It’s very difficult to describe the beauty of Hunza, primarily because it’s unconventional. Most of northern Pakistan – as I have seen it – is lush, green and hospitable. Swat, Naran and Kaghan are welcoming hosts with friendly green mountains that cradle rumbling blue rivers; it’s where snow capped hills and white glaciers stand like gracious giants. Most of the north that I have seen is serene and green.
Hunza, on the contrary, is mostly harsh and barren mountainous terrain. The Rakaposhi range, at least in early July when we visited, is larger than life and majestic but it is sleet grey and quite unfriendly. The mighty River Indus that tumbles through the valley also carries murky water; you’ll see grey glaciers. But it’s as unpredictable as it is unconventional. Visual relief and green comes in the form of the orchards that subserviently lie at the foothills of the mountain range. These orchards are lush and abundant. We stepped into a paradise of cherries, but trees were rich with apples, apricots, mulberries and grapes which would be ready to eat by September. While most of the north is defined by tall and merry pines, Hunza is populated with thousands of slim and proud poplars, standing ramrod straight and glistening in the sun like tinsel covered soldiers. There are no ravens here; instead, you’ll be woken up by extremely noisy magpies. Once you reset your expectations, Hunza becomes quite the eye opener.
Let’s go back a bit and recap how we got to Hunza.
Our group of five took a flight from Karachi to Islamabad on July 4, stayed in Islamabad overnight and then took an early morning flight to Gilgit the next morning. We were waiting at Islamabad Airport when our appointed driver in Gilgit called to ask whether our flight had been cancelled. Apparently it was raining cats and dogs in Gilgit, the valley was cloudy and there was very little visibility for landing. Surprisingly we were still flying. We felt quite safe in the little ATR that flies between Islamabad and Gilgit but that delusion was credited to the expert pilots flying the plane and not the weather. This plane navigates and winds its way through mountains; only someone who knows the area like the back of his hand can manage it so safely. We were lucky because we could see almost nothing as we began to descend. We were later told that this was one of the riskiest flights that had been taken in a long time. We were relieved to touchdown alive.
Cost to fly PIA from Karachi to Gilgit and back: around PKR 50,000 per person.
Gilgit Airport is little more than a small shed and despite the traffic, it has apparently not evolved. While the PIA flight was perfect, PIA on-ground administration was a disaster as all of our luggage had been left behind. Note to all travelers: always remember to keep backup in your hand carry. The ATR comes in with a full fuel tank and can therefore not carry too much luggage thus half of it gets offloaded in every flight. A logical solution would be to restrict the weight limit to 10 or 12 kilos but maybe that’s too much for PIA to handle. Luckily, the very helpful Mr Tahir at Gilgit Airport came to our rescue and ensured that all 5 of our suitcases made it on the next flight. Other passengers were not so lucky; one gentleman even cancelled his trip and returned to Islamabad two days later as his suitcase still had not arrived. This entire situation was quite ridiculous.
We couldn’t let it ruin our trip.
Hunza is a two-hour drive from Gilgit Airport and we had booked ourselves in the lovely huts at Hunza Serena, which was very basic but served the purpose. Plus, I had been communicating with the hotel staff for almost a month and they had helped with room reservation, transport reservation in Hunza, food specifications etc; it almost felt like home. The accommodation was comfortable – the huts had white sheets and towels, heating and running hot water – but fell short of being luxurious.
Cost of staying at Hunza Serena: PKR18,000 per night, which includes breakfast. The meals will come to an average of PKR1500 per head.
Our transportation was handled by a gentleman called Akbar – who went beyond the call of duty to be our tour guide and to get our luggage from Gilgit to Hunza the next day – assigned a small Hiace van and a very competent driver to take us around. We had a basic list of what to see and where to go but he planned our itinerary every day.
You’ve probably already read enough about Hunza’s landmarks but let me speed through them. The historic Baltit and Altit Forts are nearby the Serena Hunza and can be handled in a day; just be ready for the challenging trek every time you step out of the car. Everything in Hunza is on an incline. There is a carpentry studio at the base of the Altit Fort and the walkways are carpeted with the softest of wood shavings. The mulberry garden here is also extremely picturesque and will give you ample photo ops.
I recommend you drive up to the Eagle’s Nest Café and Hotel in time for sunset because that’s when the mighty Rakaposhi turns flame orange. It’s quite magnificent but you’ll need nerves of steel for the journey because it’s a winding and (seemingly) unstable road that barely manages one car, let alone two at a time. If you’re at the edge when an on-coming needs to pass, then you’d better not look down whether or not you have a fear of heights; it’ll feel like you’re hanging on the edge, by a thread. Highly recommended for adrenalin junkies.
A trip to Hunza is obviously incomplete without paying tribute to the Attabad Lake, which is an unbelievable landmark of the area. The Lake was a result of a massive landslide in 2010; it knocked the whole village out and filled the blockage with almost 350 metres of water. How this water is turquoise blue is a mystery as the rest of the river is grey. But this had to be the best part of our trip. It is amazing how the locals have turned a tragedy of this magnitude into a tourist attraction. You can rent a paddle boat, a motor boat or even a jet ski to whizz across the ice cold water; our time spent at Attabad Lake was mesmerizing.
We planned to drive to the iconic Khunjerab Pass but were in Hunza just for the weekend and decided against it. We did make it to the Passu Glacier though, awing at the Passu Cones that are another tourist attraction. What else? Hunza flaunts a collection of Sacred Rocks, on which ancient carvings have been preserved. You’ll have to ask your guide to point them out. You might also want to get a picture of the famous Lady Finger peak, which is more of a ‘shark tooth’ in shape. It’s a landmark all the same. And if you have time, you can drive up (and risk your nerves) to experience the serenity of the Borit Lake, an oddly green water body up in the mountains. A rocky ride will take you up.
Cost for hiring a vehicle and driver to take us everywhere in Hunza: PKR 38,000, which includes airport pick and drop, the extra trip for our luggage collection and all the sightseeing.
We were in Hunza for a weekend, definitely not enough to do justice to the place. But I feel it was the tip of the iceberg. We are now prepared with what to expect on our next trip.
– You can read up on the foodie guide to Hunza in Part One of this travelogue.