November 2014: Few places in the world can inspire more than the Himalayas and it was time for me to visit the most majestic and dramatic range of the Himalayas-the Karakoram’s of Pakistan. Together with my friend Charlie, we started our trip in Kashgar, China and traveled independently over the Karakoram Highway to Hunza and then onward to the Kalash villages, where a tribe of pagan people live side by side with the Taliban in Afghanistan, just across the border. This is the story of our amazing journey across the mountains into parts of Pakistan that received very few independent tourists during the time of my travels.

 

 

My route across Pakistan

At the time of my travel, Pakistan had been going through some upheavals. There was a coup in recent years that overthrow a president. Terrorism was a common occurrence and the Pakastani Taliban, which controlled huge swath of tribal lands along the Afghan border threatened the stability of the country by kidnapping and launching attacks, some suicide bombings. Then on top of that, there was the ongoing conflict with India over Kashmir and other border regions. Despite the conflict and rampant poverty, Pakatan is a country with incredible culture and scenery. Its mountains are arguably the most amazing in the world and the Indus Valley of the north is one of the cradles of civilization. Pakistan was a country that I knew would present its challenges, but it was time to go and explore it. It was time. This would be our itinerary in northern Pakistan:

Day 1
Bus to Sost, Pakistan (departs afternoon)
Provided you have a Pakistani visa you can also continue on to Sost on the 10am bus for ¥250; the 5.5-hour trip arrives in town in late afternoon after many inspections.
Night in Gulmit homestay

Day 2
Hussaini Hanging Bridge(Jeep or Car from Hussani to Passu (one way)), crossing Borit Lake in the Upper Hunza sost to via Gulmit and Lake Attabad to Karmibad. Transport from Hunza to Attabad Lake , Passenger boat  for Attabad lake crossing , Eagle Nest Hotel, visit Fort Baltit

Day 3
To Gilgit, Visit fort Baltit
karimabad to gilgit 2-3 hours on the way stopped, hotel

Day 4
Mastuj to Chitril from Mastuj, 4 more hours to Chitral, after the necessary paperwork from FRO office Chitral, hotel Chitral
Get permit To Kalash

Day 4
Visit Birir, Rumbur Kalash and Bumburte villages, homestay with Kalash

Day 5
Visit Kalash, homestay

Day 6-7
Private car to Islamabad, stay in hotel, Thanksgiving at embassy dignitary house, hotel, return to Islamabad 

Getting There

Getting a visa for Pakistan was not easy. During this time there were few independent foreign travelers visiting Pakistan and the country was concerned about foreigners falling prey to terrorism, a real threat in parts of Pakistan and also the chance that foreign spies may enter the country under the false pretenses of being a tourist.

In order to obtain a Pakistani visa, I needed a letter of invitation from a Pakistan organization, and I reached out to several companies, and all wanted me to book a tour with them.  I wanted to travel independently but I figured as long as I am planning the trip, and my sponsor only provides a car and driver can live with this arrangement. My sponsor sent me the letter of invitation but would not provide me details of the cost of the car and driver.  Soon I was running out of time, and I had no choice but to apply for the visa with the letter of invite.  I had my concerns with my sponsor, but I figured if they could not provide an agreeable price, then I would just tell them I am cancelling the trip, and I would go anyways. This wasn’t the best strategy and there were definitely potential issues especially when traveling in a country like Pakistan, but I was up against a deadline, so I needed to apply for the visa. This was a decision that would work out for me but create some stress for me later on when my sponsor comeback with an inflated price that seemed to be akin to robbery. I was afraid if I told my sponsor that I was cancelling the trip, they would notify Pakastani immigration and cancel the letter of invitation which I needed for the visa, so I informed them that I was going to get the visa but unsure on my dates of entry for now due to some issues with flight cancellations. In the middle of our trip in Pakistan, I would receive an angry email from the visa sponsor claiming he received word from Pakistani intelligence that we crossed the border into Pakistan, and he was summoned by them for questioning. He questioned whether we were tourists and demanded enormous amounts of money to not report us to Pakistani Intelligence as illegal or spies. I decided I was better off ignoring the email but this definitely left me with some serious concerns about being arrested or detained when trying to leave the country. Luckily, no trouble came about from this.

