Welcome to Pakistan

Day 136: 02/08/19
Location: Khyber, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 139

“Welcome to Pakistan. Please, take a seat, can I offer you some tea, coffee, water, a cold drink?”

Arriving into Pakistan was strange, surreal, and wonderful. There had been so much build up and anticipation before China, and our five days there were so ridiculously agonising and futile, that it was such a relief for it all to be over. The border is marked by a huge brick archway, and once through this we were instantly swarmed by Pakistani tourists asking to take photos of us. This was a nice change from China where everyone took them without asking, however it quickly grew tiresome. We were physically unable to get photos of ourselves without at least 3 different Pakistani people either standing in our shot, or pushing their children towards us to get photos with them. Even when we got into the car to leave, they were standing at the window taking selfies through the glass. Leaving China made the world seem bright and wonderful again, so we had the patience to pose, laugh and drive away.

Posing for the Pakistani tourists

The Khunjerab pass is at 4700 metres, and, like in China, the customs and immigration offices are further down the road at a lower altitude. The 55 mile drive there was absolutely stunning. The road was in great condition, and we were surrounded by the breathtaking Karakorum mountains. We made multiple stops for photos, although they did not do the sights justice. It made our trials and tribulations in China completely worth it. The road was glorious. What is often labelled as one of the most dangerous roads in the world must also be one of the most beautiful. The tarmac was smooth and we sailed along, grateful to be here, in awe of the views, and (in the back of our minds) hoping that the dangerous landslides would hold off until another day.

The Karakorum Highway
The Karakorum Highway

As we pulled into the customs office, we were the only vehicles there – having left the Chinese border so much later than all the other vehicles meant that they had been and gone, and we didn’t need to queue. Immigration was first, and this was easy now that we were in an English speaking country. We changed our Chinese Yaun to Pakistan Rupees and went to the customs house.

Pakistan is the first country where we have needed our Carnet du Passage (essentially a very expensive insurance document that ensures you are only temporarily importing the vehicle into a specific country, and will not leave it there). We went into an office and were all invited to sit down, offered drinks, and welcomed to Pakistan. At one end of the office a man sat with each driver in turn and filled out the Carnet, at the other end the rest of us sat and chatted with the main Customs officer, drinking ice cold mango juice. The contrast with the checkpoints, and passport checks we’d had in China was unbelievable. Half an hour later, all three Carnets were stamped and we went back outside for our cars to be inspected. The inspection consisted of being asked whether we had any alcohol, answering “no” and being sent on our merry way. Alcohol is prohibited in Pakistan. Since this day we have discussed this with a few different locals, all of whom admitted that alcohol is fairly easily available, drunk by many, and that the border guards are the biggest drinkers of them all, having parties with confiscated contraband.

We drove a few more miles down the road to a wild camping spot on iOverlander. Hidden from the road, surrounded by the mountains, and next to the rapid river, it was absolutely glorious.

Parked up for the night

For a more detailed description of this crossing, and all of the border crossings we have experienced on our trip, take a look here

Day 137: 03/08/19
Location: Ghulkin, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 38

Still with Mathieu and Kitty from our Chinese tour group, we had decided to stay together for a couple more days before going our separate ways. Chris and I had a month long visa and wanted to use all of it. Our plan was to spend most of that in the Northern part of Pakistan, after advice that it is much more beautiful with lower humidity and cooler temperature than between Gilgit and Lahore (where we planned to exit Pakistan and enter India through the Wagah border). Mathieu’s visa was slightly shorter than ours, so he planned to cross to India within the next two weeks. Kitty was on a tighter schedule – she had a flight home from Delhi in just over a weeks time.

After a lazy morning, with a delicious omelette for breakfast cooked by Mathieu, we went on the search for a food shop. One of the biggest differences we have found on this trip compared to being at home (or in Europe), is food shopping. At home, throughout Europe, and in Russia, food shopping was easy – find a supermarket that has everything you need, and buy it. Since Kazakhstan, it has been much more difficult to find shops that sell anything but dried food, you have to visit multiple places to buy different items, and the items rarely have prices on them so it is difficult to know whether we are paying a fair price or a super inflated tourist price. We eventually found a shop and again were blown away by the genuine friendliness of the people of Pakistan. We finished our shopping and sat outside eating fresh cream pastries. Along the road came a minibus blaring music with ten people on the roof cheering and dancing.

In search of a shop
The Hussaini hanging bridge – closed for tourists due to being too dangerous, but this did not stop the locals crossing back and forth
Can’t fit any more people inside the car – no problem, just put them on the roof

We found ourselves a campsite and again we were warmly welcomed, the boss and his wife came over and both of them shook all of our hands. Throughout Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, and Kyrgyzstan, the men that we met would shake Chris’ hand when we said hello, but not mine. In Pakistan, a country that many would argue women are oppressed, or seen as a lower class in society, everybody we had so far met had treated Kitty and myself as equal to the men, and it seemed that this opinion also transferred to the women of Pakistan.

