Pakistan test

Pakistan 2017

Skip right to the bottom for a list of advice relating to travel in Pakistan

In recent months I’ve struggled to maintain enthusiasm for photography and I’ve completely turned my back on social media. I’m sure anyone who has devoted a lot of time to any particular activity will at one time or another lose interest. Personally, I struggle to find the correct balance between photography and travel. Whilst in Pakistan a lot of my plans went awry and as such, I lacked motivation. I write this now almost six months after I returned, it’s taken me this long to get my thoughts together. I often find myself dreaming up new trips and I’m sure it won’t be too long before I dust off my hiking boots and begin a new adventure.

Right from the start in Pakistan my careful planning went out the window and so I came away with very few (if any) worthwhile landscape photographs. Having said this I thoroughly enjoyed my trip, I had a rented motorbike which gave me a lot of freedom and in many ways allowed me to return to the style of travel I was used to before taking up photography.

With so few photographs to show for my trip, I felt it would make sense to shed some light on the mistakes I made. The next few paragraphs will doubtless have little interest for anyone, save for a few people who might venture off to Pakistan. If you’re one of those people who enjoy travel to more remote areas and hope to do so without making too many mistakes then read on. If however, you stumbled upon this blog post only to see the photographs skip directly to the bottom.

Arrival in Islamabad and onward by road to Skardu

It would have been easier and cheaper to fly to Islamabad and get a connecting flight to Skardu, however, I had always wanted to travel on the Karakoram Highway. This great highway connects the western Chinese city of Kashgar with the lesser-known city of Hasan Abdal; which is itself south-west of the now infamous city of Abbattobad. I was picked up at the airport by a private driver and together we began the eighteen-hour drive northeast to Skardu. Driving to Skardu you actually miss a lot of the KKH, I wasn’t in any way bothered by this, there was plenty to see along the route we chose. I arrived in Pakistan during Eid al-Adha, which is one of the most important feasts of the Muslim calendar. I suppose in many ways this was a great time to arrive because the roads were quieter, although a quiet road to a Pakistani and a quiet road to a westerner is another thing entirely. Despite being tired from the flight I was determined to stay awake and absorb as much as I could from the journey. I remember the sight of blood on the road, my driver could speak very little English, but I quickly realized the blood was from the sacrifice of animals as part of Eid al-Adha and not some grizzly traffic accident! Amongst many of the sights, I can clearly remember seeing a bus driving toward us down a steep road with a cow stood on its roof.

My driver took the quicker route to Chilas via the N15 road over Babusar Top, this is the highest point on the drive, the pass reaches a height of 4173m, it’s not somewhere you want to break down, especially when you’re not acclimatised. Thankfully we had no such problems and continued on to Chilas without issue. It was on the edge of the town that our vehicle was stopped, this was an entry point into Gilgit Baltistan and I needed a foreigners registration card.



I was pre-warned to make sure I asked the officer to add in all the regions I wanted to visit. As you can see the card is initialed with the districts of Skardu, Gilgit, Hunza, and Ghanche.  What we don’t see here is a rubber stamp. Upon reaching Skardu I would discover that the missing stamp was going to drastically alter my trekking plans.

Skardu

Upon reaching Skardu I booked into the Snowland Guest House (35.295484N 75.610857E) I used this hotel as my ‘base camp’ for the duration of my stay in Pakistan. Initially I camped on the gardens, however, the lawn would be so wet from morning dew that I was soon forced inside. I secured one of the cheaper rooms in the back of the complex. I was charged 1000 rupees for this, it was basic but I was able to leave my suitcase in a locked room when I wasn’t in the hotel.

That first day I met the people who were to help organize my treks and I also collected the motorbike I had rented. I chose to use a foreign company who in turn used a local tour company. This might seem like a long-winded way of going about things, I had, of course, tried to contact local tour companies directly, but this became a frequent cause for frustration. The foreign company I found would answer emails quickly, whereas when I contacted local tour companies I would wait 2 weeks for a reply which would often be meaningless. Many mistakes were made by the local tour company I used and I feel there was, without doubt, a lack of communication between the local tour operator and the foreign tour operator. Because I don’t know who was responsible for the issues with my trip I’m not divulging the names of the operators.

