Pakistan’s Karakorams: Mountains to the Max

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Trekking in the World Class Karakoram Mountains of Pakistan

By David Rich

Pakistan's Karakoram Mountains. photo by David Rich.
Pakistan’s Karakoram Mountains. photo by David Rich.

What place would you nominate as the world’s most spectacular mountain vacationland, an amalgam of beautiful lakes, glaciers, meadows and mountains combined with sincerely hospitable people? Candidates abound.

A half dozen finalists might range from Europe’s French, Swiss and Italian Alps to the Picos de Europa in Spain, South America’s thousands of miles of Andes plus Chile’s hundred-mile string of Fuji-like volcanoes, North America’s similar volcanoes stretching through Oregon and Washington to Colorado’s Rockies, Nepal’s Annapurna and Everest locales plus New Zealand’s Southern Alps. You can likely add another half dozen credible candidates.

The Envelope, Please

However, one compact area stands out because it boasts five of the world’s fourteen highest mountains (those over 8000 meters or 26,250 feet), the world’s second-highest and including the ninth highest, Nanga Parbat a.k.a. Naked Mountain, so-called for its 15,000-foot vertical wall too sheer for the snow to stick.

Plus the inhabitants of this place are among the world’s most hospitable and sedate, sedate, that is when they‘re not playing their totally out-of-control favorite sport.

This place also offers far more than mountains, from a rainbow of lakes and golf course-like meadows to cuisine from fruits to nuts, char-grilled chicken to cappuccinos, oceans of tea you could drown in. Of course, it’s got to be the Karakorams of Northern Pakistan.

There are nay-sayers who’ve never been to Pakistan who may mutter about terrorists and the hunt for Osama, but that’s hundreds of miles away on the border with Afghanistan, just north of the Khyber Pass.

The author's guide, Sajad, with one of the porters
The author’s guide, Sajad, with one of the porters

The Karakorams are way east of these troubles, in the far northeast of Pakistan near the border with China. To vouch for the utter tranquility of this area ask any of the hundreds of European and Japanese tourists that flock there yearly. Or ask me who just spent two months trekking there.

Kindness and Hospitality

Before exploring the scenery let’s begin with the Pakistanis’ native kindness and hospitality, characteristics for which Muslim cultures are famed. If you accepted every offer of chai, “Please have tea”, you’d drown in 25 cups a day as a friend of mine nearly did who couldn’t say no.

When copying my passport to get a visa extension the proprietor threw up his hands in horror as I tried to pay: “Oh, no. You are our guest.”

I heard this phrase a dozen times a day and was invited to lunch or dinner daily. A casual conversationalist at the Islamabad airport personally escorted me on a fourteen-hour bus ride to Gilgit, Karakoram mountain-central capital of the northern area, just so I would have a friend at my beck and call. I was hosted at Gilgit’s Independence Day polo match by the local star polo-cowboy, and the list goes on.

Hunza Peak
Hunza Peak

Osama Look-Alikes

The northern-area Pakistanis migrated from Central Asia eons ago. In looks and temperament, they’re completely unlike the inhabitants of the countries to the east and west, southern India and Iran.

Shepherd kids may wear colorful pillbox hats while their elders uniformly resemble hatless Osama look-alikes in their matching long shirt and pants (Shalwar Kamiz) in shades of drab topped by a full beard.

Outside of Pakistani cities you seldom see women. Females are relegated to hearth and home and treated, essentially, like property in lock-step with neighboring Muslim countries.

The Sport of Kings

Their king of sports is the sport of kings, a version of polo Prince Charles would fail to recognize. Except to wham the ball into the opposite goal, impediments be damned, there are no rules. Polo in Pakistan is a free-for-all sometimes described as wresting on horseback.

A polo match in Gilgit
A polo match in Gilgit

The reality is far more precarious with spectators as endangered as the players. The match I attended was interrupted for seconds after a goal-scoring mallet slipped and neatly clipped the nose of a ten-year-old, blood spurting copiously as the lad was unceremoniously carried away to the tunes of a weird horn band accompanied by ominous drums.

The year’s most widely attended polo match is scheduled every September pitting Chitral, in Pakistan’s far northwest, against Gilgit in the northeast.

A Colorful Lot They Are

European (40%) and Japanese (60%) tourists flock to the Karakoram during the summer tourist and trekking season, and a colorful lot they are. I met a couple from the UK who’d driven from Dover to Gilgit in their 1978 white delivery van who especially loved Iran.

The horn section at a polo match
The horn section at a polo match

A Dutch biker was stranded in Gilgit waiting for parts to clear customs in Karachi, phoning daily to determine the final price of duty that increased by $50 every phone call. He’d have biked down to pick the parts up personally but the trip would have taken over a week to reach the 14 million people povertyopolis of Karachi.

A German couple working for an NGO and a Scot with the United Nations, all stationed in Kabul, were gratefully in the Karakoram for R and R. When you work in Kabul, your vacation refuge is the most peaceful place you can find and be happy they‘d found it.

