From Naran to Khunjerab Pass: A trip to the enthralling eighth wonder of the world and Pakistan’s very own heaven
It was the second week of September, and a bright sunny day, as we set out from Lahore on our journey to the northern areas of the country.
My wife and I had been planning this trip for weeks but were still apprehensive on what was to come since we had never ventured this far up north. We hadn’t seen most of the places that we planned on covering but were excited nonetheless, since we were about to make our journey across Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) to Gilgit Baltistan (GB) all the way up to Khunjerab Pass.
We left Lahore and made our way to Nathiagali, a lush mountainous area that offers some of the most beautiful tracks for trekking enthusiasts. We decided to spend a couple of days enjoying the pleasant weather before embarking on an adventure we had never experienced before.
During our downtime at Nathiagali, we covered the Pipeline track and the Mukshpuri track, passing through dense forestry and feeling at peace in the presence of immense natural beauty.
After spending a couple of days in Nathiagali, we made our way to Gilgit, breaking the long journey down with overnight stops at Naran and Chilas.
We left Naran early to reach Chilas on time, making it a point to start long journeys in the morning to ensure that we drove during the day time only; a policy which all prospective travellers to mountainous areas should try to adopt as a security measure.
On our way, we stopped at Lulusar Lake, a beautiful body of water at a distance of around 40 to 50 kilometres from Naran. The view at the lake is amazing if one wants to take pictures, or simply stop and take in the scenic beauty it offers.
After 20 more kilometres, we reached Babusar top – a high mountainous pass which connects Naran to Chilas and reduces travel time to Gilgit by four to five hours. It is at an elevation of 13,700 feet and therefore, given the altitude, is only accessible from June to mid-October.
Upon reaching Chilas, we checked into the Shangrila Chilas Hotel which, by various accounts, is considered to be the best place to stay there.
Chilas is a conservative area where you would not see many women on the streets. Therefore, we restricted ourselves to the hotel for our overnight stay. Shangrila Hotel is built on the bank of River Indus and its lawns offer a good view of the flowing river.
The view, however, is rather limited to barren mountains, while the weather is warm. Nevertheless, we enjoyed our time with pleasant walks on the hotel lawns and enjoying the excellent food they had to offer.
The next day, we set out early for Gilgit, which is a drive of around three hours from Chilas. The road, which is rough at the start, gradually improves and is excellent once you cross Raikot. On the way, one can catch glimpses of the imposing Nanga Parbat and also witness the conjunction point of three of the highest mountain ranges in the world – Hindu Kush, Karakoram and the Himalayas.
Upon reaching Gilgit, we checked in for the night at Serena, which I had heard was an excellent place to stay. While the weather here is warm too, the view is a sight for sore eyes. Serena itself was a pleasant experience, with beautiful sprawling lawns and an environment of comfort after long hours spent traveling in the car.
We had a great time in Gilgit, even though it was only for the night. The comfort of the room, the quality of service and hospitality of the staff made our stay just what we needed after a long day of travelling.
We made our way to Hunza the next day. The road from Gilgit to Hunza is probably the best mountainous road you will see in the country. The road is so good in fact that you can cover the distance of around 110 kilometres in just under two hours, and it is a real pleasure to drive on. For anyone fond of driving, this is a must-drive.
On the way, you will see the beautiful Rakaposhi peak up close. It towers at 7,780 metres and is densely covered with snow, so of course we had to stop and take a picture!
Hunza is one of the most beautiful places I have ever seen in my life. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains on all sides with some of the most amazing peaks visible including Rakaposhi (7,780 metres), Diran (7,266 metres), Lady Finger (6,000 metres) and Ultar Sar (7,388 metres).
At the basin of the valley is lush vegetation covered by fruit-bearing trees including apple, apricot and pear trees along with other wild and planted flowers. The vegetation makes the mountains look stunning, and according to locals, even more beautiful during autumn.
We checked into Hunza Serena Inn at Karimabad and soaked up the view from our balcony. Karimabad is at an elevation of around 7,800 feet and therefore is pleasant, even in the summer.
We spent our day in the Karimabad market; visiting the famous Café de Hunza and trying its renowned walnut cakes and their dhaba chai. Needless to say, we loved Café de Hunza, so much so that we visited it almost every day during the five days we spent in Hunza.
The locals in Hunza are amazing; highly literate, extremely friendly and very welcoming. The literacy rate is over 90%, while the most heartening thing to see is the evident women empowerment in their society; where women are considered equals, are free to gain an education, work, drive and run their own enterprises.
