I was flying from London to Lahore. It was a long, uneventful, and full flight – 8 hours cooped up in coach surrounded by squirming children and Pakistani people heading back to their homeland for the hajj pilgrimage.
A nice Pakistani father told me haji is like Christmas for Muslims (which explained the mix of excitement and frustration in the stale plane air.)
I was giddy for different reasons though – I was going to be a part of an exhilarating Pakistan tour, which would be run by Epic Backpacker Tours. I was invited by the company’s founder, Will Hatton, in order to document the trip. He assured me, simply, that it would be epic.
Obviously, sleeping on the plane was never going to be an option.
I spent the majority of my flight going over notes, itineraries, and sample photos. The dossier was dominated by pictures of flamboyant Pakistani buses, grinning locals, and imposing mountains. It all looked so fantastical to me.
I will not lie and say that I was without concerns. Pakistan is usually portrayed as a nation in constant conflict – dominated by brutal dictators and plagued by rebel terrorist cells. I didn’t know if these were legitimate threats or not and frankly didn’t know what to expect from my Pakistan tour.
Would I be received with kindness and showered in flower petals? Or was I going to be treated with probing, suspicious eyes?
Truthfully, I was overwhelmed by the thought of this tour in Pakistan. Regardless of what awaited me, I was ready for anything and everything. Questions ricocheted in my head, but they would all be answered soon.
Table of Contents
- What will be addressed during this Pakistan tour review:
- My Pakistan Tour Operator
- Landing in Lahore
- Culture Shock in Pakistan
- Tasting Pakistan Food for the First Time
- The Fun Begins on our Pakistan Tour
- Meeting our Pakistani Homestay Family
- Into the Mountains
- Falling in Love with the Karakoram
- Pakistani Splendor
- My Own Failed Attempt
- Buying an LOI Without Booking a Tour – Update January 2020
- Final Thoughts on my Pakistan Tour
What will be addressed during this Pakistan tour review:
Epic Backpacker Tours is a project started by Will Hatton, who many know as The Broke Backpacker.
He founded EBT with the help of several collaborators and it has since become the primary vessel for his tour operations.
Epic Backpacker Tours deals mainly in remote, hard-to-reach locations. Pakistan is currently the flagship offering, though destinations like Iran, Guatemala, and Kyrgyzstan are currently being developed. (EBT has also just launched a new trekking-based itinerary to the Skardu region in Pakistan.
Hatton insists that his Pakistan tours stand out from the rest because of his commitment to native communities. I have spoken with Will at length about his international strategies and it seems that he is very keen on making sure that the locals receive as much support as possible.
This commitment was driven home when Will suggested that I bring donations with me for the family of one of the Pakistani guides.
“It is painfully obvious that the wages and costs of living in Pakistan are much less than ours. If we intend to work with locals, it is our duty to support them and, above all else, show unconditional respect.” – Will Hatton
“It is our duty to support them and, above all else, show unconditional respect.”
I was to be a part of EBT’s Hunza trip. Here are some of the places we would visit on this particular Pakistan tour:
Nanga Parbat Basecamp
Hussaini Suspension Bridge
Like any rational tourist, I, of course, checked the testimonials and reviews of the company and saw no red flags. If anything, my experience with EBT had been great so far – they provided me with all of the necessary documents for the visa application, walked me through the processes, and provided additional guidance.
I even had a mandatory Skype interview with our tour leader Chris, just to make sure I was a good fit. It was a little unnerving but a good sign that the company actually took this seriously. I knew that I was in good hands.
Lahore is the second-largest city in Pakistan and arguably the beating heart of the country. Historically, it has served as the capital for many of the greatest dynasties on the Indian subcontinent, most notably the Mughals, whose architecture still defines the city today.
It was and still is the center of the Punjabi region, a culturally distinct region that has, since the Partition, been suffering from cultural dissonance.
I am about to leave the Allama Iqbal Airport in Lahore after clearing customs and grabbing my bags. Chris, the head Western guide on this Pakistan tour, had scheduled to pick me up from the airport.
The guy obviously stood out like a sore thumb – he was a youngish fellow, with a kaffir around his neck, and a scruffy beard that screamed mountain man. I clearly stuck out just as much too as he immediately approached me and greeted me assuredly.
