We’ve all heard bad things that make us wary of travelling to parts of Asia, but this paints an incomplete and distorted picture. Few remember that this same country was built on Buddhism and influenced by mirs (kings), shamans and even fairies. That it’s a place where pagan tribes still prosper; where, in cities such as Islamabad and Lahore, women regularly forgo the hijab or headscarf; and where every part of a truck serves as a seat — even the bumper. When it comes to Pakistan, we need to be wary of our preconceptions.
“All that you hear is not all that is happening,” reasoned Maqsood Ul Mulk, as we lay on the green lawn of his beloved rose garden overlooking the town of Ayun, just 10 miles (16km) from the Afghan border.
Descended from a line of Chitral princes — some say even the grandson of Conqueror Tamerlane himself — Maqsood has worked with everyone, from the BBC Planet Earth team and Michael Palin to novelist William Dalrymple. “You have to see the reality on the ground for yourself. People need to make their own decisions about the world, not just be told by the Foreign Office,” he says.
SET OFF ON AN ADVENTURE
It’s sage advice. I’d joined Wild Frontier’s Hindu Kush Adventure — voted as one of the ‘Top 50 trips of a lifetime’ by National Geographic — and in doing so contravened four out of eight “against all” and “all but essential” travel warnings issued by the FCO. It meant I’d had to fork out for specialist travel insurance because regular policies become null and void when you flout FCO advice. But, sitting in Maqsood’s perfumed garden, any doubts were dwarfed by the 25,288ft icy elegance of Tirich Mir — the highest mountain of the Hindu Kush — dressed in a petticoat of wispy white cloud.
But is the risk worth taking? After all, the day before I travelled, a bomb had exploded outside a shrine in central Lahore, and the day after, armed militants had attacked a hotel in Gwadar in the far south. Reminders that all is not calm here.
Nevertheless, a series of events has conspired to kick-start real change in the country. In 2014, the Taliban attacked a public army school in Peshawar, killing 149 and abruptly ending the Pakistani Army’s tendency to turn a blind eye to its activities. In August 2018, cricket legend Imran Khan was elected prime minister and, in addition to cracking down on corruption, he has opened the country up with a new e-visa system, making entry much simpler and faster. So, in a convoy of Jeeps, our group of 12 had left the streets of Islamabad and journeyed north, passing first through the alpine Swat Valley.
“This place was off limits even to me until 2009,” said our guide, Attaullah Khan, referring to previous Taliban activity. We paused in the town of Mingaora and wandered the local market. Eyes watched us surreptitiously as we wove between the crush of shoppers, past shops flogging rifles and butcher stalls displaying sheeps’ heads and hooves, stood up like trophies. A chicken seller halted, cleaver aloft. “Welcome to Pakistan! We’re so happy to see you!” he beamed, surrounded by his white animals and the smell of bird faeces.
BEAUTY OF HUNZA VALLEY
Onward, to visit Maqsood in Ayun and then up and over the 12,467ft Shandur Pass, home to the highest polo field in the world and a lake as blue as lapis lazuli. In July, it’s a crowded festival of polo players and their fans, but we were alone with the fluffy black yaks munching on the mossy grass and clumps of delicate pink flowers that popped against the amphitheatre of snowy slopes.
We’d spend hours on rough dusty roads that rattled your brain and then, rounding a corner, a vista would yawn into view that ripped your heart open — deep valleys whose only steadfast companion over the centuries was the broiling azure river that carved them.
Crossing into Gilgit-Baltistan, we wended toward the Hunza Valley — Attaullah’s birthplace and bordering Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor. Famed for its hardiness, this independent princely state bore a bow and arrow on its flag until 1974 and was cut off from the outside world until the completion of the Karakoram Highway in 1978. But Attaullah had sweeter things on his mind. “We’re famous for our 32 varieties of apricots — God created one type for each tooth!” he laughed.
But I was barely listening. As the Jeeps strained like packhorses up the sharp twist of streets, a great cauldron of eight mountains was swallowing us. Attaullah reeled off the names of the peaks as easily as if they were his sisters. Queen among them is Rakaposhi, with the highest unbroken slope on earth (it rises 19,357ft in just seven horizontal miles). We stayed at Eagle’s Nest, the highest hotel in the valley, and as night fell I watched from my balcony as the darkening mountains coiled around the river like a dragon, blocking out the sun with their ridged back.
Dawn revealed a wreath of mist in the valley. Attaullah pointed to a structure perched on a plateau of ancient glacial moraine far below us. The former residence of the Hunza mirs (kings), Baltit Fort is more than 700 years old and modelled on Tibet’s Potala Palace because the princess he married brought artisans from her home in Baltistan — nicknamed Little Tibet by the Moghuls — as part of her dowry. We started hiking down toward it.
“Tourists don’t know about this trail,” said Attaullah, leading us past boulders of schist and bushes of buttercup-gold laburnum.
At sunset, we climbed to a 9,842ft viewpoint. “Fairies live up there, near the juniper trees,” said Attaullah, pointing. “Children born to fairies are ugly, so they sneak down and swap them for good-looking human children and those children grow up to be shamans,” he continued. “They’re drawn to the sound of the flute and drums, have eyes blue as Attabad Lake and golden light hair.” He trailed off, eyes glued to the rocky slopes. This was not the Pakistan I had expected.
We sat in silence watching the sun guild the mountaintops. With 108 peaks over 23,000ft — more than Nepal and China combined — there are rumours Pakistan will be promoted as “the new Nepal.” Maqsood doesn’t agree. “Only when you can visit all areas can you compare us to Nepal.”
But bloggers and Instagrammers have already been invited in to document their carefree adventures, perhaps sending the wrong message.
“I’ve worked with a pair of bloggers and they caused great offence because they weren’t aware of local customs,” explained Maqsood. He recommends using a tour operator.
“It’s more expensive, but they give you advice on how to behave which is invaluable. You have to remember areas like Swat and Peshawar haven’t seen tourists for 20 years.” Both tourists and locals are learning a new balance and it’s important to get it right to set the tone.
As Pakistan’s beloved national poet, Allama Iqbal, so eloquently put it in ‘The Painful Wail’: “How can beauty unveil itself if no one is anxious for sight. Lighting of the candle is meaningless if there is no assembly.”