As I say I met the tour operators, both the foreign operator and the local operator. It was at this point that I was asked to detail my plans for the trip. Alarm bells began to ring hard here. I’d already detailed my plans in a succession of emails; why were they asking these questions now?

Before I even flew to Pakistan I was told that everything was in order and I was ready to start my trek. This wasn’t the case, I still needed army permission. Unbeknown to me I was going to start my trek with another foreigner. This did make sense, the other trekker needed transportation to Askole. He was to start his trek up the Baltoro Glacier, while I planned to trek up Biafo Glacier. Unfortunately, the other chap wasn’t due to arrive until the day before the trek. I was in Skardu 10 days prior. Needless to say obtaining the foreigners army permission was put on hold until this person arrived. I only wish I had insisted the operators got my permission first because there would have been plenty of time to correct errors.

When the tour operators did apply for permit my foreigner’s entry card was scrutinised and because it wasn’t rubber stamped in Chilas I was denied entry (it transpired that this was just one of the issues).  I can appreciate here that the tour operators were not at fault, however, I’m sure if they had more experience they would have expected this sort of thing. My card could have been inspected on my first day of arrival. This delay took up 4 days and I was forced to pay for all costs.

Below we see the all important card with the correct rubber stamp, this was eventually procurred from the airport.
It’s worth noting that with this card I seem to have miraculously gained 10 more months visa validity! Also ‘Destination’ and Places to visit are mixed up.



Use this interactive map to see the route from Islamabad to Skardu via Babusar Top. It’s wise to take this route as it bypasses Chilas which has been rated as an unadvisable to visit by most western governments. I’ve shown the route taken by car in red, further maps show hiking in blue and motorbiking in yellow.



 When you travel in Pakistan you’re frequently stopped at police checkpoints, It’s essential to have this foreigners card with you. I wrote the registration number of my motorbike on the card (bottom left).

As I mentioned earlier the entrance card wasn’t my only issue. The tour operators had also messed up the paperwork associated with my treks. I need to gloss over this because I doubt I ever got to the bottom of it. Essentially all tourists need a permit to visit ‘closed areas’. These include the trek up the Baltoro Glacier. My plan was to trek up the Biafo and then trek up the Baltoro. Later in August, I was to trek to K6 via the Charakusa Glacier. I was charged for two permits, however, to save money the tour operators tried to squeeze in both treks with one permit. Technically this should be possible because my first trek along the Biafo Glacier does not require a permit as it is in an open zone. Of course, this is Pakistan and the army official refused permission on the basis that I might not visit the Biafo at all, perhaps I might spend all my time on the Baltoro. This is stupid because there’s a police checkpoint at the start of the Baltoro in Askole.

I couldn’t argue and by this time I’d missed me schedule by about 4 days. Gone were my plans to shoot at night with half moonlight.

I was at my wit’s end at this point, the tour operators were clearly frustrated too. I should have demanded my money back, but I knew that the porters relied on this work. In the end, I decided to cut out the Biafo Glacier and trek up the Baltoro. I’d already been up the Baltoro ten years prior, however, this time I wanted to check out the Dunge Glacier. This had only ever been planned as a reconnaissance trek, with plans askew it had now become last option. I was to regret ever agreeing to it.


Baltoro Glacier

Right from the start, I got a bad feeling about my guide. I had a young kid who’d clearly been chosen for his excellent English rather than his experience or desire to be in the mountains. I could tell he had no interest in being there, in fact, he happily told me as much! The tour operators hired mules to carry the heavy equipment for the trek. At first this seemed like a good idea, mules are used to transport equipment to Concordia, however, this is a well-worn trail. In order to reach the Dunge Glacier, our mules had to cross much rougher moraine. The mules were pushed hard and really suffered, their hind legs were bleeding profusely as they regularly slipped on the rock. We eventually had to tie up the mules, but there were too few porters to carry equipment to the Dunge Glacier. I was able to reach the Dunge Glacier with my guide, and I did trek halfway up it, however, it wasn’t as photogenic as I had hoped. I decided to cut the trek short and get down to Askole.