“Welcome to Pakistan,” he said.
“Welcome to Pakistan…”
Arriving into a new city is like meeting someone that you really want to impress; first impressions are everything. During the 20-minute drive to our hotel, I absorbed every sight, smell, and sound that I could. The herald of motorcycles, the smell of fresh concrete, the troupes of birds circling the minarets; Lahore was, for lack of better terms, buzzing.
We had a conversation, Chris and I, but I can’t remember a word of it during that first ride.
Once we arrived at the hotel, I had the chance to meet my fellow tour compatriots. If you’ve ever gone on an organized tour, the first meeting can feel like the first day of school – everyone’s a bit shy and tends to have trouble talking without a push.
“Arriving into a new city is like meeting someone that you really want to impress…”
But after an initial roundtable introduction, the party seemed a bit more laid back, at ease by the fact that everyone shared in the same mindsets and, crucially, the same sense of humor.
The group was diverse, to say the least – there was 12 of us including a Google employee, a film extra, and a woman celebrating her 100th country visited. I had a good feeling about this band.
We also had a chance to meet our local Pakistani guides: Rehman and Zehra. Rehman was our alpine expert – a man of action, few words, and omnipotence in the mountains. Zehra was our “fixer” and cultural guide – she gave insight into local life and would prove to be indispensable.
Having finished the meeting and finally gotten rid of the initial jitters, it was time to explore Lahore.
We were spending the rest of our day touring Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque. Our goal: to get a healthy dose of Pakistani culture and to beat the jet lag.
The Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque are two of the greatest structures ever built by the Mughals. (Mind you, these are the same people who built the Taj Mahal and Red Fort.) Both are very impressive complexes, built at a time when the Mughals were at the peak of their reign.
Their power and might, which was in actuality very substantial, is evident in the craftsmanship of the two monuments. Their styles are intricate, grandiose, and contain strange properties that modern architecture has apparently forgotten.
They are so grand that they feel somewhat out of place – perhaps they would feel more suitable in a children’s storybook.
But I’m getting ahead of myself – we haven’t even left the hotel yet!
“The Lahore Fort and Badshahi Mosque are two of the greatest structures ever built.”
After finishing the preliminary meeting, we step outside the hotel to greet our driver and his ride. The driver was a man named Mr. Khan, who cared for his Duster like his own wife gave birth to it, piece by piece. He was very amiable, the kind of person you mistakenly call by a different name but he just goes along with it.
Wasting no time though, we made for Lahore Fort.
Our tour of Lahore Fort lasts for about 2-3 hours. The Fort itself is massive – over 50 square acres of labyrinthian hallways and opulent palace rooms.
Over the course of the visit, we saw dozens of chambers, countless murals, and more gardens than the Queen’s estate. It was overwhelming the amount that this Fort contained.
But the coolest part about the trip to the Fort was the reception we had. Everywhere we went, Pakistani people took us aside and stopped to chat with us. They were mesmerized, not by the Islamic art or delicate carvings, but by the appearance of Westerners.
The Pakistanis wanted to know everything about us – what we ate, what music we listened to, and such. They giggled at one of the guests boyish English accent and gossiped with the female participants as if they were neighbours. Parents pushed their children to have photos with us, perhaps to then be displayed on the hearth or in their office. We were treated like celebrities and, given the royal setting, the moment certainly felt a little surreal.
“Everywhere we went, Pakistani people…stopped to chat with us.”
We had to pull ourselves away from the screaming fans though to continue our tour – we were due at the Badshahi Mosque, which would prove to be even more amazing than the last.
The Badshahi Mosque was once the largest temple in Pakistan before the Faisal Mosque was opened in 2014. It still remains one of the most important Mughal mosques, a fact that I was soon to realize.
Badshahi Mosque is surrounded by low walls, which deceptively hide its scale. Once you step through the gates to the main square though, it hits you – the expansiveness of the place. The square itself is huge, stretching out for leagues like the sands of the Thar. At the end you see a mirage, the mosque itself, resonating with eerie acoustics. There is a scientific explanation for the way the mosque carries sound waves but, regardless, I was still enthralled.
“[The Badshahi Mosque] resonates with eerie acoustics.”