In Skardu, I met an anthropologist from the University of Toronto who’d been attending the adjoining mountain valleys, including Concordia to K2, for twenty summers documenting the social changes of the inhabitants and the horrendous working conditions of porters.

During the summer of 2004, Concordia was jam-packed with Italians celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of Italian climbers being the first to climb the world’s second-highest peak.

Cascading Terraces

Besides K2 here’s why tourists flock to the Karakoram: Karimabad, a tiny town of a hundred thousand apricot and almond trees sprawled below Ladyfinger, Hunza Peak and Ultar II (7300M or 24,000 feet), their icy faces providing the backdrop to Baltit Fort on the hill above Karimabad.


Across the valley sits a string of 7000M peaks dominated by 7788M (25,700 foot) Rakaposhi, a strikingly gorgeous vista. Below Karimabad perches Altit Fort on a 300M (1000 foot) sheer drop to the wide meandering Hunza River straight below.

Everywhere racks of apricots dry on cascading terraces in the sun where canals gush with glacier melt. Sip a cappuccino at the Café de Hunza accompanied by a crepe with fresh apricot jam or chow down on a chicken cheeseburger at the Baltit Café and sit back, propping your feet on the table as you enjoy the spectacular view.

When not too busy soaking up the scenery pop across the valley from Karimabad to Minipin and spend a couple of nights at the Diran Guesthouse owned by the former Mir (king). He wears the typical Muslim two-piece outfit topped by a baseball cap on backward.

Acres of Brilliant Wildflowers

On the second day hike up to Rakaposhi base camp above two enormous glaciers spawned by Diran and Rakaposhi peaks, a high meadow with a serpentine stream down the middle and yaks grazing on the inclines. On the way back down you’ll pass through acres of brilliant wildflowers, stunning against the backdrop of Rakaposhi.

Suspension bridge near Passu
Suspension bridge near Passu

Or, if you don’t wish to leave Karimabad but would like a birds-eye view of three of the world’s highest peaks, take a jeep or trudge up to Duikar, a few hundred meters above Karimabad. On a clear day, you can see Gasherbrun Peak, 11th highest at 8086 M (26,470 feet), Broad Peak, 12th highest at 8047 M (26,400) and Gasherbrun II, 13th highest at 8035 M (26, 360 feet), clustered on the eastern horizon where at sunset Golden Peak shines brightly yellow between its slightly higher brethren. At sunrise you can enjoy Rakaposhi, Ultars I and II, Hunza, Ladyfinger and Diran to the west.

Colorful Lakes

If you can tear yourself away from the Karimabad area head for Upper Naltar where a series of colorful lakes sit below the usual towering peaks and shepherds’ kids beg you to take their picture.

At a minimum spend a couple of days at Fairy Meadows below awe-inspiring Nanga Parbat which reflects perfectly in a local lake.

Try out the world’s longest and most precarious Indiana-Jones-style suspension bridges near Passu that sit between two icy glaciers below the craggy Tupopdan Peaks.

If you’re feeling particularly energetic hike, Concordia, to K2 base camp or climb up to Rush Phari Lake (4700 M or 15,400 feet, which will require acclimatization), three glaciers above Hoper, for a weather-dependent view of K2 and its surrounding peaks. I guarantee you’ll vote like me for the Karakorams as the world’s most spectacular mountain vacationland.

When You Go:

Fly from anywhere in Central, South or Southeast Asia into genteel, green and sprawling Islamabad, capital of Pakistan, with easy connections from Europe or the United States. Fly from Islamabad to Skardu ($55) or Gilgit ($52), both weather dependent while saving a 22 hour or 15-hour bus ride, respectively, and providing a brilliant flight among some of the world‘s highest mountains.

In Gilgit stay atMir’s Lodge ($9 for a double with cable television) or splurge on The Paradise for $20. Eat grilled spicy chicken on the street for $1 a quarter bird. Relatively fast internet is $.70 an hour at Comsat.

In Karimabad stay at Hilltop Lodge ($9) or the really upscale Darbar Hotel ($40 double with beer for $12 a bottle).

Eat at the Hilltop, Baltit Café and always take breakfast at the Café de Hunza with its imported Italian cappuccino.

In Passu stay at the Ambassador for $12 and eat nearly next door at the Tourist Lodge.

Avoid staying overnight at Hoper because the only two guesthouses, the Hoper Inn and the Hoper Hilton Inn, are filthy and overpriced.

Pakistan enjoys four excellent English language newspapers affiliated with London’s Guardian and the Washington Post. They feature uncensored stories critical of the government and the more fundamentalist Muslim sects and schools.

English is widely spoken, second in the Karakoram to Japanese. The Pakistanis freely mix English and Urdu with interesting results and repeatedly use stock phrases, principally, “Sure why not?”

I asked a Pakistan Army supply clerk whether he’d like to get up on the Siachen glacier near where he’s stationed and shoot a couple of Indian Army guys. The Siachen glacier is the world’s highest battleground at over 16,000 feet, with casualties caused more by weather than bullets, now temporarily under a cease-fire.

He said, “Sure why not?”