I applied for a visa at the nearest consulate of Pakistan in Los Angelos and unlike other visas I have applied for, the consulate general actually called me on the phone and discussed my trip with me. All of my documents were scrutinized, and my employment was verified. There was a lot of back and forth before my visa was finally issued. But the consulate was extremely kind and accommodating throughout the process.

To get to Pakistan, first we flew to Kashgar, China We exited China through Tashkurgan, the last town in Xin’jin, and didn’t get stamped into Pakistan until Sost, some 120 miles later. We were country-less outlaws on an old Chinese sleeper bus crossing the Khunjerab Pass (15,397 feet) with a curious assemble of Pakistani and Chinese men. And from there we traveled overland through the Khunjerab Pass, the highest border crossing in the world at 15,396 feet to Sost, where we went through Pakastani immigration: Kashgar and the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan-Xinjiang Western China | Venture The Planet.

 

Dealing with Security Issues

Pakistan is extremely safe with a low crime rate despite being one of the most impoverished countries in the world but my main concern during our trip was kidnapping and terrorism. Pakistan had been fighting a war with its own version of the Taliban for years and one way for the Pakastani Taliban retaliate at the government was to kill or kidnap foreigners. A camp of foreigners at fairy meadows was gunned down by terrorists killing dozens of them only a few years before my trip and foreigners did go missing. Kidnapping usually are planned and do not happen spontaneously so we usually traveled fast and never stayed in one place for too long. Charlie and I also avoided broadcasting our destinations and our nationality. Since Charlie and I would be traveling independently, we always tried to keep a low profile by dressing like the locals with a shalwar kameez and a wool pucol hat and scarf for me. Charlie wore a veil. In the north of Pakistan, there are many Chinese workers and the locals have a fair appearance, so it was easy for us to blend in on the most part. Aside from blending in for security, it was fun to dress like the locals and everyone we met was flattered by our effort. 

 

 

 

Me in my Pakastani clothing from the north I purchased at the market

Charlie and I

Suspicion at the Border

In Sost, the first town in Pakistan, while Charlie arranged for further transport and exchanged money, a man came over, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked me to follow. He introduced himself as Pakistani Intelligence (ISI) and he wanted to know what I was doing in Pakistan and if I worked for the CIA. Charlie saved me by sending in the taxi driver, she organized to vouch for me and claim that he was my tourist guide who would be responsible for us. The man agreed to release me, and we were on our way as fast as possible before being furtherly detained by ISI. This wouldn’t be our first brush with ISI. We would discover that the ISI and Pakastani police would be suspicious of us throughout the trip and make it hard to travel independently. We hightailed it in the taxi driver’s rickety vehicle down the newly Chinese paved Karakoram highway out of Sost. The views of the rugged and dramatic Karakoram were spellbinding.

 

 

 

Karakoram Mountains

The Karakoram Road was in good shape but subject to closure from rockslides, earthquakes, snowstorms, trucks breaking down and herds of passing sheep. We decided we would stay the night in a homestay at Hussani . Once in the village, we organized our stay with a local Wakhi family, part of the Shia Ishmael sect. I stayed with Wakhi families in the Wakhan f Afghanistan but the Wakhi families here in Hussani were much better off. Once in Hussani, I set off with a local guide to visit the region and hike across the Hussaini Hanging Bridge, a mile long rickety rope bridge that hangs hundreds of feet over a might river. I absolutely loved walking among the apricot orchards and stone house of the village beneath the towering Karakoram’s and their icy glacial cathedrals spiraling 25,000′ tall and higher. The bridge was a little scary and I saw some locals using it with ease, so I decided to give it a go and I carefully crossed it holding on for dear life in case a wooden board broke. A few years after my visit, a tourist would plunge to their death from the bridge. When I returned to our homestay, Charlie who remained back during the hike to cook with the women of the home, informed me that the husband of the women-yes, he had more than one wife, was trying to recruit her into his harem.

