In North Pakistan, the sheep are as big as goats and the goats as big as donkeys. In fact, you are often left wondering if the animal you have just seen is a sheep, goat or donkey.
Everything in North Pakistan is extreme; big, awe inspiring, majestic.
The rivers thunder, the mountains crumble, the roads cling tenuously to the mountain sides and nothing is for certain in this world of giants. You can stand at the exact place where tectonic plates have collided, thrusting up new mountain ranges. It is place where three major mountain ranges of the world meet; The Himalayas, the Karakorum and the Hindu Kush.
It is truly a secret to the world.
Sharing its borders with India, Afghanistan and China; it has a rich history of ancient trade routes and infamous mountain passes. You can stand on a section of the Old Silk Route and imagine the people of the past who might have trudged by. You can peer down from a lookout tower in a 1000 year old village.
It is a land with a litany of the highest mountains in the world, the longest glaciers in the world, the second highest plain in the world and it boasts of the Eighth Wonder of the World- The Karakorum Highway.
Our goal on entering Pakistan was to ride the Karakorum Highway to Khunjerab Pass, the Chinese border. It is infamous amongst motorists and bikers for winding its way on the old Silk Route through huge river valleys and over high mountain passes taking you into some of the most barren mountain ranges yet fertile valleys where people have lived and travelled for centuries.
Pakistan boasts of the KK highway as a wonder of the world for its engineering feats. The Silk Road has grown from an ancient walking track, to a jeep track and now to a world standard, sealed highway. It is a partnership between China and Pakistan.
The KK highway lived up to our expectations and gave us more.
It was a true adventure as we rode north from Islamabad. Our first high pass at Babusar Top at 4173 metres led us to the infamous highway at Chilas.
It is there you catch glimpse of the promise to come, wide river valleys far below, stream crossings and small villages. Hotels are dotted along the way offering accommodation or food. Naran is a popular holiday destination for local tourists and it came alive at night with music, dancing in the streets, coffee machines and the sweet smell of bread and barbecued meat.
Continuing north we entered the beautiful Hunza Valley, famous for its unique culture, apricots, mulberries, apples, and nuts. We left behind the local tourists and entered the authentic culture of North Pakistan.
We discovered another wonder to behold that even Pakistanis themselves aren’t aware of. It is a land where the people have big hearts. Travel to the land of giants and your memories of the mountains will be overshadowed by the people who live there.
Wherever we went, people would stop us and shake our hands with a huge, friendly smile. English was widespread and they would say , “Welcome to Pakistan”. “Is there anything I can help you with?’ We were offered places to stay and provided with food. In restaurants, people would stare at us, but then approach us asking’” What is your country?” Inevitably a conversation around their favourite Australian cricketer would begin. They love their cricket!
The traditional tribes of Pakistan have a code of conduct; one of which is ‘melmastia” or hospitality. They must show respect and hospitality to their visitors and they will go to any length to show this. This respect and care for us, was not just confined to the Hunza, it was everywhere we travelled. Standing out as visitors, we were overwhelmed with people wanting to greet us and offer help. If we looked lost or idle, people would stop their vehicles to approach us to ask if there was anything we needed.
As you climb in altitude and get closer to the Chinese border, the highway and vistas just get better and better. After the town of Sost there is nothing but you, the mountains, tunnels and 48 kms of switchbacks. The air gets thinner and the temperatures drop rapidly. Finally, you can see the archway marking the Chinese border perched atop the snow plains of Khunjerab Pass at 4934m.
This is one road where you won’t mind turning around and doing it all again.
For us, there were more valleys to explore and people to meet.