I left Badshahi in a bit of daze, still reeling from its effects. Chris managed to shuffle me along to the bus because we had dinner reservations at a “special restaurant.” I remember he had a bit of smirk on his face, clearly entertained at my curiosity.
The restaurant, Haveli, was the perfect way to end the day. We sat there gorging on Punjabi food, enjoying the cool breeze, and went through the first of many reminiscences. The only time we were silent was for the sunset Call to Prayer, which was, from the vantage of Haveli’s rooftop, humbling.
Needless to say, I think that this trip to Pakistan was off to a great start.
One of Pakistan’s highlights is the cuisine. Due to its geographic location, the food in Pakistan is a blend of various styles from the surrounding cultures. Punjabi, Middle Eastern, Central Asian culinary techniques have all had an effect on Pakistani – thankfully, all of these varieties come together in a wonderful fusion.
Punjabi cooking, which hails from the eastern provinces, dominates the entire country. The vast majority of Pakistan’s most popular dishes are derived from Punjab. This means that you will find copious spices, rice, meats, and ubiquitous bread or naan in nearly every meal.
Heat and peppers are major elements in Punjab cooking and let me warn you that the locals like these, a lot. The amount of spice that some of these dishes contain could down a small elephant.
For unaware Westerners who are not used to this level of spiciness, eating Punjabi food may be an “uncomfortable” experience. If you can ride the initial heat wave though, the food of Pakistan will reward you with delicious flavors and sensations that few other cuisines can match.
“The food of Pakistan will reward you with delicious flavors and sensations that few other cuisines can match.”
It was day two of our Pakistan tour and we packed up to leave from Lahore. The next few days would be dedicated to driving only – we were making for the north, Gilgit-Baltistan, where we would find the Karakoram Mountains and the majority of our activities.
We all piled into our minibus. Mr. Khan was beaming with joy at the sight of his baby being put to good use. Chris, Zehra, and Rehman were busy strapping our bags down to the top of the vehicle as well as going over routes. They attacked the day with calculation and fervor – it was obvious by the tone they intended to get shit done.
We were off and without a hitch. I knew that this was going to be a long haul – 12 hours of driving at least (and that’s if everything went well).
You wouldn’t guess that we were about to be stuck in a van for half a day. Everyone was chatting, going over itineraries, talking about home. You’d think it was a school bus heading for the zoo, full of children who’d known each other for years.
Chris stood up in the van and made the first of many announcements. Mostly, he went over the schedule for the day. More importantly, something had to be addressed.
“We gotta give this bus a name, everyone. We are, after all, about to be stuck on it for 2 weeks.”
The crowd flew into a debate, arguing like statesmen in Independence Hall. After much deliberation and a brief vote, there was a consensus: Khan Express. While everyone treated the name with a silly disregard, little did they realize that the name would stick around even after they left.
So with a lightness that only a busful of backpackers could exude, the Khan Express set off for the mountains.
“You’d think it was a school bus…full of children who’ve known each other for years…”
It was the second leg of the journey and we were pulling up to a roadside restaurant outside of Naran. We slept a bit in the quaint village the night before but had to wake up early for another long drive. We were famished though, weary from the driving, and wanted a good meal.
The restaurant was unassuming from the outset, relegated to lawn ornament in the grand scheme of the landscape. We were properly in the mountains now and the scenery began to take on a romantic quality, like the kind you see in the Alps.
The owners of the restaurant must’ve seen the vista as a challenger to their business because they cooked like their livelihood was on the line. They prepared traditional karahi, fresh chapati (a variant of naan), salads, and more for us.
My God, that was the best meal that I’d had in a while. The karhai – mild and prepared with lamb – was unbelievable. The chapatti was so airy and light, it was like eating a baked cloud.
The salads even looked to have fresh, local herbs in them. I still dream of that meal and intend to make an effort to visit that roadside diner again one day.
It was nearing the end of the third day of our Pakistan tour and I was still floating from the delicious meal we’d had earlier. By the time the sun was beginning to set, we had left the “foothills” of Naran and were now entering the heart of Gilgit-Baltistan. I took a moment to emerge from my karahi-induced cocoon to observe the local landscape.
The slopes were no longer lush; they were dark and had stark features like a great shadow had been cast on them. The mighty Indus River raged to our right, engorged by glacier melt. In front, an enormous citadel of peaks rose before us.
