Travels Through Pakistan – An Epic Travellers Tale

It sounds dramatic I know, but I arrived in Pakistan for the first time under a hail of falling rocks, lightening, thunder and torrential rain. It was September 1992 and I had just left the Chinese border town of Tashkurgan and was travelling by bus through no-man’s-land to the Pakistani border at Sost (also known as Sust) in Baltistan. An hour or so into the journey (no-man’s-land between the two countries is vast) the heavens opened up and rocks of various sizes started flying down the mountainside onto the road in front and behind our bus. Eventually everyone on the bus abandoned it (including the Chinese driver) and we ended up as a group walking and dodging our way to the small town of Sost. We arrived well after dark, ate some food and retired to bed, exhausted.

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992The Hunza Valley Pakistan in 1992 photographed by Mark

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992The Hunza Valley Pakistan in more recent times Image © Edwardje | Dreamstime.com

Interactive map of places visited during Mark’s 1992 travels through Pakistan

It was an unusual way to arrive in a country and it didn’t stop raining for days. In fact, and we didn’t find this out until we got to Gilgit, the torrential rains had caused the Indus River and its tributaries to swell so much that there was terrible flooding in Pakistan’s Punjab and Kashmir regions. Much later I discovered that more than 1,000 people died and thousands more were displaced as a result of the flooding that year.

Finally, it stopped raining and the fantastic scenery that had attracted me to northern Pakistan in the first place started to appear. It was time to assess our situation. Sost is connected to Gilgit, the administrative capital of Baltistan and largest town in the region, by way of the Karakoram Highway (KKH). However, we were told that in the aftermath of the storm the KKH was impassable for practically all types of vehicle. Large sections of it were either washed away or covered in landslide debris. Heading back to China wasn’t an option without a valid Chinese visa. Some had tried and were turned back at the border.

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Car on Karakorum Highway after a landslide taken in more recent times Image © Meinzahn | Dreamstime.com

This left us with two options. We either sat in out in Sost and waited for the National Highways of Pakistan (who maintain the KKH) to clear the road as far as Gilgit or we could start walking (and hitching where we could) in a southerly direction. The problem with the first option was the distance from Sost to Gilgit was 180km and although stretches of the road were OK (*), it was understandably going to take the maintenance guys a very long time to clear the entire route. The problem with the second option was the fact that the distance from Sost to Gilgit was 180km!

(*) All of our information was hearsay and rumours. We had nothing confirmed.

We stayed in situ for about another week. Reports about road improvement were not encouraging and ultimately we knew we would have to walk and hitch if we were to get to Gilgit and beyond anytime soon. Food rations were also starting to get a bit tight. OK, I am exaggerating a little here. There was no shortage of dhal, chapattis and chai (sweet, milky tea) but the local store had run out of biscuits and chocolate bars so the situation was pretty serious to us. So a bunch of us decided to head off the following morning. I didn’t sleep much the night before we left. We were safe in Sust and most of us (my girlfriend and I included) didn’t have the right gear for such an epic trip (*). We were all hoping we would be able to hitch lots of short stretches of the KKH and that the walking could be kept to a minimum.

(*) I only had Converse shoes and a crappy anorak that I had purchased in China.

We were a group of nine westerners plus four Pakistani men who also wanted to travel south (*). There was Sam, my girlfriend at the time, and me; Olly and Bernie, two very camp railway carriage attendants from Vienna; an elderly doctor and his wife who hailed from Liverpool in the UK; and an Australian man and his 15-year-old daughter. The daughter had learning difficulties and was an inspiration to us all. She was fun to be around and used to try and cuddle the Pakistanis in our group when they were preparing for prayers. They never got annoyed and never scolded her. Finally there was Richard, a heavily accented Geordie (someone from the Tyneside region in the north-east of England) who had tried to go north to China and given up and was therefore heading south with our merry group.

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Mark, Olly and Bernie Sost Pakistan

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Mark and Richard Karakoram Highway somewhere between Sost and Gilgit Pakistan

(*) Without the four Pakistanis we would have struggled. They quickly took on the role of unofficial guides (one at the front, one at the back etc) and were always on hand to help the less able members of the group. They could have got to Gilgit in half the time that we took I am sure but they stayed with us throughout the entire journey. They were true gentlemen and they never asked for anything in return. It brings a lump to my throat just writing about them.

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992The Karakoram Highway in Pakistan Image © Meinzahn | Dreamstime.com

An hour after leaving Sost we had to cross the mother of all landslides and this ended up being the norm for the next couple of weeks. Thankfully though, there were plenty of stretches of clear road and entrepreneurial locals took full advantage of this. Charging way over the odds, they would ferry foreigners and locals alike from one bit of blocked road to the next, using tractors and trailers, trucks, minivans and beaten up old cars. The distance per journey varied from 2-3km up to 20km plus and even mules were offered on some of the shorter distances. As it turned out, I estimate that we probably only walked about a third of the 180km distance and managed to pay for rides for the rest of it. We also took our time, stopping at various towns and villages along the way, often for two or three days at a time. After all, these were the places we had come to northern Pakistan to see and without exception, the scenery along the way was stunning.

Looking back, it was a journey of a lifetime and there are many things about it that have stayed in my memory. They include celebrating the wedding anniversary of the doctor and his wife in Passu. They treated all of us to a slap-up meal in the best hotel in town. There was no booze (Pakistan is dry) but there was cake and none of us had eaten cake for ages – it was delicious. I also remember growing a moustache (my only one ever). I had a boil on my nose and it was too painful to shave underneath it – I looked stupid with a moustache. I remember the blond hair and blue eyes of the children in the Hunza Valley (*) and all the friendly locals we met along the way including Ali’s dad

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Mark with his one and only moustache Hunza Valley Pakistan

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Wedding anniversary celebrations with the doctor and his wife in Passu, Pakistan

(*) The Hunzakuts or Hunza people are indigenous to Pakistan’s Hunza Valley. They claim direct lineage to the soldiers of Alexander the Great’s army who came to the region in the 4th century BC.

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992No doubt direct decedents of Alexander the Great? Hunza Valley Pakistan in 1992

I recall lazy afternoons sitting outside local stores; drinking tea, eating biscuits and chewing the fat but most of all I remember the fuss and commotion caused when a helicopter belonging to the Aga Khan Foundation landed in a field near Gulmit. The pilots (both in Ray-Ban sunglasses – how cool!) were picking up an old lady who was pretty sick and transporting her to Gilgit so she could receive medical attention. We, of course, chanced our arm and asked for a ride to Gilgit as well. There were nine of us, it was never going to happen but the pilots did offer to get a hand written message to the British Embassy in Islamabad. We took them up on this offer, handed one over and thought no more of it. About eight weeks later I phoned my parents back in the UK and they mentioned that they had received a telephone call (*) from the Home Office in London informing them that their son was safe and well, albeit somewhat stranded, in northern Pakistan. I recall their response was that they didn’t even know I was in Pakistan!

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992Big excitement as the Aga Khan’s helicopter lands in the Hunza Valley in 1992

(*) The kind doctor from Liverpool also promised to contact my parents upon the return of him and his wife and he duly did so.

So remember people, there was communication before email and Facebook and although it was a tad slow, it worked just dandy!

The Aga Khan’s helicopter - Travels Through Northern Pakistan in 1992The Hunza Valley in Pakistan in more recent times Image © Paop | Dreamstime.com


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