The jewel in Pakistan’s crown is Gilgit-Baltistan, formerly known as the “Northern Areas”. North of Punjab and Khyber Pukhtoonkhwa the Karakoram Range climbs with ever taller and more jagged peaks. Jutting in from the west is the Hindu Kush mountain range from Afghanistan from the north west Tajikistan’s mountain range bears down on the region, while the eastern flank comprises the tail end of the Himalayas. High altitude lakes and cascades, snow-capped ranges, fruit orchards, glaciers and secret mountain passes all await the intrepid visitor. Not that you have to be that intrepid – things here aren’t so much ‘scary’ as ‘unreliable’, and road blockages of days aren’t uncommonn, especially during the monsoon and in the snowy winter.
The stunning beauty of this region is all the more special because of how remote parts of it are – the “Switzerland of Asia” as it is sometimes called is home to unique cultural pockets, many with traditions and languages clearly distinct from mainstream ‘Pakistan’. Mountains march all the way through the region, getting ever higher, from Gilgit in the south, to the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Pass (4700m). Renamed Gilgit-Baltistan in 2010 when it achieved upgraded ‘territory’ status (although crucially, not a fully fledged province of Pakistan), it is one of the country’s most stable regions, but also one of the most hotly contested, as India still considers Gilgit-Baltistan to be part of Kashmir, to which Delhi lays claim.
Gilgit is the capital of the territory of Gilgit-Baltistan, and is a logical place to start or end a journey in the northern areas. Besides having the most centrally located airport for the region, it is also the largest town and has the widest range of travel and hiking services for miles. Gilgit is a small, surprisingly busy place, whose typically Pakistani streets look all the more shabby when compared with the otherwise gorgeous high-altitude setting.
The city has been subject to bouts of religious and communal violence in the past, and while travellers are rarely the target of this, there is always the risk of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Winters get cold here, but days, especially in summer, can still be hot; Gilgit might be in the mountains, but’s it’s not at the top.
Heading north from Gilgit the mountain gorges narrow before opening up to the wide Hunza Valley. Here, heaven meets Earth; below the snow-capped peaks, among the pine-covered hills lies a region locked away like treasure, preserved for those who seek it. Between the stone-terraced gardens lined with sunflowers and fruit orchards, visitors will uncover a gentle culture which values peace and time.
From the valley’s district capital, Karimabad, it’s almost uncanny; you look back down the road towards Gilgit where just a couple of hours earlier you were being harangued by samosa- and rickshaw- wallahs, and the air hung with the pungent smell of diesel. Then you look across to the Baltit Fort, past the apricots being dried on the terraced roofs, and past the rows of wild roses growing amongst the cherry orchards, and wonder if you’ll ever manage to tear yourself away from the place.
Passu, Sost and the Khunjerab Pass
North of Hunza, the gorges become narrower again and the road begins to climb. 23 kilometres from Karimabad, the road comes to an abrupt end at the Attabad Lake. Here, on 4th January 2010, a massive landslide buried the village of Attabad, killing 20 people blocking the valley and plugging the Hunza River. The resulting lake is a stunning shade of turquoise in the sunlight, but is equally horrific when one considers what lies beneath it.
North of the Attabad Lake lies the breathtaking Cathedral Range, best seen from the village of Passu. Further north still, end-of-the-world Sost is a small village which serves as the last main settlement before the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Pass, 84 kilometres to the northeast.
Before travelling to Pakistan, it is essential that you make yourself aware of current events, preferably from as many sources as possible. For safety advice, it is recommended that you read the Australian Government’s Smart Traveller Travel Advisory for Pakistan, the British Foreign Office’s Pakistan Travel Advice, or your government’s relevant department.