We’d planned to be up early to catch a minibus to Karimabad, being a 3 hour journey we really didn’t fancy suffering it in the heat.
It was another hot night, we’d tried to keep our room as cool as we could by using our sarongs as curtains during the day, that helped but the air temperature just wasn’t in our favour. Cursing both the lack of a fan and our reluctance to face the hassle in the heat of finding somewhere else to stay and moving, we started from the outset with the bedding dragged off on the floor under the window.
We tossed and turned and then at 3:45am there was a big cracking roll of thunder. Marie at first thought it was a landslide as nothing followed for 10 minutes, but then it kicked in and heavy raindrops started. Thunder bounced around the mountains as it moved north. It didn’t rain much but it did cool the air. We were stoked to have a shot at travelling without the heat. The black flies that plagued the homestay descended though and it was still too hot to get under a sheet so no more sleep was had. Judging by the number of bites we departed with they can’t have been the only insects to descend.
We were up super early but then were delayed by Marie’s stomach still expressing unhappiness about her having eaten dinner, however we still left at 6:30am like we’d intended. Our hosts knew we planned to leave then but no one was up and nor were any breakfast provisions offered (particularly annoying as breakfast was included in our room price). We felt like cash cows. The company has Melbourne connections and well know what travellers need, but no effort was made during our time there to make sure you have the basic necessities or offering to help with basic things like getting into the town.
We were very tired and grumpy as we left but simultaneously enjoyed walking down the road in the early morning with fresher air, rucksacks on our backs and feet in our shoes.
Part way down a Suzuki Jeep (the local transport – small flatbed vans with converted backs to have seats each side under an oval covered top) stopped. It was possible to walk to the bus station, maybe a kilometre away, but given tiredness levels are high and with Marie having now had stomach issues for well over a week and already concerned about the 3hr journey we had been hopeful of finding something to ride in when we got to the main road. We didn’t expect to find something so quickly only part way down the hill. We felt a little smug as it stopped for us.
We tried to ask how much the fare was but the signal we got from the driver was something akin to for gods sake just get it. 5 minutes later we were dropped off, it cost us 40 rupees (about 50 cents in NZ$). We were pretty stoked.
Touts around the bus station were really helpful in pointing us to the right hiace van. The driver was there but no one else. We were in for a long wait. Sorry sorry the driver said in good English, it is still early. We expected a potentially long wait, so we said no problem and dumped the rucksacks by his ticket hut at the end of the station and sat on them watching early morning bus station life unfold.
Like many places in Pakistan it was just full of men. They were very friendly and many spoke to us in good English. After nearly an hour we were still the only passengers. The driver apologised again and said it would likely be another hour or more. A couple of taxis were opposite and knowing we were in for quite a wait had already tried to tout us. We knew the cost would be high as they’d have to do the return journey but decided to find out what it would be. They quoted 3,000 rupees, the minibus was 270 a seat and would take 3 hours, an hour longer than a straight drive in ataxi.
The minibus driver asked what they’d quoted, then said he could take just us for 2,500, and that he would stop to take photos. It would be costing us approx NZ$25 to not wait any longer. We accepted.
An older very calm gentle guy we had liked him immediately. It turns out he used to work in tourism before it collapsed after 9/11 and the fight that followed with the Taliban. He drove us at a perfect steady 80kmph, pointing out mountains peaks and glaciers. Marie was in the front (while Emma was happily spread out on the row behind), he was so attentive that every time Marie reached for her camera he pulled over.
As he drove past people trying to flag him we told him it was ok to pick up others so he could make more money. He was insistent he wouldn’t as he had ‘promised’ us we could stop for photos and locals would be in a hurry just wanting to go. We had been immediately struck by how quiet the Highway was, we’d expected it would at least be full of trucks heading to the border but it wasn’t, there was very little traffic.
When we reached Karimabad the guesthouse we were planning to aim for had moved but we wanted to look at a few anyway as planning to stay 2 nights and surrounded by big mountains – 4 over 7000m peaks and 3 more over 6000m we wanted somewhere with a view.
Spread down the side of a hill it had been cloudy during the journey up and clouds continued to dance around the mountain tops. Finally we had found a nice temperature.
We walked slowly uphill, it was 9:30am but there was little yet alive. Marie got left on a wall when we found hotels and some shops while Emma did the rounds of places. She found it difficult to find anyone around to even look at rooms. Marie talked to a shopkeeper, an old man scrounged her drink off her and a family spoke to her and got a selfie so their daughter could practice her English.
Emma had returned from an unsuccessful hunt and just as we were about to take the accommodation search lower down the hill we saw someone from the hotel Marie had been sat next to and Emma dived in. They had some rooms free. We picked one and checked in, we were stoked to have a roof terrace to hang out on with a view of the valley and Rakaposhi mountain standing majestically at 7788m. We could even see it from our beds.