Here’s an interactive map showing the route taken to Askole with the blue line showing my trek up the Baltoro Glacier to the Dunge Glacier



Freedom with the motorbike

My motorbike was a Honda CG125, it’s the most popular bike in Pakistan. They’re made in Pakistan and you can get parts everywhere, quite literally in every small town, even village you’ll find spares.  I rented the bike after being told that it isn’t possible for foreigners to buy motorbikes. This is bullshit and I should have realized it was bullshit. If you have money you can buy a motorbike. I was never even given (or asked for) the papers for the bike I rented. I heard stories of foreigners buying bikes and paying less than I paid for my rental. Having said this it was nice to know I had a bike upon arrival in Skardu. There’s nowhere to rent bikes in Skardu so mine was personally delivered there. In all, I rode a little over 5000km. I had very little trouble with it and when I did I was always miraculously close to a mechanic. In hindsight, I think I would have enjoyed my trip more had I concentrated more on the bike and less on photography.


Here’s a route (below) I took through the Deosai Plains to Fairy Meadows. The yellow line signifies the route taken on my motorbike and the blue line shows the hike up the last leg to the meadows. Strictly speaking you’re not really allowed to take a motorbike to Fairy Meadows. If you’re not already on a tour you will be told you must rent a seat in a jeep at Raikot Bridge. I just blasted past the ticket sellers and took the dirt road.  It’s by no means easy on a 125cc bike. It was fortunate that I have long legs and a small bike because at times I had to put both feet on the road to take weight off the bike, otherwise it would have been impossible for the bike to make the steep track.



Here is another map showing some more trips on the motorbike. I rode all the way from Skardu to the Khunjerab Pass. I made side trips to the Shimshal Valley, Naltar Lakes and Chapursan Valley. I made many shorter side trips, unfortunately Google Maps has a mapping limit. 



I took another quite long side trip heading west from Gilgit out to the Ishkoman Valley road. Essentially I was just following my nose here and exploring for a few days. It was nice to just explore as I had absolutely no idea what I’d find. It would be fair to say that very few foreigners ever venture up this valley so I was a little apprehensive. 



I took a planned trip to the Haramosh Valley. For months prior to this trip I had arranged to meet with a Pakistani photographer who had asked to meet with me and photograph together. Despite all our arrangements he didn’t turn up. This was a little worrying because I’d been told not to go to this area alone. You can see in the map that I take a road leading to the Khaltoro Valley. This was the wrong path, and while it cost me time it was actually a really interesting road. I back tracked and found my way to the village of Dassu. It was here that I was quickly surrounded by curious men who naturally wondered what on earth I was doing. As is so often the case you don’t quite know who’s offering help and who’s out to harm. Shortly after arriving I found myself locked in a room in someone’s house. I must have spent an hour sat locked in the room before the door opened. Someone had found me a guide. I was able to leave my motorbike safe in the compound in the house. From Dassu we had about a day of hiking to reach Kutwal Lake.

It’s fair to say that I only really skimmed the surface on this trip. I was really only in the low pastures. A proper organised trip into the Haramosh Valley would have continued beyond here and up into the higher peaks. That would undoubtedly have been far more rewarding for photography, but this wasn’t an option as anything more adventurous would have to be organised months in advance.

The yellow lines on the map show the route take by motorbike while the blue line very roughly shows the hike.



