Passu and Gulmit – Pakistan
Time, it is a measurement used from old to new, to what you’re doing right this moment and into the unknown future that lie ahead. Time inevitably affects us all. Time in the west is something we either race against or ignore altogether. Time is what makes you choose life changing decisions and ultimately to grow old with experience. Embrace time and it can benefit you, but you must be cautious to not get caught in its relentless pace or you will miss the good moments in life. When one travels, time takes many forms, it can take the form of pressure when it’s counting down to that next plane connection you might miss, the form of frustration after you hear how many hours the bus will take because of road conditions.
Time can also take in the form of age, when you discover how long ago a civilization founded the city you’re in or the age lines of an older man telling you a story of a long lost culture of the past. There are special places a traveler finds themselves from time to time, places where time slows down. Cultures are more preserved here and people genuinely seem happier, but there is a place I stumbled upon where time does not exist at all, this is Passu and Gulmit in northern Pakistan.
Getting to Passu and Gulmit
Another Chinese holiday, it seems like China has a holiday every month where they close all the borders, delay flights and make traveling miserable for us. Here my travel friend Jacob and I are, four days waiting in a remote city named Tashkurgan waiting for the Chinese border to open so we can cross into Pakistan. I had never been to Pakistan before, so every moment I sat waiting was incredibly frustrating. Nobody knew when the border would open but that day while sitting in a Pakistani restaurant I would hear the news I have been waiting for.
“The border will open tomorrow we are finally free to enter Pakistan, and I invite you to stay with me and my family” The restaurant worker Rehman said.
I was hesitant to say yes as I wanted to get to Hunza and mostly bypass the Passu and Gulmit area but I agreed because this man had been my sanity for these past four days, he filled my travel hungry mind with stories of mountain climbing and adventures that lie waiting across the border.
Crossing the border along the Karakoram highway into Pakistan is a confusing process, first you must wait outside immigration for many hours, which in fact happens to be many hours away from the actual border itself. Then the Chinese take it upon themselves to take the role of “Supreme Overlord”, and with this role they quarantine, search, make you feel crazy for leaving, and most painfully make you wait countless more hours for no good reason at all, But wait long enough and that old decaying chariot arrives (the bus) to whisk you away high above the clouds to the Khunjerab pass (4,693m). When you arrive at the first border town in Pakistan called Sost, the entire journey from China to here takes around 4 – 5 hours.
My friend and soon to be host met us at the border and arranged a Jeep to take us to Gulmit. The drive to Gulimit is spectacular, you pass massive mountain peaks and the gorgeously green Passu valley. Gulmit has one decent hotel, ubiquitously named the Marco Polo inn. Rooms here are expensive, after bargaining hard the price for a night costs 40 USD, hardly worth it considering the hot water didn’t work and no heater provided but with the circumstances where I was it was fine.
Rehman told us to stay one night here as there was a royal wedding happening and in the morning his father would take us to his village named Ghulkin to stay there. The wedding turned out to be for the prince of Hunza. It involved dancing, food, dancing with firearms and more food, it was an amazing experience.
Staying in Gulmit
Gulmit itself is a great place to stay. There are many hiking trails around and interesting forts and bridges to see. Although we did not spend much time here it’s highly recommended because of how accessible everything is, you’re a quick ride to Hunza or Passu and the outlying smaller communities. Gulmit town is a small network of guest houses and farms but there are a few restaurants to that provide cheap local fare making it a great base to explore the northern valleys.
At breakfast we were greeted by a man whose smiling grin I will never forget. His name was Khan Baig. He was Rehmans father and what an amazing man he is. Khan Baig started his working career with being in the army and fighting countless wars, sick of the fighting he returned home to become the most well-known mountain guide in Northern Pakistan. He became the legend who summited Batura Sar 7,795 m, and known for being able to take anyone anywhere. He also told us about a love story, where a German tourist whisked him away for a few romantic years in Germany, Undoubtedly one of his most exciting experiences of his life was seeing Europe for the first and only time.
We walked with Khan Baig for three tough uphill hours past beautiful apricot orchards and spectacular mountain vistas until we arrived in Ghulkin. This town is like no other in the region. Time has not found her way this deep in the mountains. The mud houses of the locals are set to no grid, they are tangled through a network of slow moving streams and fruit orchards. The air is filled to the soundtrack of birds and the calls of various farm animals. Closing your eyes you don’t step back in time you just realize time does not matter here, everyone and everything moves at its own pace, there are no deadlines to be met and no expectations to follow. It’s just Ghulkin and its wonderful residents living life. We reunited with Rehman and his family and stayed with them for a few days soaking in the peaceful and slow lifestyle, a lifestyle that is very tempting not to leave.
The Village of Ghulkin
Ghulkin lies north of Gulmit along a dirt path which can be reached by motorbike or by taking a long taxi ride through the south road entrance, but it’s best you walk here because of the interesting communities you will pass through. Ghulkin itself does not have any accommodation. To stay here its best to know someone beforehand, if you however come here without a local I am sure it would not be difficult to find a homestay and someone to help you further along the way. Ghulkin is a fantastic place to see real Wakhi and Tajik traditional culture. Because of it’s remote location it has kept well preserved as not much foreign influence has made it here.
Hiking to Batura Glacier, Passu, Pakistan
From Ghulkin we walked north across the Ghulkin Glacier, then along the shores of the turquoise blue Borit lake and into the Passu valley. Rehaman’s chosen destination for us was the Batura Glacier, the same glacier running down from the Batura Mountain his father made famous. The trail was steep and dangerous, one wrong step could be your last. The narrow stone trail eventually leads up to an opening that you share with Wakhi herdsmen who impossibly scale the mountainside to grab their goats. These same herdsman also fed us delicious dried apricots, hospitality runs deep in the local culture here. Climbing higher you get closer to the Batura glacier, its mountain peak poking through the clouds in the distance develops an appreciation on how dangerous and difficult the journey to the summit must have been for Khan Baig.
After time exploring and taking in the glacial views we ascended down deep into the Passu valley through a hidden (incredibly dangerous) mountain pass with the help of one of the Wakhi herdsmen. The bottom of the valley is just as incredible as the top, crossing long nerve wracking suspension bridges across roaring rivers to small Wakhi settlements whose locals are very curious to see a tourist, some for their very first time. It was a long day exploring, but Ghulkin was beckoning us back.
Walking down the mountain pass with Kahn Baig in the early morning from Ghulkin back to the Karakoram highway leaves you lost in the sea of thoughts and emotions. As time becomes real again you question yourself not knowing how you will react re-entering times cycle, but it’s inevitable that time will eventually catch up on you and pull you back to its grasp. Back on the Karakorem I see it on Khan Baig’s face, like a long lost friend he is faced with time once again. To my surprise Khan Baig, with his trademark grin seems to embrace this moment. My thoughts now clear, I understand why he embraces it, life is short and when you get lost enough and lose track of time you forget that time is a reminder that we all have a limited amount of it, and we should treat every moment special regardless of what it is.
Location: Passu, Gulmit, Ghulkin in Northern Pakistan
Costs: Marco Polo Hotel, 30 – 50 US$, Jeep ride from the border to Gulmit, 20 -30 US$. Staying with locals, free, but you should leave a tip.
Tips: Take the time to actually stop here for awhile. There are so many amazing trails and people. There isn’t much for food up on the mountains or villages. Stock up in Gulmit. Electricity is a privilege here, don’t expect it all the time.
Recommended Guide Book: Pakistan Lonely Planet