HUNZA VALLEY, PAKISTAN
I dozed off immediately after I got into the car that was supposed to take me from Islamabad to Hunza Valley. I think it was the lunch that got me so drowsy – yet another helping of Biryani, a mound of rice with secret pieces of chicken hidden within it, that made me feel instantly doozy. I think I slept for a good hour, but given that the entire ride will take a whole day, it didn’t matter so much. When I woke up, Islamabad had disappeared. What was before my eyes was now glimpses of the Pakistan highlands – vast, mountainous, majestic. This was the view I had from the car for the next 22 hours.
Hunza Valley's view from Baltit Fort, a must-visit if you want to more about the valley's history and take in the amazing views from an elevation
Local shepherds with their herds - some are young kids who looked like they're pros already
That side of the world has always felt very intriguing for me. You know, ‘that side’. Not quite middle-eastern, at the foot of the most prominent mountain ranges on earth, and despite the bad-rep they always get from the media, remains mysterious and not quite well-known. Wasn’t it infamous for a Taliban-related attack not so long ago? Some Western news mass-generalized it as the place where women are oppressed – I never easily believe anything, so part of me wanted to go because I wanted to see this place for myself and feed my own curiosity.
Hunza Valley is located in Northern Pakistan. On Google Map it looks like a tiny dot of a place sandwiched between thousands of miles of snowy mountain ranges. To get there, I had to first get myself to Islamabad. From Islamabad, I had a few options – take the 1 hour flight to Gilgit, and then a taxi from Gilgit to Hunza Valley, take the public bus (a popular one is faisalmovers.com) to Gilgit, and cab my way to Hunza Valley as well, or rent a car with a driver, who will drive me right to the doorsteps of the hotel. I took the last option, and shared the fare with three other guys. After all, nothing says nuts like sharing a car with a non-English speaking driver and another stranger for a drive that takes a long time. Prepare copies of your passport because there will be a lot of military check points along the way. You’ll also be required to put up a night somewhere because the check point gates are closed after 5pm. For more info on traveling by road to North Pakistan, see here.
The end of summer is the season for apples, apricots and pears
Locals would offer you fruits from their farms for free
Gilgit is one of the main towns in the North and everything else pretty much branches out from there. I stayed at Karimabad, which was a smaller town about 1 hour drive from Gilgit, at the heart of Hunza Valley. And let me just say this first and foremost – Hunza Valley is perhaps one of the most beautiful places I have ever been in my life, if not the most. No, I’m not overselling it. Tiny villages dot the area, surrounded by tall snow-capped mountain ranges everywhere you look. It feels like a place so isolated with its beauty remaining a huge secret. The people are so chill and friendly, no one wants to scam you and everyone wants to help you. The average lifespan here is around 95 years, and you can easily see why by looking at the lifestyle here. The land is so fertile and there are apple trees, apricot trees, peaches, pears, walnuts in everybody’s lawns, and you’re welcomed to help yourselves to as much as you want. I had my first taste of yak meat, which tasted strong and meaty, in local dishes comprising a lot of fat and meat, a common choice in this cold region. To best engross yourself in the area, take a nice long walk in the villages and watch people go about their daily routines, try local snacks, eat some fruits under the trees, and watch the sun set behind the mountains.
If you're not having at least one cup of chai per day, dammit you're not doing it right!
Attabad Lake with its blue waters, sourced directly by the glaciers
Mr Sultan, our jeep driver, with the jeep that took us places
To get the most out of Hunza Valley and its surroundings, you need to get a jeep with a driver. For the entire day you can get a rate of about USD40, and explore some sights at your own leisure. Horpar Valley is a place not to be missed, a small village reachable through an insane narrow road right next to gut-wrenching cliffs. There is a viewpoint in the village where you can get unspoiled views of the Horpar Glacier. It’s the fastest moving glacier in the world, at 5cm/day. Attabad Lake is also worth a visit, an eerie beautiful blue lake fed by the glacier water that resulted from a massive avalanche that drowned a highway and a village, killing 11 people. Passu is a great little area where you can soak your sights on the amazing Cathedral or Cone Mountain – a ragged mountain range that looks like a giant crown, and driving in and between these places is an experience by itself. Standing on the seats of my jeep and just feeling the rush of the wind through me with the sunshine in my face and looking across to the vast, euphoric scenery made me feel like I was in a scene of a movie about a girl who was on a quest for the adventure of a lifetime. It was liberating and joyous, a feeling that is hard to explain.
Walk around the villages, but wear proper shoes though. The pavements are mostly inclined.
Hunza Valley at night
If you’re looking for something more physical, like I always do when I’m traveling (I hate the whole sit-in-a-car-and-get-down-only-to-take-pictures motion), then boy do I have recommendations for you. I went hiking to the Rakopashi Base Camp, details of which you can read HERE. It’s not for the faint hearted but I promise you it is absolutely worth it. I also went to Fairy Meadows, arguably one the more famous trails in North Pakistan (also infamous: in 2010 11 people were shot here by the Taliban). It takes 2 hours of Jeep Ride through the second most dangerous road in the world (yep) and an additional 2-hour horse ride or 3-hour hike to get there. But once you do, it’s just extremely breathtaking. The entire meadow oversees Nagar Parbat, one of the highest mountains in the world. Need I say more?
Rakaposhi Base Camp
The Jeep road up to Fairy Meadows is the second most dangerous road in the world, and rightfully so.
One with Nagar Prabat mountain, shot in Fairy Meadows. Nagar Prabat is one of the highest mountains in the world.
Horseback riding for about 2 hours to reach Fairy Meadows
If you ask me, I’ll tell you this; North Pakistan is extremely underrated. A local told me that once, the place was a bustling tourist area, but after 9/11 the whole industry collapsed and with it, the economy of the locals. These days North Pakistan is largely safe. You’ll see many military check points and a lot of police and soldiers around, but it’s just a safety measure to ensure that what happened many years ago will not occur again. If you manage to brave the roads, the unpredictable public transport and the occasional “sorry there’s no electricity or hot shower because the generator went off throughout the entire village”, then I can almost guarantee you that Pakistan will be the voyage to remember. Definitely one for the books.
A sample of the Northern cuisine, top and clockwise - a variation of the potato salad with coriander, chilis and onions, local bread stuffed with yak meat, yak meat cooked in yoghurt, spices, coriander and soaked bread, and local cheese sandwiched between local bread.
Often you'll see dishes like this chickpea curry. Locals have a knack of using simple ingredients like lentils, beans and veg and turning them into delicious simple curries to be dipped with warm local bread.
Dumplings stuffed with minced meat. As you get closer to the Chinese border you begin to see influences in the local dishes.
What To Eat: the Pakistani palette is a must-try! I had one of the best chicken dishes I’ve ever eaten here, called Chicken Karahi – chicken pieces cooked in spices and yoghurt until the meat falls off the bone and you mop up all the sauce with some homemade bread. Yak meat is also worth a try in the Northern regions, commonly prepared with a lot of cheese and bread. There are also endless possibilities when it comes to beans, lentils and veggies, mostly cooked in a version of local curry. These are absolutely amazing with hot, fresh parathas. And please, please, please do not forget to indulge yourself with a tall glass of freshly blended apricot juice. They literally go out to the lawn and pick out the fruits from a tree and chuck them into a blender - it doesn't get any fresher than that.