Another interesting side trip off the Karakorum Highway took me to the Hopar Valley.  I would dearly loved to have taken the route from Snow Lake (branches off the Baltoro Glacier) to the Hopar Valley. I was told that a huge crevasse had opened up and it was no longer possible to make this multi day trek.  As mentioned earlier in the blog I was initially supposed to reach Snow Lake from the Baltoro. I would have been happy enough to get there and return the same way but due to the incompetency of the tour company I was unable to even do that. If I ever return to Pakistan this would be one of the highlights. I’d especially like to see the high mountains surrounding Snow Lake



Gondogoro Glacier K6 and the Charakusa Glacier

Back in 2010, I hiked the Baltoro Glacier to K2 base camp and over the Gondogoro La pass. That trek had finished in the small village of Hushe. I distinctly remember gazing up the valley towards K7 (at that point you can’t see K6). I knew back in 2010 that I wanted to return to that valley. Other than the now failed trip to Snow Lake this was to be one of the highlights of the entire trip. 

I had an uneasy feeling and a level of distrust for the tour operators, so I arrived back in Skardu with plenty of time to spare before my intended trip departure. By plenty of time I mean several days.

From Skardu, I emailed the foreign operator and requested a meeting with the local operator who was responsible for my trip to K6/K7 basecamp. I wanted to be sure that this time around all the paperwork was in order.  Whether or not I was ignored or the message didn’t get through I don’t know, but it wasn’t until the morning of my departure that I met up with the local tour operator. Needless to say, there was a problem; they couldn’t find the paperwork.

Here we are mid-afternoon still looking for the paperwork (time of departure was supposed to be 7.00am).


My patience was wearing thin!

Finally many hours late the paperwork was found, it was just as well, any longer and I think I would have just thrown in the towel and booked a plane home. That sounds silly, but I was so hacked off with the tour operator. As luck would have it I had a much older and far more experienced guide for this trip. He was a freelance guide and had nothing to do with my tour operators. 

Due to the huge delay in departing we arrived in Hushe in the middle of the night. I was told that we wouldn’t be able to start early because it was too late to find porters. I assumed these were booked in advance but this is Pakistan, it seems nothing is done in advance. I woke to a breakfast of fried eggs and toast. By now I was getting used to sharing my food with flies and somehow, miraculously I had yet to get any stomach complaints. 

By 9.00am my guide had the word out that we were looking for porters. The trouble was this was late in the season and all the men were out in the high valleys cutting fire wood. Shortly later I would see young women carrying heavy piles of branches on their backs. Apparently each household gets an allowance of firewood. The wood cutters only remove branches, they never cut down the entire tree. The firewood is only sufficient for cooking, so the winters must be extremely cold.

By around 11.00am we still didn’t have enough porters so I insisted that we make arrangements for porters to follow us later. Personally I could have hiked this without a guide, but of course part of the regulations stipulate that you must have a guide. We finally got moving and made our way towards the Gondogoro Glacier. The trail began easily enough following well worn trails used by those returning with firewood. After a couple of hours there’s a trail junction at Saicho (or Shaiescho Camp) this is the juntion with the Charakusa and Masherbrum Glaciers.  Due to our late start we were unable to go all the way to Dalsampa Camp and had to instead spend the night at the base camp for Leila Peak. Of course the skies were incredible that night, but sods law we were stuck in a featureless valley. 


Again here’s another interactive map showing the route taken from Skardu to Hushe via road. In 2010 some areas to Hushe were washed out, but in 2017 we were able to drive it without trouble. I would later go on to ride this on my motorbike several times. Note that I include the route taken in 2010 up the Baltoro Glacier to Hushe. In 2017 I only went as far as Dalsampa Camp because this area gave the best view of Leila Peak. All the hikes are shown on the blue line.



