In the mesmerizing mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, a young adventure tour company is doing all it can to bring tourists back to Pakistan. Marco Ferrarese goes full-throttle.
I’m riding a mean 150cc Suzuki along a barren strip of rocks and sand that most would never dare to call a ‘road’. And yet, in the mountains of Gilgit-Baltistan, this is the main 200-kilometer link between the legendary Karakoram Highway and Skardu, a lesser-known, but no less stunning, high-altitude desert valley.
As my wheels screech in the rubble, I squeeze to the right near the edge of a 20-meter drop. My wife, Kit Yeng, is sandwiched between my back and a couple of packs. Cold sweat rolls down my spine as I watch the Indus River run and crash between a majestic gorge of fang-like rocks that jut out below us.
Gulping, I look ahead and try to keep cool as I twist the throttle to overtake the pick-up truck that clogs my passage. It puffs exhaust fumes and dust into my face, choking me and blurring my vision. Its back is converted into rows of cages filled with chickens, half of them dead. Each time I get near the meat wagon, the pungent whiff of dying birds, old blood and fresh faeces slaps my nostrils.
What the hell am I doing here? I’ve desperately wanted to visit the northern regions of Pakistan for the past six years. My main problem was obtaining a visa … Given Pakistan’s security situation, one can only apply in his or her country of birth or residence, supported by plenty of paperwork, and a tour operator willing to issue a crucial invitation letter and take full responsibility for each traveler.
I had almost given up, when, at the beginning of this year, I found Karakoram Bikers. For the past couple of years, this small, Gilgit-based motorcycle company has offered visa support, organized self-driving adventure tours and rented out bikes to 180-plus international tourists. They are working against all odds to change the general perception that Pakistan is a dangerous nation dominated by terrorism.
“Travelers think that a visa sponsorship is a very small thing to do, but on the contrary, it’s a big responsibility to me,” says Syed Hamza Mobeen, better known as Shah, the Lahore-born co-founder of Karakoram Bikers. “If anything happens to that person, the government will come to me first. Also, it’s not legal to issue an invitation letter to someone who’s not with you on a tour.”
Gilgit-Baltistan, where Karakoram Bikers operates, was once a highlight in the overland ‘hippie trail’ between London and India. But after the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, the ensuing wave of unrest in southern cities like Quetta, Peshawar, Karachi and Lahore also paralyzed the tourist route to the north. Gilgit-Baltistan began missing out on the foreign visitors that had made its prime source of wealth—instead, lowland Pakistanis, looking for relief from the heat of the plains, became Gilgit-Baltistan’s only visitors.
“The potential for adventure tourism in Pakistan is enormous. Those who visit end up loving Pakistan.”
Liz Norman, Karakoram Bikers
“In 2014, I went off to Skardu and the Deosai National Park with 10 other bikers,” remembers Shah. “And in 2015, we followed up with another two-week trip through Swat Valley, Gilgit, Skardu, Deosai and back to Lahore.” He first fell in love with the Karakoram mountains 20 years ago on a Boy Scout outing to a local hill station. In 2012, Shah backpacked to the fabled Hunza Valley, ever mindful of the beauty of Pakistan’s northern regions.
After every trip, Shah and his gang were excited to share their pictures and videos with the world. “There’s a very popular Indian Facebook group called The Himalayan Club,” says Shah. “It felt natural to post photos of our mountain discoveries. But given the troubled relationship between the two nations, the group’s administrators asked us to stop mentioning Pakistan in our captions and geotags, and ultimately banned us”.
Angered, Shah and two friends decided to create their own page, The Karakoram Club, adding local trekkers, riders and hiking enthusiasts into their fold. The community has grown exponentially into 188,000 active members who share suggestions and insights. Many foreigners with a burning desire to travel to Pakistan began signing up for news too.
“The potential for adventure tourism in Pakistan is enormous,” says Liz Norman, Shah’s Australian wife and co-founder of Karakoram Bikers. “Those who visit end up loving Pakistan, and us, as we make it very easy for them to come here.” The couple met online, where Shah saw some of Liz’s posts about her motorbike trip to Ladakh in India. He invited her to experience the beauty of the Karakoram mountains on two wheels.
As they stood awe-struck before the Passu Cones, a sheer wall of cathedral-like rock formations in the northern stretch of Hunza, they agreed that such beauty couldn’t remain hidden from the rest of the world. And Karakoram Bikers was born.
But what about Pakistan’s volatile security situation? Just last month, Taliban-backed bombings in the perennially troubled areas of Peshawar and Quetta killed scores and wounded numerous others.
“If we sell a multi-day tour for $1,000, 80 per cent of that is re-invested into hiring local drivers, booking locally-owned hotels, and eating at local restaurants.”
Shah, Karakoram Bikers
“Pakistan used to be much more dangerous than it is now,” says Tabish Ali Butt, Karakoram Bikers’ operations manager, a stocky young man with a benevolent gaze and a calming voice. “Up until four years ago, we used to get daily news of bombings in Peshawar, Karachi or Lahore. I was in Lahore’s Data Darbar square when one of the bombs went off in July 2010. I was saved by a wall … but trust me, compared to a few years ago when foreigners didn’t or couldn’t come here because their embassies blocked their visa applications, the situation is much better.”
Tabish’s claims aren’t just anecdotal either. According to the South Asia Terrorism Portal, civilian deaths as a result of terrorist attacks in Pakistan peaked in 2013 and have gradually declined in the years since, with fewer in 2017 than at any time since 2005.
In my 31 days scooting around the country, I found hospitable people, decent infrastructure, attractive—if empty—guesthouses, and some of the most jovial police and army officers I’d ever encountered. All told, it was also far less hassle to travel through than neighboring India. Security measures for foreign visitors are certainly tight—I was given an armed escort in several areas near the Afghan border—and for good reason, but I also had an army lieutenant treat me to a hot chai and cookies during passport control.
By bringing tourists in, Karakoram Bikers also helps the locals make a source of livelihood. Without the higher-spending international guests who need English-speaking guides, porters and drivers, many of the young villagers in the rural areas are forced to leave their homes and families behind. Jobs are a 16-hour-plus bus ride south to Islamabad, a place ripe with Chinese investment. Others move four hours further south, to Lahore.
“If we sell a multi-day tour for $1,000, 80 per cent of that is re-invested into hiring local drivers, booking locally owned hotels, and eating at local restaurants,” explains Shah. “We retain 20 per cent and the rest goes back into the local communities.”
Karakoram Bikers is also working on testing ‘Chicks & Chai’—a pioneering, women-only tour that brings together foreign female travelers and local Pakistani mountain women, to share notions of basic health care, nutrition, and self-empowering skills. Profits will go towards building community houses for women in different mountain villages across Gilgit-Baltistan.
“Because of people’s fear of terrorism and visa red tape, we’re blocked into this land where very few people want to go,” adds Shah. “There are still many negative stereotypes about Pakistan, mostly because of Islam, but in truth, we respect others and we love our piece of Earth. We will keep doing whatever we can to show its incredible beauty to the rest of the world.”
Marco Ferrarese is a Penang-based author, travel writer and former punk rock star. He has reported from the lesser-known tracks of 60+ countries, hitchhiked from China to Italy, and written guidebooks for Rough Guides and Fodor's.