although hiking by yourself is possible (the trails are relatively well marked on the Maps.Me app) I strongly recommend to support the local economy and hire a guide. I paid 3000PKR (21€) for a guide for the day, although that price is probably negotiable too.
  • If you’re coming from Skardu count at least 3 days for this excursion, including transport. The ride to Hushe is quite exhausting in itself.
  • Six km behind Hushe (about 1,5h hike) there’s an incredibly scenic campsite with grass, fresh water and mountains all around where you can stay for free. Stay here if you’re carrying a tent, some food and a warm sleeping bag. I stumbled across this place during my day hike and would have camped there if I’d known. Check Maps.Me for the exact location!

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How to apply for a Pakistani visa in Brussels

Most people don’t consider Pakistan on their bucket list of absolute must-see travel destinations. The country is often associated with Muslim extremism and usually portrayed as a terrorist sponsoring nation by western media. There have undeniably been some serious...

read more

Fairy Meadows

It was the first day of Ramzan (Ramadan), and the Fairy Meadows were completely abandoned. Down at Raikot bridge it had been a sunny, clear-skied day, but up here, at 3300m, the 9th highest mountain in the world dictated the weather. Nanga Parbat (8126m) hid its...

read more

Rakaposhi

Rakaposhi is the 27th highest mountain in the world at 7788m. It’s name means ‘snow covered’ in the local language, and for good reason. I hiked to its basecamp in May and encountered lots and lots of the white cold powdery stuff. It made for an interesting ascent......

read more

A micro adventure around Shigar Valley, Pakistan

A micro adventure around Shigar Valley, Pakistan

I’m running late when I’m finally leaving the outskirts of Skardu behind me. My motorbike, a Suzuki GS 150 I rented from Gilgit-based motorcycle enthusiasts group Karakoram Bikers, smoothly buzzes underneath me, seemingly happy to get its gears turning again after a while without a renter. As settlements disappear so do the exhaust gases and the children walking home from school. My backpack is securely fastened on the back of the saddle, filled with only the stuff I might need for 2 or 3 days on the road. I’m making a road trip, all by myself. Before me the desert starts, surrounded by mountains that look down on me seducingly. The entrance to Shigar Valley appears before me, a tiny dent in two giant walls of rock. I am in northern Pakistan, and I am on an adventure.

That same morning I was planning on leaving early, straight after breakfast. Just buy a few supplies, find a working atm and fill the tank with gas, I figured. My quick shopping spree across town took a little longer than expected. Among other things I got stuck in morning bazaar traffic with the motorbike, parked somewhere to ask a police officer on the street for directions to Allied Bank, which locals told me should work with my card. He promptly stopped in his tracks, gave me a hug and halted the first car that passed, shouted a few words in Urdu to the driver and gestured me to get in the passenger seat. A hundred meter further down the road the driver pointed out Allied bank to me and that was that. ‘Welcome to Pakistan sir!’, and he was off again. After rejections in 7 different banks I finally managed to withdraw some cash. Having stocked up on dry apricots, a bag of cashew nuts, 3 litres of bottled water and a roll of naan bread and with a full tank I finally set off on my road trip, hours later then planned. The guys from my hotel had warned me it was quite a drive to Askole, the last inhabited village before the ‘real’ mountains started, 120km from Skardu. Real mountains meaning several 8000+ peaks. I hoped to make it in time before nightfall, but this is Pakistan. Anything is possible here.

After about 20 minutes on the main road I took a left, followed a new road across a bridge and was halted by a police checkpoint. The guys demanded a copy of my visa and passport which I happily gave them. I came prepared to this country you know, armed with 50 passport copies. My research has definitely paid off already! After checking everything carefully the man smiled, asked me where I was from despite literally having my passport in his hand and opened the barrier. ‘When will you be back here,’ he asked. ‘Tomorrow or the day after,’ I shouted back while gearing up. He smiled and a threw a thumbs up in the direction of my rear view mirror. Friendly guys these Pakistani soldiers.

The landscape soon became very arid, and trees disappeared as I drove following hairpin bends up into the mountains. The sky was full of ear-deafening freedom roaring along to the sound of the Japanese engine underneath me. My heartbeat raised as I felt a liberating and primeval roar well up inside me, like a boy on a motorbike with the world at his feet. ‘Welcome to Pakistan indeed!’, I screamed to the mountain.