It was the Karakorum, at last.
I did not have to be convinced to travel to Pakistan. The Karakorum, the country’s proudest mountain range, has been an obsession of mine for a very long time. I had already read a lot about mountaineering in Pakistan, mostly in regards to the highest peak in the range: the legendary K2.
There was some reading material that I brought with me about the Karakorum and decided to review it.
“I did not have to be convinced to travel to Pakistan.”
The Karakorum (meaning “Black Rock” in Urdu) is a subrange of the Great Himalaya. They were formed after the Himalaya and in a more dramatic way. Due to their traumatic birth, the profiles of the Karakoram mountains are much more sheer, crooked, and terrible. Whereas the Himalaya are long and gargantuan, the Karakorum are compact and mangled.
The Karakorum contains the densest collection of the highest peaks in the world. Nowhere else can you find so many 8000m summits and in such a confined space. In an area that is roughly equivalent in size to Jamaica, you have four 8000m peaks and more than sixty 7000m ones.
The Karakorum is rugged, unexplored, and inhospitable. Yet, they are the source of the Indus River and provide countless local communities with water. They are to be both feared and admired at once.
The Karakoram Mountains are not inaccessible. The Karakoram Highway, or KKH, has been in use since 1986 and has provided a means of visiting these mountains for years now. While the road is not always kush, it is certainly more comfortable than those in some other countries.
The road is used frequently and is in good enough shape that traversing it has become one of the most popular things to do in Pakistan. Often, people travel to Pakistan just to ride a motorcycle or go on a road trip on the KKH.
The fact that we were doing just that, merely as an accessory to the tour, was noteworthy.
“The Karakorum is to be both feared and admired at once.”
The sun had set and we’d entered the Karakorum properly.
That night, we stayed in a charming mountain town, Karimabad, sandwiched between the Batura Muztagh and sacred Rakaposhi. It was the most “resort-like” place we’d been to in Pakistan so far and felt more like Aspen rather than a Pakistani village. There was even a French cafe in the village. You won’t catch me complaining though – I’d take this over a dusty outpost any day of the week.
We spent the next day exploring Karimabad and its heritage sites. We visited several historical forts, which gave insight into the region’s history and, as always, had lots of opportunities to talk with Pakistani people. Oddly enough, many were tourists, which, at this point, felt somewhat ironic. Almost all of them suggested visiting the Eagle’s Nest and we fully intended to.
We camped at the Eagles Nest, a viewpoint near Karimabad and spent the night barbecuing with the locals. More than that, we were allowed our first glimpses of the mountains. On all sides, we had awesome views of some of the most notable peaks around Humza, including Spantik, Ladyfinger, and Diran.
After all of that hype and driving, it felt like we had finally made it.
Our time in Karimabad was brief but enjoyable. Many people would’ve liked to stay longer but our guides assured us that the best was yet to come.
Our next destination was a place called Ghulkin, a tiny village that is missing from most local maps. I had asked some Pakistani people about this town and even they looked at me with vague expressions. No one really knew about this place.
But Gulkin is the home village of Rehman, our mountain guide. He assured us that it does, in fact, exist and that we were all invited to stay with his family. His wife would make a home for us all and his children would love to play games with us. Ultimately, it seemed like a good chance to be further immersed in Pakistani culture.
“Ultimately, it seemed like a good chance to be further immersed in Pakistani culture.”
So we set off, traveling farther on the KKH and deeper into the mountains. We stopped by the famous Attabad Lake on the way, known primarily for its beautiful blue color and for its tragic creation.
There were lots of locals enjoying the lake and going for rides in one of the many tourist boats. One of the guests, a recent college-grad from Pennsylvania, saw someone with a jet ski and lit up. He jokingly begged Chris, asking to ride one. Chris after a moment of concern says “yes” and the Penn-boy runs away ecstatic. It was like watching a son ask his father for a new toy and was really an endearing moment.
A couple of hours later, we arrived in Ghulkin, which, if we’re being honest, was a tiny town. It was quite traditional too, composed of mostly pastures, stone houses, and apricot groves. I could only imagine what the locals were like.
