Accessing Northern Areas of Pakistan requires adequate planning and informed decision making. Although these areas are famous for their natural beauty and attract tourists from around the globe but access to these areas is still subject to natural phenomena specially the weather. Karakoram Highway (KKH) links other parts of Pakistan to Northern Areas and go all the way to China (Xinjiang).
There are various transportation companies which run this route, which is an experience in itself and takes no time to turn into an adventure. Out of these companies NATCO, Northern Areas Transport Company, offers reliable and comprehensive service. Mashaburum and Slik Road are among the other companies which competee among theselves.
Being the government owned company, NATCO has the privilege of access to public infrastructure making it more reliable than the other second choice companies. NATCO has got, among other things, a comparatively modern fleet of buses, experienced drivers, and the ability to respond quickly in emergency situations, which emerge on frequent basis. Unlike other operators, drivers of NATCO buses wear uniform, speak a little bit of English, are well behaved, and helpful. The fact that the journey to Northern Areas itslef takes 20-30 hours makes the selection of appropriate transportation option more critical. The experience and capacity of NATCO even outperforms private transportation arrangement on this route.
NATCO runs daily to Gilgit, Hunza, and Skardu from the Pir Widhai Bus Terminal of Rawalpindi and vice versa. Make sure that your (taxi) driver knows exactly the location of NATCO terminal as Pir Widhai is big enough a place to get lost forever. One can book their seats via telephone and then reach a bit early, say one hour, to avoid cancellation by paying for their tickets at the ticket counter. One way ticket costs around PKR 1200 (approx USD 15) as of today. Fare varies, but not much, depending on the level of service and destination. Fares of full size buses is lower than that of luxury Coasters, although the difference is not that significant.
A typical journey starts from the Pir Widhai bus station and soon joins Karakoram Highway KKH, or the Slik Road, via Mansehra. After 5-6 hours of travelling, the bus takes its first stop at Besham, a small town which connects KKH to Swat Valley through Shangla Pass. Other enroute stops include Janglot, Chilas, and Dassu. Typically the bus stops at a pre-designated road side not-so-hygenic restaurants with not-so-pleasant toilet facilities. Therefore, it is highly advisable to drink bottled water and avoid food at these restaurants wherever possible.
This is a high altitude journey with all sorts of possiblities of natural vagaries, most notably the not-so-famous land sliding. A typical land sliding takes 6 hours to be cleaned up so one should be prepared of staying on the road till the road gets cleaned up, keeping some light food items and extra clothing layers for unexpected cold weather is wiser to avoid undue fatigue.
As a word of caution, foreign tourists, specially women are advised to dress as per local traditions covering shoulders and knees. Although people in these areas are helpful and tourist friendly but unnecessary mingling with people during the journey can only be done with due caution.
There is little doubt that this journey is one of its kind and a must for an avid road traveller, atleast once in the lifetime.
So, enjoy your visit and have a great time!
Patience, is required on some of the Northern routes. Its slow going, and the leg room is minimal, but the scenery makes up for it. Mini van or landcruiser are the most frequent modes of public transport.
While beautiful sometimes it is dusty and hot, and it makes sense to have a bandana or scarf to cover your nose and just for handy use.
Arrange fares before you get on the vehicle. Speak to locals first too, before boarding, it always helps to have local knowledge before you subject yourself to foreigner status.
Timings: Vans and Buses are frequent from ISB.
Recognizing the need for high quality road net work in the country, the Prime Minister of Pakistan inaugurated Pakistan Motorway Project covering the whole of country: from Peshawar to Karachi and Karachi to Gawadar and Karachi to Quetta and Quetta to Iran including covering area from Lahore to Islamabad as well. M2 Lahore-Islamabad motorway was the first project to be accomplished & now fully operative. It is very scenic experience travelling on this Motorway. You can stop at "kalarkahar" the place got more famous since the project has completed. There is a beautiful lake there. The place is very famous for media functions as well...
The Jeeps were the real workhorses when the roads got tough. In my travels in the Northern Areas, Jeeps and trucks were the only vehicles that seemed to cope with the rough roads. Most Jeeps will officially seat about 5 people, but there is quite a bit of latitude with numbers! In all the towns in Baltistan (Skardu, Khapalu, Kande etc...) there was no problem finding a jeep and driver and there are some fantastic trips to do such as visits to the Deosai Plains or the stunning mountains.
The jeeps I travelled with were hired by our trekking company so I can't actually tell you the process but from looking at the number of jeeps hanging around the motels it didn't look to hard to organise!
Some of them were pretty cute - I travelled on a beaut red one that must have been an old Russian relic that was driven South but it still roared along so it did the job quite nicely. The pic is of the stunning Northern Pakistan views that you get framed by the jeep windows...
Crossing water was always an adventure. Here, we are crossing the Mastuj river, which is not far from the Afghan border. I left the jeep before it crossed the river, so I could take this picture - not that I was afraid of crossing the river in the car ;-)
People were always very nice when we passed them in our jeep. They were waving at us and were shouting "Hello!" However, many kids had a different way of greeting us. They welcomed us with a request for "One pen!" Apparently, some tourists thought it more appropriate to give them a pen rather than sweets or money.
The Shandur Pass between Chitral and Gilgit is at 3735 m. Each year, the polo teams of Chitral and Gilgit compete during a three day festival here. The Pakistani don't play polo like Prince Charles does. The way they play it in Asia is fast, exciting and dangerous. Unfortunately, in 2001 the Pakistan Tourist Office (PTDC) had a wrong schedule for the annual polo tournament on their Web site. So, when we arrived at the Shandur Pass during the second half of July, we found out that the festival had been advanced by a month.
Near Gilgit there is the Chinese cemetery with Chinese road workers that died during the construction of the Karakorum Highway in the 60s and 70s. Some statistics say that over 1000 Chinese and Pakistani workers died. People believe that the number is much higher, because the number of casualties of road workers during the 1974 earthquake near Pattan was never published by the Pakistani government.
Driving across the desert-like landscape near Skardu, the capital of the province Baltistan. Baltistan, situated in the very East of Pakistan, is part of Kashmir, now shared between India and Pakistan.
This picture is quite typical for the Karakorum Highway. All major bridges were built by the Chinese. However, neither Pakistan nor China had any engineers that were capabale of building tunnels. Therefore, you won't find a single tunnel on the Karakorum Highway that could provide shelter from falling rocks.
When we arrived in Hunza, we realized that there was no gasoline available. The road from Islambad to Hunza had been blocked by landslides for two weeks. Usually, these landslides (see picture below) are removed within one day or two; this time however, an entire bridge was completely distroyed. It took the military two weeks to rebuild it.
With the exception of our first two days in Islamabad and Peshawar, where we went by bus, we did all our travel by jeep - a 25 year old Chrysler. This had the advantage of seeing more of the beautiful landscape, much more than from a seat in a bus.
On the picture you see us on our way to the Lowarai pass, shortly after we left the lower Swat valley.
Jeeps are the best choice if you have to go to the mountain areas with no metallic roads. The local drivers are very expert and you can enjoy a life time journey.
There are also "roads" which are hard to access, even by jeep. The picture above shows one of our jeeps crossing a creek. What made driving difficult here were the stones, not the water.