Tanya Adam Khan travels to Pakistan’s north from Lahore almost every year. On her latest trip, after she caught a glimpse of snow-capped mountains while driving up by jeep from Satpara Lake, a shimmering bluish-green natural body of water near the city of Skardu in Gilgit-Baltistan, tears sprang to her eyes. “It hits you out of nowhere! After a sharp turn, all of a sudden you encounter this vast never-ending expanse of land dusted with snow in places. It’s unbelievable.”
This stretch of road that Adam Khan was driving along follows part of a journey toward Deosai National Park. The majestic high-altitude plains of Deosai, by some miracle, remain tucked away even from domestic crowds. Crowned by lofty peaks, the park features hundreds of varieties of colourful flowers and rarely seen creatures such as the Tibetan wolf, Himalayan ibex, Tibetan red fox and golden-brown marmots.
Adam Khan wishes it would remain hidden in this way, but knows it won’t be long before word gets out. “These places are so raw and untouched, but the world has already descended on Hunza Valley, and it won’t be long before they discover the rest of Pakistan’s north.”
The Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan’s north has always attracted climbers and intrepid travellers from around the world. But the region is now rapidly emerging as a hotspot for softer adventure travel, with Hunza as the crown jewel for tourists that want a cultural experience and to explore the surrounding areas of the region.
Sharing a border with Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor Nature Refuge and China’s Xinjiang region, Hunza boasts mountains that beckon and lakes that gleam. Once a seasonal destination, it is now packed with holidaymakers year round. In 2017, 1.72 million tourists made their way to the area almost doubling figures from the previous year and the provincial government has estimated 2.5 million visitors for 2018. Only 30 per cent of 2017’s visitors were domestic.
Local tour operator Moin Khan, a motorcyclist famous for travelling from the United States to Pakistan mainly on a motorbike, was in Hunza at the time of this frenzy in 2017. His tour company, A Different Agenda, offers escapes to Pakistan’s north on motorbike and bicycle or by jeep safaris and treks. Most of his customers live outside the country.
“During the summer, the valley can handle about 400,000 visitors, but in July of 2017, the volume of visitors pushed it way beyond capacity. The hotels were bursting, but locals made their homes available for travellers to stay in and a principal prepared the local school.”
This newfound popularity isn’t foreign to the region, although it has been a while since it’s gotten so much attention. From the 1950s to the late 1970s, Pakistan was a major stop on the hippie trail, and although political instability led to a decline of the beatnik route, tourism continued to flourish in the north of Pakistan until Sept. 11, 2001. While things aren’t what they used to be, many locals feel the country is on the cusp of restoring some of its former glory.
For starters, it’s safer now; the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor has bolstered security and infrastructure in the region and acknowledge that tourism is essential for economic growth. And the Pakistani government is making it easier for foreigners to obtain visas. At the beginning of 2018, it was announced that visitors from 24 countries would be eligible for a 30-day visa-on-arrival.
The internet and social media have strengthened the country’s image as a tourist destination further. This year, CNN Travel ran an article featuring Pakistan as adventure’s best-kept secret. The country also took the top spot on the British Backpacker Society’s list of 20 adventure travel destinations for 2018, who described it as “one of the friendliest countries on Earth, with mountain scenery beyond anyone’s wildest imagination.”