Dust rose up into the blue sky, civilisation slipping away, as I left the Karakoram Highway and headed deeper into the mountains and away from the small police checkpoint of Raikot Bridge.
It had been a long journey to get here, I had sat upon a crowded public bus, stiflingly hot, then cold as day turned to night, and endured endless police checkpoints. I had, in total, made over a dozen copies of my passport and visa for the journey and was tired of showing the same documents to a string of interchangeable police officers.
I was, in short, in a bit of a shitty mood by the time I arrived at Raikot Bridge, the gateway to one of Pakistan’s most treasured sites of natural beauty.
At first, I had not been sure that the local police were going to let me head into the mountains but, after much smiling, polite nodding, cups of chai and a lengthy book-signing process, I was granted permission to head off in search of the legendary Fairy Meadows of Pakistan on the condition that I accepted a police escort.
Beside me, a wizened police officer with two teeth and a huge jacket smiled at me shyly from behind his silvery beard, a well polished Kalashnikov resting on his lap. The jeep groaned as we smashed a path over large stones and bulldozed our way towards the huge white mountains upon the horizon.
The road snaked it’s way up the valley, a sheer drop on one side, a blue ribbon of water below. I fumbled with my camera, much to my new bodyguard’s delight, and took a few snaps of the mighty mountains marching alongside us. Up ahead, in the distance, one defiant peak reigned supreme above all others.
“Nanga Parbat” my new friend offered up.
The ninth highest mountain in the world, it seemed to scrape the furthest grasps of the skies themselves, an impenetrable bastion of snow and ice and rock, a fortress fit for a god.
Behind us, another jeep of local Pakistani tourists, day-trippers, chugged its way along the bronze coloured trail, a mad-man clinging to the front like a crouching gymnast.
It seemed that I was not the only person looking to spend a night in the fairy meadows, one of Pakistan’s best known adventure destinations. I dismounted and followed the police into the forests. I still had no idea what to expect.
I struggled onwards, the weight of my pack (why the hell had I bought my damn laptop!) weighing me down as I struggled through waist-deep snow, February is NOT the best time of year to visit the fairy meadows.
My stomach rumbled unhappily, I was, of course, aware of Delhi-Belly having been to India many times but it seemed that Islamabad-Belly was a thing as well. I moped along unhappily, unable to fully appreciate the stunning presence of the mountains, the cool crispness of the air, the startling radiance of the snow.
Ahead of me, my police escort waited patiently on a rock, a cigarette dangling from his lips, his AK cradled in his lap like a much loved pet.
In India and Pakistan, an older gentleman is often referred to as Baba, unsure how to ask my AK-wielding friend his name, I settled on this.
“Baba, Taliban here?” I asked, more curious than concerned.
“No Taliban” grinned my guardian angel, raising his rifle to his shoulder and miming shooting into the distance.
Baba, seeing that I was tired and a little unwell, passed me some sickly sweets and then kindly took my second backpack off me. This was a first for me.
I am very protective of my gear and take it as a slight upon my honour if anyone dares offer me help but, on this occasion, with the snow soaking through my shoes and socks and another round of explosive diarrhea ready to go, I relented.
Together, we moved further into the valley, climbing over fallen logs and wading through half frozen streams until, finally, after a steep climb and much swearing, I reached my destination.
Ahead of me, stretching away in the distance, clean white carpets of untouched snow. Mighty peaks of blue and grey and silver and purple flinging themselves into the sky, blocking out the last of the sun and promising a radiant evening filled with stars.
Baba led me forwards to a small wooden hut, inside I was greeted by the owner of the hut who, having heard that a foreigner was coming, had opened up despite the season not starting for another six weeks.
I was instantly passed a cheeky smoke and a mug of hot chai and, collapsing into a heap on the floor, I finally got some rest.
I awoke the next day, the sun sliding in via the windows, under the door, through the cracks in the wood. Baba, wordlessly stoking the fire, looked at me with a smile and handed me a fresh paratha, still warm and a glass of chai.
“Baba, Aap ka naam kia Hai?” – Baba, what is your name.
He leapt into the air as if he had been electrocuted, shocked to find that I could suddenly speak Urdu – I had an app on my phone that was helping me out.
“Very good! Very good! My name Baba!” he replied, it seemed he knew a little English of his own.
I asked him again and received the same answer, it seemed he was happy with being called Baba after all.
With the help of my phone, I began to quiz Baba on his age, his family, his favourite food, how long he had been in the police.
We laughed, sharing a smoke as Mohammed joined us and poured me another glass of chai.
“Aap ka Shukria Bhai!” – Thank you very much, brother.
I quickly learnt that even if Baba and Mohammed could not understand my imperfect Urdu accent, they definitely understood the concept of fun. Baba, in particular, seemed to be especially fond of jokes.
Baba quickly assigned himself to be not just my protector but also my guide and, over the next three days, lead me deep into the surrounding mountains. We trekked through insane snow-banks, attempting to make it to Nanga Parbat basecamp despite the terrible conditions and only turning back when the snow reached our armpits.
