When a Pakistani friend warned me that the Pakistani Himalayas would put a gripping spell on me, I thought he was exaggerating. I had no clue what lay in store for me. However, when my partner and I travelled up the Karakoram Highway, we drove into a breathtaking wilderness of rugged mountains, glaciers many miles long and roaring rivers. We were quickly captivated. When, after a long hike, I stood on a mountain peak surrounded by snowcapped mountains with no signs of civilization in sight, I fell in love with the region. The spell worked and we stayed for three months. Here are some of the most bewitching places and experiences you will find in the Pakistan Himalayas.
Attend the highest polo festival in the world
The Shandur Pass, on the road connecting Chitral with Gilgit, is home to a polo ground that lies abandoned for a large part of the year, except for the yaks that graze here. This may seen incongruous, amid the lofty mountains and pathces of snow. However, each year at the beginning of July, people from all over Pakistan’s northern areas flock here for a three-day polo tournament.
At 3,700 meters, this is the highest polo festival in the world. Regional teams play each other. Because of the altitude, the rules are a bit different from ‘regular’ polo (in fact, there are no rules!) leading to short and super intense games. Bring your tent and join the crowds in the fun, chaos, noise and excitement.
Visit the Kalasha, a non-Muslim indigenous group
In northwest Pakistan there are three gorgeous valleys: Bumboret, Rumbur and Birir. These valleys have long been home to the Kalasha people. The women immediately stand out because of their black dresses embellished with wide, colorful edges, vibrant orange necklaces and headdresses made of cowrie shells and shining beads. The indigenous people were largely cut off from the world until the 1970s. Today, Muslim Pakistanis live here too and tourism has become a source of income.
Enjoy the region’s awesome hiking opportunities and visit the valleys if you are interested in seeing a very different way of life from the one you’ll find elsewhere in Pakistan.
Drive or hike across the Deosai Plains, on the Tibetan Plateau
Part of the Tibetan Plateau, the Deosai plains stretch into northeastern Pakistan at some 4,000 meters. Surrounded by the country’s imposing, rugged mountains, this area is undulating and includes vast stretches of grassy fields. The national park is home to bears (which you are not likely to see) and golden marmots, which you’ll see in abundance sunbathing along the side of the road or hopping through the fields.
To visit the Deosai Plains, drive with your private or rented vehicle, or join a tour in Skardu or Gilgit for a road trip in a four-wheel drive, or a multi-day hike. In this region, which is free of light pollution, spend at least one night camping on the plains, under the magical, blackest of black skies.
Trek across a glacier
One of the amazing things about north Pakistan is that you don’t have to go far to climb a glacier. When driving to Passu, you’ll pass one on the left side of the road and, unsurprisingly, glacier trekking is one of the activities on offer. The Patundas hike takes you across the 57-kilometer-long Batura Glacier and to the 4,100-meter-high Patundas Mountain Top.
Whereas I normally carry my own gear, I found it wise to hire a porter here so I had all my hands and feet free to clamber across the ice, with its deep crevasses and rivulets of cloudy turquoise water. The glacier groans and creaks and changes all the time. The way across is not immediately evident, so it’s best done with a guide. You can find them in Passu or ask at nearby Borith Lake.
Travel the Karakoram Highway
Arguably the best-known attraction of north Pakistan, you can’t really miss it when visiting the area. The KKH curves around the mountains from Islamabad all the way north to the Chinese border, and is the region’s main artery. Drive the highway yourself, cycle it, or take the local bus. Many have done it and many will return to do it again as the KKH is among the most bewitching roads in the world, snaking through the world’s largest concentration of 7,000-meter peaks.
Article by Karin-Marijke Vis.