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Hussaini Suspension Bridge

Karakoram Highway: A Memorable Road Trip from Islamabad to Gilgit-Baltistan

7-Day Itinerary: Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan

by Pomy

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Day 1: Islamabad to Chilas

  • Departed from Islamabad at 5 a.m.
  • Stop 1: Arrived in Balakot (~3.5 hours), had breakfast.
  • Continued journey to Chilas, bypassing Kaghan and Naran Valleys.
  • Stop 2: Lulusar Lake in Kaghan Valley, a picturesque alpine lake feeding into the Kunhar River.
  • Stop 3: Babusar Top, offering stunning panoramic views at an elevation of 4,173 meters (13,691 feet).
  • Overnight: Shangrila Hotel in Chilas.

Day 2: Chilas to Karimabad

  • Breakfast at Shangrila Hotel, Chilas.
  • Stop 1: Nanga Parbat viewpoint.
  • Stop 2: Junction of the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalayan ranges, and the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus rivers.
  • Continued journey to Karimabad, Hunza (~4 hours).
  • Overnight: Hotel in Karimabad.

Day 3: Day Trips from Karimabad

  • Stop 1: Attabad Lake, formed by a landslide in 2010, now popular for boating and jet-skiing.
  • Stop 2: Hussaini Suspension Bridge, known for its exhilarating crossing experience.
  • Stop 3: Passu Cones, striking peaks resembling upside-down cones.
  • Stop 4: Sost, a historic town with 16th-century forts.
  • Stop 5: Khunjerab Pass, a breathtaking mountain pass at the Pakistan-China border.

Day 4: Altit and Baltit Forts, Sacred Rock Hunza – Haldeikish, and Ganish Village

  • Stop 1: Altit Fort, over a thousand years old, once home to Hunza’s hereditary rulers.
  • Stop 2: Baltit Fort, approximately 700 years old, now a cultural center and museum.
  • Stop 3: Sacred Rock Hunza – Haldeikish, featuring ancient rock engravings from the 1st millennium AD.
  • Stop 4: Ganish Village, a UNESCO heritage site with ancient Silk Road settlements, mosques, and watchtowers.
  • Overnight: Hotel in Karimabad.

Day 5: Karimabad to Fairy Meadows

  • Journey: Depart from Karimabad and return to Chilas.
  • Transfer: Jeep ride to Fairy Meadows and hike to the meadow’s summit.
  • Overnight: Fairy Meadows cabin at the campground

Day 6: Nanga Parbat Basecamp Hike

  • Activity: Hike to Nanga Parbat Basecamp from Fairy Meadows.
  • Overnight: Fairy Meadows cabin at the campground.

Day 7: Return to Islamabad

  • Journey: Begin the 21-hour drive back to Islamabad, concluding the trip.

The names "Karakorum" and "Karakoram" intriguingly share a linguistic root but refer to distinct locations with separate histories. Karakorum was the capital of the Mongol Empire in the 13th century, located in modern-day Mongolia, with its name meaning "black fort" in Turkic. In contrast, the Karakoram Range, home to the world's second-highest peak K2 and the famous Karakoram Highway, spans the borders of Pakistan, India, and China, deriving its name from the Turkic words for "black gravel." This similarity is a coincidence, reflecting common linguistic elements rather than a historical connection.

Hunza, in the northern region of Pakistan, is a unique destination that should be on every traveler’s list. It stands apart from the rest of the country with its unique religion, culture, landscape, and cuisine blend. The region boasts majestic mountains, sprawling glaciers, and traces of the ancient Silk Road trade route, making it a truly one-of-a-kind experience. Above all, due to its remoteness, Hunza retains its authentic mountain life.

This is a tried-and-true itinerary for our seven-day road trip from Islamabad to Hunza, which we undertook from August 12th to 18th, 2022.

Day 1- Islamabad to Chilas via Balakot

We started our journey from Islamabad early, around 5 a.m., reaching our first stop, Balakot, in about three hours. After having breakfast in Balakot, we continued our journey to Chillas, skipping a stay in the Kaghan and Naran Valleys. Although Lake Saif ul Malook is a notable attraction in Naran, we decided to continue. Instead, we headed to Lulusar Lake, another beautiful lake in the Kaghan Valley. This alpine lake, situated at an elevation of 3,410 meters (11,190 feet), feeds into the Kunhar River, which flows through Balakot and eventually joins the Jhelum River.