Leila Peak

Nayser Brakk

Nayser Brakk

I never found a good foreground for K6, neither did I get much drama

First light on Leila Peak

I spent maybe ten days in total trying to shoot here but only got this one shot which was taken from the side of the jeep as we drove back from Hushe

From Machulo towards Masherbrum’s south face

Polo playing at Chapursan Valley
682d dunes near Skardu

Finally here are some points to remember whilst traveling in Pakistan

  • Carry toilet paper as this is rarely provided
  • Zip up pockets before using a squat toilet!
  • Take multiple ATM cards and/or travel charge cards, also U.S dollars to change in a bank
  • Keep ATM receipts so you have a record of which banks take your cards
  • Prior to traveling give some money to a trusted friend who will send it to you via Western Union if you lose everything
  • You probably won’t need a water purifier in the high mountains, but use caution and boil water especially if collected near animals
  • Take nobody’s word as gospel, many have an opinion, few are right!
  • A hard lockable suitcase will help protect your gear when traveling, this is especially important when flying or using buses. It can be left safely at most hotels
  • Charge batteries whenever possible as power can fail at any time
  • Electricity may only come on for a few hours in the evening
  • Use a licensed tour operator that arranges tours for climbing teams rather than a tin pot outfit, question the operator in detail about your plans, ask your country’s climbing organization for a recommendation, try the American Mountaineering Council or the British Mountaineering Council. Don’t accept a tour company because they promote K2 climbing on their website. Many promote this but few have ever organized any climbing expeditions.
  • Check your foreigner’s entry card is rubber stamped and request that it is initialed with the districts you plan to visit, guard it with your life!
  • Keep your passport in a zipped breast pocket, this way you don’t have to rummage through a backpack every time you question where it is
  • When showing passport and foreigners registration card to police be sure they return both items, they are notoriously forgetful!
  • Get adequate travel insurance and give next of kin a copy of the document, keep a copy for yourself in your wallet, in the event of a serious accident medical staff can find it if you’re unconscious
  • When on the road keep a close eye for animals, they have a death wish and don’t want to wait for the slaughterhouse, the same could be said of humans
  • Scan your passport and email it to yourself, this will be a huge help if you lose it
  • Check your country’s foreign office for local advice, you may not be insured if you have an accident in an area deemed unsafe for travel
  • Note the dates of religious festivals, these dates are likely to affect your travel plans
  • Do not approach the Indian border even if a police check post allows passage
  • Download Google Maps offline, or my personal favorite Pocket Earth Pro
  • Consider donating some trekking gear to your porters, they will probably appreciate it more than a tip
  • Don’t be surprised if offered tea at police checkpoints, it’s polite to accept
  • Pack some earplugs, the call to prayer can start as early as 5.00am
  • If traveling by bus you will need multiple passport photocopies
  • Carry a few passport-sized photos as these may be needed by your trekking company
  • Write on, or label equipment with your email address, there are still some honest people!
  • If you get really bad food poisoning Ciprofloxacin is a well-known antibiotic, it should be available over the counter in Pakistan. However, due to poor quality medication in Pakistan bring this from your home country if possible
  • Due to frequent delays do not attempt to take a national flight on the day you’re due to take an international flight. Travel by bus from Gilgit to Islamabad takes at least 18 hours, longer if leaving from Skardu
  • Whatever the season if trekking above 5000m you will need a warm down sleeping bag. Temperatures are likely to be several degrees below freezing
  • A down jacket is a godsend in the mountains, but be careful not to let down get wet
  • Be careful not to gain altitude too quickly, research altitude sickness
  • A Nalgene bottle filled with boiling water will really help keep you warm in your sleeping bag
  • Pack a trash bag in your backpack so you can keep your gear dry if it rains, this is much more effective than a rain cover
  • If leaving your guest house early in the morning make sure the gate won’t be locked, pay the night before you leave. Pakistani hotel staff sometimes wake late
  • Do not photograph strangers in Pakistan, especially women, unless you have their permission

Some basic advice for motorbikers

  • Get a spare key cut and keep separate
  • Fold back the pillion riders foot pegs, otherwise, if you slide on a corner your leg could catch on them
  • Wear a motorbike helmet, besides the obvious risk your insurance won’t cover you if you have an accident
  • Download the manufacturer’s user manual as a pdf
  • When you first receive a rental bike take a note of the bikes odometer so you have a record and will know when it’s time for service such as oil changes etc
  • Make certain your insurance covers you to ride a motorbike, check the policy for engine size restrictions
  • Sleeping policemen; otherwise known as speed bumps are rarely marked

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