Travel Guide: Northern Pakistan

Head to the northern areas of Pakistan this summer with the first of our summer travel guides

Short on time and money but still want a great vacation? Look no further. Our beautiful country has many undiscovered destinations that appeal to all the senses. Whether you’re in the mood for adventure, peace, relaxation or culture – you’ll find the right mix in the Northern region of Pakistan.

But by Northern I don’t mean Murree and Nathiagali. The hillstations have become too congested and have lost a great deal of their charm. More and more trees and natural features are being cleared off to make room for the rapid commercialisation of the area. Think more North. I’m talking about the Gilgit, Baltistan, Skardu and Hunza area.

karimabad pakistan
Hunza Valley

How to get there – Northern Pakistan

If you’re short on time, your best bet is to take the PIA flight to Gilgit. It’s not for the faint hearted because it’s a tiny plane meandering around tall mountains. But rest assured, you’ll have the best view of Pakistan. Otherwise, go by car from Islamabad. It’s a little time consuming (and by little I mean more than 10 hours) but it’s a safe and convenient option as long as you don’t get car sick. If you’re prone to car sickness, those winding mountain roads will be a truly miserable experience.

Karakoram Highway
Karakoram Highway
pakistan upnorth view
Looking out the window never looked so good

From Gilgit, make your way to Karimabad on jeeps or vans that are available for rent at affordable prices. Karimabad is a small interesting town in the Hunza Valley that lies in the centre of all the beautiful places you can explore. From Karimabad, if you want to take a camping/trekking trip further some of your best options would be Naltar, Rakaposhi, Hopar and Haramosh. The scenic beauty that lies here is incredible and there is tonnes of stuff for you to do.

Nothern Pakistan Map
Map of Northern Pakistan

What to take with you – Trekking essentials

Trekking gear
Everything you will need on a trekking/camping trip up North

It’s going to be cold. You’re running away from the summer heat to come to this weather, so please enjoy it! And the only way you can do that, is if you have the right gear.

Don’t forget to pack warm clothes and a waterproof jacket (preferably the ones with fleece lining underneath). Right shoes are key. The terrain is hilly, rocky, muddy, icy, wet and grassy – so you’ll need comfortable trekking shoes that have considerable grip (really I can’t stress how important this is, you will be tripping unless you have the right kind of shoes). Go to a landa bazaar if you have to, you can find a suitable pair at a decent price from there. If you’re going to be trekking then a backpack and sleeping bag are essential. Prepare against downpour by ensuring all your gear is waterproof. Mufflers, socks, boots and thermals are other essentials.

Sunrays, especially at this altitude, are extremely harmful. You can easily get sunburnt. Keep a pair of trusty sunglasses on you at all times. Do not skimp on sunblock! Don’t care about how ghostly you look with sunblock on. Put on as much as you can everywhere, especially your face, the more the better. You’ll thank yourself later once you see all the other red faces.

Also, BABYWIPES! They will be your best friend  – when there is no water (or extremely cold water), you will use them for EVERYTHING! So keep a couple of packs.

What to do – Gilgit-Baltistan

At Karimabad, there are plenty of day trips to choose from. Take a short van/bus ride to Attabad Lake. It’s absolutely breathtaking. The azure lake is massive, and freezing (so please, no swimming!).

Attabad Lake, Karimabad
Attabad Lake, Karimabad

Taking a boat ride on one of the local boats here is an absolute must. Keep a jacket on throughout and brace yourselves for icy water splashes!

 

For the next day, wake up extremely early and make your way to Duikkar near Eagles Nest Hotel to watch the sunrise. This vantage point has one of the best views you’ll ever find so you don’t want to miss this. You’ll have to take a jeep up (that’ll cost you around Rs 700) and then trek up a high ridge to get to the top. So just for this one day push yourself to wake up early enough so you’re in time for sunrise, really – it’s worth it. You can enjoy the parathas after the sunrise.

eagles nest view pakistan
Watch the sunrise from this vantage point, Eagle’s Nest

You even have the option to paraglide from one of the top peaks. If you have it in you (unfortunately, I still don’t) then this would, hands down, be the highlight of your trip.

paragliding karimabad pakistan
Get your adrenaline pumping as you paraglide across amazing views of the Karakoram mountains

Explore the history of the area by walking through the narrow inclined paths of Karimabad. At a short walk’s distance you’ll find Baltit Fort.

baltit fort karimabad
Baltit Fort, the former residence of the Mirs of Hunza

This ancient fort was the former residence of the Mirs of Hunza a couple of hundred years ago. The fort went through considerable deterioration but has been restored and maintained. It is now open to the public as a museum.

 

Another fort to visit is the Altit fort, located at a 20 minutes walk from Karimabad.

karimabad heritage site
Baltit Fort, Karimabad

One of the highly recommended day trips in Karimabad is that up to Ultar Base Camp. You’ll find stunning views of the ridges and glaciers below once you make it to the base. The trek is long and tiresome so my advice is leave early in the morning, pack sufficient supplies for the way and keep at it! The meadows are truly beautiful and you’ll get a panorama view of the valley below.