Lulusar Lake

Lulusar Lake

Lulusar Lake is about 48 kilometers (31 miles) from Naran, surrounded by the Lulusar Mountains. In Pashto, “Sar” means top or mountain peak. Although the road to the lake was rugged and rocky, we had confidence in our experienced driver. If you arrive in Naran by bus, you can hire a driver with a jeep from Naran to take you to the lake. However, the road conditions are generally good enough for any vehicle, not just jeeps. The journey from Naran to Lulusar Lake takes about 1.5 hours. During June, you may encounter glacier meltwater on the road, but July and August are the best months to travel.

On the way to the lake, you pass through small villages. Instead of staying in the crowded Naran, many travelers prefer Bhata Kundi, a small town with amenities such as a petrol pump, dispensary (pharmacy), and restaurants. Besel, another village close to Lulusar Lake, is a good spot for lunch. Moon Restaurant in Besel serves good brunch and has clean restrooms. This restaurant is part of a chain with several locations in the region. Like other high-elevation alpine lakes, the lake is calm and quiet. The lake’s serenity and the surrounding mountains’ magnetism provide a truly spiritual experience and an excellent spot for photography.

Note: It was a bit chilly there, even in August. Bring a warm layer with you.

Babusar Top is named after Mughal Emperor Babur, who used this pass on his way to Delhi. In 1890, the British built a shorter track across Babusar, directly connecting Gilgit with British India.

While it is a popular picnic spot, hiking closer to the lake offers a more secluded experience, fully allowing you to enjoy the tranquility and beauty. After spending some time at Lulusar Lake and taking pictures, we headed to Babusar Top. Babusar Top is located in the Babusar Valley in the Diamer District of Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. Babusar Top is named after Mughal Emperor Babur, who used this pass on his way to Delhi. In 1890, the British built a shorter track across Babusar, directly connecting Gilgit with British India. Today, the construction of the Karakoram Highway connects China, the Gilgit-Baltistan region, and the rest of Pakistan.

The road to Babusar Top is wide, paved, and accessible by any vehicle. It’s a typical mountain road with a deep valley on one side and towering mountains on the other. Babusar Top is at an elevation of 4,173 meters (13,691 feet). The average temperature during the summer is around 58 F or 11C, with minimum temperatures dropping to 38F or 3C. It is often very windy, with a significant wind chill effect. Some visitors may experience altitude sickness at this high elevation. On clear days, you can see the majestic Rakaposhi, the 27th-highest mountain in the world, and Nanga Parbat, the ninth-highest mountain, and the winding Korkoram highway below. The best time to visit Babusar Top is from July to September. Travel is restricted during the monsoon season due to the danger of landslides, and the roads are inaccessible during winter because of heavy snowfall. Early summer is also challenging due to melting snow and glacier runoff blocking the streets.

Our next destination was Chilas, where we had dinner and spent the night at the Shangrila Hotel. The journey from Babusar Top to Chilas is challenging, with steep and dangerous roads as you descend approximately 3,000 meters (9,850 feet) in just 31 miles. Chilas is at an elevation of 1,265 meters (4,150 feet). This road is prone to landslides, making it one of the most dangerous roads in the world. Caution should be taken while driving, and hiring an experienced driver familiar with the area is advisable. The one-and-a-half-hour drive is filled with stunning views of mountains, meadows, and small villages on both sides. As the elevation drops, there is a noticeable temperature change, and by the time you reach Chilas, the weather is quite hot during the summer season.

We stayed along the Indus River bank at the Shangrila Hotel in Chilas. The weather was delightful. We sat outside on the riverbank, enjoying tea and fritters as the evening settled in, and then had dinner in the hotel dining hall. The bohemian-looking hotel, built in 1948, has a rustic architectural style that blends with the surroundings. The rooms resemble rustic military quarters made of mud, adding to the place’s unique charm.

Day 2- Chilas to Karimabad a City of Hunza Gilgit-Baltistan

After breakfast at 8 o’clock the following day, we started our journey to Hunza. On our way to Karimabad, we made short stops at the Nanga Parbat viewpoint and the mountain junction point. Nanga Parbat, the notorious “Killer Mountain,” is one of Pakistan’s eight-thousand peaks, standing at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet).

Another interesting stop is the junction of three major mountain ranges: the Karakoram, the Hindu Kush, and the Himalayas. Nearby, you can also see the confluence of the Gilgit and Indus rivers, a fascinating geographical feature.