I quickly reached the top of the pass and parked on the side of the road for a moment to take in the magnificent view. Minivans, jeeps and tractors passed by at an alarming speed and people shouted, waved and smiled from behind the wheel, from the roof or hanging from the back. I was quite a sight to them, a white guy all by himself on a motorbike which, according to the jealous stares people threw my way, had to be a fairly decent one, equipped with a backpack tied to the back. I jumped back into the saddle, failed to start, embarrassed waved back to the teenager that almost rolled on the floor laughing, put the engine in neutral and got the motor going again at the second try. Back down into the valley I drove through Shigar, the biggest village around here. More children on their way home from school. People farming the fertile land next to the Indus River. Shopkeepers smoking outside of their roadside stalls. Construction workers building simple structures without power tools. After about an hour the asphalt stopped and I continued on a wide gravel road. Speed was not of any importance to me, I was simply enjoying the ride and the mountains. Nothing else seems to matter these days.

During a drinking break a guy who was also on a motorbike stopped for a chat. He introduced himself as Ali Ali and sat down next to me, curiously watching how I cleaned the dust off the sensor of my camera. ‘You very beautiful boy. Very smart,’ he said. ‘Where are you going?’ ‘I’m going to Askole,’ I answered. ‘Oooh Askole very far! Too much far!’ ‘I’ll still try to get there, and if it’s too far I’ll just camp by the side of the road,’ I explained. The conversation continued for some time and as I got up to get back on the bike Ali Ali got up as well. ‘I go with you, ok?’ ‘Sure, lead the way man’. We drove together for some time and Ali Ali helped me whenever I got stuck in a particularly sandy patch of the road, these places being still beyond my rookie driving skills. After about an hour Ali Ali pulled up beside me, said that he was turning back now and with a last ‘beautiful boy! Smartly shameful!’ disappeared out of sight.

I had been driving almost 4 hours when I reached the village of Dassu, where another roadblock announced a military checkpoint. A soldier in camouflage uniform gestured me to follow him to one of the barracks nearby. There a stern and annoyed looking man dressed in a local salwar kameez, which looks a bit like a pyjama, promptly asked to see my passport and route permit. His name was Mohammed and apparently he was the officer in charge. I gave him a passport copy and the foreigner’s registration card they had given me at another checkpoint on my way north from Islamabad when my bus entered the Gilgit-Baltistan area. ‘This no route permit! Where is route permit?’ He told me to get inside the barrack which turned out to be his bedroom / foreigner cross-examination room. He saw my camera and demanded to be shown all the pictures on it. I gave him the camera and as he started scrolling through nine hundred pictures of mountains and valleys his tone softened. ‘You like landscape photography sir!’ After about 200 pictures he had seen enough and explained me that in order to be allowed past the checkpoint and on the road for the last 40km to Askole foreigners needed a special permit. Askole is the starting point of an 18-day trek to K2 and Baltoro glacier, at 8600m the world’s second largest mountain and longest non polar glacier. He showed me an example of the permit, used by a group of 8 French mountaineers who passed by here 40 days earlier en route to K2. They were the last people he had seen. Another officer joined and offered us all tea while showing me pictures of his young daughters he was eager to see again after his 3 month shift here at the checkpoint ended. We all took some selfies together and an hour after arriving at the checkpoint I turned around the motorbike and started the journey back to Shigar, a bit more confident on the bike and slightly faster this time. It was 4.30pm already, and sunset happens around 6.15 here in the mountains. I needed to find a place to camp and remembered the desert area and viewpoint just before entering Shigar. That would be a perfect spot, I decided.

At 6.15pm on the dot I sat in front of my tent in one of the most scenic camping spots I have ever stumbled upon, right out of a fairy tale. The place looked like a small clearing on a mountain ridge above the road that shepherds might have used years ago to spend the night. Listening to some Coldplay while taking in the sunset across the valley I felt at peace, both with myself and with the world. I didn’t really mind not making it to Askole. I had ridden a bike all day, had had tea with two military officers and saw the length of Shigar Valley. Mission accomplished. To me Askole was just a yardstick, an anonymous name on the map that marked the farthest point of the valley. Getting there was more of a general idea rather than an actual goal. And I had already promised myself to come back here one day and do the K2 basecamp trek when the season was right, most of the snow had melted and I had the money to actually pay for it. I munched on the naan and cashews, and ate a few dried apricots for dessert, a simple dinner for a simple day. Before crawling in my brand new sleeping bag (thanks North Face) I gazed up at the stars. It was a beautiful night indeed.

