Sunday, June 17, 2012

Kalash to Fairy Meadows via Shandur Pass

This is Part 3 of 5 of Kalash and Fairy Meadows 2012 Travelogue

Shandur Valley: Heaven on Earth
Visiting the Kalash valley and attending the colorful Joshi festival had already justified the strenuous journey all the way from Karachi. However, just to make sure that we got maximum benefit out of this not-so-frequent adventurous wandering I also clubbed Fairy Meadows in the itinerary, which actually deserves a separate trip otherwise.

There was a reward associated with that tough decision – i.e. passing through one of the most scenic mountain passes in the world: the magnificent Shandur Pass which connects the Hindukush, Pameer, and Karakoram valleys at a height of ~12,000 feet through a whirlwinding trek.

Even a quick peek into googlemaps can give an idea how tricky the route was. If you put Chitral and Gilgit in the mapping website, it will actually show a weird routing; first going into Afghanistan, then back to Pakistan all the way to Islamabad and then again to the North to Gilgit, rather than making a straight forward A (Chitral) to B (Gilgit) path. Perhaps, googlemaps considers the direct route too dangerous to make it public! Nonetheless, this had to be the most exciting and colorful road trip of my life. What else should one expect while cross-sectionally creeping through the epic mountain ranges?

Because of the logistic constrains, we had to divide the route into three parts:
1) From Kalash to Mastuj,
2) From Mastuj to Gilgit, and
3) from Gilgit to Fairy Meadows.

Each part had to take atleast one full day depending upon the availability of public transport and our luck. Not to mention that terms like land sliding, glacial outburst, altitude lakes, avalanches, etc are not rare in that part of the planet!

May 17, 2012
We left Kalash early in the morning and reached Chitral city around noon after a little inconvenience as we could not find the direct transport and had to changeover in Ayun, a small town between Kalash and Chitral. From Chitral city we had to continue to Mastuj – the Northern town of Chitral – to catch the NATCO bus to Gilgit the next morning.

Ayun: The Gateway of Kalash
For the rough Mastuj trek, we had to aboard on the old but sturdy 4x4 jeep available from the bus station in Chitral located at Attaliq bridge (near National Bank). I guess the Land Cruiser was modified so that it could not only accommodate 15 people in the belly but also hold a few hundred kilograms of the carriage – mostly ration for the far flung settlements – on the roof top and could still run like a deer!

Chitral Bus Station for Mastuj

The Jeep to Mastuj
By the time we reached the bus adda, the first two of such jeeps had already departed. We asked around to get reassurance from almost everybody that those were not the last jeeps of the day but nobody knew when will the next jeep depart, or in fact arrive in the first place! Taking advantage of the ‘layover’ we treated ourselves with the ‘sumptuous’ lunch of Kabuli Pulao from Abdul Qahhar Badakhsani’s Aabshar Hotel, which we had already tried earlier while on the way to Kalash, upon recommendation of a local we met in the Rawalpindi-Chitral coaster.

Abdul Qahhar belongs to Badakhshan, speaks Persian

makes great Kabuli Pulao!

Attaliq Bridge in Chitral

Chitral Town

Life is hard and real

Station Wagon is very popular in Chitral

Latest Technology!

A bridgeside vendor

Yes! There is a tourism office in Chitral!
Khalid – the owner of the Foreign Tourist Guesthouse whom we contacted though the Lonely Planet guidebook for the overnight stay in Mastuj – told us over phone that a jeep was on its way to Chitral. This was actually the reassurance that we still had a chance to make it to Mastuj by the evening. As expected the four-wheeler arrived soon but did not depart back until all the space, inside and above as well, got filled up.

the 100 km distance – which the jeep covered in around 4 hours – was rather straight forward and could be done in an ordinary car should the government procure some asphalt. It was scenic also, off course!

To my surprise, almost all the locals I talked to praised the former dictator, General Musharraf, for the development work during his era and were unhappy with the incumbent democratic regime. It was around sunset when we reached Mastuj town where Khalid’s father was waiting for us at the bus station. Before heading to the guesthouse, he rightly suggested us to visit the NATCO office located nearby to confirm our seats in tomorrow’s Gilgit bound bus.

The family run guesthouse was located on the other side of the town so we had to walk a couple of uphill furlongs.

The road to Mastuj is scenic

This place is a victim of Glacial Outburst last year :(

Turned red because of rain(?)

A better patch of the Chitral-Mastuj road

Crossing the Mastuj Bridge

Some car racing also during the journey!

