Riding the Karakoram Highway
Editor’s note: smarttraveller.gov.au recommends anyone intending to travel to Pakistan at this point in time should reconsider their need to do so, “due to the volatile security situation and high threat of terrorist attack, kidnapping and violence. Higher levels apply in some areas.”
So it’s safer, perhaps, to travel there vicariously through vivid, well-told stories such as the following...
When I see the almost vertical peak of 7788m Rakaposhi mountain standing just metres away from my Suzuki-GS150, all I can do is stop at the side of the Karakoram Highway, pull off my helmet, and admire this snow-capped guardian of Pakistan’s fabled Hunza valley.
Let me tell you, I’m getting tired of Gilgit-Baltistan, touted as the “Switzerland of South Asia”, and its perfectly paved high-altitude highway to China’s westernmost Xinjiang province. The reason? It packs in too many of Pakistan’s main tourist drawcards. Riding without stopping for more than half an hour is an impossible proposition, for staggering peaks, alpine valleys and the turquoise Attabad Lake are all just a stone’s throw from the asphalt.
Trust me: no matter how well-travelled you are, once you see any of these immortal, jagged giants, they’ll never leave your mind at peace.
Melbourne resident Liz Norman knows this very well. She travelled to Gilgit-Baltistan in 2016 with Lahore-born motorcycle travel enthusiast Syed Hamza Mobeen, better known as Shah, now her husband. “I was shocked that a place so mind-blowingly beautiful was so devoid of visitors,” says Norman. “We were literally the only travellers. Just us two.”
Their maiden voyage to Pakistan’s northern regions spurred the couple’s decision to start an adventure motorbike tour operator, Karakoram Bikers, with the prime goal to share their love for this misunderstood and beautiful part of the world with everyone willing to listen.
Say “Pakistan” and stereotypical images of bearded men in turbans toting rifles come to mind. Fair enough. Even if this is not Taliban-run Afghanistan, both countries share a long border, and Pakistan still experienced small-scale terrorist attacks in Karachi and Lahore this year. But that’s not the face of a whole nation that both scratches Central Asia with its mountain-studded crown, and dips its toes in the Arabian sea, more than 2000km away.
“I want to promote Pakistan as it’s definitely terrible to write an entire country off with the vague ‘but aren’t they all terrorists’ stereotype. . .” says Liz. “It’s a shame to overlook Pakistan’s incredibly rich ancient culture and heritage, and its unfolding modernisation — they are regular people, just trying to live like anyone else.”
Since 2017, when I set foot in Pakistan for the first time thanks to Norman’s operation, the country had already emerged from the dark ages of tourism that followed the 2016 Lahore bombings that killed 75. Then former prime minister Imran Khan had set his target on shrugging off that bad reputation to recover the country’s once-thriving tourism sector, mountaineering in particular.
In 2018, the introduction of a facilitated online e-visa procedure made it even more straightforward to fly in — something that’s been possible throughout the whole COVID-19 pandemic, as Pakistan never closed its borders to anybody, welcoming all foreign visitors with little or no quarantine and testing ordeals.
An uphill battle for tourism
This said, setting up a business as a woman in a strongly patriarchal society has had its up and downs for Liz. “Trying to do business in Pakistan as an Australian has been absolutely not easy but hugely rewarding on a personal and connection level, not for the money. I still do not earn an Australian income from it,” she confesses.
Liz also laments how processes are tediously slow and convoluted. “For example, it took us just a couple of hours to register the company here in Australia, but several months in Pakistan … and we are still trying to do things like updating address, something which I can do online in about 15 seconds in Australia, while in Pakistan, it’s layer upon layer of submitting forms.”
But the headaches of officialdom can be overcome, and it is “all worthwhile when you see the very real awe on the faces of travellers when they get into the upper Hunza mountains glaciers and the fact that locals go out of their way to welcome them,” says Liz.
Karakoram Bikers’ most interesting offer is Pure Pakistan, a mammoth 19 days tour ($4866 for a rider and $4566 for a support car spot, all-inclusive) of the best that Pakistan’s northern-most region of Gilgit Baltistan has to offer. It’s restarting again in July after two years of pandemic interruption — Pakistan was open, but many countries, like Australia, still had travel restrictions that made it impossible for citizens to leave and return.
Pure Pakistan starts in the capital Islamabad where riders are transferred by van to the northern hub of Gilgit, where the actual riding starts and Karakoram Bikers operates the peaceful Five Giants Homestay. The first few days snake all the way along the perfectly paved Karakoram Highway to the very end of Pakistan’s mountain-studded crown — 4693m Khunjerab Pass, the highest motorable border in the world, from where prior to the pandemic one could proceed into China’s westernmost Xinjiang Province, and then into the republics of Central Asia.
Riders will have a rougher task once the tour leaves the fine Karakoram’s asphalt to loop around the Astore valley up to the 4100m Deosai National Park, the world’s second-highest plateau after Tibet, where the must-stop is 4142m Sheosar Lake, one of the highest in the world.
The road then tumbles down to Skardu, with its cliff-hanging Kharpocho fort, the Katpana cold desert, and the enigmatic Manthal Buddha Rock — dating back to the 9th century, it’s a vestige of the passage of Buddhism from India to China and predates the arrival of Islam in the region. Pure Pakistan concludes with a final ride back to Gilgit across the new road that makes the once spine-chilling journey along the upper Indus river a much less fearful affair.
Karakoram Bikers also tailored a new, shortened 14-day version of their classic jaunt, the Indus Shyok adventure ($3670), which runs even when the Deosai National Park is inaccessible due to snow in the winter months. This tour still includes a ride up the Karakoram Highway, but then focuses more on Skardu and the cold desert areas of Shigar and Khaplu right across the border from India’s Ladakh. Bikers ride out to Hushe, closer to the trailheads of the trekking points to the mighty 7821m Masherbrum, and 8611m K2 — the world’s second-highest peak after Everest.
Karakoram Bikers’ tour revenues are heavily reinvested into paying participating local homestays, guides and drivers in a region like Gilgit-Baltistan, where freezing winters grind everything to a halt, and tourism money is a real force for good.
“I would never be able to do the business without the local strong connection,” explains Liz. “Shah and I together somehow have made it all work. And also in Gilgit, without our man Ali it would have been ten times more difficult, or even impossible because Gilgit Baltistan authorities definitely want a local involved and would be suspicious of Punjabis moving in.”
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