I joined the Dow ’79 graduates for their 40 year reunion in August and had the good fortune of being able to join an epic journey to Fairy Meadows and Nanga Parbat. I was impressed by the infrastructure, especially the roads during our journey in Coasters, Jeeps and hikes. The most incredible motorway connects the cities of Lahore, Islamabad and further on to Peshawar.
Spending 10 days in Pakistan, we travelled 6 to 8 hours every day. The journey from Islamabad to Naran took 8 hours and on the way we passed Balakot, the epicenter of the 2005 earthquake, where life is now back to normal. We stopped by the riverside to have a delicious lunch of roti, chicken and dal with onions and green chillies on the side. Never before this trip had I ever taken raw onions with my meal!
We eventually reached our riverside accomodations in Naran, which would be our home-base for two nights. The Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) has set up motels, accomodation and transport in different parts of the country. The Naran PTDC is right by the Kunhar river, clean and comfortable with individual cottages that can be shared by two people. We explored the Lalazar Valley and Sail-Ul-Malook lake which were both about 45 minutes drive away. We also explored the nearby local market which stays open till 2 am every night, to try fresh river trout at the punjab tikka grill, to have roadside tea and to explore shawls (where the thread for all the pashminas’ come from Nepal.).
About eighteen of us were going to go towards Fairy Meadows for a trek in a region that was on average 3000m, in order to acclimitize we did a half day hike in Lalazar Valley. Lalazar, literally means ‘valley of flowers’, and as we started walking we caught a glimpse of Mallika Parbat behind the clouds. Along this route we met a few locals, along with three beautiful siblings who wanted to try our sunglasses. I also took a horse for a quick five minute trot to experience what that would feel like in case I couldn’t walk all the way up to Fairy Meadows! On our way back, a few of us decided to spontaneously stop half-way back to Naran and raft down the Kunhar river for about 3km initally. We rafted in the rain, and decided to go on another run that was roughly 9 km surrounded by the hills. Drenched, I got back to the PTDC had a hot shower and luckily we had a bonfire and BBQ that evening.
Saif Ul Malook Lake
Located at the nothern end of Kaghan valley, Saif ul Malook lake (3224m) is the source of the Kunhar river. This is one of the highest lakes in Pakistan. Folklore has it that there was a Persian Prince who met his fairy princess at the lake. Mallika Parbat meets the lake in the distance. A glacial alpine lake, for more than half the year much of it is covered in ice and snow.
On Day 4 we started our journey forward from Naran. We had about a 6 hour drive ahead to reach Chillas our rest point for the night. The roads were smooth, while windy like many of our roads in Nepal. Along the way we passed impressive glaciers. For more than six months of the year, these roads are completely covered in snow and ice and everyone retreats further down from Naran to areas like Balakot and Abottabad. About 2 hours from Naran, we crossed a spectacularly untouched alpine lake: Lulusar, which was even more breathaking than Saif-ul-Malook, if that’s possible.
This was the highest point during our entire journey, at 4,175m. As soon as we approached this area, we rolled down the windows and enjoyed the chill, crisp air. Left and right were rolling green hills scattered with snow even in August. We didn’t spend too much time here other than to check in at the police station, as many people get altitude sickness here.
Gilgit-Baltistan Check point
From here, we started driving downwards again and going through dry dessert terrain. From lush green hills, all we could see were rocky moutains. The green- blue river started to show more silt and by the time we reached the Gilgit-Baltistan check point, the river was golden brown. The most mind-boggling part was from about 15 deg. Celsius in Babusar, the temperature from this point onwards was above 35 deg throughout. We stayed at the Shangri-la Resort overlooking the Indus river, and I quietly watched the sunset in the heat.
Raikot Bridge to Tatto village
Early next morning we drove for another two hours to where the Raikot bridge is, and from there we switched to jeeps again. The real challenging part of the journey would be from Raikot bridge to Tatto village from where we would start walking up to the plateau of Fairy Meadows. The dry mountain dessert scenery reminded me a little bit of Ladakh, but here on one side we could see the Hindu-Kush, on the other the Karakoram range, and were also able catch the end of the Himalayas- Nanga Parbat.
We had to walk unexpectedly for half an hour in between as landslides had ruined the roadway made by locals. We had to make it across the landslide while rubble and stones still fell through, which was a heartracing start to the journey in 30+ Celcius heat. The most unexpected and hard part for me throughout this walk was the scorching sun which completely slowed me down. The only saving grace was the clouds which kept me going; they slowly opened up to reveal a small part of the Nanga Parbat face. Focused on the end goal, we kept walking, and about half the group also chose to go on horseback.
Fairy Meadows- Heaven on earth
We finally reached Fairy Meadows cottages around 4pm. We were greeted by a breathaking view of the entire Rakhiot glacier face of Nanga Parbat. During our entire stay we never got tired of this great view, in the morning, in the evening and especially the dark shadow under a starry night sky. That day a few of us decided to walk to another side of the meadows, where the moutain appears even bigger with the conifer trees below. I had befriended a few Chinese tourists along the journey and we met again in the meadows. Boys and young men played polo, trained their horses, and played volleyball in groups all around this meadow. By chance, we decided to walk till the farside and were greeted by this incredible reflection. With my Chinese trekker and professional photographer friends, we waited patiently for the golden hour at dusk to try and capture what we were seeing in front of our eyes.
Fairy Meadows to ViewPoint
Had we planned our days better we would have had a half day extra to go up to Base Camp 1. However, given our tight schedule and landslides damaging a bridge on the way, we decided to walk up to the View Point the following day. Our journey was beautiful, walking through fresh springs, Beyal camp and Messner Camp. It took us more than three hours to reach the view point, but the black and white glaciers and 180 degrees of up close and spectacular view of the entire range was well worth it. On the journey back to the cottages, I felt myself acclimatizing and pushed my own limits to pick up my pace and walk fast, as our return journey the following day would be long.
On day 7, we started early in the morning with a two and a half hour hike down till Tatto village, after which we had a jeep journey to Raikot bridge (all of this in very high altitude heat), followed by the two hour journey to Chillas and six hour journey back to Naran. We covered the most distance this day, and by the time we got back to Naran PTDC, we pretty much felt like we were coming back home.
The one thing that stood out to me on the entire journey, was the police check points and particularly the Gilgit-Baltistan check point. The officials there recorded our names (mostly for our safety and acknowledging that we entered and left his area safely), and asked us what we thought of Fairy Meadows. We all said that we had never imagined how beautiful the landscape of this part of Pakistan would be. He had but one request for us, “Please share your photos and your experience with your friends; put your photos on facebook. Most people only hear bad things about my country, and no one sees the beauty. During peak tourist season we have 3000 to 5000 foreigners coming to this part of the country. We would love to see that number grow.”
I would really urge you to consider exploring our fellow SAARC country when you plan your next trip abroad. I asure you, you will not be disappointed, whether you limit your visit to the cities, or if you go further out to explore areas like the one I made it to. Pakistan is an amazingly beautiful counrty; if only more people knew about it!