We’ve been asked this question a fair bit.
First a quick history lesson – Pakistan only gained independence in 1947 following partition from India (the two countries then almost immediately went to war over the still-disputed Kashmir region).
Initially incorporating what is now Bangladesh in the East and present-day Pakistan in its West, Pakistan became an Islamic republic in 1956. As its politics became increasingly fractionalised along its East/West lines the country eventually descended into civil war which led to the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.
Pakistan has struggled to become a democratic state, frequent breakdowns in its constitutional and political order have contributed to its turbulent history and seen it being subject to military rule for more than half its history. The military, feudal classes and business interests continue to play a dominant role in its politics, further stalling its progress towards becoming a fully fledged democracy. Just a couple of days before we arrived Pakistan held a general election which marked only the second time in its 71 year history that one civilian government has handed power to another.
In recent times Pakistan’s reputation has also suffered at the hands of the media, which have portrayed it as being war-torn and hostile after it was dragged into the conflict with the Taliban.
Lonely Planet last published a guidebook for Pakistan 10 years ago and their website has scant information. But some travellers are returning; the first were no doubt brave or crazy, but as word spreads of stunning landscapes and some of the most hospitable people you’ll find anywhere on earth, Pakistan is gaining a quiet reputation as a place for adventure travellers.
The seeds of this trip were sowed for us last year when we travelled the Pamir Highway in Tajikistan. After detouring off the highway into the Wakhan valley we spent 4.5 days following the Afghanistan border and gazing across the river (border) to the Hindu Kush mountains poking through that thin strip of Afghanistan from Pakistan. We looked at them with a longing to get into them, to go and explore. We knew the Karakoram Highway was in there somewhere, and we knew it has reputation for being one of the greatest road trips in the world.
We also knew that the Pamir Highway is the second highest highway in the world, and has the second highest border crossing, on both counts coming in second to the Karakoram Highway.
We had a quick look at the travel advisory at the time and dismissed the notion of travelling it on the basis that Pakistan is too dodgy to go.
A few months ago we were trying to figure out where to go this year. The Pamir Highway was epic; the landscape, the adventure and the people we met. We knocked around a few ideas – Azerbaijan, Russia, Georgia or hopping through the Pacific Islands. But with the benchmark set so high we just couldn’t find an idea that rocked our world.
A lazy google of the Karakoram Highway and within a matter of hours our decision was made. This was a trip that rocked our world.
The Karakoram Highway has so many unique aspects about it that it deserves a blog entry in its own right, but in a nutshell, it is often described as the most epic road trip ever – a branch of the ancient Silk Road that has been trodden by traders, warriors and pilgrims for millennia. It became fabled after Marco Polo travelled it and introduced it to the world in the 14th Century.
A pivotal crossroad between the Indian Subcontinent, the Middle East and Central Asia, it has been an important corridor for many things, including the spread of Islam (to the east) and Buddhism (to the north).
The Karakoram Highway traverses the 3 greatest mountain ranges on the planet; the Himalayas, the Karakoram and the Hindu Kush. It is one of only a very few routes that actually cross the Himalayas.
The coming together of these great mountain ranges as the Eurasian and Indian plates collide means Northern Pakistan is home to many of the world’s largest mountains and has the largest concentration of mountain peaks anywhere on earth.
The route itself is said to reward the adventurous with a humbling and gratifying experience in one of the world’s most under-appreciated and rarely trod regions.
This information alone was more than enough to seal the deal, but as we read more, instead of a hostile place as reported in the media, those that have travelled here consistently report finding the most hospitable people in the world, surpassing the more infamous hospitality of their Iranian neighbours.
This was our trip. On the face of it, it could possibly be our most challenging, but that just makes it more exciting.