Next stop was Northern Pakistan, this is the place that captured my eye and convinced me to tackle this country alone. It is known as the jewel of the country and is home to 9 of the tallest mountains in the world and just like everywhere in Pakistan at the moment is untouched by tourism. The journey started off as v pleasant until lunch decided to make an appearance. I was violently sick for the journey and was given complementary puke bags (thank god). I survived the 6 grueling hours and was even gifted with some trendy beat ‘like’ earphones by the kind bus man.
Whilst in Islamabad I I freaked out about being hungry in the North and did a massive food shop. Everyone had me warned I was entering the wilderness where there would be absolutely no signal, facilities or shops (a slight exaggeration). My once light back was back to its former South American weight of 20 plus kg. I was gifted a massive rubber mattress from Shavaz which weighed a ton so added nicely to my load.
Once I crawled off the bus I tried to gather myself and figure out where the hell I was going. The town of Naran is brilliant, it is high up in the mountains and was buzzing at 7 am. There were loads of random men on the streets ironing clothes, selling (fake) honey and walnuts. A chaotic que of jeep cars were waiting to take people to the nearby lakes.
I had a successful morning where I managed to buy a new pot for my cooking sessions. I stocked up on some fruit and veg and persuaded the restaurant owner to fill up an old coke bottle with some salt. Delira with my negotiation skills I set off on an adventure.
So the main attraction in Naran is to go visit Lake Salif Moluk. You have the option to take a jeep for €2 up the steep incline or you can obviously hike the 10 km. I choose the later. I knew I was being stupid but I was really in the mood to exercise and needed a challenge and this certainly ticked all of the boxes. After about 5 minutes I started questioning my sanity as the jeeps frantically honked begging me to hop on board. Whenever I told people I was contemplating walking they would just look at me in dis belief and say it was not possible. This obviously made me even more stubborn and I persevered. The hike turned out to be stunning and I took regular pit stops. One of which where I met some local children who lived in the mountain and they invited me in for chai. It was incredible seeing the hut the massive family lived in. They just said stared at me in constant fits of giggles. I must have looked rough.
The most amazing thing happened as I said my good byes. One of the 10-year olds grabbed by 20 kg backpack and wouldn’t give it back to me her younger sibling then grabbed my camera bag and started to walk. I was a little confused but soon figured out they were helping me and refused to hand them over. We walk over glaciers, fields and river crossings. The two girls were as strong as oxes and put me to shame. Such incredible people looking for nothing in return.
After about an hour the girls returned home and I wasn’t alone for long until these three random Pakistani lads offered to carry my bags (I did not refuse as I was dying at this stage).
The only drawback to the lake was it was flooded with Pakistani families and tourists and was way over developed for my liking with loads of food stalls, horse riding and even the chance to get your photo with an eagle. As a whole I’ve noticed Pakistanis don’t like walking so mostly everyone had reached via jeep.
I was hounded by tourists looking for selfies. I generally don’t mind these but this was a joke. At one point I counted and there was a que of 20 people looking for their photo. I was luckily whisked away by a 15-year-old girl who took me to meet her family and we went boating around the lake. Having dragged up my new pot, mattress and camping gear I was adamant to camp. Security informed me it was illegal. Instead I inquired with the one and only hotel on the lake and they greedily said it would be 5000 rupees to pitch my tent so I obviously said no to the absurd offer. A kind stranger suggested I check with the local nomads living on the side of the mountain and assured me it couldn’t be safer.
I attempted to explain to the nomads my situation by showing them a photo of a tent. They must of thought I had come straight from mars but agreed to have me nonetheless. Anyway the afternoon passed nicely with the whole family putting up my tent for me. The children were amazed and spent their time just staring. That evening I was given a cookery lesson on how to make chipati. It was authentic, humbling and a memorable experience seeing how these people survive in these isolated mountains with smiles on their faces.
From this moment on things really went downhill. I heard a scream outside and was greeted by a group of police men on horses pointing their rifles at the house. I knew instantly they were there because of me. They started screaming at me saying I was in danger and that I must leave immediately. I got the fright of my life but then was just generally confused as I couldn’t have felt safer. Completely overwhelmed I started to cry. This made the police men even angrier and they instructed me to stop. Not to be dramatic or anything but I was sobbing hysterically and there was no possibility of me stopping. I was forced to take the tent down with a police squad and about 20 nomad people staring at me in utter confusion. It was actually so difficult trying to fit my monstrosity into the bag under this type of pressure. Can’t say I’ve done it before.
I thanked the family and said sorry for all the drama in my urdu attempts. I whole heartedly knew they were good people and that police were on a power trip or they were extremely bored. Why does one peaceful lake need 7 armed police? Any way before I knew it I was mounted onto a horse while bawling my eyes out and carried through the mountains. At this stage I didn’t even know were they really the police. It is all a total blur right now.