After a brief stop at the junction point, where we enjoyed some fritters (pakora) and tea (chai), we continued our travel on the Karakoram Highway. The scenic drive of about four hours took us to Hamza’s city, Karimabad, our final stop in the Hunza Valley. We stayed at a hotel there for three nights, which we used as a base for day trips to nearby valleys and passes.

Day 3- Day Trip Sightseeing

We visited Attabad Lake, Passu Cones, Hussaini Bridge, Sost, and Khunjerab Pass the next day.

Attabad Lake, or the Barrier Lake, is a picturesque body of turquoise water in the Gojal region of Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan. This 21-kilometer (13-mile) long and over 100-meter (330-foot) deep lake was formed by an enormous landslide that obstructed the Hunza River in January 2010. The landslide blocked the Karakoram Highway and caused significant damage to several villages along the Hunza River, disrupting the lives of many people in the area. The highway, a vital transportation route connecting Pakistan and China, was cut off, making it difficult for residents to access essential supplies. Chinese engineers and local communities worked to rebuild and restore the highway, constructing a tunnel to bypass the lake. Despite these challenges, the people of the region showed remarkable resilience. Today, Attabad Lake has become a popular tourist destination offering activities like boating, jet-skiing, and fishing, symbolizing the transformative power of nature and the indomitable spirit of the local communities. The lake holds approximately 410 million cubic meters of water, with its crystal blue waters contrasting beautifully with the towering Karakoram mountains flanking its banks.

Attabad Lake

Hunza local cuisine

Hunza’s local cuisine, distinct from the rest of the country

Our next stop was the Hussaini Suspension Bridge in Village Hussaini, Gojal, Gilgit. It’s just a twenty-minute drive from Attabad Lake. This thrilling attraction is one of the region’s most popular spots for adventurous tourists. The rickety rope bridge offers spectacular views of the Passu Cones and the turquoise waters of the Hunza River below. It serves as an essential connection for local villagers and provides an exhilarating yet nerve-wracking experience of crossing, making it one of the most dangerous bridges in the world.

Following that, we visited the Passu Cones, towering mountain peaks that resemble upside-down cones. This unique rock formation is visible from the Karakoram Highway when you cross Attabad Lake in the Gojal region. The Passu village is a tourist attraction where you can experience authentic village life at a high elevation. In this area, birds, especially Magpies, fly around the cultivated land in front of houses, with corn growing and apricot and apple trees nearby. The locals dry apricots on rooftops and use the fruit, seeds, and oil to cook. Some people believe that apricots are the secret to their health and long life.

Apricots drying on the rooftops.

Apricots drying on the rooftops.

Passu Cones

Passu Cones

When driving along the Karakoram highway, you will arrive at Khunjerab Pass, passing through Sost, a historic town boasting several forts built during the 16th century. Khunjerab Pass stands in the Karakoram Mountains, marking the border between Pakistan and China at an elevation of 4,693 meters (15,397 feet) that ranks among the world’s highest international border crossings.

The journey to Khunjerab Pass offers breathtaking vistas of rugged mountains, glaciers, and alpine landscapes. The air thinned as we ascended to higher altitudes, and temperatures dropped sharply, contrasting starkly with the warmer valleys below.

Upon reaching Khunjerab Pass, we were enchanted by the panoramic views of valleys and snow-covered mountains at such a lofty altitude. Colorful flags representing Pakistan and China adorned the pass, adding to its surreal ambiance. Standing amidst such majestic scenery at such a high elevation was a profound experience.

Khunjerab Pass is a tourist spot for nature lovers and a vital route facilitating trade between Pakistan and China. It forms a critical segment of the Karakoram Highway, linking Islamabad, Pakistan, with Kashgar, China. At this border, traffic transitions from left-hand (Pakistan-administered Gilgit-Baltistan) to right-hand (China) and vice versa.

A renowned ATM is at the pass’s summit, recognized as the world’s highest ATM. It is connected to banks from China and Pakistan and caters to a small population of residents and birdwatching staff.

Our visit to Khunjerab Pass left a memorable impression due to its remoteness and awe-inspiring Karakoram region. Though we wished to linger longer, the chilly, windy conditions and thin, oxygen-deficient air prompted us to snap a few photos, take a brief stroll, and return to our bus.