They were not at all what I expected. The Pakistani men all smiled at us and waved quite casually. More noticeable was the fact that the women were out and about and not wearing any sort of traditional headscarf.
Up until this point, every woman in Pakistan that I’d seen had been wearing a hajib and had made an effort to not speak with anything even resembling a man. It was uncanny.
Zehra, our cultural Pakistan guide, explained to me that the locals were of a sect of Islam called Isma’ili, a doctrine that was much less strict than Sunni or Shia.
Ismailis believed in education and that women were equal to men. She herself was an Isma’ili, which I supposed helped to explain her more aloof attitude. I haven’t mentioned it yet but Zehra loved watching Rick and Morty, which immediately made her approachable.
Rehman’s family – father, cousins, children, the whole lot – came to meet us and help porter our bags. Rehman lived in a part of the village where cars couldn’t travel but we took the opportunity to soak in the village life. Rehman’s children, two young girls, were firecrackers. They danced around us, challenged guests to races, and screamed like, well, children ought to.
“More noticeable was the fact that the women were out and about and not wearing any sort of traditional headscarf.”
Rehman’s house is a traditional mountain home. It has a central family room where everyone eats and sleeps, a large kitchen, a number of pantries, and several little rooms for extra guests. The man’s pride and joy was a brand new Western toilet that he had just installed, and he took great pleasure in showing that bad boy off (it really was the nicest I’d seen in Pakistan).
Everyone settled in and found their respective “beds” – the group would be sleeping in the same room tonight, as is customary in these parts.
We also had the chance to meet Rehman’s wife, a lovely woman who thanked us deeply for visiting their home. She was an extremely gracious person and very easy to be around. She had an aura to her that could calm wild beasts and the room just seemed more orderly whenever she was around.
Though we didn’t have a lot of time to talk with her, she seemed immediately familiar.
Ghulkin shares its name with the Ghulkin Glacier, which was just above the village.
As a part of our adventure Pakistan tour, we intended to cross this glacier and spend a night at a shepherd’s hut, located on the far side of the valley. This would be our first bit of hiking in Pakistan. After scoping out the mountains in the days leading up to this, I was eager.
The hike would require us to gain the ridge and to cross the rubble-covered glacier in order to reach the campsite; the latter of those tasks would take up 80% of our time. Luckily, Rehman’s family was there to port in supplies for us, so no guest walked with anything more than a daypack.
Crossing a glacier is never easy and few people realize how tedious it can actually be. This particular glacier was covered in loose boulders and skree; if one were to look at the field from afar, they might never know what it actually was.
Only upon further inspection could you actually notice that there was ice deeper below.
It seemed straightforward enough at first – the ground was just stone for as far as you could see. The endlessness of it was disorienting at times and many people complained that they’d seen the same rock too many times.
Unfortunately, the mountains were shrouded in cloud cover so there was little in the way of distractions. Every once in a while though, you’d hear an avalanche or see a giant crevasse, and would quickly remember where you actually were.
“You’d hear an avalanche or see a giant crevasse, and would quickly remember where you actually were.”
After about four hours of walking, we finally arrived at the shepherd’s hut. It was a modest building, about the size of Rehman’s family room, and had nothing but a table and a couple of stone benches.
It was built on a relatively flat portion of the earth – the only part that wasn’t torn up by the impending glacier. What it lacked in amenities though, it more than made up for in views.
As we arrived, the clouds began to dissipate and we were afforded our first views of the surrounding mountains. Ahead was Shispare, a near perfect pyramid set above jagged ridges.
To the left was the north side of Ultar Sar and the Tower of Ghulkin – at their base was a set of prominent, unnamed peaks that clawed upwards toward the higher mountains. Below was the glacier, which appeared small in comparison.
Everyone settled in and Rehman’s family began cooking dinner. I chose to sleep outside in my own tent – just because I was a part of a Pakistan tour package didn’t mean I was going to pass up an opportunity like this.
I will admit the rest of the night felt like a very typical camping experience. We built a fire, passed around a bottle of rum (which someone brought with them from abroad), and shared intimate life stories.
It was nothing we hadn’t done before, but, doing it in the middle of the Karakoram mountains made the moment feel a little more special.
“Doing it in the middle of the Karakoram mountains made the moment feel a little more special.”
