Everyone, bar a few intrepid friends who had travelled in the region, had thought I was crazy to be exploring Pakistan in the wake of the recent floods. Certainly the headlines hadn’t augured well, but when does the country generate good news stories?
Natural disasters, suicide bombings, corruption, a bent cricket team…these days, as far as many tourists are concerned, Pakistan is off the holiday map. Which is a shame, because life on the ground away from the flood- hit areas proved to be another, more exuberant story: in sunny, humid Rawalpindi, the slightly shambolic twin city of the slick capital, Islamabad, I’d spent a surreal first night at a funfair riding the Mad Hatter teacups. I’d been taken there by Marriyam (age 9) and Fatima (age 11), the sweet-natured daughters of my guide’s cousin Seema, who was putting me up for the night, as I’d flown in a day before the other members of my group were due to arrive.
I’m a fan of more offbeat destinations and had been obsessed with the idea of travelling to Pakistan ever since a female friend raved about the kindness of the locals and the heart-stopping mountain scenery. But who to travel with? The UK isn’t littered with tour operators running trips to ‘big, bad’ Pakistan. Sohail Azhar, the 38-year-old British-Pakistani founder of small Putney-based independent tour operator TravelPak had impressed me with his passion and broad, deep understanding of a country that’s nearly four times the size of the UK. I knew that his contacts – he has an extensive network of family, friends and local guides to call upon – and fluent Urdu, coupled with his Western perspective, would enrich my interactions with the locals and, to a degree, enable me to experience Pakistan from the inside. He recommended a trip that would focus on the country’s mountainous areas.
The next day I met the group I’d be travelling with: Sohail, his film-star-pretty British-Pakistani wife, Shama, and Ryan, a young American from Maryland. Two other women had pulled out, deterred in part by the flood headlines. The affable Ryan, a keen photographer, had been sold on the destination after meeting Sohail and his wife on an earlier South American jaunt. Who else travels to Pakistan for fun? Well, in the time I was there I saw two backpacking Brits, a blonde Californian travelling solo and a small Korean and Japanese contingent.
We travelled hundreds of bumpy miles up the Karakoram Highway, affectionately known as the KKH. This legendary artery connects Pakistan and China via ancient Silk Road trade routes, although for many long stretches, thanks to roadworks and the rains, it is little more than a potholed, rubble-strewn, spine-juddering track along which Bedford trucks – lovingly hand-painted in iridescent rainbow hues – rumble along, like a moving art gallery.
The KKH was our way into Gilgit Baltistan, an autonomous region, formerly known as the ‘northern areas’. This vast, remote swathe of sparsely populated valleys, gorges and barren, dun-coloured hills is also home to some of the world’s highest peaks – the Karakoram, Himalayas and Hindu Kush mountain ranges all meet here. It was all so spellbindingly lovely that a sense of sublime unreality soon set in.
We jeeped and hiked – it took a day – from Chilas, a dusty, arid plain, where the KKH emerges from the Indus gorge, up to Fairy Meadows, a high alpine pasture with velvety green fields, grazing sheep, cows, chalets and views of snowy Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain. Walking in the meadows, I’d tested my two sentences of Urdu on the kids who had run up to say hello. A girl shook her head when I raised my camera, unlike the three boys sporting Frisbee-like woollen flat caps (rakishly worn by men everywhere in northern Pakistan), who interrupted their game of pretend Polo – they rode their mallets as though they were ponies – for hugs and photos.
Further north, I wandered through the peaceful lanes of Karimabad, an oasis in the Hunza Valley. Although home to a sizeable chunk of the country’s Ismaili Muslims, and for hundreds of years, the region’s royal rulers (or Mirs), it has the feel of a big, tranquil village, with pretty, flower-decked houses that hugged the hillsides, terraced fields and staggering views of the mountains. I stocked up on pashminas, apricots and Hunza honey in the sleepy bazaar and was entertained by a trio of local musicians in our hotel, the Hunza Darbar. As is the custom, the men got up and danced, fuelled by potent mulberry wine, while the women watched.
If the scenery was riveting, so too was the conversation. Early on we had acquired two new passengers, a newlywed couple: Saher, 29, one of the many cousins of my guide Sohail, and his wife Huma, 23. Theirs was a rare love marriage and in between impromptu chats about their courtship, the pair, both observant Muslims, lamented the way they felt Pakistanis are perceived in the West. ‘Why does everyone hate us?’ beseeched Saher. ‘We are not terrorists. True Muslims believe in justice, tolerance and charity. The Taliban are crazy people.’
By the time we left the Karakorams for the more arid, forbidding mountains of the Hindu Kush – a sort of high altitude desert that had at one time been invaded by the hordes of Genghis Khan, the Aryans and the armies of Alexander – and entered the riverside town of Chitral in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, formerly the North West Frontier Province, I was teetering between euphoria and exhaustion, overwhelmed by the view of Tirich Mir mountain from my hotel room, the carpet weavers, butchers and sweet vendors in the bazaar, the vivid-coloured shalwar khameezes worn by the women, the taste of fragrant freshly cooked mutton and chicken curry, dal and moreish roti that we got used to gorging on.
Was there anything left to charm a weary traveller? Well, yes: tea with an imam. The imam’s red-hennaed beard was striking, his eyeliner thick, his manner jolly and welcoming. He recited a charming story about a family who’d turned away an unbeliever from their table, only to be humbled by a tolerant Allah. ‘Islam will welcome you regardless of your religion,’ said the imam. ‘Jihad,’ he added politely, ‘is only allowed when a non-Muslim force invades or tries to take over your country.’
I knew I would enjoy Pakistan, but what I hadn’t anticipated was such a strong yearning to return to the big skies, snowy peaks and the fledging friendships I’d forged. Whether you’re a novice or a seasoned traveler, Pakistan will steal your heart.