“Eat!” Rehman’s father implores me as I polish off my third helping of chicken and rice, pushing the pot towards me. I try to explain that the exquisitely home cooked food is delicious, but I’ve well and truly eaten my fill. No-one is having it. I am an honoured guest and they’ll be damned if I’m not having a fourth helping. I feel like a pig, and frankly I feel a touch guilty. I’m dining with three generations of Wakhi Pakistanis in their family home; Rehman, my host, and his wife Sitara, their children aged in single digits, and Rehman’s parents in their 70s. I’m just an Aussie backpacker seeking a bit of culture and authenticity – I’ve done nothing to deserve being fussed over like this. Well, I don’t think so anyway, but obviously no-one else in this room agrees with me. This is life in the house of Rehman Alikhan. This is Wakhi hospitality. This is Pakistan.
Tours to Pakistan
In 2017 we ran our first adventure tours to Pakistan. This was an awesome success and in 2019 we will be running at least four more adventures to this amazing country.
Exciting news! We have launched our new tour company (Rehman is a guide!) and website which you can check out at epicbackpackertours.com. Please visit the new website or email email@example.com to find out more, or simply sign up to the broke backpacker mailing list to be kept in the loop.
To my own detriment, I sometimes have a nasty habit of travelling with my head planted firmly up my own arse. If I’m too fatigued, or there’s too many slimy touts about, or if a place is a bit too structured and orderly, or I’m in a bit of a mediocre mood, I put the blinkers on and rob myself of some potentially amazing experiences. Rehman and his family have become somewhat of a legend on the Pakistani backpacking circuit, and I very nearly missed out on the opportunity to meet them. I got lucky.
It’s August 2, 2017. I’m in the Medina Guest House in Gilgit, licking my wounds from a spectacular but bruising 20 hour bus journey from Islamabad. My room is riddled with mosquitoes, I paid too much for it (attitude is everything in Pakistan; if you walk into a hotel or guest house smiling and bubbling with good energy, you’ll get a good price, but if you’re a bit tired and frustrated, the staff will feed off that energy and charge accordingly), and I’m having trouble connecting to the Wi-Fi. The staff speak pretty scratchy English and aren’t especially helpful towards me (again, this is down to my flat energy more than any fault of theirs). The owner isn’t about. I also appear to be the only guest – initially at least. I can already feel the metaphorical blinkers being strapped to my head.
I saunter out to the garden, with the intention of drinking chai and chain smoking and doing very little else, when I notice a skinny German bloke with a ginger top knot and sleeve tattoos tapping away on his laptop. How do I know he is German? Well, if you’re thousands of kilometres from anywhere that could be considered a well-beaten tourist trail, and you see a white guy in his 20s travelling alone, he’s German. That’s just how it works.
I stroll over to his table and ask him if he can help me with the Wi-Fi. He swiftly gets me connected, and I consider going to sit on my own, but he seems friendly enough, so I decide to stick around for a chin-wag. Felix is from Leipzig and is more or less doing my journey in reverse; I’m on an excursion from India to Germany, while his mission is from Germany to Pakistan. We chat for 3 or 4 hours, share some ideas about the road, grab a feed at a local restaurant, and Felix regales me with the story of his time spent in Ghulkin, a tiny village 120km further north, staying with a local man called Rehman.
After being captivated with tales of a simple life of apricots and glaciers, I decree that I want in on the action. Felix gives me Rehman’s phone number, and a warning. “Just so you know, Rehman’s house is not a normal house like we have in our home countries. It’s just a stone hut with a few apricot trees and you sleep on the floor and you get an egg with bread for breakfast and dahl with rice for dinner. You probably won’t have electricity either.”
“Sounds fucking awesome!”
The following day, I wake up feeling immeasurably better about life, yesterday’s grumpiness replaced with a burning desire to have the adventure of my life in northern Pakistan. I stay another night in Gilgit in a different guest house, owned by a man called Abdul Qayum in his 70s with white hair and piercing blue eyes, who speaks fluent Spanish. I eat barbecued chicken and drink “Hunza water”, the local moonshine distilled from mulberries, with three Slovenian mountaineers and a 75 year old Italian woman. The four of them have racked up over 60 Pakistan visits between them. I text Rehman asking if he can take me in tomorrow night. I’ll always remember the exact wording of his reply, so touching in its humility and simplicity as he offered his hospitality to a total stranger.
