From Gilgit the climb to the Khundjerab Pass (4,800m) starts. We will take a few days to ensure we don’t get a repeat of the altitude sickness that dropped us that time in the Andes where we foolishly did 4,0O0m in one day. That’s the last thing we need given the lingering dehydration that the deserts of lowland Pakistan have left us with.
Firstly it’s to Karimabad, a hillside town sporting two 13th century fortresses constructed which for 750 years housed the royal family of the Hunza Valley. This Valley that spreads out below and is rimmed by snow capped peaks is one of the most picturesque spots in Pakistan and a tourist mecca – if there were any tourists around these days. On a side trip up the Nagar valley to the village of Hoper at the foot of the Bualtar glacier we sat with the locals in the sun beneath the blossoming apricot trees and over tea asked how tourism there was going. The reply was that it improving, that this year we were there, last year they had some Koreans come by and the year before some Chinese. Clearly their ‘new normal’ post 9/11 has near been zero. It’s a tragedy because apart from the subsistence agriculture the only form of income for them is from the potato crop and their arts and crafts. And the arts and crafts are critical outlets for the women especially of these isolated valleys. Little wonder there is an urban drift of the youth to Islamabad and Lahore – and thankfully the investment in education by NGOs and government is strong so the young of the valleys up here in North Pakistan, are getting the opportunity to join the modern world. It’s a very strong contrast to the valleys back down in Kohistan from where we’ve just emerged, where the strict conservative form of Islam practised and the mullahs discouraging education of the masses in effect traps the young in the valleys.
There are many Pakistans as we have been told repeatedly on this journey and sadly the one in the media headlines is the only one that foreigners perceive. That perception is as far from reality as the stereotypical media-fuelled view of North Korea – which we rode across last year – is. But perception is the reality when it comes to foreign engagement with Pakistan. And man, does China take advantage of that hole in our Western intelligence. As I’ll explain in the next blog, it provides them it with a massive opportunity geo-politically.
This northern part of Pakistan truly is beautiful and from Gulmit, north of our Attabad lake crossing we head to Sost and a side excursion to another valley community. I thought the world’s most dangerous road was the one we’ve ridden both by motorbike and bicycle in Bolivia. But it has nothing on the road into Misgar is far harder on the heart rate. Not only is it carved from the cliffside but it is soft so your tyres sink as you edge your way to the upper valley.
Here we spend an enjoyable half day with the 160 villagers and become especially entranced with the education efforts for the young girls who as well as busily manufacturing handcrafted garments and traditional wears, are being encouraged to get their education levels up so they have mobility beyond the village as they mature. There’s only a primary school only in the village and they have to leave for any more. We decide we’ll set up a scholarship fund for the village, for the purposes of enabling girls to further their education. It’s a way to give them access to the outside world and incentivise the village to ensure their education goes beyond the rudimentary primary school level. The day is beautiful, the snow bright and the landscape absolutely stunning around this village perched high up in the valley close to the Kilik Pass to Afganistan. We feel we’re in a world far, far away from our norm. And we are.
“The team find a brand new contender for the most dangerous road in the World plus Gareth and Jo revisit a special village to set up a scholarship fund”.