 

 

Karakoram Mountains

Wakhi Boy

Wakhi Girl

Hussaini Hanging Bridge

Hussaini Hanging Bridge

Apricot Orchards Hussaini 

Hussaini Village and Valley

The next morning our taxi driver took us from Hussani to Passu (one way)), crossing Borit Lake in the Upper Hunza and once we arrived at Lake Attabad, created only a few years ago when a massive landslide formed by an earthquake created a natural dam in the river forming a lake that flooded the road, we took a passenger ferry across the lake  where we found a new taxi to take us to Karmibad,.we stayed in a hotel overlooking the valley called the Eagle Nest Hotel, which was freezing and had no other guests. Visiting the old Fort Baltite and the surrounding mud brick alleys and budlings, which was all part of the ancient Hunza kingdom, was a highlight.

 

 

Crossing Lake Attabad on the passenger ferry

Traffic jam on the road

Baltit castle from 8th Century Hunza Kingdom

A lady I met on the street who I spoke to. She was curious about my visit and she said something to me that really put my travels into perpective, ” You are very lucky to be able to leave your homeland and be able to see all of the places of the world.This is a gift.” I realized that she likely doesnt have the means to even leave her town and this is how most of the worldlives, so yes I do appreciate my good fortune. 

Mud brick alley ways

Mud brick alleyways

View from Baltit Castle

Pumpkins grown from local farms drying on rooftops 

View from castletop

Shandur Pass

We hired another taxi driver to Gilgit, where we stayed a night trying to decide the best path forward to visit the Kalash people. Gilgit is more of a city that isn’t impressive and is mostly modern and dirty. There wasn’t much of interest there. From Gilgit, we hired a new taxi driver to take us to Chitral, which is a region of Pakistan in the Hindu Kush Mountains that bordered Afghanistan and the autonomies tribal areas where the Pakistan Taliban live. Our driver took us across the Shandur Pass (12,139 feet) into Chitral, aiming for the remote Kalash Valleys, less than a hundred kilometers from the Afghanistan boarder. The remote Kalash tribe was the centerpiece of this journey.  The road over the Shandur Pass was stunning with incredible views of the mountains and alpine lakes but it was a rough road that hugged the mountain at times along steep cliffs. We passed fascinating rural mountain villages that our driver, who claimed to be Shiite was afraid to stop at because he claimed the people in them might be terrorists because they are conservative Sunnis. We didn’t make it to Chitral by nightfall and we had to stop in a small village where we slept in a freezing local guesthouse on the floor in our sleeping bags. 

 

One of the sunni villages we passed where we observed an outdoor school forboys only being taught by their bearded instructors. Ourdriverwas anxious about stopping but when the teacher saw us, he invited us over for tea, which our driver refused. 

Sunni school for boys 

Village market

Chitral Road

Shandur Pass

Village enroute to Chitral

Once in Chitral, we needed to check into the local government office to obtain our permits to visit the Kalash tribe and we also had to be assigned two police officers our safety. We stayed one night in Chitral to allow us enough time to organize the permits and we met Charlies Kalash contact, who she met online via her friend in the US Embassy. Charlie, a journalist wanted to write a story on the kalash and the kalash woman we met was very proud of her culture and volunteered to bring us to her village to meet her family and show us around fora few days not as tourists but as family guests.

 

 

Chitral Hotel

Kalash Villages

From Chitral, we hired a jeep that took us, our new Kalash friend and our police officer escort to the Kalash villages that were hours away deeper into the Hindu Kush mountains near the Afghan border. The road became rougher and the houses and villages poorer and more conservative in appearance.

 

 

Local transport

Our security escort

The Kalash is a unique culture that some people believe to be descended from the armies of Alexandar the Great that once came plowing through these mountains in pursuit of new lands to conquer leaving their genetic DNA in their path. The women are known for their beauty, colorful hand maid dresses and headdresses. There are only about 300 of them living in three remote mountain villages of wooden houses. They worship ancestorial and spirits that resemble Greek Gods. They perform animal sacrifices and worship in temples with pagan symbols. Kalash also have vineyards and make great sweet Redwine, which I bought lots of and carried with me for the remainder of my trip in Pakistan. Also, because they are one of the only non-Muslim communities in all of Pakistan and they are surrounded by conservative Islamic Taliban lands, they are constantly under threat and are attacked. But aside from violence, their culture is under threat from being absorbed into mainstream Pakistan culture. I learned that many kalash women are married by Muslim men and move away from the villages abandoning their way of life and culture. But there is hope. Many young children are born into the villages and raised to be Kalash by proud adults and elders who love their culture.