NATCO office in Mastuj

Be Welcome!

The hilly trek from Mastuj bus station to the Foriegn Tourist Guesthouse


Fruits of democracy: there are still people who support the dictator!
Nine Zero
Enroute from Chitral to Mastuj, we found sporadic drizzling making the journey a bit pleasant but it gradually got quite cold especially after the sunset. Khalid’s father brought us hot and timely green tea which was followed by a wholesome dinner during which we had a nice chat with him on varied topics ranging from politics to much loose ones.

During the conversation, he surprised us by asking how he could visit Karachi and contact Altaf Hussain, or any of his comrades, partly because he wanted to introduce the Karachi based political party in his remote town and mostly because he wanted his son could get admission in a renowned college! He was also a big fan of Pervaiz Musharraf!

The discussion was getting more interesting every passing minute but we had to excuse him so that we could wake up in time for the early morning bus. While going to the sleep it occurred to both of us that the small town was charming enough to deserve at-least a couple of nights stay, which would also help in getting refreshed before the upcoming big journey.

A cup of hot tea!
May 18, 2012
We woke up early enough in the morning to catch the 5:30 bus but Khalid’s father gave us another good news that we did not need to walk all the way back to the bus station as his guesthouse-cum-home was located enroute and the NATCO bus would pick us up right from the doorstep.

I was a bit shocked to see the full size bus as I was expecting a smaller one – if not another jeep – keeping in view the tortuous road ahead. But hats off to NATCO – the Northern Areas Transportation Company – for doing such a great job of connecting the far flung areas of the country, and that too in a style. Amid the shock, I asked the driver if the bus is a 4x4 which he replied affirmatively, however, it was hard to believe then and hard to believe now.

It was not even an hour that the bus had to stop due to fragile road condition. Frankly speaking, I had no idea until the crew started using their pickaxes, shovels, and hands that it was actually a medium sized glacier which was chopped to the road level and they guys had to level it every time they cross it over to ensure that the bus would not poach into it! When the icy ground was ready to the satisfaction of the chauffeur, he ordered everybody to alight but I took an exception to enjoy the rare ride!

NATCO: The pride of North

Can you spot the glacier?

More visible now

Leveling it

The journey resumes

Approaching Shandur

Security Check

Turning into an eternal journey!
Consequently, the journey resumed and continued until we reached Shandur Top. In between those two stopovers, we were totally awestruck and mesmerized. The bus window turned into a big 3D screen revealing the most stunning of the panoramas. Nadeem even suspected that the place could be the real paradise promised in the heavenly books and I had no arguments to doubt that.

What I can say with surety is that the valleys between Chitral and Gilgit deserve a full fledged trip if one wants to see the real heaven on earth. Soon Inshallah!

The only worldly aspect of the journey was the continuous boarding and alighting of commuters at almost every passing village depicting the importance of NATCO in the local life. Past Shandur Top, the road condition started getting better and we reached Gupis around noon where the bus stopped for the lunch dragging us back to the real world.

This is Shandur Top

Shandur Lake; a natural high altitude reservoir

Near the Polo arena

Having some rest


The height of chilling exeperience

Cafe owner!


On top of it

Living a life is not that easy there

Water from glaciers

We were in the bus, unfortunately

Beauty, it is!

It was like a dream!

or like a dream came true!

Wish I could bring that to Karachi!

More beauty

Why did I come back!?

Fresh water

Innocent kids
When we were about to reach Gilgit, the bus took another stopover at Gahkuch where the commuters were ordered to switch to another, more dilapidated bus. Eventually we reached Gilgit around 4pm to find out that the NATCO’s Mastuj bound depot was actually located at one end of the city while we had to be at the opposite end to reach NATCO’s Rawalpindi station. After a little bit asking around, and ignoring a determined taxi driver, we found the public transport – a decorated Suzuki Pickup – nearby.

In Gilgit, we wanted to stay overnight at Madina Guesthouse, which is famous among backpackers around the world, however, we found a convenient option right at the bus station.

After putting the luggage in the hotel room and taking a refreshing bath, I started feeling nausea accompanied with fever, maybe because of the rapid change in elevation in last couple of days, and had to resort to Arinac and Kestine. Realities of life bite, Argh!