Baba taught me a few phrases in Urdu and slowly but surely my Urdu began to get better.
In the afternoon, we attempted to dry our shoes on a small fire which was fine until we ran out of wood.
To my surprise, Baba leapt up and, grabbing an axe, took to the trees, climbing like a monkey, using the axe as an aid, pulling himself up ten meters above the ground and then, to my delight and horror, began hacking away at the very branches he was standing on.
Over the course of an hour, he harvested enough wood to fuel a hundred fires, all without actually cutting the tree down; I was impressed, I would hesitate to call this a sustainable practice as I am not an expert but it looked pretty nature-friendly to me!
Eventually, it was time to leave the fairy meadows and head back to the Karakoram Highway, next up, I planned to explore the mountains around Hunza – one could easily spend a lifetime trekking and adventuring here.
I parted ways with Baba, shaking his hand and promising to return in August when I hope to see a different, greener, side of The Fairy Meadows.
He grinned at me wordlessly, point blank refusing to take the 500 rupees I pushed into his hand and making sure I got on the right bus as I made my way towards Gilgit. The Pakistani people; they are always looking out for you.
Trekking around the fairy meadows, and spending time with Baba, was a truly magical experience.
The Fairy Meadows is one of the most stunning places I have ever been and when you go to Pakistan be sure to visit.
If you are lucky enough to be assigned Baba as your escort, be sure to tell him I say a hearty Salaam Alaikum!
How to Get to The Fairy Meadows from Gilgit
Whilst it is possible to simply jump off at Raikot Bridge from the Rawalpindi to Gilgit bus, most backpackers opt to push on to Karimabad and Ghulkin and then loop back to Raikot Bridge (for onwards travel to The Fairy Meadows). The journey from Raikot to the Fairy Meadows is tiring so throwing it on top of an already long bus journey from Rawalpindi (or further) is not a great idea.
Finishing your Pakistan travels in The Fairy Meadows does make sense (unless you are looping round to Kalash or crossing the border to China) as it’s on the road back to Islamabad and a sure way to end your trip on a real highlight. The Fairy Meadows are simply magical.
Many backpackers will be coming from Gilgit. You can catch a minibus heading to Chillas from Gilgit for around 200 rupees, just say in advance that you want to get off at Raikot Bridge. The minibuses seem to leave one every hour, timetables vary based on the time of year, from around 9am from Gilgit’s general bus station (which is at the top of town) near the massive arch next to the military base as you enter Gilgit.
The bus ride will take between one and a half and two hours, depending on if there have been any landslides. I’ve done this trip four times and there was a large landslide on one occasion just before Raikot Bridge, this delayed us significantly.
From Raikot Bridge to Fairy Point
When you arrive in Raikot, the police will probably want to record your details. You may receive your escort at Raikot Bridge or you may meet your police escort once you have braved the road to Fairy Point, I’ve experienced both.
The ride to Fairy Point costs 6,500 Rupees and this is non-negotiable. The trip is two way and you need to state in advance when you want to return – However if you give enough notice you can change this later. Note down your driver’s name, licence plate number and phone number (if he has a phone). If you decide to change your pickup time but are unable to get in touch with your driver, you will have to pay twice.
You can wait around and try to share the jeep with others to split the cost, the jeep drivers will try to convince you not to and will insist that foreigners and Pakistanis are not allowed to share. I have succeeded on all occasions to go with Pakistani tourists, thus splitting the fee however it was a long and drawn out procedure and I do not know if it will work every time – it really depends which jeep drivers are down there. The jeep drivers don’t give a shit that you are a foreign traveller – which is rare in Pakistan, most Pakistanis love foreigners and can’t do enough to make your trip more awesome.
Trekking from Fairy Point to The Fairy Meadows
At Fairy Point, you can begin your trek! If you are unfit, it’s possible to hire a donkey to carry you or your luggage. I strongly discourage anybody from riding a donkey up to The Fairy Meadows – man up and give these poor animals a break. The trek can be done in ninety minutes, apparently, but a time of three to five hours is more normal. It took me just under three hours whilst trekking in fair conditions in September. In February, whilst trekking to The Fairy Meadows through deep snow, it took four and a half hours and was exhausting.
The Fairy Meadows is officially closed at this time and when I got up there, it was just myself, my amigo and two Pakistani policemen. A Lahori friend had called ahead and convinced Gul Mohammed at The Greenland Hotel to open up specially for us; it was a truly magical experience being up there amongst so much snow.
Where to Stay in The Fairy Meadows
For more info on Pakistan, be sure to check out my Backpacking Pakistan travel guide…
Still not convinced? Read up on ten reasons you should travel to Pakistan!
A huge thank you to uTalk Go for sponsoring my adventures. I am proud to partner with such an ethically sound company and I am excited to have the opportunity to chat to locals all over the world. If you are hitting the road and you want to break down barriers, learn the local lingo and make new friends, check out the free app today. It’s a hell of a lot better than a phrase book…
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