View from Eagle’s Nest
We spend the next few days in Karimabad. First we visit the fort Baltit. The place is a parаdise for Korean and Japanese people – there are signs in Korean everywhere. There are many shops in the street. They sell mainly carpets, precious stones, dried fruits and traditional clothes.
The old part of the town is amazing – stone houses with wooden carved windows and doors. The fort is an architectural piece of art too and behind it one can see peak Ultar (7400 m.)
House in Karimabad
On the next day we decide to go to Ultar’s grasslands where base camps Ultar I&II are situated. We walk through something like a canyon for 2 hours in order to reach the grasslands and the glacier (3300 m.). It is cloudy all day long so we couldn’t see the peaks. On the pasture-ground there is a small hut for the shepherds and they invited us and treated us to milk tea with salt (yes, that’s correct – salt). The temperatures are pretty wall and at some point started snowing.
We go down in Karimabad hastily and suddenly the sky clears and we see amazing views all around us.
On our way back we stopped by an equipment shop – we had befriended the owner before. He is alpinist and had climbed Broad Peak and other peaks above 8000 m. and also had experience climbing Nanga Parbat in the winter. He told us he met a Bulgarian guy in the basecamp of Broad Peak – the same guy who climbed three peaks above 8000 m. without an oxygen mask.
You can buy whole winter equipment for around 150 $ here – there are quality winter jackets, sleeping bags, pants and shoes, left from the mountain expeditions. There are dozens of very good treks in the region that climb up to 5-600 m. above sea level. The good thing is you don’t need any permit for doing them and the local guide’s prices are quite low. To summarize: this is the paradise of mountain tourism – whether it is professional alpinism or amateur trekking.
I am really frustrated we have to leave this place because there are at least 5-6 treks that we wanted to do but there is no time left and we are poorly (better said not at all) equipped. We consider coming back with equipment and stay at least 1 month in the mountains. June and July are the best months and we hope we can come back next year – we fell in love with this place.
This night we saw a giant poster in Karimabad and we were informed that a whole bus of people were killed in Karachi – all of them were Ismaili from Hunza Valley. It is really sad that this happened. Hunza is the safest place in all of Pakistan, the people are really nice and their religion is very moderate.
Here is some interesting information about the Ismaili – they have a spiritual leader and recognize him as the 49-th Imam (in Shia Islam people recognize only the first 12 Imams). He leads his people and has something like a plan for the next 10 years. The 49-th Imam is Aga Khan and was born in Saudi Arabia, he is descendant pf Mohammed and nowadays lives in Paris. People gave him many lands in the valley and he founded his own foundation that took care of the local inhabitants.
We thought that today we will just hitchhike and go where we planned to go but the day is filled with thrills. In the beginning everything is OK. We go out of Karimabad and some people take us to Aliabad (Hunza) – the main city of the valley. For the next 30 km. hitchhiking continues smoothly. The last people who took us wave to a passing by car and the driver takes us.
When we reach Gilgit it turns out that the car is actually a taxi. People gather around us like usually and the wrangle begins. At the end we pay the guy because he really is a taxi – at least we pay him the same price as for minibus (400 rupees or 4$ for the two of us for 100 km.).
It is almost 3 in the afternoon, Gilgit is dusty and not so nice city so we decide to continue traveling, although someone told us there is no transportation to Skardu. One minibus takes us and leaves us at the fork road to Skardu which is 45 km. away from Gilgit. The road fork is in the middle of nowhere, there is a small, dusty road that fades into the distance and river Indus is stringing slowly below us.
We start waiting. The only vehicles that pass us by are trucks full of hens, cows and sheep. There is a guy besides us who is also waiting for transportation. The bus is supposed to come from the capital but someone says the road is blocked and it won’t come today. Other people come wearing big bags and saddlebags but the situation is discouraging. The south road is blocked, minibuses do not travel north in the afternoon, and there are no private cars.
I do not care because we saw a nice beach where we can pitch our tent and we have a cake. At around 6 p.m. we head to this place but while we are walking down a car passes by and stops. It turns out the driver Habib has a vacation and goes back to his family in Skardu. We hop on and we find ourselves in the middle of a 6-hour night journey on one of the most dangerous regions in Pakistan.
Lady Finger Peak
The car is a real roller coaster – the road is so narrow that when two cars need to pass each other one of the cars has to stop and let the other one pass, one time we passed under a waterfall that was falling on the road and in addition it jolts as hell. We are 5 people in the car with lots of luggage, the car slides in some of the bends and below us is the deep gorge of Indus River.
On our way to Skardu
We arrive at Skardu at 1 o’clock in the night and we are dead from exhaustion. Our friend Habib invites us to sleep at his place because at that time everything is closed and as a true Pakistani he is worried about our safety.