We visited all three kalash villages -Birir, Rumbur Kalash and Bumburte villages and we slept in Bumburte village fortwo nights in a guesthouse on the floor next to a small wood heating stove. Our kalash friend introduced us to everyone and it was really easy for me to photograph at will. No one asked me for money for taking photos, but some people were to shy so i left them alone.

 

 

Kalash houses

Kalash houses

I had a great time playing with the children. I saw a few kids playing cricket, so I taught them how to play baseball instead and even made the boys allow a kalash girl, who looked left out, play with them.  She was so happy when she had a hit. I also took photos of the kids with my Polaroid camera and gave them a copy of their photos, which was a huge hit.

 

 

Kalash kids playing baseball after I taught them how to pitch. I taught this boy how to pitch. 

Playing baseball with cricket bat

kalash girl playing baseball with cricket bat after I made the boys let her play

kalash girl

Kalash man-the dress is not unique for the region like the women 

Kalash girl with day to day dress

Kalash girl with day to day dress

Kalash girl with day to day dress

Kalash house

Elderly Kalash woman

Butchering a goat

We visited some of the kalash temples. Some only I could visit since Charlie and other females could not enter for religious reasons. The temples were made out of ornate hand carved wooden beams. 

 

 

My route across pakistan

Kalash woman in the temple

Kalash kids playing in the temple

kalash kitchen

Religios symbol of ram head on temple

Altar for ritualistic sacrifices of goats

We visited a modern looking school built by Pakistani government of Kalash children and even though they are not Muslim, the girl and boys are still separated in their classes. I learned that one Taliban assailant attacked the school years ago and killed some of the men before being gunned down. These days Pakastani military have posts around the kalash villages to protect them. The Taliban have sent them videos promising to kill them all if they do not convert to Islam.

 

Kalash school

In general we just walked around the villages visiting as many people s we could. Everyone was friendly and I felt the Kalash village was definitely not spoiled by commercial tourism yet but I knew that once pakistan opened upmore to tourism that this would change if any kalash are left living. 

 

 

Kalash man who wanted me to take a photo of him and his proud sheep 

kalash house

We were invited into some of the houses of the Kalash to watch them cook. The women were shy in my presence so I mainly left them alone to talk among themselves.

 

 

kalash house

Our guest house where we slept

kalash woman with ash on her face for religious purposes

Kalash house

Police Escort

From the Kalash villages, we departed in our private car enroute to Islamabad, a long day’s drive away. Charlie’s friend in the US Embassy invited us to a Thanksgiving dinner party of embassy staff and dignitaries in a private house where there would be a huge feast and alcohol. We were really looking forward to attending. Charlie’s kalash contact arranged for a car to take us to Islamabad. The fastest route was through the Swat Valley, skirting just east of Peshawar. There were many police checkpoints along the way and every time our passport was analyzed, the police would look at us in disbelief. Then at one checkpoint the police informed us they would be escorting us and for the next 8 hours we had armed police escorts we assumed to be mandatory for foreign nationals. The driver drove at break-neck speed, closely following the police escorts, not stopping or slowing for school children or goats. It is all very necessary we were told, the men with guns, the high speed. They were very protective and even when we stopped for lunch and I went to the toilet, one of the police officers waited for me outside the bathroom. 

 

 

Police escort

This route was very conservative and we saw lots of burkas along the way. 

Local transport

We finally did make it to Islamabad for our Thanksgiving dinner at the home of staff for the US Embassy and we were a curious sight wearing our Pakastani clothes and filled with filth and dust when we arrived carrying our backpacks. The party host offered us their shower which we were happy to accept. From Islamabad, we continued our trip further south into the deserts of the southeast to visit the Sufi shrines.

 

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