The rain started lightly – a gentle patter on the roof of our minibus as we hugged the cliffs along the Karakoram Highway. When it got heavier the overhead thrum was occasionally interrupted by the rattle of loose pebbles, and soon we were driving through regular waterfalls pouring off the mountains above. Now, though, we weren’t driving at all.
It’s too dark to see it but ahead of the long line of stalled vehicles, we’re told, is a landslide that will block the way until diggers arrive in the morning. On the only road that links northern Pakistan you can’t simply turn round and take a back route. There’s nothing for it but to leave the bus and, with the Indus river thundering far below, risk the climb over the mound of loose, collapsed earth in search of a hotel beyond.
The next morning we find our driver Nazir leaning casually against the van outside the hotel (the only one around but, in a stroke of luck, a mere 200m from where we’d been marooned). For us it’s been a death defying adventure but for him, despite staying up all night guarding his bus, it’s just another day on the Karakoram Highway.
The road, dubbed the KKH, travels 1300km from the ancient trading post of Kashgar in China to Havelian, not far from Islamabad.
With much of the route originally little more than a donkey track along the old Silk Road, it took more than 20 years for the two governments to complete the mammoth highway in its entirety. When it finally opened in 1986 it became a trade route once again and, for tourists, a vital link in the Asian overland route and passage to some of the highest mountains in the world.
With a clean run it would take about two days to travel the length of the KKH but we were only going as far as the Hunza Valley, a comparatively short trip of 18 hours. We could have done it in an hour on a flight to nearby Gilgit, but the flights are so often cancelled due to bad weather that’s it’s almost not worth trying. More than that, though, travelling along the KKH – the artery of northern Pakistan – is a road trip not to be missed.
As soon as we leave the clean, grids of Islamabad, the steady flow of diesel lorries on the road begins. Drivers spend a year’s wage decorating their vehicles, hoping the bright patterns, eye-catching motifs, and jangling ornaments will prove their worth to potential customers.
The vivid colours soften the hulking trucks, most of which are old Bedfords shipped over from the UK, and keep things lively. They’d have this effect without the make-up. For much of the journey the road is a narrow step, cut into the Indus River gorge (a technical feat that claimed about 500 lives). On one side there’s a gushing torrent, the colour paint labels like to call elephant’s breath, and on the other a jagged cliff. Glance out front and you’re likely to see your driver get uncomfortably close to either in an attempt to dodge an oncoming truck.
Happily, there’s distraction from the fear of being hoofed off the edge. As we head through Abbottabad, Besham, onto Chilas and Karimabad the landscape changes from lush, green pastures to dramatic mountains – the meeting point of the Hindu Kush, Himalayan and Karakoram ranges.
We pass kids splashing in shallow stretches of river, rows of ramshackle bee hives, vehicles overflowing with passengers and livestock. Over Chinese bridges and chaotic streets we go, through tourist checkpoints and deserted valleys. Early on our British Pakistani guide Sohail Azhar points out the distinctive, metal roofs of huts built by earthquake relief organisations, and later drawings of Ibex carved into the rocks as early as 1AD.
When night falls the KKH still refuses to be dull. If we’re not dodging landslides in the rain we’re being stopped by the police to be told we need an armed escort. It seemed a little excessive until we learnt that a tourist bus had recently been looted by bandits. As we passed a spot nicknamed the Tolkein-esque Jor Mor (meaning Thieving Corner) we were accompanied by a grinning policeman happy to wield his gun for photos.
There are plans afoot to rebuild the KKH, creating a straighter, wider route that could accommodate the larger Chinese trucks. It’s something many a Bedford suspension and passenger bottom will no doubt appreciate but you hope that the adventure is not lost completely.