We wake up at Skardu – the main city of Baltistan region. The people here speak the Balti language – an ancient form of the Tibetan language, though people here are not Tibetan, and yet we meet some with Asian features.
All day long we walk around the streets. The city is very dusty. The only landmark here is a fort on a rock that rises above the city. We climb there and the view is beautiful.
View from Skardu Fort
In the evening Habib and his wife took us to a wedding. The weddings in Pakistan continue for 3 days and today is the first one. Men and women sit in separate rooms. Outside there is a pavilion for the women and later they move inside.
The dishes served are rice with spinach and meat and lamb soup. All the time boys and men peer through the window and throw teasing looks at the girls and the women – they respectively look back. All wear gold dresses. There is no music or dances and people just chat with each other, though we hear some religious songs from the men’s department. Around 11 p.m. Habib takes us back home.
House in Skardu
We have only two days till we head to Islamabad where we need to get our visa for India. This is the reason we want to see everything. On our way back we will take a bus in order to save 3 days – that is how much time took us to hitchhike in Kohistan. In fact when we tell people we have traveled with minibuses and hitchhiking they are terrified. It results that even to Pakistani people the idea of doing this looks very extreme.
They told us that even the buses traveling in Kohistan always drive together and have armed convoy – of course we saw this when we traveled there but back then we wondered why the hell do they do this – it results that in that way they wanted to protect themselves from terrorist attacks. No wonder that when any policeman saw us they were stunned – now we know that no one even ever stops there or walks around hitchhiking.
Local transport in Khaplu
So this morning we head for Khaplu, Ghanche Region early in the morning. This is the last region before Kashmir and the border with India. Some boys take us in their car and leave us at the police check point just out of Skardu. Here we start the usual “security problems” talks and the policemen refuses to let us continue to Khaplu without a guard.
We called one policeman that works for the intelligence and we had met before. After a short time he comes himself on a motor bike and manages to convince the other policeman to let us. At the end they stop a big old-school jeep and we hop on it.
On the way to Khaplu
River on the way
In the beginning the road continues along Indus River, it is very beautiful, there is a lot of sand everywhere and the scenery looks a little bit like desert, though the villages we pass by are quite green and everywhere there is a sweet smell coming from a tree we see everywhere. Later we divert and continue along Shyok River.
Three hours or more later we manage to reach Khaplu – for that time we passed 100 km. somewhere in the middle of the road some policemen saw that we do not have guards with us and they appoint us one. The other thing that amazes everyone is that we do not have our own means of transportation – obviously all the tourists hire jeeps, local guides and so on. At one checkpoint we see in the notebook for registrations that one Bulgarian woman passed a month ago.
We reach Khaplu at 3 p.m. and we start walking around with the appointed policemen guard following us tightly. All looks strange and interesting to us and we see many people with Asian features and strange faces. We feel like we are among some tribes and even the smallest girls wear Hijab (shawl around the head) but yet there are many women on the streets.
Woman at Khaplu
Khaplu is something like a cluster of many villages and there are many interesting things to see. First we climb the palace, or the so called fort that is a very well preserved building with Tibetan architecture – half of it is transformed in a museum of the Balti culture and the other half is a 5 star hotel. Down the same street is situated the Chaq Chan Mosque that is 700 years old and has amazing fretworks. Sadly non-Muslims are not allowed. Many years ago the building was a Buddhist temple.
Chaq Chan Mosque
People in the region are Noorbakshi – it is a sect of Shia Islam and Sufism. Many centuries ago here came some Sufi from Persia and all people converted in Islam, being Buddhists before this. The name of this person was Noorbakshi, hence the name of the sect. Here in Khaplu is situated one of the biggest wooden ritual sites of the Sufi in whole Asia – Khankah but at the moment is being restored – it is 1000 years old.
At its yard is the tomb (Astana) of Syad Mir Mohammad – it is an incredible wooden structure protected by UNESCO. The atmosphere inside the old mosque is very mystical. Two women went inside and lighted some kind of ancient lamp filled with apricot seed oil, then leaned on some rectangular thing and started praying – it seemed rather unusual for Islamic ritual. Outside we saw some old persons with Asian features and fur caps on their heads.
The Astana of Syad Mir Mohammad
Inside the tomb (Astana)
After it became dark some people started lighting fires on the nearby slopes and we heard religious songs from the mosques – later we came to the notion that they were preparing themselves for the tomorrow’s birthday of Imam Hosseini tomorrow.
We found a really nice hotel with a garden and the owner let us pitch our tent outside for only 200 rupees (2$). We can’t camp outside of a hotel because our policemen friends are concerned with our security and won’t let us. At the conference room there are 30 elder who gathered to discuss the local elections. Before we went to bed we had a little chat with the owner about the local tradition and the Noorbakshi people and he decided to treat us to dinner.
View from our hotel