I was brought to a field where the police said I could pitch my tent. Despite the trauma of it all the view was incredible. After about an hour police numero uno was back saying I was still in danger and it would be better if I slept in a room with the 7 police men!!!! (that sounded ‘really safe’). I refused instantly we all came to a compromise and agreed I would pitch my tent outside their room.
In the middle of the night a bird crashed into my tent and I thought it was one of the men. Not one wink of sleep was had following bird incident. Any way the next morning I was determined to carry on and go explore. There was a lake a couple of km’s away up a mountain which sounded amazing. When I told the police I was going he said it wasn’t safe as a girl because it was 6 hours of walking and that I wouldn’t be able to cope with the low oxygen levels. He then went on to say how un safe all of Pakistan was for a girl and that really I should just go to Kashmir (at that time there were horrendous and dangers floods in Kashmir so once again a great suggestion from police man). From a security point of view Pakistan feels really safe and I’ve only seen peace in the country so far. The discrimination against women is a different level and has been the most challenging aspect of travelling here.
They just cannot comprehend why any woman would travel alone, walk alone or even eat alone. They are ridiculously protective over you but not in a good or helpful way. I know there are cultural differences that I must respect but the daily struggle of phones being put in your face requesting selfies (without even talking to you), the staring, the following. It gets tiresome. As a couple or group I don’t think you would not have half of these issues (or they would be less).
The first thing Berlin told me when we met was the psychological damage she experienced in Pakistan. The constant disbelief from people when you tell them you are alone, the constant messages of it’s so dangerous and you can’t do that. If you were to listen to half the people you would just sit in a hotel room for the 5 weeks. As appealing as that sounds, I am taking my chances on the real world.
I told the police I would just explore a ‘little’. 6 hours later I was knee deep in insane scenery of glaciers, snow-capped mountains and lush green fields. On the way I picked up a heart broken Pakistani lad (now living in Malaysia) who just broke up with his gf. I was delira with the company as living in Malaysia for a couple of years meant that Malaysia didn’t look at me like I had three heads. Unfortunately we didn’t make the lake as I was conscious of pissing off the police and figured I should defo be back before dark.
Myself and Malaysia opted to take the jeep down the mountain as it was getting dark. After about 10 minutes of stuffy hell we got stuck in a traffic jam there was a landslide on the mountain causing pure and utter chaos. I think this is a regular occurrence. The drive from Naran up to the Lake is nothing short of treacherous it can only be done on jeep and is certainly rough to put it mildly. I couldn’t hack sitting in a jeep so left ALL of my stuff with Malaysia. Whilst walking down the mountain I prayed he was trust worthy as he now was a proud owner of my laptop, camera and passport. Turns out he was one of the good ones and I met him in the town of Naran.
My plans for the north were completely up in the air. I tried to research but unsuccessfully. It was next to impossible to find any sort of transport the infrastructure just isn’t there especially for a solo traveller. The roads are in obscene condition. That is why most people wisely take a tour. I allowed myself about 3 weeks to discover this region so figured I had plenty of time to tackle it independently. This is no Patagonia and a different gig altogether. I had no idea what awaited me.
Travelling solo around the North of Pakistan is a marathon challenge. Malaysia’s mates had left with his car and drove the 8 hours home (in fairness he has been MIA for about 8 hours but still very un sound from the mates.) So Malaysia was trying to convince me to take the 8 hour bus back to Islamabad and he said from there I would find some more transport links (whilst doubling the journey time). I was exhausted, overwhelmed and confused (and slightly traumatised). I will be perfectly honest on this day I hated Pakistan and wanted to be home straight away (and genuinely considered it). I felt stupid and a little bit ashamed of myself to think I could just tackle this country solo with little to no research. This works in Vietnam but Pakistan is in a league of its own. After 3 cups of sugary chai and a pack of biscuits I decided to sleep in Naran and hoped the next day I would be able to tackle Pakistan once more.
The next challenge was to find accommodation for that night. Guess where I ended up? At another Pakistani Police station. In fact this time they were so kind and helpful and I voluntary went to them desperately asking for help. I asked them could I camp in the station. They agreed but after lots of heated discussions they offered me my own private room (I think the room was used as storage for handcuffs, really relaxing). I was so exhausted I didn’t care. I have no idea what they do all day but at least this provided them with some drama. Throughout the evening random police officers came into the room to have a goo at the foreigner. They even made me a big bowl of byriani. The best thing they did was assure they would get me to Hunza (10 hours north).
Getting drunk on Halong bay is fun, sleeping in a Pakistani police station is not fun. Authentic yes, but not fun. I swore to myself I will eventually laugh about all of this. That night in the police I did something I would usually never do. I admitted to myself I was way too ambitious and that actually I couldn’t physically or mentally cope with 2 months in this country. I changed my flight to come home 2 weeks early. It probably helped that I was a little delirious and sleep derived at the time. Money comes and goes and in this case it was the best money I ever spent. I had a new leash of energy and finally got excited about Pakistan and braced myself for the journey of a life time.