Adventure Trekking in Northern Pakistan

If you’re up for a real adventure (like me), opt for a nature-filled, no-frills, bathroom-less trekking trip. You’ll have to um…GO in the wild, but trust me there is nothing more liberating. With everything you have on your back, you’ll trek through green pastures, climb some rocky mountains and squish through icy glaciers. You’ll be surviving on Happy Cow cheese, Dairy Milks and Tang. It’s going to snow, it’s going to rain. And then the shy sun will come out one day and you will seek it at every turn. The experience is like no other.

The day starts out at 5 am. You are awoken by the ghastly noise of steel pan and spoon. There’s warm milk, milo and cornflakes for breakfast. We pack up our tents, roll up our mattresses and get our bags ready. A nearby stream is where we attempt to wash our faces and brush our teeth with ice cold water. After fastening our backpacks to our waists (there’s a correct way of doing this so that the pressure is shifted away from your shoulders), we begin our trek. Treks can last for upto more than six hours, taking a few minutes stop every now and then. We energise throughout the way with chocolate, cheese, biscuits and limo pani Tang. Depending on the trip you choose to go to, the scenery is varied. Hopar has glaciers covered with mud that appear black. It also has pure ice white glaciers whereas Naltar has a picture-perfect forest landscape with beautiful lakes.

Here are a few pictures from my trekking trip to the Hopar Glacier.

 

Trekking requires physical endurance. Some treks are long and tough in difficult weather. Don’t be deterred if you lack previous exercise history – just remember, it’s ‘mind over body’.

Be extremely mindful and cautious during your trek. Always follow the path that has been set for the trek, avoid ‘short cuts’. Take breaks whenever you feel over exhausted. Eat as well as you can and make sure to stay hydrated. Don’t push yourself too much because you only have access to basic first aid. However, local guides that accompany you on the treks are experienced and are the best people to rely on in an emergency.

hopar glacier pakistan
Trekking through ice, Miar Glacier – Hopar
View of the Hopar Glacier
View of the Miar Glacier, Hopar

 

Adventure trekking is not the only way to enjoy the scenic beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan. You can always stay at comfortable hotels and guest houses and take shorter day treks or jeep tours.

Where to stay

There are plenty of hotels in Karimabad. Hilltop Hotel is considered the most central. It has comfortable rooms and extremely accomodating staff. Infact, you’ll find that the local people are very friendly and hospitable. They will try to help out in any way possible. If you want to indulge yourself, opt for the Serena Hotel. The hotel has great service and spectacular views overlooking the valley. The Punjab Sindh Hotel is another good option.

 

If you’re camping out, then you need a tent, a sleeping bag and a foam mattress!

What to eat

If you’ve revved up an appetite after a long days hike, go hit any of the local restaurants that are lined up one after the other. They serve finger-licking qormas, handis and kababs with straight-out-of-the-tandoor hot naans.

Local dining in Karimabad
Desi khaana at its best!

Karimabad also has this lovely place called Cafe de Hunza, which is my favourite. It’s a superb place to come have breakfast.They serve food that you wouldn’t commonly assume to be available in Hunza – delicious nutella pancakes, cheese omelettes and rosti. Foreigners in the area find this cafe the best coffee spot with a superb view.

Where to shop

There are many local souvenir shops that sell art, paintings, jewellery and local handicrafts. Hunting for antiques and historical pieces in these shops is my favourite time pass. Some of  the items are extremely pricey, so I could only admire them from a  distance. Keep in mind that the shop keepers are used to many  foreigners coming in to their stores, so some of the prices  are  high. You can still try your luck at haggling, though. I once fell in love with a vintage 1972 silver Winston ashtray from Afghanistan and I swear I haggled for two hours but the man  just wouldn’t budge – leaving it behind is a regret, I doubt it’ll still be there when I go next.

Cafe de Hunza has a souvenir shop on its ground floor that  sells  shawls and handicrafts. I’ve bought a beautiful cashmere sweater from there. It’s a book shop too! Travellers will find informative and interesting books on the region here.

 

Many people are concerned with the safety of such trips. I’ve been to many in the region and have, thankfully, not experienced any bad luck. Nevertheless, no risk should be taken. Most group trips take security protocol for the journey because areas such as Chilas have known to be tense. As long as you adhere to local customs, you shouldn’t face any trouble. Make sure to dress appropriately – women should have a shawl/dupatta on them at all times. Men should refrain from wearing shorts or three-quarters. Since you will be travelling through conservative areas, it is best to be culturally sensitive and abide to local norms.

Want to take a trekking trip up North now? Contact LAS or WWF Pakistan.

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3 COMMENTS

  1. Captivating article.Loved the authors detailed narration who skilfully managed to provide all the necessary travellers information in the most interesting manner.

  2. hello, heres a desperate 19 year old girl with wanderlust. can you please share any information on travel groups who make groups of individuals for trekking tours from karachi in a reasonable price. please it would be much appreciated.

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