Tuesday, September 10

North Pakistan, Day Fourteen: Islamabad To The End

The biggest issue we faced today was the holiday. It was Muharram, so almost everything was closed. I'd even go as far as to say we became pretty desperate for things to do. In fact, I'd go further and even suggest that, respective to the rest of the trip, the last three days had pretty much stalled.

Our first attempt at visiting an attraction was the Pakistan Railway Museum. The museum itself was closed, but the station itself had plenty of colonial delights to offer us. It was actually quite enjoyable even though most of it was restricted for us. Perhaps just as interesting were the slums we drove through on the way; the first indication I saw of the poverty here in Islamabad.

We then went on to the Shakarparian Friendship Garden, where visiting leaders and dignitaries would be asked to plant trees. There were actually some big hitters named here, including various past leaders of the USA, China and Iran.

Next up was the Pakistan Monument. This was exactly what was said on the tin, although I have to admit the monument itself was pretty impressive - and informative if like me visitors take the time to interpret all the murals present.

We then visited Saidpur, which was esoteric itself even before you visit the Hindu temples at the end of the village.

Our next stop was our hotel to kill a couple of hours before heading off to Faisal Masjid to offer Asr prayer in congregation. This was another significant memory brought back, and considering it wasn't exactly a new mosque 20 years ago it was doubly impressive to see just how timeless its design still is.

Dinner was then at Monal on the Margalla Hills, which offered both decent food and excellent views of the capital. We managed to stay there for sunset so got Islamabad both during the day and night.

By the end of our meal we had all gone into clock watching mode as we counted down the hours to our late flight back home. Our driver took us to Rawalpindi for tea and pakoras, which in my eyes was definitely a bonus as I had never visited the much older adjoining city before (and in fact never realised how accessible it was from Islamabad).

And that was all we had left for our trip of North Pakistan. We did a lot; more than enough, and in some ways we had even done too much on a trip that might have better been served with repeated return visits. Then again, we do still have most of the west of the region to cover, so maybe these are lessons we can forward with us after all.

Monday, September 9

North Pakistan, Day Thirteen: Civilisation

We began the day with a visit to the Patriyata Chair Lift. This was a decent enough time pass, with the chairlift itself being more of an attraction than the park at the top. Unfortunately the second cable car leg was closed, and I suspect that might have been where the real views were offered. Ultimately though, I feel that we should have stuck with Neelum Valley.

We were now in Muree proper, and spent some time in Mall Road for shopping and ice cream. It was again nice to be back in the hustle and bustle of a tourist attraction, although I suppose we didn't spend enough time there to get bored. After that it was on to Islamabad, eating corn on the cob en route.

The rest of the day played out like a Islamabad checklist: we spent some time in Lake View Park, and had a quick drive by tour of all the various administrative buildings that you might recognise from the usual news channels and the like.

After checking into our final hotel of the trip, we went for well deserved chapli kebabs at Habibi's, after which we treated ourselves to a quick drive around Islamabad.

Sunday, September 8

North Pakistan, Day Twelve: Not in Kansas Anymore

Abbottobad was the final location on this leg of backtracking. It was there that we turned east toward Muree. The original plan was to visit the Neelum Valley, but given the current climate that was thought to be too risky.

This was an area near Islamabad that we had also visited all those years ago. Back then it was an exotic trip to the mountains - now it looks like a commercial suburb that the City Folk go to for a couple of hours' jaunt. If that sounds like a complaint, it's not - after ten or so days of road travel and sparseness it was comforting to be back on familiar ground.

We visited the Samundar Katha Lake, a man made lake-cum-park that was a bit of a bust even if you discount the single road lane bottlenecks going up and down to the site.

Back in Muree town, St Matthew's Church was closed, and many other sights were just overly bust due to the Muharram long weekend. Even when we popped out after checking in at around 8pm the place was still busy.

Saturday, September 7

North Pakistan, Day Eleven: Back to Backtracking

Today we continued with our backtracking, visiting many places we had already passed before, but of course this time in reverse order.

So we again saw Babusar Top, Naran (where we stopped for a pretty excellent lunch at the Mountain Top Restaurant), Kaghan (but sadly with no chapli kebab this time) and finally settling in at Bisian near Balakot for the night.

Friday, September 6

North Pakistan, Day Ten: The Long Road Back

A 4:30am start was required for us to take on the Skardu Road.

That said, any fears I had of becoming bored of the driving here vanished as we were treated to yet another winding, albeit very unfinished, mountain road. We stopped for breakfast at around 8:40am - or rather we decided to have breakfast while we were stopped by a temporarily closed road.

We stopped for a break at a PTDC hotel, this one with a stunning example of how obnoxious badly planned commode toilets can be. I didn't fit, and so I requested my preference of the squatting type.

Back on the road, and things still were not uneventful. Lots of roadworks, waterfall stops, valley-traversing-trolleys and even a landslide, all before noon. All that, and accompanied by some stunning views of Nanga Parbat.