Now we’re out of the cities we had to get used to the electricity going on and off a lot, and getting everything charged as much as possible each time it was on.
Completely stuffed the only thing we were good for was a nana nap. That helped to fire up enough energy for an afternoon walk around the upper part of the village. Karimabad is like a mini-tourist town for domestic tourists, so there was a number of cafes and restaurants and shops. It felt nice to have choices and things easily available.
At the polo ground we discovered a football game in progress. We watched for 20 minutes or so, spotting the Dutch guys and Hamish in the crowd.
For dinner we found a restaurant close to our hotel specialising in local Hunza food. While a little on the expensive side it had great views and the food was great (yak meat and a spinach and potato dish that had something like big flat pieces of pasta in it). We thought it would be easy on Marie’s stomach. It wasn’t.
We had quickly realised walking round that it is much more relaxed in Hunza Valley (which Karimabad is the capital of). Most women weren’t wearing headscarves and used to both domestic and the few international tourists that come we didn’t feel the need to blend in and we were pleased to not feel the need to wear our headscarves. They’re a novelty for a while but quickly become just an extra hassle.
Karimabad is full of history as it is located at the heart of the ancient Silk Road. It has 2 Forts, both UNESCO World Heritage Sites, Baltit Fort sits at the top of the village and Altit Fort sits low down on a cliff overlooking the Karakoram Highway.
The route up to Baltit Fort is a steep cobblestone street. Sitting at 2438m as we headed up the steep street the next morning it was not an easy stroll, we hadn’t got up and out early enough and the hot sun had already broken through the clouds.
On the way we began chatting to 3 older distinguished looking men as we stopped for breath. One was particularly talkative and clearly educated he and his friend both spoke very good English. By the time we got to the fort we were quite well acquainted. Being the generous folk they are he offered several times to pay for our entry fee as we are his guests in Pakistan. Emma gently and persistently refused – mainly on principle as for foreigners the fee is double that of locals making it very expensive.
You get a guide included in the cost of the ticket but we accepted our new hosts offer to show us around which saw them translating what their guide was saying for us.
The fort was really interesting and pretty impressive, built in something like the 13th century for the central Hunza ruling family it had survived some big earthquakes and rough winters.
Over the years more areas and towers were added and it was fortified. From 1990 to 1996 it was effectively taken apart stone by stone and reassembled with the renovation work almost invisible. Several rooms have exhibits of utensils, furnishings and photographs donated by the locals. The views are amazing.
Our hosts were light-hearted and when we politely enquired as to their profession they turned out to be judges, though they also made sure we knew they were not broadcasting that. Having the confidence befitting their status and being highly educated they were the first people we’ve met who really talked about how things are here. It was also the first time having a substantial conversation we were not asked about marriage, family or jobs. We figured they were more astute to western sensitivities on those topics or at least knew for us these are not normally talked about as conversation openers. They preferred to talk to us about how life and society is changing here.
They also talked a bit about the private side of life in Pakistan. We really enjoyed being able to ask some different questions and to get some honest and pragmatic answers that might normally be out of range, such as if people ever make and drink alcohol, the use of the marijuana that grows wild rampantly (even in Islamabad), and the understanding and impact of different countries investment in the region such as China and so on. They raised topics about women’s roles and education. There is a lot beneath the surface in Pakistan that most of us will only lightly scratch.
Having declined their generous offer of paying for our entry tickets we agreed to a chai after the visit instead and we experimented with the local herbal mountain tea. They made many more offers of hospitality which we politely declined as we had plans to also visit Altit (Lower) Fort. We thanked them for their company and hospitality profusely as we went our separate ways.
We enjoyed the 2.5km downhill walk from Karimabad to Altit on a quiet back road, that led us through the village
Altit Fort sits alongside a historical village full of small lanes of old houses. It is the 2nd oldest village in the Hunza Valley. The people in the vilage like their privacy so signs ask you not to photograph or wander off the route to the Fort.
Again with the high entrance cost you get a guide. 2 families from Lahore were put in our group and our guide was both very knowledgeable and entertaining. Amongst other things he showed us the execution ledge where deviants were thrown to their deaths 1000ft into the river below.
Pretty tired from both general tiredness and the heat of the sun when we left the fort we headed back to the mini roundabout on the main road of the village to try and find some transport back up the hill to Karimabad. There we found a helpful retired army officer who eventually was able to commission a Suzuki minivan for us to take us to Karimabad. Surprisingly there is very little transport between the two.
With the skies having cleared we quickly organised a driver to take us to the Eagles Nest viewpoint for sunset. Perched high on the mountain above Karimabad up a narrow switchback road, at about 2,900m it has a stunning 360 degree viewpoint that many people watch sunset (or sunrise) from. We could see all 7 of the big mountain peaks towering around us and it was a perfect way to end the day.
The same couldn’t be said for dinner, the place we choose had poor service and side dishes that never came. Proof is any was needed that we really are in a tourist town.
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