Local tour operator Moin Khan, a motorcyclist famous for traveling from the United States to Pakistan mainly on a motorbike, was in Hunza at the time of this frenzy in 2017. His tour company, A Different Agenda, offers escapes to Pakistan’s north on motorbike and bicycle or by jeep safaris and treks. Most of his customers live outside the country.
“During the summer, the valley can handle about 400,000 visitors, but in July of 2017, the volume of visitors pushed it way beyond capacity. The hotels were bursting, but locals made their homes available for travelers to stay in and a principal prepared the local school.”
This newfound popularity isn’t foreign to the region, although it has been a while since it’s gotten so much attention. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, Pakistan was a major stop on the hippie trail, and although political instability led to a decline of the beatnik route, tourism continued to flourish in the north of Pakistan until Sept. 11, 2001. While things aren’t what they used to be, many locals feel the country is on the cusp of restoring some of its former glory.
For starters, it’s safer now; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has bolstered security and infrastructure in the region and acknowledge that tourism is essential for economic growth. And the Pakistani government is making it easier for foreigners to obtain visas. At the beginning of 2018, it was announced that visitors from 24 countries would be eligible for a 30-day visa-on-arrival.
The internet and social media have strengthened the country’s image as a tourist destination further. This year, CNN Travel ran an article featuring Pakistan as adventure’s best-kept secret. The country also took the top spot on the British Backpacker Society’s list of 20 adventure travel destinations for 2018, who described it as “one of the friendliest countries on Earth, with mountain scenery beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”
While Hunza is a crowd favorite, there is plenty more off the beaten track where visitors can witness the region’s epic landscapes. On the foothills of Nanga Parbat, at the base of the ninth highest mountain in the world, is Fairy Meadows, a lush emerald grassland prime for camping. In Shigar, a valley with orchards of apricots, mulberries, and nuts native to Baltistan, it’s possible to stay at the Serena Shigar Fort, a 17th-century fort that has been restored as a boutique heritage hotel. Local legends about the valley of Kaghan claim that the dramatic scenery there was shaped by fairytale characters like princes and giants. And Chitral is where the last pagans of Pakistan live in the Kalasha Valleys.
“A Swiss lady on one of my tours said Pakistan is Switzerland but on steroids. Her entire family is coming back with her to Pakistan,” says Khan. “I love taking people up north because I know they will fall in love with it.”
Courtesy: Usman Khan