Explore wild Peshawar, the capital of the legendary North West Frontier Province. See the Buddhist ruins at Takhat-i-Bhai. Discover Swat Valley with its unique culture. Meet the intriguing Kafir Kalash in villages in the Hindukush. Follow the exciting Punial Highway to Shandur Pass, the site of the world’s highest polo arena. Explore the former kingdoms of Gilgit and Hunza tucked in the Karakoram Mountains. Travel with the Gujjar nomads in the Kaghan Valley surrounded by the Himalayas. Our jeep safari starts after a quick tour of Islamabad, Pakistan’s modern capital. Designed by foreign architects, its most striking edifice is the Shah Faisal Mosque, a gift from the people of Saudi Arabia. We take the busy Grand Trunk Road to the North West Frontier Province and Peshawar — steeped in its own legends and the culture of the Pathan tribes who live by an unbreakable code of conduct — ‘badala’ (revenge) and ‘melmastia’ (hospitality) — and the law of the gun. Many call Peshawar and its network of markets the shopper’s paradise of the subcontinent. We stroll down Qissa Khawani Bazaar (Street of Storytellers), where raconteurs once fascinated crowds with lurid tales. Today, dentists have replaced the storytellers and rows of teeth vie for our attention. We wander down side-streets and see dazzling copper-and brass-ware, old carpets and kilims, spectacular tribal jewelry, antiques — it’s all available at unbeatable prices. We leave Peshawar and visit Takhat-i-Bhai, an important monastery from the Gandhara Period (circa 45 A.D), that drew pilgrims from China and the subcontinent. Here, stone and stucco sculptures are displayed in small shrines that surround the main stupa.
The next stop is Swat. Buddhists called Swat Udeyana (garden). Yet this idyllic fertile valley in the North West Frontier Province became a bloody battle ground in wars waged by the Greeks, Afghans, Moghuls, and the British. Landmarks that span centuries now stand mute in deserted towns, ancient graveyards, desolate forts, empty monasteries and abandoned stupas. The Swat culture, however, remains rooted in its traditions, and is especially apparent in its handicrafts, such as fine hand embroidery work and tribal costumes, wood carvings, and intricate silver jewelry.
Now it’s onto the bustling small town of Chitral in the Hindukush. Chitral is also the gateway to Kafirstan — a series of remote mountain villages that are home to the attractive Kafir Kalash (‘Wearers of the Black Robe’), who claim Greek ancestry. The handsome women wear long black dresses, with red and green embroidered trim, and an elaborate headpiece that qualifies as art — much of it ‘found art’ created from cowrie shells, bits of metal, watchbands, plastic flowers, tiny buttons. This once isolated tribe still retains many of its old customs and its animist beliefs in gods who preside over spirits and animals. This is also a tribe that loves to dance. Births, marriages, deaths set them in motion. The Kalash are a joyful people keeping time to their ancient culture.
From here, we pass through the semi-arid landscape of Chitral Valley as we head to the small town of Mastuj. The Hindukush Mountains, which receive little rain, resemble a high-altitude desert of stone. Small villages, irrigated by glacier streams, emerge like dazzling emeralds and provide a stark contrast to the dry mountains.
Our next drive is a high point in our safari. From Chitral, we follow the Mastif River weaving our way through quiet clay villages set behind walls. As the road slowly winds into the Hindukush. Peaks turn strange hues of red and pale greens; black boulders hand over the road; the river roars by in a gorge. Suddenly the vista breaks open, showing off towering mountains.
Once the high-altitude terrain turns arid, we enter a parched canyon and the Karakoram Range, chiseled and re-designed by years of erosion. The road continues its sinuous climb. We reach Shandur Pass (3734 m), the scene of Pakistan’s most famous polo match that pitches Chitral against Gilgit once a year. We camp at Phander Lake. Then we continue along the rugged highway to Punial, once a small princely state with its capital at Sher Qila, where the raja (king) lived in his small palace across the river.
Our next destination is Hunza Valley, the land of the Ismailis, a sect of Shiite Muslims who follow their leader, Prince Karim Agha Khan. Everywhere we see evidence of Ismaili concerns: charming small schools, hospitals, welfare centers — always white and green and waving the Agha Khan’s flag. Karimabad, just off the Karakoram Highway, heading north to China, is HUnza’s former capital and still the home of the former mir (king). From this mountain village, vistas of snow-clad peaks dazzle at sunrise and sunset, bathing terraced fields in soft light and shadows.
Now we head to Gilgit, the temporary goal of ancient traders who struggled along the treacherous Silk Route. Surrounded by rugged mountains that include some of the world’s highest peaks, Gilgit was the traders’ rooftop oasis — their place to do some quick trading for essential goods before resuming their journey. Here you see faces and costumes that represent all of Central Asia; and Gilgit’s small bazaar does a brisk business selling Chinese products and essential goods for today’s adventurer: the trekker and mountaineer.
We follow the Karakoram Highway to Chilas, then take the jeep track to Kaghan Valley in the Himalayas and pass through small hamlets until we arrive a the picturesque alpine village of Babusar. Next we cross the Babusar Pass (4150 M.), the source of the Kunhar River, with extensive valley views.
From here, we follow the Kunhar River and encounter the handsome Gujjar nomads on route with their buffalos to high-altitude pastures. At the village of Naran (2427 m), backed by the river, the Kaghan Valley opens. We visit Saiful Maluk Lake, where the peak of Malka Parbat (5390 m) is mirrored in the deep blue waters. This lake was named after Prince Saiful Maluk who fell in love with a nymph whom he saw bathing in the lake.
We leave Kaghan Valley and head to Abbotabad, a garrison town, then conclude our tour in Islamabad.