When we asked if our campsite had WiFi the response was “no, why would we need WiFi when we are in a place as beautiful as this?” – and they were right. Our campsite was beautiful, and we spent the afternoon relaxing in the shade under the apricot trees, gently swaying in hammocks.

Baithak Campsite
Baithak Campsite
Finally able to make the most of our hammock!

Day 140: 06/08/19
Location: Ghulkin, Pakistan
Miles Driven: 0

We had now said our goodbyes to Mathieu and Kitty, who had both made their separate ways towards India. Joining a group with complete strangers is always a bit of a risk, especially when the time together is more stressful than enjoyable, however we had all got on great, and it was a shame to say goodbye. In our own separate ways, and over differing time periods, we all planned to drive through India and Southeast Asia, so we hoped that our paths would cross again.

Exploring the local villages

The midday sun was hot – not quite to the extent of the heat in Uzbekistan, but hot enough that it was best to avoid it. So, we got up early and went for a walk through this village and the next. The streets were narrow and made up of lots of tiny, very low built stone houses. Between the houses were intricate irrigation systems that watered areas of crops in what otherwise would have been infertile land. It was quiet, the few people that we saw were all working – building, tending to their farmland, collecting apricots and laying them out to dry in the sun on rooftops. As we passed they smiled, raised a hand to wave, and then got back on with their task. Children giggled and followed us for a while, running away when we turned around. We were in what many would consider one of the most dangerous countries in the world, and yet we felt as safe here as we had done for our entire trip. On our return we attempted to find some fresh vegetables to buy, however being in a remote mountainous village, this was not an easy feat. There were apricots aplenty, but otherwise stocks were limited.

The little stone houses
Having a break by the cooling water
The view when we reached the top

We spent the afternoon packing up the car – it had been nearly a week since we had last spoken to our families, so we planned to leave the campsite the following morning, drive to the nearest large town, and buy a local sim card so we could go online. A few days previously, our campsite owner, Sahil, had offered to take us to see the oldest house in the village, and this evening we took him up on this offer. As we walked into the village we chatted about our trip, Pakistan, the local area. Sahil explained that he, and many of the people in this area are Shia Muslim – a different branch of Muslim in which men and women do not pray separately, and they pray three (rather than five) times per day.

The 900 year old house, owned by Sahil and his uncle, was previously a museum. However, Sahil explained that since 9/11 (or “9/11 September” as he called it), tourism in Pakistan had more or less come to a standstill, and the museum had to be closed. Gradually, he told us, the tourists are coming back. He aimed to do everything he could to ensure that they (we) had an enjoyable stay, and were able to see the true beauty of Pakistan.

The house was essentially a rectangular room with a fire pit in the middle. The smoke from the many fires over the centuries had left a thick black layer on the walls and ceiling. To the left and right of the stove were the areas in which the men (on the right) and women (on the left) would sleep and eat. The ends of the room were slightly sectioned off – one end used for food storage, the other being where the animals slept. We were in the mountains, 2600 metres high, so the winters are tough – not so much now, however the inhabitants of this house spent all of the summer months preparing for winter, ensuring they had enough food not only for themselves but for their livestock too. It is hard to imagine the difficulty of living here – during the summer it is too hot, the winter too cold. The house was about 5 metres round, and there were no walls between where the people and animals slept.

We left the 900 year old house and went to where Sahil lived – a modern house that had much of the same layout as the previous one. There were separate rooms for sleeping and food storage – and we didn’t see any animals, but there were definite similarities. There was still a stove in the middle, with ground level seating sections either side – men on the right, women on the left. Sahil introduced us to his Mother. We were offered dinner, but as we had already eaten, Sahil’s Mother made us a smaller snack called giyaling – a pancake made from flour and water, cooked on top of the stove, and eaten with apricot oil. We washed it down with freshly blended apricot juice made from last years crop of dried apricots. Apricot oil, we were told, is very good for you, it can help grow hair (Sahil looked at Chris’ freshly shaven head whilst telling us this), good for your skin, and boosts your immunity. “We all have one spoonful of apricot oil every day to keep us healthy”, Sahil explained.

Cooking giyaling
The pancakes just kept coming. When we were full, Sahil wrapped up the leftovers in newspaper for us to take back for breakfast the next day.

When we could eat no more, we said our thank yous and walked with Sahil back to the campsite where we said goodnight. Our first four days in Pakistan had been wonderfully relaxing, an absolute highlight of our trip. We were sad to be leaving this beautiful area the following morning, but also excited to move on and discover more of this beautiful country.

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