The next morning, we awoke to fresh coffee and warm barata (fried bread). Kudos to Chris for organizing the organic java fresh from his home near Marseille, France. Don’t know what that trip would’ve been like without it. Morning Coffee with Chris is a necessary part of the tour.
We packed up and returned to Ghulkin via an alternative route. Once we reached Rehman’s house, you could hear an audible sigh of relief – I don’t think I’ve seen a group so happy to be indoors again, let alone sleeping in the room together.
Rehman’s wife prepared a feast for our last night. She was her usual appreciative self. Several tour members brought gifts for the family with them and, upon seeing them, she was even more thankful. I don’t think I’ve ever met a spirit as loving or as deserving as that woman.
We spent another couple of days in the surrounding area, going on a few more Pakistani adventures. We crossed the infamous Suspension Bridges, had a dance party at Khunjerab Pass, and saw the Passu Cathedrals.
You could tell that the group had their minds elsewhere though. By then, it was day nine of the Pakistan tour package, which meant the end was near.
Most people were aware that we’d be visiting one of the highlights of the trip soon then – the Fairy Meadows.
“You could tell that the group had their minds elsewhere.”
So we hit the road yet again, this time back south towards the Raikot Bridge, where the journey to the Fairy Meadows begins. We arrived a couple of hours later, to a mess of Jeep drivers who were eager to transport the guests and make the day’s wages.
Why did we need Jeeps for this portion of the journey? Perhaps you may have already seen the footage of the route up to Fairy Meadows; if not, then I suggest you watch the following video.
That road was not for the faint of heart; the ride was constantly bumpy, the jeep lurched back and forth, and several times the wheels appeared to toe the edge. One could look below if they liked, but most couldn’t manage to stick their head out the window because the jeep was shaking so much.
While the journey was certainly harrowing at times, it was also thrilling. If you ever been on a roller coaster, then you know the feeling. For that matter, I knew that the drivers had used this road enough times to be more than competent.
After about 2 hours we arrived at the trailhead for Fairy Meadows; we’d have to walk or ride a mule the rest of the way. Horses and riders were obviously in abundance. Also present was an armed guard though.
A soldier was assigned to us; he had an AK-47 model rifle with him and was wearing full uniform. He was slightly aloof about the whole experience, having escorted hundreds of guests before.
Why did we need a guard? Were we under threat? Is Pakistan safe at the moment or not?
“Is Pakistan safe at the moment or not?”
Pakistan gets a lot of criticism for harboring terrorist organizations. As such, many Westerners consider it to be an evil country that is full of murderous insurgents who want nothing more than to capture a tourist.
Things are not that black-and-white though and, in reality, Pakistan just is stuck between a rock and hard place.
First, let’s call a spade a spade – Pakistan does host a number of groups who are connected to terrorist activity and there have been a large number of terrorist attacks. The overwhelming majority of unrest occurs on the Pakistani-Afghan border, where the conflict is hottest.
But we’re in Gilgit-Baltistan, which is hundreds of miles away from any sort of violence. A quick look at this map will reveal that most of the violence is far from the Karakorum. It even shows that there have been zero instances of terrorist attacks in this region.
Guards accompany tourists because the tourism industry in Pakistan hinges on foreigners. Pakistan does not want to be seen as terrorist hovel and it goes to great lengths to protect its guests. A couple of shitheads may make Pakistan seem like a scary place, but that’s how terrorism works – through fear mongering.
We traveled in Pakistan for weeks and didn’t feel threatened once. Epic Backpacker Tours works tirelessly with local agencies to protect its guests. They have had zero casualties up to this point and intend to keep it that way.
The hike to Fairy Meadows was nothing special – there were a few little cafes along the way, selling tea and coffee, but most of the way was chilly. Clouds had moved in, obstructing the view of Nanga Parbat, and threatened to dump rain on us.
The cottages that were booked for us were quaint and cozy. Several had their own little wood-burning stoves to keep the room warm, something that was much appreciated now that we were 3400 meters high. I opted to sleep outside in a tent again, because why not?
Nanga Parbat was hidden the entire day from us, so the group spent most its time in the communal dining area. The mess hall was a long wooden building with several tables covered in kitschy picnic blankets.
