North Pakistan–home to the Himalayas, HinduKush and Karakoram Mountain Ranges–is breathtaking, literally and visually. It will never stop luring visitors, including many mountaineers, and understandably so. The three months my partner and I spent there were not enough to see and experience it all.
The first question that comes up when you share the idea of traveling to Pakistan with your friends is safety. Pakistan has struggled with its image for many years and, as a result, so has tourism. Since the political situation in Pakistan is so unstable, you will have to check with authorities and recent travelers regarding the current status, and rely on your gut feelings.
A number of other questions come up when preparing for a journey to Pakistan’s mountainous regions, and I can answer the most frequently asked ones here.
To wear a scarf or not?
One of the most common questions about traveling in Pakistan, especially for women, is whether wearing a scarf is mandatory.
No, it is not. Although most Pakistani women do wear a scarf, you are not required to do so and I never did. Others, particularly women traveling solo, wear scarves because it gives them a greater sense of security, and minimizes stares and potential harassment. So it’s up to you to do what feels most comfortable to you.
The necessity of wearing a scarf also varies by region. For example, the Skardu region is more conservative than the Hunza Valley, and in much-visited towns like Gilgit and Karimabad, local people are more used to seeing foreign women without a headscarf than in remote villages away from the Karakoram Highway or the main road connecting Gilgit with Chitral.
What other clothes to wear?
In the mountains it is necessary to wear layers. It can be super hot during the day, with the sun seemingly burning through your skull, with nights that can be anywhere from chilly to freezing, especially at higher altitudes.
I liked wearing the Pakistani shalwar kameez, which is common garb for men and women: baggy pants and a wide knee-length shirt. The difference between men’s and women’s shalwar kameez is the color: men wear light colors, whereas women often opt for bright hues. Have one custom-made or score one in a second-hand shop in Gilgit or Chitral.
Wearing shorts is not done in Pakistan, by men or women. Women are advised to keep their arms covered too.
Should I bring hiking gear?
Obviously, you can bring all your hiking gear from home. However, if your travels in the mountains of Pakistan are part of a longer, generally non-hiking trip, you may consider leaving your stuff at home. Towns like Gilgit, Karimabad and Skardu have second-hand hiking-gear and clothes shops. The region is frequented by major mountaineering expeditions and many leave their gear behind after their climb. Another option is to rent hiking gear, for example when joining the highest polo festival in the world, at the Shandur Pass. Gilgit and Chitral are the places to do this.
Although we found and bought good quality stuff, there is no guarantee you will find the quality you need or want. You’ll have to weigh the pros and cons for yourself.
Should I schedule extra time for delays?
The weather in mountainous areas can be unpredictable and unstable, so do factor in extra time for your travels in north Pakistan. Landslides may block the roads, including the main artery, the Karakoram Highway. Blockages may last from a few hours to a couple of days.
When flying out of Chitral and Gilgit, you may want to allow yourself an extra day if catching an international flight from Islamabad. The runways are short and hemmed in by mountains, and it doesn’t take much for flights to be cancelled due to inclement weather.
To buy drinking water or not
Many places in the mountains have clean drinking water and people drink it straight from streams and taps. It is up to you whether you trust it or not, and whether you want to risk getting sick. Locals can build up tolerance to certain bugs that travellers can’t, but those with stronger constitutions may want to give the mountain water a try.
A no-brainer for environmental reasons is not to buy bottled water, even though it is for sale everywhere. If you like to filter your water, bring a simple and affordable solution such as the SteriPen, MSR or Katadyn water filter.
Article by Karin-Marijke Vis.