Day 4: Explore Karimabad – Altit and Baltit Forts, Haldeikish, and Ganish

We set aside a day for a historical walking tour around Karimabad and explored the town, visited several historical sites, including Altit and Baltit forts, ancient petroglyphs, and remnants of the Silk Route in ancient Ganish village.

Altit and Baltit Forts

Altit and Baltit are medieval forts nestled amid towering mountains. Altit Fort, over a thousand years old, originally served as the residence of the hereditary rulers of the Hunza state, known as the Mir. In the 16th century, a local prince married a princess from Baltistan, who brought skilled Balti artisans to build both Altit and Baltit forts. Baltit Fort, approximately 700 years old, became the Mirs‘ residence after they relocated from Altit Fort. In 2004, Baltit Fort was nominated for UNESCO World Heritage status, recognized for its exceptional conservation efforts, and now serves as a cultural center and museum. The forts are a significant tourist attraction and a cultural heritage for the local community. Besides offering historical insights, both forts provide stunning views of the Hunza Valley and its surroundings.

Inside view of the fort

Inside view of the fort

Ganish: An Ancient Trading Village on the Silk Route

Ganish is a UNESCO heritage conservation site, deriving its name from the local term “Genish,” meaning gold. This village, over a thousand years old and located on the ancient Silk Road at that time, now sits along the Karakoram Highway. The village’s most significant sites include three mosques arranged in a square and other buildings that facilitated barter trade along the Silk Road about a thousand years ago. The town was fortified with watchtowers to ensure security and surveillance due to the economic and financial activities in this Silk Road region. The buildings feature intricate carvings such as Islamic mihrab, Hindu swastika, and Buddhist lotus flower motifs similar to the sacred rock of Hunza, where we can find various rock carving motifs depicting religious tolerance and diversity at that time of silk route travelers.

 

500 year old mosque located in the Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Ganish is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the region, with a history spanning over a thousand years.

500 year old mosque located in the Hunza Valley, Gilgit-Baltistan, Ganish is one of the oldest continuously inhabited villages in the region, with a history spanning over a thousand years.

Sacred Rock Hunza – Haldeikish

Haldeikish, also known as Sacred Rock, is between Ganish village and Attabad Lake, accessible from the Karakoram Highway, a route that traces the ancient Silk Route. The rock stretches 180 meters in length and reaches a height of 9 meters at its peak. It comprises four prominent boulders with two stages of rock engravings and carvings dating back to the 1st millennium AD. Haldeikish translates to “a place of many male Ibex,” reflecting the abundant wild Ibex once inhabited the area. The rock’s inscriptions are in multiple languages, spanning from the Bacrtia to the Gupta empire, serving as a testament to the cultural exchanges along the Silk Route.

Petroglyphs- Sacred Rock Hunza – Haldeikish

Petroglyphs- Sacred Rock Hunza – Haldeikish

Day 5-6: Departure from Hunza, Return to Chilas, and Fairy Meadows Hike

It was an adventurous day ahead. We departed Karimabad early in the morning to return to Chilas, the starting point for our jeep journey to Fairy Meadows. From Raikot Bridge near Chilas, we embarked on a three-hour jeep ride along a rugged, narrow mountain path intermittently broken due to landslides.

After taking a jeep ride to Fairy Meadows, we hiked to the summit and stayed overnight at a cabin on the campsite.

The Fairy Meadows hike comprises two segments: a 15 km or 9.75 miles stretch on a 4×4 jeep and the remaining portion (over six miles) either on foot or by mule for those who prefer not to hike. Both segments offer an adventurous experience.

The 4×4 jeep ride is thrilling, navigating a bumpy and narrow muddy path through challenging terrain marked by deep trenches and ravines on one side and towering mountains on the other, adding to the excitement and challenge of the jeep ride. The hike is on an easy-to-moderate trail, which is dusty and narrow.

The journey to Fairy Meadows begins at Raikot Bridge, situated at 4595 feet above sea level and approximately 540 kilometers from Islamabad via the Karakoram Highway. From Raikot Bridge, tourists can hire local jeeps to Fairy Meadows hiking trailhead.

Feel free to click here for a comprehensive guide to a 3-day, 2-night Fairy Meadows hiking adventure.  Please check out this video highlighting the hiking highlights of Fairy Meadows.

Day 7: Return Journey to Islamabad after a 21-Hour Trip

After a two-day hike, we started our journey back to Islamabad following a challenging 21-hour trip involving a detour due to landslides.

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