Jummah was offered at the same mosque in Juglot that we visited what now seems like months ago. After that, it was more backtracking, and we finally reached Chillas at a decent hour where we had a night's stay.

Thursday, September 5

North Pakistan, Day Nine: Forth and Back

To start what could only be described as a day of time pass, we visited the Amburiq Mosque, said to be the first of Shigar.

We then travelled West on to Skardu for what was supposed to be a brief ATM stop but turned out to take over an hour. Still, we got to see the Old Market at least.

After a brief diversion to see a dried up lake and some sand dunes (and eat a bag load of Apricots), we continued to Kachura Lake.

The best thing about the lake? The fish lunch. Trout? Herring? I didn't care. It was great.

Interestingly I noticed a lot of polite yet very public instruction for women to wear and respect the hijab. I've yet to see any kind of similar material in Karachi. And it's probably going to get me into trouble to say it but the girls did appear a little more discreet this far north.

On the way back from the lake we stopped off at the Shangrila Resort where we paid 500 rupees each to wander its grounds. Needless to say this was a waste of both time and money. A late evening tea was had at the Skardu PTDC overlooking the Indus River. We took the opportunity to visit an exhibition on the K2 and the impressive services provided to those who wish to challenge the mountain. The sense of national pride was palpable.

We then headed back to Shigar, which was a little irritating as a big chunk of our journey tomorrow will be to retread most of the road that we drive today as we finally start making our way back in the direction of Islamabad.

Wednesday, September 4

North Pakistan, Day Eight: The Palace

Like Hunza, Shigar is also a "dead end" on our itinerary, a location from which we plan to turn back from. So we spent today travelling east for the last time, along what now seemed like a less exciting mountain road to Khaplu. I admit, I'm probably becoming desensitised to the mountains.

We reached Khaplu by 1pm, immediately noticing the Tibetan roots in the people here. The main point of interest here as the palace, one of the more impressive I've seen this trip. Unfortunately another sight, the Chaqchan Mosque, was closed due to a Majlis, so we had to make do only with photos of the exterior.

After lunch we headed back to Shigar, stopping off at Manthokha Waterfall for sunset.

It was quite the inefficient day, but in the same way easier than the most recent. We also returned back to our accommodation quite late, which among other things gave us a chance to finally see the stars... as well as the horrific aftermath of a car accident.

Tuesday, September 3

North Pakistan, Day Seven: The Great Plains

Another early start, this time continuing along the Astore Valley Road in the direction of Skardu. After a wrong turn (which honestly didn't actually bother us since any road offers unique views) we were back on track and reached the Deosai Plains by noon.

I guess as all great plains would, it seemed endless.

We spent what felt like many many hours crossing the plain into the Skardu Valley Road which matched, if not beat the Astore equivalent for sights.

We hit Skardu at 1630, which is when I realised that we weren't actually staying there - no, we continued on a little further to Shigar, where we found the fort we were going to stay in.

Yes, that's right. A friggin' fort.

Monday, September 2

North Pakistan, Day Six: Backtracking

After a touch of morning souvenir shopping we continued with the backtracking that had begun yesterday.

Even though it hadn't been long, and we hadn't really stayed much in these places, it was almost poignant passing back through the Nagar Valley and seeing Gilgit and so on. We eventually stopped for a Chup Sharo lunch we had taken away from Hunza at a little stop near Jaglot (the first one), before turning into The Astore Valley Road.

What a road. This was the quintessential narrow and winding valley road and offered us sights I thought I could only see in films. It was quite the road in other ways too; slow going, we finally reached Astore itself by 4pm.

We carried on to Rama for more vast views, arriving at our hotel for 5pm.

That was enough for today, and even not having any wifi, phones, or hot water didn't bother us... much.

Sunday, September 1

North Pakistan, Day Five: Hello China!

Today we headed north. Of course, we've always pretty much been heading north so on the face of it there's not much new here. The thing is, today we're heading as north as we can without leaving the country. As a result this is as far as we're going to go this trip.

On the way to the China border we stopped off at Lake Attabad to hear the story of the flooding of Gilmet and the rebuilding of the Karakoram Highway.

The rest of the journey was pleasant, yet varied. We stopped off at Khyber to eat apricots off the tree, and were fed some amazing rice when stopping off at a police checkpoint for the bathroom. It was another example of the continued hospitality we received on our trip - many conversations were essentially "Salaam, wasalaam, chai?" and it was endearing to experience.

We also spotted Ibex and Yak as our altitude increased.

It was around 1pm that we made it to Kunjareb Pass and beyond that, China. As an islander I've previously talked about my fascination with land borders, and this one was no different even though it was accentuated with, well, a mountain range.

Alas borders, natural or not, are a reason to change direction... and so the backtrack began. We passed back through Sost for a Yak lunch, and grabbed some Apricot cake at Passu.

Our final stop was to visit the Hussaini Bridge - ultimately just another rope bridge but the sunset we had while there was worth the stop.