“U r wormly welcome in my poor home dear”
The following afternoon, at Gilgit bus station, I’m shoehorned into a clown car in the form of an old Toyota Hiace. There are 4 rows of bench seats in the back, and another one in the front. The end seat from each row folds down so that passengers can contort themselves into impossibly tight spaces. The end seat is then folded back up and two people are sat in it. This tiny van would be licensed to carry no more than 10 people in Australia, but at one point I count 18 bodies. I don’t have the foresight to put my backpack on the roof, so my only option is to use it as a footstool and sit with my knees around my ears. As for the driver? Casually overtaking trucks around blind corners along a 200 metre cliff edge is just another day at the office for him.
Rehman instructs me to get off at Ghulkin Glacier Bridge, but neither the driver nor any of the passengers speak English and I quickly lose phone service, so simply requesting “Ghulkin” will have to suffice. I hope that I don’t get too lost, although in this mind-bogglingly beautiful landscape, getting lost wouldn’t be such a bad thing. Glad to be free of the tight confines of the minibus, I take a stab in the dark and walk north. The mighty Hunza River rages by on my left, and on all sides I’m surrounded by gargantuan peaks; wooded in the lower altitudes, snow-capped even in summer, and utterly spectacular.
After a kilometre or so, a tall man about a decade my senior comes into view, beaming warmly at me through an implausibly perfect set of teeth. He’s handsome in a rugged sort of way, and he’s standing with an older gentleman who is smiling just as hard. “Rehman?” I ask, butchering the pronunciation. He simply replies “Welcome, dear”, and introduces me to his father. I only carry a small backpack, the size that a secondary student would use for school, but he insists on taking it for me, and we jump into his beaten-up old hatchback and drive up the twisty gravel road into Ghulkin, which I can only describe as heartbreakingly beautiful; a patchwork of simple stone huts in a lush green bowl, presided over by gigantic white mountains in every direction.
As we drive through, what seems to be everyone from the village (and the two neighbouring ones as well) have turned out to watch the local futsal final, being played on a wide dirt road between a team in shiny new Arsenal shirts and a team in shiny new Barcelona shirts. People are sitting on the roofs of all two shops in town, the valley echoing their cheers so loudly that we could be at Wembley. The players pause to clear off the makeshift pitch so we can drive through, and then resume their very serious game.
Rehman’s house, true to Felix’s description, is a series of small stone huts, although his are constructed considerably more soundly than most of the others in the village, and actually have proper 2 metre doorways with doors that seal snugly. He shows me the guest room, with sleeping mats spread around the floor and an open hole in the roof for a skylight. There is no electricity, so Rehman shows me how to use the dim solar powered LED that has made the short journey across the Chinese border. In the middle of the room is a coffee table and a 15 year old copy of Lonely Planet Pakistan.
In the next room/building, which is the main room, I meet Rehman’s wife, Sitara, as well as his impossibly cute children and his mother, who is the only member of the family that doesn’t seem to speak an appreciable amount of English (apart from their youngest son, who is too young to speak much of any language right now). It doesn’t take me long to realise that Sitara is one of the hardest working people I’ve ever met, or likely ever will. While the rest of us enjoy the dinner that she has just cooked, she busies herself cooking up a big pot of chai. While we drink the chai, she washes the dishes. The cooking is done on a small coal stove in the middle of the room that vents straight out of a hole in the roof. The cleaning is done in a makeshift kitchen with fresh water straight from the mountains, which is stored in a 5 litre plastic bottle that looks like it once contained commercial cleaning chemicals. This is the same water that we drink, and it’s the cleanest, tastiest and most refreshing water I think I’ve ever had.