Instantaneously, I was transported back to my days staying at teahouses in Nepal. The decor and ambiance were almost exactly the same.
We had a brief bonfire before retiring to our respective cabins. I crawled into my tent and set an alarm for 5 am – I was hoping that Nanga Parbat would make an appearance tomorrow morning.
“I was transported back to my days staying at teahouses in Nepal.
Nanga Parbat (Urdu for Naked Mountain) is the second highest peak in Pakistan and the 9th highest mountain in the world. It became famous in the mid-20th century among international mountaineers as being unclimbable.
Nearly every side of Nanga Parbat is horribly dangerous to ascend. The southern Rupal Face is one of the highest mountain faces known. The northern Raikot Face is one of the steepest grades in the world, gaining 7000m in only 16 miles. Both are a gnarled mess of cornices, chutes, and crevasse.
So many climbers have died while attempting Nanga Parbat that it was nicknamed “The Killer Mountain.” It was finally climbed in 1953 by Austrian Hermann Buhl after a great deal of suffering, fortitude, and, above all, luck.
Though the Naked Mountain has been climbed a few more times since Buhl, it still evokes awe and terror to this day.
“The Killer Mountain…”
My alarm was blaring in my ear. It wasn’t yet dawn and it was absolutely freezing outside. I was un-enthusiastic about my decision to see Nanga this morning – it had rained during the night and I was not feeling very hopeful. But I’m stubborn and figured it’s worth a shot.
I crawled out of the tent covered in every piece of warm clothing that I brought and two cameras draped around my neck. There was supposedly a good spot to photograph the mountain nearby, which I heard about the day before – a little pond where the horses drank and where the mountain was totally visible. I trudged for maybe 10 minutes, weighed down mostly by my own pessimism.
I found the pond easily enough and then unloaded my gear. The mountain would be at my back by now so I turned around.
There it was, still asleep in the twilight. It was gigantic, the biggest thing I’d ever seen. I didn’t move for fear I might wake the mountain and anger it, or else I might doom us all. Quietly, I set my tripod up and started my work.
I returned to camp well after sunrise, still manic from the first sight of the mountain. The group was getting ready to hike to Base Camp, which is a popular and relatively straightforward trail.
Of course, I joined and can admit that the trek was almost just as amazing – we managed to arrive right under the nose of Nanga, which was a pretty cool experience. Nothing could top my solitary moment with the mountain that morning though.
“It was gigantic, the biggest thing I’d ever seen.”
Nanga Parbat is only one of many ridiculously beautiful places in Pakistan. This country is one of the most stunning places I’ve ever been and has loads more to see including…
- Ice Lake
- Charakusa Valley
- Barah Broq
- Rush Lake
- Deosai National Park
- And so much more
Fast forward a couple more days and we’re back in Lahore having our final dinner. The tour is about to end and the group is saying its final goodbyes.
Our hosts, whom we’ve come to adore by now, have prepared a special dinner for us complete with flower petals, a picnic blanket, and candles. Someone makes a corny prom joke, but we all get a laugh out of it.
Though I was sad to see the group split up, as we’d all become pretty close to one another, I knew my trip to Pakistan was not over. Our tour operator in Pakistan, Epic Backpacker Tours, has suggested we tack an extra day or two on the end to explore Lahore a bit more. Not one to fold, a doubled-down and decided to spend ten extra days in the country. I already had a bus ticket back north and was chomping at the bit to go on more adventures in Pakistan…
“(I) decided to spend ten extra days in (Pakistan.)”
Lemme just cut to the chase and say that traveling alone in Pakistan is not as easy as places like South America or India.
The public transport in Pakistan is atrocious – rickety, old, zero air conditioning, and, worst of all, slow; I mean really slow. I spent 40 hours in one go riding from Lahore to Gilgit-Baltistan and, while I pride myself on my tenacity, this one nearly broke me. The bright side is that I got to know some Pakistani people really, really well.
When there are no more buses, you have to rely upon private transport aka some guy in a beat-up 1992 Toyota Camry. To book one of these local taxis for 3 hours cost me more than five times the price of that 40-hour bus ticket. It’s a racket but it’s the only option.
Hotels in Pakistan are not cheap either. Most are catered to pairs of travelers or families. Expectedly, the prices are generally higher. Most of the time, I was paying for two beds and only used one of them.
