Pakistan is a popular destination for adventure tourists. While some provinces in the south and west of the country are no-go areas for tourists due to safety concerns, northern Pakistan is relatively safe and is becoming increasingly popular with international tourists.
Most tourism takes place in the province of Gilgit-Baltistan, which, together with Azad Jammu Kashmir, forms the Pakistani- controlled part of Kashmir, a region in the western Himalayas which has been subject to political dispute for many years. This is where the three highest mountain ranges in the world meet: Hindukush, Karakoram, and the Himalayas, which forms a unique mountain scenery. This region has immense potential for adventure sports like trekking, climbing, or mountaineering.
Winding through this landscape is one of the most spectacular and adventurous roads in the world, National Highway 35, better known as the Karakorum Highway. The KKH has a total length of 1,300 km, of which about 800 km are on Pakistani territory. It was completed in 1978 after decades of construction work and is a joint project of the Pakistani and Chinese governments.
The highway starts near Islamabad, the capital of Pakistan, and runs north on the Pakistani side to the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Pass at 4700m. On the Chinese side, the KKH continues to Kashgar in the Chinese province of Xinjiang. Due to the extensive construction work and the high altitudes through which it passes, the KKH is sometimes referred to as the eighth wonder of the world. A journey along the Pakistani part of the KKH is one of the most spectacular undertakings in the world.
Here is an extensive list of some of the highlights of this landscape:
Only a few kilometres from the village of Chilas on the KKH rises the mighty mountain massif of Nanga Parbat. Standing at 8126m, Nanga Parbat is one of the fourteen 8000 meter peaks and the ninth highest mountain in the world. It forms the westernmost point of the Himalayas, not far from the collision zone of the Hindukush, Karakoram, and Himalayas. The differences in altitude on Nanga Parbat are among the greatest in the world. Within a short distance, the landscape rises from the low Indus Valley to the
summit at over 8000 meters. The two trekking routes to the north and south sides of the mountain massif are particularly popular with adventure tourists. On the north side is “Fairy Meadows”, a clearing in the forest nearby the Rakhiot Glacier, with beautiful views into the so-called Rakhiot face of the mountain. Fairy Meadows enjoys great popularity especially among local Pakistani tourists, among other things because the
place can be easily reached in just one day from nearby KKH and because there is a good tourist infrastructure on site, with hotels, restaurants, trekking guides, etc…
On the south side, you can hike to the Rupal flank of Nanga Parbat, to the foot of the highest mountain face in the world, which towers above base camp by over 4500m. The Rupal valley is more remote than Fairy Meadows in the north and the tourist infrastructure is less developed, so you will
need tents, camping equipment and possibly porters to carry your gear for this trek.
The Petroglyphs of Gilgit
Along the KKH, various sites with petroglyphs can be visited. In some places they are even located directly on the roadside and are easily accessible. These stone carved petroglyphs are remnants from
a time before the Islamisation of Pakistan, when Buddhism was the predominant religion of northern Pakistan. For a long time, the Indus Valley, through which the KKH now passes, formed a natural route for traders and pilgrims travelling from present-day Pakistan to China and vice versa. For them, these petroglyphs had a high cultural and religious significance.
The largest and best-known petroglyph in northern Pakistan is probably the Kargah Buddha. It depicts a standing Buddha and measures about 15 meters. The image is carved into the rock and is located near the provincial capital Gilgit. It is estimated to date back to the 7th century.
The princely state of Hunza existed until 1974, when it was dissolved and integrated into the state of Pakistan. Hunza is known for many things, but especially for its agricultural produce such as apples, apricots, walnuts, almonds, or mulberries, which are exported to all over the world. The beauty of the Hunza Valley will certainly impress any tourist visiting the area, with its lush and fertile pastures in the valley, the barren and rugged cliffs around, and the snow-capped peaks of the Karakoram mountains.
The inhabitants of Hunza are called Hunzukuc and speak Burushaski, an ancient language that is only spoken there. They have one of the highest literacy rates in all of Pakistan and are considered very educated. They are Ismailis, a sub-sect within Shia Islam with a total of about 20 million followers worldwide.
The capital of Hunza, Karimabad, is named after the current religious leader of the Ismailis, Karim Aga Khan IV, and is spectacularly situated above the Hunza River and below towering 6000 meters and 7000 meters mountains. The town’s landmark is Fort Baltit, the old fort of Hunza. The fort was once the seat of the Mir (ruler) of Hunza, today it houses a museum and is a major tourist attraction in Karimabad.
The Attabad Lake was formed in January 2010 as a result of a landslide near the village of Attabad, a few kilometres north of Karimabad. The landslide killed 20 people and blocked the flowing water of the Hunza River for five months. As a result, many residents of upstream settlements had to be relocated and parts of the KKH were destroyed and flooded. All traffic was ferried across the lake in boats until 2015, when a new section of the KKH including newly built tunnels bypassing the lake was opened. Built n collaboration with China and Pakistan, a total of five tunnels have since been completed, restoring road links and border traffic between the two countries.
With its turquoise waters, Attabad Lake is a stark aesthetic contrast to the barren surrounding countryside. The lake has now become a popular tourist attraction, offering activities such as boating, fishing trips or jet
Gojal is the name of the region north of Hunza and adjacent to the Pakistan-China border. The region is inhabited by the Wakhi People, a small ethnic group in South and Central Asia originally from Persia. Like the inhabitants of Hunza, they are followers of Ismaili Shiism. Due to the mountainous
and inhospitable terrain, Gojal is sparsely populated by only about 20,000 people.
Among the sights of this region is the mighty Batura Glacier, 57 km in length, it is one of the longest and largest non- polar glaciers on earth. Another sight is the so-called “Cathedral of Passu”, a rock formation near the village of Passu that appears particularly spectacular at sunset. The third sight is the valley of Shimshal, with high but little-known 7000 meter peaks, such as Kunjut Sar (7790 m.), Distaghil Sar (7885 m.) and Trivor (7577 m.), this province is home to some human settlements found in the highest altitudes.
These were just some of the highlights that await travelers along the Karakoram Highway. The hospitality of the local people, the natural wonders and a good tourist infrastructure makes this a diverse and worthwhile journey. While the stunning mountain-scape of this area makes it an attractive destination for outdoor sports lovers, the historical and cultural sights in Gilgit-Baltistan call for people who are interested in high-altitude cultures, archeology, and religion. Northern Pakistan undoubtedly deserves more attention for its touristic potential.