The following day I watched the sunlight and warmth return to the valley, high up from my shepherd’s stakeout overlooking the Indus River. This is the essence of a good old fashioned adventure, I thought to myself. A simple trip, one that anyone could do, wether by bike, hitchhiking or just walking. Without too many variables or need of planning, just with the curiosity to get out and see what would happen. After breakfast I jumped back on the bike, drove once more through Shigar and this time took another turn leading me across a bridge over the Indus River. Another police checkpoint and thus another tea invitation later I started the loop back to Skardu on the other side of the river. The guys on this post were part of the police force and not the army, but they looked all the same to me. Guys in pyjama’s guarding empty roads where, on a good day, maybe a dozen people pass by. Some of the policemen were much younger than me. It was a very simple life, I thought to myself. Guarding empty roads somewhere on a mountain for 3 months, then go home for 1 to spend time with family. At least the environment they are in is incredibly scenic.

The landscape changed to desert again and fewer villages crossed my path. I drove for hours until my bum hurt. Took a break in an abandoned hut in the middle of nowhere, where I stupidly fell off the bike while driving 2kph on an extremely sandy part of the road. I fell sideways and broke off the left rear view mirror in my fall. There was no other bodily or mechanic damage though, luckily. Bewildered I looked at the broken mirror in my hand. ‘Oh well… shit happens. Nothing to do about it. I’ll have to pay for that I guess.’ I continued on my way, hiked up to Kachura lake and eventually doubled back into Skardu just in time for lunch. Very dusty, satisfied and with only one rear view mirror I arrived back to my hotel exactly 24 hours after departing. The guys there seemed happy enough to see their only guest back.

Practical

  • Karakoram Bikers is a travel company based in Gilgit and Lahore. They rent out motorbikes for 2000PKR / day, no license needed. Get in touch through their website or social media. www.karakorambikers.com
  • The trek to K2 basecamp takes between 14 and 18 days and can be arranged online. Permits are necessary, so inform yourself well beforehand. In my opinion it would be better to arrange the trek starting from Skardu instead of Islamabad. Prices vary, I’ve read everything between 1000 and 3000$.
  • If you do get a permit, which you can request in Skardu, you can drive from Dassu to Askole. I’ve been told the 40km take 3 hours by motorbike, so time your trip well if you don’t want to get stuck in the dark. Askole has a camping ground mostly used by mountaineers as the starting point of their trek but I’m fairly certain you can camp there for a night before returning back to Dassu as well.
  • To do this trip I needed 3 passport copies, one for each of the police / army checkpoints along the way.

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Couchsurfing in Islamabad, Pakistan

Couchsurfing in Islamabad, Pakistan

The bus makes its way along the Karakoram Highway, twisting and turning and shaking like a wounded snake on amphetamines. Mostly up it goes, for the length of the 490km that separate Islamabad from Gilgit, capital city of the Gilgit-Baltistan area, the pearl of Pakistan. A few hours into the journey we pass by Abbottabad, a town that became world famous overnight in 2012 because this is where Osama Bin Laden was allegedly killed during a nightly raid by US special forces. Under the cover of darkness the bus passes 3km from the compound, oblivious to its reputation and the history that was written here. I’m 48h into my Pakistan adventure, and couldn’t have wished for a better introduction to this beautiful country.

I arrived on a short flight from Abu Dhabi to the New Islamabad International Airport on it’s second day of operation. Brand new unfortunately also meant no ATM’s or money exchange, and no SIM card sales booths. The only operated booth in the arrivals hall belonged to a taxi company and after a few futile attempts to talk to the guy behind the counter, who seemed as lost as I was, I managed to exchange 20$ into 2000 Pakistani rupees from his own pocket. With a swish of his hand a minion in a fluorescent vest materialised out of nowhere to lead me outside to the taxi queue. The hall outside arrivals was so crowded with people that were waiting for arriving relatives that they had to be held back by steel fences. A military clothed gentleman nodded at me when I entered the hall and, waving his AK47, lead me and my taxi minion through the midst of the staring crowd. So this is what it feels like to be Justin Bieber…

When I told Omar the taxi driver about my experience he explained that every low or even middle class family needs one or more members working overseas to send back a never ending stream of monthly checks to support the rest of the family. Consequently, short visits of that relative to the motherland are a big event, celebrated by the entire family, a celebration that starts at the airport. Omar himself spent 2 years as an electrician in France and 4 as a pizza maker in Italy. Then he came back to Islamabad to take care of his ill father. There are millions of Pakistani like Omar, working abroad to provide for their families. With 200 million inhabitants this is the sixth most populous country in the world. That is a lot of mouths to be fed.

