Irish journalist Rosita Boland visited Pakistan long before it landed on most travel radars. She reveals what it is about Pakistan that captured her heart. And why it will capture yours, too…
Many years ago, I spent a month in Pakistan. Mostly up north, along the Karakoram Highway, and in Baltistan, where a cluster of the highest mountains in the world are.
There weren’t many other visitors around when I was there. I was always the only westerner on the local bus, and usually the sole woman, too. Sometimes it was lonely, but the memory of the time I had there is as vivid and extraordinary as when I experienced it.
The scenery is breathtaking. Its grandeur is staggering. But my strongest and most abiding memories are of the people and the surreal situations I found myself in. Of course, that is the joy of travel. And it proved to be the joy of travelling in Pakistan.
Here IS ONE of my best stories…
Sleeping on a table on the Karakoram Highway
The Karakoram Highway
Depending on which unreliable map I was looking at, I was somewhere between 40 and 60 miles between Gilgit and Karimabad, further up the Karakoram Highway.
I wanted a break from the overloaded local bus, with bald tyres and erratic drivers. My last driver had smoked weed most of the journey from Islamabad to Gilgit; a journey of 14 hours on mountain roads.
So, I decided to walk to Karimabad. The thing is, I wasn’t quite certain if there were places to stay along the way, in the villages of Rahimabad and Nilt.
I inquired in the bazaar in Gilgit and was told there was a hotel in Rahimbad; a village that my guidebook did not have an entry for. And that there was a government rest house in Nilt.
It was a magnificent, if intermittently terrifying, walk. On one side of the road, a vertical mountain face, and further up, loose stones and packed snow, that I knew often came rushing downwards and forcing the closure of the road for days at a time. On the other, a sheer drop to the Hunza river.
Hunza Valley in the mist
Karimabad did indeed have a building with a sign outside that said Hotel, but it was not a hotel as I knew it.
It was a single cavernous room with a corrugated tin roof, where about 20 Pakistani men were watching cricket on the television powered by a generator, drinking chai. They turned to stare. The owner spoke English.
“I was wondering if I could have a room for the night?”
“Oh no, Madame, there are no rooms here,” he said.
“But the sign says ‘Hotel’,” I said, pointing.
“Restaurant, yes,” he said. “We have rotis and dahl.”
We stared at each other. The one daily bus from Gilgit had long since passed me out on the road. It would soon be dark.
“Madame!” He said. “Madame, you can sleep here if you wish. When the restaurant closes. I will allow.”
I was confused. So it was a hotel after all? He waved a languid hand in the direction of the back of the room. Where chairs were stacked up against the wall.
“Sleeping there,” he said. “Oh,” I said. “Now I see.”
When darkness fell soon after 6pm, the generator was unplugged, and everyone departed. The owner told me he would be back at 6am, gave me a candle and matches, and locked me in before I had realised what was happening. I arranged a row of chairs against the back wall, put my head under my daypack, and slept.
The next night was not much different, Nilt had indeed once had a Government Rest House, but it was now the office of the local engineer.
His office only had one chair. But it had a large wooden table. On which I spent the night, just grateful that things had worked out somehow.