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03 April 2015

Vallée de la Hunza, Pakistan © Eric Bonnem

ALONE ON THE KRAKORAM HIGHWAY

By our guest, Eric Bonnem

Part Two of our subject on travel agency Secret Planet and its extraordinary treks
Last week, we presented you with “The World of Eric Bonnem”, founder of this travel agency like no other. And this week, it is time to explore Pakistan along the KKH, or Karakoram Highway, a legendary road that snakes through mountains and links Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China, passing through the Khunjerab pass. It is all about impressions, emotions and memories…and above all, experiencing another way to travel, through the stories of this enthusiast, who makes us dream of discovering open spaces and reaching the other side of the world.

 
 

“May 2014. Landing in Islamabad. A fine sheet of rain falls and clouds are low. Ishaq greets me at the airport and we take the road that leads to the north of the country, towards the Hunza valley.

I had dreamed of visiting Pakistan for several years, having missed out on trips to Niger in 2000s and Yemen in the 90s. This country fascinates me and, as often is the case, I wanted to check for myself that the local reality of this corner of the world was very different to that depicted by the media, particularly on television.”

  • The last bastions of wild nature

    “Tell anyone that you are setting off to walk in Pakistan and you will glimpse complete incomprehension in the eyes of your interlocutor. However, far from the restless agitation of the southern cities or the disturbing news from the Afghan border – Peshawar in particular – the north of Pakistan is one of the last bastions of wild nature, and brutally spectacular. In the North-West: the Indukush network and the Wakhan corridor between Tajikistan and Afghanistan. In the east, you find the Karakoram network, on the Western fringes of the Himalayas. Boasting no fewer than five peaks of 8,000 metres high with the Nanga Parbat, which I pass, K2 (the second highest peak in the world at 8,611m), Gasherbrum I and II and Broad Peak, whose summits reach 7000 metres, some of which still remained unexplored.”

  • Karakoram Highway, the legendary road stretching

    “This universe of persevered high-mountains and lost valleys is still home to people secluded from the modern world and far from fratricidal struggles. We take the Karakoram Highway (KKH), the legendary road stretching 1,200km that links from Islamabad in Pakistan to Kashgar in China, passing through the Khunjerab pass at 4,700 m, dominated by summits reaching 6,000 and 7,000 metres. We slalom between several tonnes of fallen rocks that litter the road. Here, the mountain is young and lively. Peaks are deadly sharp and often extremely technically difficult to climb.”

  • Hunza valley in Karimabad

    “We pass through Abbottabad (Editor’s note: the place when Bin Laden lived until 2011) and spend the night in Chilas in a small shelter. We travel through villages where only men are visible, women are completely absent. Tinted windows of cars are closed in this region of Diamir. There is nothing particularly of interest to remark upon…we pass through regular check-points, several each day, where our papers are checked. Often a soldier carrying a Kalashnikov climbs onto the back of the building, so that he can be dropped off at the next check-point. Showing no hint of aggression, I find this rather folkloric and soldiers are rather sympathetic and curious. Our passports are legitimate, we have all the right permits. Then we move into Gilgit and finally arrive in the Hunza valley in Karimabad. This mountainous village has experienced international fame – with every keen climber in the world visiting this place – but this balcony/shelf overlooking the Hunza valley and the splendid Rakaposhi (peaking at 7,800m) is still deserted. We embark upon a short trek to 4,600m up to an aquamarine farm, where a number of large precious stones are found.”

  • Smiling region of mountains and shepherds

    “From here, the atmosphere is relaxed, as we enter into the Ismaelian region, which practices moderate Islam. Here, women are once again visible, their faces uncovered, as some go to school financed by Aga Khan, their spiritual master. This is welcoming, smiling region of mountains and shepherds. A haven of nature and peace.”

  • The mountain lake of Attbad

    “We continue to climb the valley via the KKH. We drink in the view at every bend and cross, by means of a small, rickety ferry, the mountain lake of Attbad, which came into existence in…2010, during a large landslide. And I can confirm to you that the mountain here is still very much alive! Twenty kilometres later, we meet gold miners/washers, who look like Muslim gypsies…”

  • The Shimshal valley

    “They sell us several grams of gold patiently extracted on the riverbanks, which I certainly bought for a high-price! Then we take a right-hand fork straight towards the Shimshal valley. It takes a day’s drive in a 4-by-4 to reach the village from which the valley takes its name, this small corner of the world accessed by a road that borders a breathtakingly steep drop. I decided to hike along the 4,800m Shimshal pass at the moment of transhumance (the “Kutch”).”

  • Splendid pastures

    “My porters are less than confident, as some of these passages are extremely narrow even for one person. If you find yourself faced with a flock of yacks of even goats, it would not be able to bear the weight and we would quickly fall several hundreds of metres. We pick up the pace and do a loop of the pass in just under three days when it supposedly takes five according to topographical guides. The perfect chance to immerse oneself in the dry, wild mountain. Way up high in 4,600m, in the realm of snow panthers, animals graze throughout the summer safe and sound in these splendid pastures. A 6,000m summit calls out to me, but I don’t have time. I will return.”

  • The start of yet another adventure!

    “On our return, we greet our Shimshalis friends, who are amongst the best altitude guides and porters in the world and we take on the narrow valley in our vehicle. The KKH leads us straight towards the Chinese border. I hug my Pakistani friends. During this short journey lasting just under a fortnight/around twelve days, I didn’t meet more than three westerns; a French couple at Gilgit and an Australian with an extraordinary beard en route to the Chinese border. The day-after-tomorrow, I shall be in Kashgar in the Xinjiang province of China, in order to find anyone willing to join our large caravan on the Silk Road from Xi’an to Istanbul. The start of yet another adventure!”

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