Layover in Gupis for Lunch

Gupis town

Approaching Gilgit

Changing the bus at Gahkoch


NATCO's Gilgit office for Mastuj

Public Suzuki in Gilgit

The colorful interior

The height bite

Madina Guesthouse in Gilgit

May 19, 2012
Today we had to conclude the journey, which we started from Kalash a couple of days back, on a high note, i.e. by reaching Fairy Meadows, a natural ~11,000 feet high lush green platform, standing in front of the white snow clad 26,660 feet high Nanga Parbat – the world’s 9th highest mountain.

Reaching Fairy Meadows from Gilgit is a three step process:
1)      1. Gilgit to Raikot Bridge through Karakoram Highway;
2)      2. Raikot to Tattu village by hiring an exclusive jeep; and
3)      3. Finally hiking a couple of tough miles to the highland

Step 1 was the cheapest and the easiest of all, except for a bearable inconvenience of bundling into a small van. We reached Raikot Bridge in a couple of hours – around noon – in the Totyota Hiace which we effortlessly found standing at the NATCO’s Rawalpindi bus station. After the renovation work on KKH would complete, it would take around one hour to cover the same distance.

NATCO's main bus station in Gilgit

NATCO's rate list - as of May 2012

NATCO runs different services for Rawalpindi and hence different rates

Karakoram Highway - under construction

Step 2 was also not the rocket science in term of the effort but it was a complete pocket breaker for a budget traveler. There were ‘fixed price’ jeeps lined up on the other side of the bridge to take us to Tattu village where we could hire a porter for onwards hiking. The jeep trail runs between the high barren mountains. All the jeeps are owned by the adjoining villagers who setup a cartel knowing the importance of the dirt track. One jeep can accommodate 6 people at maximum, along with their luggage, but they charge the same fixed rate even if there is only one commuter. So we had to take the financial burden of four other companions who were not even accompanying us!

As per cartel rules, one does not have the choice to select a particular jeep and can only go with one which is in front of the queue. Commuters need to pay for the return journey also but all the payment needs to be made no earlier than one comes back.

In a couple of hours we reached Tattu village after an exhilarating ride but without any signs of the famous mountain. There we stopped at a small hotel like settlement and opened the food can for lunch which we especially prepared from Karachi, thanks to Nadeem and his generous mother.

In the meantime, the jeep driver took instructions about our intended return so that he could come to pick us up from the same venue. That was the end of the step 2 and the start of the final and the most strenuous step to reach Fairy Meadows.

First we took the jeep from Raikot to Tattu

The 'scenic' jeep trek

and the 'wide' road

Taking some rest

Not recommended for heart patients


From the top
Modus operandi of the step 3 included hiring a porter to carry the luggage to the hilltop, which was understandable especially considering our big size backpacks and the urban fitness level. Rules of cartel work there too including the fixed price!

As the jeep stops at the end line, marked with a big stone, boys start gathering from around. They were all porters actually! As per cartel rules, one porter can take ‘only’ 25 kg for a price fixed for that season (PKR 850 then), and is chosen by a ‘lucky draw’! I wanted to see the process myself but it happened when we were busy in filling up the empty stomach. One of the enterprising locals also built a hut there for those who want to take an overnight break but that was more of a tourist trap I guess.

There we developed a little dispute also, with the porter brigade, on the weight of our backpacks. They insisted that it was more than 25 kg, one ‘bojhee’ in the local jargon, contrary to what we thought. Finally, it was decided that it will be weighed at the destination as we were convinced that hotels there would have their own weighing machines, which we found not true later and rather had to depend on manual guess, but luckily not to our disadvantage.

The trek was not easy at all, far strenuous than the Sheikhenende one, as it was a bit steep. A time came when it looked unending but the kind words by those passing by brisk locals avoided us to lose the hope. A few them even found that a business opportunity and offered to take us on their horses; actually another tourist trap which I already knew from the trip reports of those who had already doen that.

Surprisingly, most of the locals, and the porters, were acting as a tout for one of the hotels named Broadview! They in fact took us to that hotel, manager of which – Fazlullah – was not only very rude but also wanted to take advantage of our week bargaining power after a tiring walk. It was cloudy and started getting real cold because of the sunset.

I collected all the remaining energy and decided to trek to the neighboring hotel – Raikot Serai – despite Nadeem’s protesting tone.

Starting point of the hike

Good for a break

The expensive cottage at trek's start

The gate to heaven

Enjoying it!

Curling up

Child labour

We climbed this too for the sake of short-cut!

Too tired!

'friendly' passer-bys!

Finally we reached the top
To know if we could strike a reasonable deal at a place where one hot chapatti (bread) costs PKR 50 and what we saw in the following days that made the price worth it, you may like to wait for the Part 4 of the travelogue!