Sunday, August 31, 2008

The Karakoram Highway

The famed Karakoram Highway or KKH as its affectionately known, is one of those places that many a traveler rave about. Connecting China to Pakistan, it cuts through beautiful rugged mountainous terrains, and at its border at Khunjerab Pass, it is the world's highest paved border crossing!

The highway is built jointly by Pakistan and China, and its construction took 20 years and hundreds of lives. Most of the casualties are due to landslides, though somehow, the Pakistani workers took the bulk of the numbers : 810 to 82!! (according to Wikipedia). But when the highway opened, it brought in commerce and better livelihood to the people in northern Pakistan.

Most people starting the journey in Pakistan would either start in Islamabad or Rawalpindi. While there are public buses and minivans thoughout the stretch of the Karakoram Highway, the best transport in terms of flexibility would be a private jeep hire. Northward, the most popular stopover would be Fairy Meadow and Nanga Parbat before reaching Gilgit, the true hub of the Karakoram Highway. Here at Gilgit, you could continue northward along the Karakoram, turn west to Chitral, or turn east to Skardu where K2 beckons. Moving further north, there are plenty of delightful stopovers at various towns, notably Karimabad and Passu. After Passu, you'll reach the border town of Sust, before finally crossing Khunjerab Pass.

There are both buses and jeeps that cross the border to reach Tashkurgan, the border town on the Chinese side. Khunjerab Pass itself is surrounded by snow-capped mountains whole year round and its beauty and scale easily engulfs you. If it doesn't, the altitude sickness probably will (it's at 4730m). Certainly one of the highlights of a journey through the Karakoram Highway.

The "endpoint" of the Karakoram Highway would be Kashgar, Xinjiang China, though there are plenty of people who do the journey the other way round - ie start in Kashgar and down to Gilgit/Islamabad etc. Whichever the way, the journey itself would be the experience of a lifetime....

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Fairy Meadow

One of the recommended attractions and side-trips in northern Pakistan and the Karakoram Highway is to Fairy Meadow. My guidebook has good reviews on it, and so does online information. After been to it, I completely agree with them!

The journey there was a broken down into several segments. Although I hired my own guide and jeep, it can only reach a place known as Raikot Bridge. From there, I had to transfer to another jeep (further payable) and undertake a harrowing winding journey up to a point known as Tato. From Tato, you'll then have to trek your way up to Fairy Meadow. It took me 3-4hr for the climb!. My accommodation in Fairy Meadow is the popular Raikot Serai camp.

Raikot Serai afforded fantastic views of Nanga Parbat. Nanga Parbat is the 9th highest mountain in the world (8125m). It is also known as "Killer Mountain" as it had claimed many lives of those who attempted to ascend her. In fact, just few days before, there was a rescue operation on one of the climbers who was trapped in the mountains! Besides fantastic views, you can actually do a 1-day trek to the Nanga Parbat basecamp for a closer view of Nanga Parbat! Which makes it special, as you don't get many opportunities to trek to a basecamp in just 1 day!!

Even if you don't do the trek, the surroundings of Fairy Meadow is just so beautiful. And with my tent facing Nanga Parbat, the morning and evening views were sheer pleasure. And photographers dream.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Chitral and Kalash

One of the not-to-be-missed stops in Northern Pakistan is the Chitral Valley. Chitral town, situated west of Gilgit, it is a common side trip for travellers along the Karakoram Highway. Why? Two main reasons.

One, the journey between Gilgit and Chitral passes through Shandur Pass,
and it is here that the world's highest polo game is held. Every year, 2 polo teams, one from Gilgit, and one from Chitral, will compete at the Shandur Top at almost 4000 metres! Unfortunately, my trip was in August, and the match is held in July. Thus, I did not manage to see the games :(. Nevertheless, the area is very pretty, and hence, even though the journey can be done in 1 full day, I opt to do it over 2 days via a private jeep rental.

Chitral is also home to a unique tribe of people known as the Kalash. For me, this would be the highlight of a visit to Chitral. They are the original inhabitants of the valley until it was invaded. Now residing in 3 remote valleys, you can arrange transportation and guide in Chitral town itself to goto these valleys.

The Kalash people, unlike the Pakistanis, are non-Muslims. The women still wear their traditional clothings, and their cultures strange and interesting. So it is highly recommended that you engage a guide here. My main regret is that I only did a day trip. There are excellent trekking opportunities to be had in the valleys. Hence, if you have the opportunity, my suggestion is to reserve more days in Chitral!

Sunday, August 10, 2008

Northern Pakistan

When we read about Pakistan in the news, they are mostly on war, disasters and generally depressing and negative news. Which is such a waste, cos the country is such a wonderful travel destination. It's landscapes and sceneries are just fantastic, and with 8 of the 13 mountain peaks above 8000m in Pakistan, it is a mountaineer's dream destination.

But one of the most amazing things I experienced in Pakistan besides the landscapes, are the people. They are among the friendliest people I meet in my travels, and their hospitality is what makes travel in Pakistan one of the most memorable as well. I got invited for teas, and even joined a family for dinner in their house and they would go all out to make you comfortable. And we just met on the streets.

I flew into Lahore, and covered mostly Northern Pakistan, so I actually have no experience in travel in the southern part of the country. However, from what I gather, I do feel the northern part provides the best experience and photo opportunities in both landscapes as well as people and culture. Moreover, the Karakoram Highway is in any backpackers dream trip, and that alone could warrant you a trip to Northern Pakistan!

Sunday, August 3, 2008

Angkor Wat

Cambodia was not very high in my list of places to go, but everyone has rave reviews of Angkor Wat. So much so that, I thought to myself, I had to go see. With Jetstar's promo tix at a little over S$200 including taxes, why not pop over for a look? Esp now is the "low season", I thought I could avoid the super crowd that those same rave reviews were also talking about....

It is low season for a reason. It is HOT and wet. Not particularly enticing for a holiday. But what I read is that the rains come only in the early mornings or late afternoons and only in short bursts. That sounded not too bad, and moreover, sometimes the rain do bring dramatic lightings. As for the heat, well, that was the killer......

I had only 3 days in Cambodia/Siem Reap, and decided to do a one-day "crash course" on Angkor Park. Coupled with the July heat, it was tiring as hell, and erm, hot as hell. But the worse was yet to come. As I joined many others into the compounds for sunset, and as the glorious golden sun rays fall onto Angkor Wat....... and its scaffolding, I can only curse my luck. I don't know how long this restoration works on Angkor Wat has been going on, but it certainly spoiled my picture perfect moment (and shot). Ah well, off-peak indeed.

I visited 5 temples in all, Angkor Wat, Bayon, Ta Prohm, Banteay Srei and Preah Khan. These are recommendations from Tales of Asia website as well as from some friends. They are all great recommendations, and my favourite is Preah Khan, which gave me the most sense of mystery. However, my advise and recommendation is to get the 3 day pass, and enjoy a slow tour of the temples by only visiting them in the morning hours and the late afternoon hours. Between 10+am to 3+pm, do yourself a favour and enjoy some cold beer somewhere cooling :)

Still, I'm impressed with Angkor Wat (minus the scaffolding) and would have to agree with those whom I have talked to and recommended it to me. Cambodia is worth a re-visit...