At dinner time, I am treated like royalty, and to be honest I don’t really know how to handle it. Everything is served on sharing plates – one with rice, one with diced shallots and one with either chicken or dahl – and I’m always the first to serve myself. I only ever take what I deem to be a polite quantity of food, but it doesn’t matter, because as soon as the last grain of rice is eaten from my plate, Rehman’s dad is passing the bowl towards me again. And again. And again. Once it’s all been washed down with a couple of cups of chai and a cigarette ashed into a teacup, Rehman disappears outside and reappears two minutes later with a bowl of apricots he’s just picked.
Rehman, his dad, and Sitara are super apologetic. “Sorry we can’t give you nice food.” “Sorry we can’t give you good service.” “Sorry we live a simple life.” I’ve worked in fine dining before, but I’ve never had rice as impeccably cooked as Sitara’s rice. No amount of my reassurances seem enough. I tell them that the food is fine, delicious in fact. I tell them that I think their simple life is beautiful. It doesn’t matter. More apologies.
Rehman tells me that tomorrow we’re going to hike across the Black Glacier to Borith Lake, then we’ll see a suspension bridge, and then we’ll come back to Ghulkin. Breakfast is at 8am and we’ll head out afterwards.
Being 2400 metres above sea level, nights in Ghulkin are pleasantly cool even in the summer, which I greatly appreciate because travelling though India and Pakistan in the summer like I have been, it gets a bit bloody warm. It’s nice being able to think about the words “searing” and “heat” without having a panic attack. It’s also pleasant to be able to sleep with a blanket. It’s even more pleasant to be totally disconnected from the outside world. I have the best night’s sleep I’ve had in a good while.
In the morning, Sitara serves me breakfast and then runs out the door. She’s already been out tending to the livestock since dawn despite not getting to bed until at least 11pm, and now she’s going to split some apricots. Like I said, hard-working. Rehman and I both eat a fried egg each with a nice big piece of Roti bread, a few cups of chai, and more apricots.
Once breakfast is settled, we take off, climbing the hill at the back of the house. It’s only 10 minutes to the top, but I’m already breathing a little heavily. Rehman, who has smoked two cigarettes on the way up, is not. The next stage of the trip looks a bit tougher – we’ve reached the glacier and we’ll need to clamour down boulders into the glacier bed and negotiate a lot of slippery icy bits along the way.
I should mention at this point that I’m not the most agile bloke. I’ve always enjoyed being active and participating in sports, but I’m a bit uncoordinated. Rehman, who is dressed in jeans and a button-up shirt, is hopping from boulder to boulder like it’s absolutely nothing, smoking cigarettes as he goes. He’s no doubt done this many times before. Meanwhile, I’m warily creeping from one boulder to the next, making sure I don’t overbalance myself, sometimes needing to place my hand on something firm just to make sure. Rehman is super patient with me; I’m the one being apologetic now, but Rehman simply says with a smile, “Safe and sound is best.”
After about an hour and a half, with a few photo stops in between, we reach the other side of the glacier and are welcomed by another dazzling view, overlooking the village of Husseini in the valley below, a little green oasis in a desert of dry granite mountains, with the Hunza River slicing the scene in half. From here it’s an easy descent down to Borith Lake a kilometre or two further north. We stop in to visit one of Rehman’s friends, a bloke in his 20s wearing a Manchester United shirt, and have some more mountain water and a cup of chai while I get my heavy breathing under control.
Our next stop is the Husseini suspension bridge, a 30 minute walk downhill from Borith Lake, taut dramatically across the Hunza River just like something from a movie. Eventually I cross it, but it takes a bit of psyching myself up. It’s not that I have an irrational fear of suspension bridges, and this one seems sturdy enough, but the gaps between each wooden slat are more than big enough for a human to fall through. For an awkward, uncoordinated bloke like myself, that’s not ideal, especially since the Hunza River doesn’t seem a very forgiving river to fall into from a great height. It’s current is rather brisk. I don’t swim well either. I’m a terrible excuse for an Australian.