Check out the Batura or Passu glacier before heading to the river for a treacherous walk over an Indiana Jones-style rope bridge
Another gateway to the mountains and a lazy haven of good food, gift shops and the well-restored Baltit fort
A great place to catch a game of polo, the most popular sport in this area
The launch pad for treks to Pakistan’s second highest mountain, Nanga Parbat
Call in at Rana’s lodge to be regaled with stories from the vivacious owner
• While the KKH gives you a long, lingering look at the dramatic scenery of Pakistan, you haven’t really seen the country until you’ve been to its frantically beating heart, Lahore. In the so-called cultural capital of Pakistan you can be dodging horse and carts in the Old City bazaars one minute and munching Euro-fusion food in fancy new restaurants the next.
Here are a few things not to miss:
Thursday night is Sufi night in Lahore, when those following the mystical branch of Islam head to the Shrine of Baba Shah Jamal and attempt to reach a higher level.
In a courtyard below the tomb of the 19th century saint they gather, squeezing in until it’s so packed some people have to sit in the trees above (while local women steer clear, foreigners are allowed in but must sit in a dedicated pen in the corner). There’s always space for Pappu Saeen though, and when the legendary drummer starts beating his dhol, more floor is cleared for dancers.
They start off slowly, moving rhythmically through the air thick with cannabis and sprayed rose water. As the hypnotic beat gets faster, the dancers follow until they’re spinning like they’ve been wound up and released, attempting to transcend their ego. It’s a mesmerising and surreal experience.
The line of beauty
The Mughals, who ruled the Indian Subcontinent through the 16th and 17th centuries placed great emphasis on symmetry within their architecture. This led to the perfect alignment of two of Lahore’s most impressive buildings: the Fort and the Badshahi Mosque.
The first, filled with the faded opulence suggested by rooms called the Palace of Mirrors and Pearl Mosque is a fascinating step back in time, but it’s the mosque that really casts a spell.
Built in line with a gateway of the fort, little can prepare you for the scale of one of the world’s largest mosques. Through the arched entrance, the courtyard of red sandstone stretches towards four towering minarets and a prayer hall of the same brick. Atop the hall are three marble domes, lit up at night as though they’re glowing from within. To savour the magic of the Badshahi head to nearby Cooco’s Den and ask for a seat on the terrace.
Pomp and circumstance
“Pakistan Zindabad!” (“Long Live (Pakistan”) cheer the crowds at the Wagah border, 30km east of Lahore. As the towering soldiers, complete with black fan-shaped headresses, march towards their khaki Indian counterparts, the chant gets louder – the colourful mass of women behind me clearly putting their all into it.
Each evening at sunset, crowds gather either side of the border crossing between India and Pakistan to watch the guards lower their country’s flags and bang the gates shut with a flourish. That it’s a nightly occurrence does nothing to dampen the enthusiasm of onlookers, or soldiers who march, stamp, grunt and glower with a vengeance.
TOURISM AND PAKISTAN
“You think Pakistan is all Taliban with guns,” a student told me accusingly in Karimabad, Northern Pakistan. From the reaction I got when I told people at home my travel plans, he wasn’t far off the mark. Travelling shortly after the Lal Masjid (Red Mosque) seige and during the potentially troublesome 60th anniversary of independence celebrations, perhaps they had a right to be anxious.
As it happened, the biggest scare I had was a balloon popping in Islamabad’s Marriott Hotel.
Instead of guns, we got gifts. The owner of a shop in Lahore was so determined I went home with a positive view of his country, he wouldn’t let me pay for my bracelets. When our guide in the same city had to stay home to look after his sick wife, he insisted we visit him for lunch. Though bedridden and pale his wife was all smiles.
This kind of hospitality and goodwill followed us on our tour and though, particularly as a female tourist, you rarely go unnoticed, the attention feels curious, not threatening. This might not be the case if you were skipping around in hotpants. In Pakistan both men and women dress conservatively, especially outside cities. Wear loose fitting trousers and long-sleeve tops, or treat yourself to a shalwar kameez, the traditional trousers and tunic combination.
• Amy Adams travelled to Pakistan with TravelPak (020-8874 2422; www.travelpak.co.uk). A 14-day trip to Lahore and the KKH is £725 including full-board accommodation and meals (no flights) but itineraries are flexible and can be tailored to your needs