Another pleasant surprise was the number of foreigners in Hunza. People from all over the world had come to see Hunza’s beauty and it was amazing to see them interacting with the locals and having a great time.
Next, we made our way to the famous forts of Hunza. The local guide at the Baltit Fort informed us that Baltit means “upper” and Altit means “lower”. The rulers of Hunza built the fort around 700 years ago.
Baltit Fort is not far from the Karimabad market; however, it is a continual ascent so be prepared to exert yourself.
The guide we hired was very well versed in the history of the fort and gave us an amazing and informative tour, telling us details about Hunza’s past that we were not aware of. This is the moment I realised that Hunza has a history of its own and is not just a run of the mill hill station for tourists.
On our third day, we made our way to Attabad Lake, which is at a short driving distance from Hunza. The water body emerged as a result of massive land sliding in 2010 which blocked the flow of river Hunza and resulted in villages getting drowned as water collected to form a lake.
On the way to Attabad, you get to pass tunnels that were built after the original Karakoram Highway was sunk by the formation of the lake. The tunnels, built in collaboration with the Chinese government as part of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), extend to more than seven kilometres and are simply an amazing feat of engineering – something you won’t see anywhere else in Pakistan.
The moment we got a glimpse of Attabad Lake, we were left awe-struck by the beautiful blue color of the water. We even took a boat tour across the lake, enthralled by the beauty of the lake and the destruction that lay underneath it. At certain places, you can still see the top of trees and the previous Karakoram Highway submerged – a testament to the former landscape.
We made our way back to our hotel that day with our phones full of stunning pictures.
The next day was the day we would embark on our journey to witness the highlight of our trip – we were going to the Khunjerab Pass. The journey was around three to four hours one-way and therefore we set out early. Sost, the last city before the pass, is around an hour and a half away from Hunza. At Sost, we stopped at the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motel to freshen up and break the journey.
After some refreshments, we drove on for another hour and a half. The landscape and scenery changes as you pass Sost; the mountains become barren with little to no vegetation. There is a gradual ascent until finally, the gate of the Khunjerab Pass comes into view. You have to park your car around one kilometre from the gate and walk there. However, nothing really prepares you for the cold that greets you the moment you step out of your car.
Khunjerab Pass is at an elevation of 15,400 feet approximately, and the moment you step out of the car, you are greeted with extremely cold wind and the change in air pressure will leave your ears ringing and your head reeling. Due to the decreased oxygen, we felt a shortness of breath after walking for around 500 metres.
We hurriedly made our way to the gate, took a few pictures and quickly looked our fill of the view before heading back, since it was difficult to stand there much longer. After reaching the car, it took us 10 minutes to catch our breath and compose ourselves enough to set out on our return journey.
When you reach Khunjerab Pass, you see a beautiful meadow with snow-covered mountains on all sides and a grassy landscape with small ponds – truly a visual treat. But the harsh weather conditions remind you of the amazing accomplishment that is the Karakoram Highway. To build a road in such conditions, and that too in the 1960s and 1970s, is simply mind-blowing. Some people have rightly called it the eighth wonder of the world.
On our way back, we once again stopped at the PTDC motel in Sost for lunch. Further down the road, we stopped at Glacier Breeze Passu. Upon seeing the board, we were a bit confused since there was no café visible – until we saw a long staircase all the way up to the top of a hill where there stood a small restaurant. Climbing around 150 steps to finally reach the restaurant is actually a very good way to whet one’s appetite before a meal.
After some delicious apricot cake and tea, we then returned to Hunza. It was quite a drive but definitely worth taking at least once in your lifetime.
The next day, we visited Altit Fort, which was built by the rulers of Hunza more than a thousand years ago. The most spectacular part of the fort is that it is built right on the edge of the rock with a steep fall below. Its unique position allows an excellent vantage point for photography.
This was our last day in Hunza, and after ending our tour of the fort, we made our back to the hotel knowing that we would be starting our return journey the next day. However, it felt amazing to know that whatever little fear we felt before undertaking this journey, could all be put to rest, as we would undoubtedly be carrying happy memories of an amazing trip.
Pakistan has so many beautiful places that are waiting to be explored. I would recommend anyone fond of traveling to visit Gilgit, Hunza and the surrounding areas. Not only are the places full of scenic beauty, but what makes your stay truly memorable is the hospitality of the people. The friendly and welcoming faces that will greet you wherever you go are what truly make your trip to the north an unforgettable experience.
All Photos: Ahsan Nadeem
The views expressed by the writer and the reader comments do not necessarily reflect the views and policies of The Express Tribune.