Alicia Mollaun, a PhD candidate at the Crawford School at ANU, is based in Islamabad. In this three-part series she writes about a journey to a remote corner of Pakistan.

 

Tourism is not the first thing that comes to mind when one thinks of Pakistan, which is a pity given Pakistan has some of the greatest and most diverse historical sites in the world. From the ancient Buddhist ruins in Taxila (dating back to the 2nd century BC) and the Mughal-era architecture in Lahore to some of the best mountaineering in the world, Pakistan has something for everyone. 

Unfortunately, the industry has been in great decline since 9/11, primarily due to the very real threat of terrorism and kidnapping that has plagued Pakistan. Since 2003, 43,773 people have been killed in terrorism-related violence and 474 were kidnapped last year alone. Compounding this is substandard tourism architecture: an inefficient aviation industry, ageing rail and road infrastructure and strict government rules about where tourists are permitted to travel.

I got a taste of Pakistani tourism recently on a trip to the far north.

Flying to Gilgit-Baltistan is not for the faint of heart. If the weather is not just right, more often than not, flights are cancelled. Looking out the plane’s window as we navigated through some of the highest mountains in the world, it became clear why good weather was important: it looked as if we could clip a wing if so much as a gust of wind blew our way.

When the captain spoke to us over the loudspeaker, he punctuated his announcements with Insha'Allah (God willing): 'Insha'Allah we will land,' he said. God has nothing to do with landing the plane safely, I wanted to tell him, but kept quiet.

Luggage optional

While our flight was smooth and the scenery breathtaking, it became evident after a 45-minute wait in the tiny arrivals hall that Pakistan Airlines had failed to load our luggage, or the luggage of any other passenger.

So it was off to Gilgit town to buy Western luxury items such as toothpaste and sunscreen; for some, no luggage meant a character-building hike in Birkenstocks or skinny jeans. We hoped our luggage would reach us midway through our planned trek, but because of the weather and factors known only to Pakistan Airlines, no flights landed in Gilgit while we were there.

A drive to remember

Our destination for the weekend was Fairy Meadow at the base of Nanga Parbat (Killer Mountain), the second highest mountain in Pakistan (after K2) and the ninth highest peak in the world.

Whoever coined the phrase 'the journey is as important as the destination' has obviously never travelled from Gilgit to Fairy Meadow. The drive on the famed Karakorum Highway involved dodging potholes large enough to swallow a small car, dotted with small (heavenly) patches of sealed surface.

We crossed a bridge, probably constructed by the Chinese given the railing was decorated with Chinese lion sculptures, and changed from our bus to Jeeps to begin the 2900-metre ascent up the mountain.

On what must rate as one of the most harrowing drives ever, our Jeeps snaked up the narrow gravel road to Fairy Meadow. My knuckles were white and my hands cramped as I watched rocks skitter off the edge of the road towards the valley 1000 metres below us.

Old-school accommodation

Heart palpitations aside, the prayer-inducing journey by bus, Jeep, foot and horse was worth it once we reached Fairy Meadow at 3330 metres and saw the gasp-inducing views of Nanga Parbat from our campsite. The remote location means everything is carried by hand or horse or donkey, and the wooden huts are constructed by men from the villages in the area, using local materials and traditional building techniques that include hand sawing and planning the wooden planks.

 

In part 2: the ascent of Nanga Parbat.

Photos Alicia Mollaun.