After a crazy ride through Friday night traffic Omar delivers me to the doorstep of Saad, a Pakistani guy who invited me into his house after I posted a public trip to Couchsurfing. As CS is always a bit of a gamble I didn’t know what to expect, and because of my typical disorganizedness I had only contacted Saad yesterday evening. After a nervous minute or so he opened the gate to his house though and introduced me to his wife Nadia and toddlers Mikael and Ozil. Their house was huge, and very comfortable. I left my stuff in the guest room which, to my astonishment, had its own private bathroom. Then Omar whisked me away to experience an amazing street food dinner in the streets of Rawalpindi, and the ball of incredible hospitality that seems to be characterising this part of the world started rolling, never to stop again.

Saturdays are for sightseeing! After a rich breakfast in the company of Saad’s father, a former judge, and with more food than an average football team can finish Nadia, Saad, the kids and I took a drive to drop off Mikael and Ozil at Nadia’s parents. Her mother, a fashion designer, insisted on trying some kebab and juice on the terrace of their house in a new development on the outskirts of the city. Despite my swollen stomach I managed to stow away a few different ones while Ozil entertained everyone by singing the Frozen song, happily munching on some kebab at the same time. Then Saad and Nadia took me on a road trip through town, past some of the government buildings to the Faisal mosque, the biggest in the country. Somehow I was interviewed by a crew of the national television while checking out a handicraft store in the Saidpur village asking me what I thought of Pakistan. Apparently they didn’t care that I only arrived the previous day and were very happy to hear that I had enjoyed my first 20 hours in their country.

For dinner we went up to a viewpoint of the hills overlooking Islamabad. The Monal restaurant was a very fancy place and we watched the sun slowly disappear in the smoggy skyline of a surprisingly modern city while discussing a range of subjects, both from a European and a Pakistani point of view. A quick coffee to go from an Italian place in an area frequented by expats and off we were, returning to pick up the kids.

One of my favourite moments happened right before picking them up though. During our many conversations the subject of alcohol had come up, and Saad had explained to me that, despite there being a beer brewery a few hours north from Islamabad, drinking alcohol is by law prohibited for locals in the whole country. Non Muslim foreigners do not fall into that category though, creating a vague legal grey area where underground alcohol dealers can hook you up with local beer and even liquors. When Saad asked me wether I wanted to try the only Pakistani beer in existence I didn’t have to think twice! A few phone calls were made back and forth, a time and place agreed upon and eventually a back alley transaction sealed between our car and the dealer’s, both with dimmed lights and without ever exiting the vehicle. A quick whisper and laugh and the merchandise was handed over. The monkey on the roof of the guy’s car, chained through the window to the back seat, made the whole scene look even more like a movie. Me, Saad and Nadia stayed up talking late that night while I tried the surprisingly tasty beer. A memorable night in good company of people that were strangers only yesterday. My faith in the world is skyrocketing these days.

On Sunday none of us did a lot. I spent most of the time in the living room planning the next few days and weeks while continuously harassing Saad with questions. Pakistan is a very off the beaten track destination and although the people are extremely helpful it still takes some research to get the most out of my stay here. After dinner I said goodbye to Nadia and the kids and Saad drove me to the bus station. It takes 18 hours to reach Gilgit, an overnight journey that will also take most of the next day. But I’m traveling the legendary Karakoram Highway now, and no lack of legroom, bus seats designed for midgets or questionable bodily odours will wipe the huge grin off my face.

Practical

  • The new Islamabad international airport (opened on May 3rd 2018) is about an hour’s taxi ride away from Islamabad city centre. Bring at least dollars from home to get away from the airport since ATM’s or money exchange were not yet possible yet (May 4th 2018). Use the taxi stand next to baggage reclaim, the fare is less then 2000PKR (I paid 1900PKR for a longer ride since I wasn’t staying in the centre).
  • Withdrawing money in Islamabad was no problem with my Belgian cards, both maestro and MasterCard worked but only in Standard Chartered Bank!
  • NATCO is the most reliable bus company to get to the northern areas, the bus leaves at 6pm, 7pm, 9pm and 10pm. The journey takes anywhere from 16 to 20 hours depending on traffic and road conditions. The price to Gilgit was 1850PKR. Hiring a car, motorbike or private driver is also possible.
  • Bring passport an visa copies to get faster past police checkpoints, I needed a total of 5 between Islamabad and Gilgit (but still less then the 11 The Broke Backpacker needed back in 2016!).

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