Again, it’s nothing for Rehman, who crosses the 200 metre span in about 2 minutes, airborne most of the time. It takes me 15, holding onto the rail and making sure my front foot is firmly planted before lifting my back foot. The view from the other side is well worth it though, and I click about 50 photos.
It’s well into the afternoon now, so Rehman and I walk back along the Karakoram Highway, which is perhaps the world’s most spectacular road, snaking its way between two of the world’s three highest mountain ranges. After a few kilometres, we end up back where I met Rehman and his dad yesterday. We order half a chicken (my shout) at a super quaint little roadside diner that perhaps isn’t the most hygienic, but by this stage my stomach has well and truly acclimatised to the loose approach to food hygiene that one experiences on the subcontinent.
Just nearby, Rehman’s dad is building what Rehman tells me will eventually become a hostel. Rehman’s dad is 75 years old, but still fit as a fiddle and full of energy, and clearly a skilled builder. With a bare minimum of equipment, he’s gotten the walls and the window openings dead square. I feel bad watching him work, so I ask if he needs a hand hauling the masonry. I’m told to relax.
Rehman explains to me that he faces some challenges with the hostel. The construction aspect is no problem, of course, but electricity and plumbing is. The state electricity infrastructure is extremely feeble in these parts (in 3 days staying with Rehman, we have electricity for 6 hours in total). China is only 120 kilometres away, which means everyone uses Chinese solar panels to get by. Rehman estimates that to electrify the hostel, fit it with toilets and plumbing, and furnish it, he’s looking at around $30,000. His family are essentially subsistence farmers, and the income he gets from running his homestay and selling dried apricots is maybe $100 on a good week. Will and myself have been brainstorming some ideas for how to help Rehman raise the required funds which will help him complete the hostel and provide a proper income for his family, so stay tuned for that.
Rehman leads me up a narrow dirt track that takes us back to where we started our day, in the hill behind his house. We chill there for a while, as it’s the only place in Ghulkin with phone signal, and soak up the view, briefly joined by Sitara who is passing through with a few chickens if I recall correctly, and then wander down to the house.
Before dinner, I climb up onto the roof, which may be my favourite roof in the whole world. Finding a space to sit between the solar panel and the pans full of drying apricots, I gaze around in wonder and awe, feeling totally calm and at peace in a country that conventional wisdom (or at least conventional media) tells us is the exact opposite of peaceful, a hellhole too dangerous to visit.
The following day, Rehman decides to take me on a road trip along the Karakoram Highway, but first, we need to find fuel for his car. That may sound like a mundane task – but this is Pakistan. We head a few kilometres south to the nearest gas station, but they’re all out. The next delivery from China won’t be in for at least 24 hours. The next closest one, near Karimabad, is about 40km away, and we won’t make it that far.
We drive back to Ghulkin Glacier Bridge and Rehman asks around for some black market fuel. Another man disappears in a car for 10 minutes, heading up into the village, and returns with a few large Coke bottles full of petrol. I chuckle at the sheer spectacle of it, but we’re on our way.
We spend the day gallivanting up and down the highway, stopping anywhere with a great view and taking a few photos, then moving on again. Every so often, Rehman picks up a few hitchhikers and drops them to their destination, which is never usually more than 5-10 kilometres. We pick up a Slovenian couple who have been on a mountain trek and have walked over 40 kilometres along the highway hauling a stupendous amount of gear. They know the Slovenian mountaineers that I stayed with in Gilgit.
We make it as far as Sost, the customs outpost for the freight that crosses the China border every day. We stop here and chow down on some yak curry against a backdrop of snow-capped giants and psychedelic lorries. Yak meat isn’t bad. Similar to beef, as one would expect, but a little more gamey, which makes it great for use in curries. On the way back to Ghulkin, we stop in at a small cafe on the side of the highway and enjoy some of the local apricot cake.