Organizing any expedition as a solo traveler in Pakistan is frustrating as well. Though the local tour operators in Pakistan are kind and try everything to be helpful, it’s just not the same quality. Outdoor gear is dated and often times imported from the dregs of China’s factories. Food is limited to essentially instant noodles, tuna, soup, and rice. Fuel, specifically the isopropane-butane kind, is pretty much impossible to find.
“Traveling alone in Pakistan is not easy…”
Don’t get me wrong – I really enjoyed my extra time in Gilgit-Baltistan. I saw some new mountains and they were just as epic as ever. There were some really amazing Pakistani people that I met during this time and wholeheartedly plan on visiting them again one day.
I will not be returning for another adventure tour in Pakistan alone though. Traveling solo in Pakistan is just too tedious and difficult. I can only hold onto the romantic ideal that I’m being some lone wolf for so long before I get really annoyed.
For that matter, I was really starting to miss the crew from my organized tour in Pakistan. The guests were just so easy to be around and the guides just made things so easy for us. Call me spoiled, but in a country like Pakistan, you’re going to need all the help you can get.
So what is Pakistan like for a solo traveler? Irritating, which takes away a good deal of enjoyment. You can definitely give it a try and may find a find a lot of success.
Personally, I would prefer to travel to Pakistan with an experienced guide or operator. They can help streamline an already chaotic affair so you can get the most of your trip. Trust me, the money’s worth it.
Buying an LOI Without Booking a Tour – Update January 2020
Feel like a tour isn’t for you even after reading this epic review?
Our good friends at Adventure Planners can likely sort out an LOI for you depending on your nationality. Please contact our good friend Haris Ali Shah for the details regarding purchasing a Letter of Invitation without booking a tour. The cost is $75 USD.
They do offer free LOI’s if someone books an actual tour with them as well. Other Adventure Planner services include motorbike rentals for epic Karakoram Highway journeys!
In addition, they also own and operate two backpacker hostels; one is in Islamabad (Backpackers Hostel Islamabad) and one in Gilgit (Backpackers Hostel Gilgit Ex(Madina Hotel 2).
When you reach out to Adventure Planner’s don’t forget to mention that the Broke Backpacker sent you as they may be able to offer you a special discount! Good luck indy backpackers!!
Pakistan tourism is on the rise. As public image improves, more and more people are visiting Pakistan to experience its majesty for themselves.
Forbes even included the country on its list of “10 Coolest Places to Go in 2019.” If those crotchety old-farts know that Pakistan is back on the radar, then the masses aren’t far behind.
Pakistan deserves every accolade possible – it’s welcoming, interesting, gorgeous, and, most of all, exciting. It is so close to being a perfect country to visit and I shudder at the thought that people are choosing to go to established places like Thailand instead. If I had it my way, I’d visit Pakistan every year because I know there will always be something new.
But Pakistan is still a difficult country to visit. The hospitality industry in Pakistan is still developing (or redeveloping), getting around is extremely tedious, and the bureaucracy is still not manageable. For solo travelers, adventures in Pakistan are alluring, but, ultimately, maddening to organize.
If I could give you one piece of advice for Pakistan, it would be to consider using a tour operator. Pakistan is unpredictable but having a team of experts with you will make things much less intimidating.
Companies like Epic Backpacker Tours are professional, through and through, and know the lay of the land much better than any first-time visitor. They’ve shed blood and sweat while scouting this country so that you won’t have to.
In the end, I thoroughly enjoyed my Pakistan tour and traveling around the country. On that note, I would highly recommend Epic Backpacker Tours to anyone considering their services. They were professional, knowledgeable, kind, and a damn good time.
Epic Backpacker Tours does not provide insurance to guests – only guidance and convenience. If you are considering joining one of EBT’s Pakistan tour packages, then please organize travel insurance beforehand.
Need More Inspiration?
Ralph is a former manager in the hospitality industry turned wild child. With a desire to experience all things unconventional, Ralph enjoys visiting the lesser-known landscapes of the world and has ended up in some pretty strange and wonderful places. Recently, he spent eight months travelling around Africa, the Middle East, and Europe, spending as much time as possible in the wilderness and doing everything to avoid the crowds.