Back at Rehman’s house in the afternoon, a few more kids seem to have materialised and they’ve invaded the guest room, bouncing around like they’ve got springs in their shoes. I sit with them for hours playing a simple game with 5 rocks, where the aim of the game is to flick a rock up into the air and catch it with the same hand, before moving onto the next one, until you’re holding all 5 rocks in your hand. A little more difficult than it sounds, but highly entertaining, and I contemplate the very different world that I come from, where kids have thousands of dollars worth of toys and electronics, and don’t seem to derive anywhere near as much joy from them as these kids are getting from a few rocks. No sooner do I think that, though, and one of them spies my headphones and pulls them out of my backpack, tripping over the cable as he runs around the room pretending to be a DJ. Thankfully Rehman comes to the rescue, calling dinner before the little guy has an opportunity to break anything.
I don’t have a bucket list in the literal sense of actually having a list of things written down that I want to do, because I could literally make that endless. But a lot of the small things in life that I do aspire to do, or have already done, tend to revolve around listening to some of my favourite pieces of music in a place which lends that music some deeper significance. For example, I’ve listened to Riders on the Storm at Jim Morrison’s grave in Paris, and one day I will listen to all 2 hours of Pink Floyd’s The Wall while sitting by the remnants of the Berlin Wall. After dinner, I climb up onto the roof again to take some long exposures of the stars and the mountains and fulfil another one of these little musical goals, as I listen to Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir in the magical part of the world that inspired the magical piece of music. Little things like that make me feel a bit closer to the musicians who have enriched my life so much.
Honestly I could have happily stayed with Rehman forever, hiking around, eating apricots, living the simple, perhaps slightly uncivilised but nonetheless chivalrous life of the Wakhi people. But I’m on a mission from India to Germany, the Iranian border is still a very long way away, and my visa won’t last forever, so I need to keep moving. At no point since my arrival in Ghulkin has Rehman mentioned anything about paying him for his services, with the exception of putting fuel in his car. At breakfast, I ask him what I owe him for the bed and the food and the guidance. “As you like”, he replies with the same charming smile he greeted me with two and a half days ago. No amount of money I could afford to give Rehman would ever be enough in my own mind, and as I open my wallet, calculate how many days it will be until I’m anywhere near a working ATM, and how much cash I will need at hand until then, I feel guilty passing him 4000 rupees – about €35.
“Thank you dear”, Rehman says with a smile, and offers to drive me to Karimabad. I pack my things, write a heartfelt note in the guest logbook, after reading Felix’s note from earlier in the week, and say goodbye to one of my new favourite places in the world. Rehman asks me which hotel I want to go to in Karimabad. I say the Old Hunza Inn, and Rehman tells me he knows the owner, so he drives me there, we order some chai, and Rehman does the talking for me. He has to go split apricots, so we bid farewell and I promise I’ll be back soon.
“Always welcome, dear.”
Pakistan is a country that resonated deeply with me in many ways. While writing this piece, I’ve been listening to Coke Studio, a YouTube channel that showcases the best of Pakistan’s considerable music talent. While this was happening, my Couchsurfing hosts from Lahore made a video call to me from a concert, so that I could hear the singer perform a Pakistani song that they know I love. People from all over Pakistan are, for the most part, incredibly genuine and honest people who are curious about foreigners and delighted that you want to visit their country. I found the cities to be happy and upbeat places, a little chaotic by western standards, although certainly nothing like the pure mayhem of India. And the countryside is simply the most beautiful I’ve ever seen. Pakistan is a developing country, and it does have some security issues, which means travel in Pakistan isn’t always smooth sailing, but for the adventurous and resourceful, it can be the most rewarding country you could ever hope to visit.
Visiting Rehman in Ghulkin
To visit Rehman on your own backpacking adventure, please check out Will’s post and the details below.
If you choose to visit they will make you feel incredibly welcome and will provide you with food, a place to sleep, and take you on adventures. They will not ask for money but please, if visiting, make a donation of at least $15 – $20 per day per person. if you want to go on a real adventure; Rehman is your man! The best way to contact him is over Facebook, tell him you found him through The Broke Backpacker and please only get in touch with him if you can definitely meet up – Do not waste my friend’s time. You can also reach him over Whatsapp at +92 3555120343 – please note that where Rehman lives there is not reliable coverage so I recommend contacting him on both Facebook and Whatsapp.