Got up early, and at 5:30AM, our new driver (Abdul Karim); also an Ismaili from Hunza (Misgar village, north of Sost and very rural) came to pick us up. We had 2 road options to Islamabad; one was an 8-10hr drive over the scenic Babusar Pass and the other was a 12-14hr drive through Kohistan district. As our luck would have it, the road through Babusar Pass was under construction; due to re-open in 5 days (always seemed like we were 5 days too early. So off we went to Kohistan.
Kohistan is a district in the NW Frontier Province; and neighbors SWAT District to its west. The people of this district are supposed to have a “Rebellious culture”, which is the most distinctive quality of the region. The literacy rate is the lowest in Pakistan, just above 11%; with the split being 17% for males and 3% for females (what a difference from nearby Hunza district where literacy is 100%). Health care is quite poor, with 10% of children dying before age 5. This is one of the poorest districts of Pakistan. There is a great emphasis on religious (Sunni Islamic) education. Languages spoken are Pashtu in the west (towards SWAT), Shina in the north and Kohistani elsewhere. Economy is mostly agricultural (timber, agriculture and goat/sheep rearing).
The Taliban are known to be active in this region; which is why foreigners are not allowed in this area between 4PM and 8AM. We were told to keep a low profile, and avoid talking to the “dadhi-wallas” (the bearded ones); a reference to the Taliban’s. Just what we needed. I was also told to go easy taking pictures, especially of the women here.
Our first stop was Juglot, which is where the Indus river meets the Gilgit river; and where the HinduKush, Himalayas and Karakoram meet. The Silk Road here connected Indian subcontinent, Afghanistan and China.
Then, we stopped at Chilas for breakfast at the Shangri-La hotel; which was old and needed renovation. Bathrooms were clean though. Then we crossed over into Kohistan and at the district’s Foreigners Facilitation Center, we were told to wait for an armed policeman escort. Abdul managed to convince them then an armed guard (man) in the back seat with Dilshad (female) was not appropriate; and they agreed; but asked us to drive in a convoy with a minbus that would be there shortly, which also had a foreigner in it, and they were going to place an armed policeman in that minvan. Abdul fortunately convinced them that we would get slowed down by the minivan, and that we had an afternoon flight to catch in Islamabad.Sometimes, white lies are necessary. Phew, dodged that one.
So off we drove into Kohistan with no armed police escort. We saw some very beautiful countryside, as this is still a mountainous and hilly region; but very different scenery than Hunza and the Gilgit areas we had been in. There was a lot of timber on the roadside from the forests over the mountains, and the road (which was still the Karakoram Highway (KKH)) had deteriorated and the Chinese were actively rebuilding the KKH.
The KKH starts in Kashgar, Xingjian and ends just before Islamabad, Pakistan. With the many trucks using the KKH, and its deteriorated conditions, the going was slow in places. The KKH basically followed the Indus river (from Skardu and Tibet) all the way through Kohistan. Beautiful and different scenery from what we had seen in the Karakoram Mountains.
Beautiful landscape; note the small villages on the hillsides in the back with white roofs
At one point, we had to stop as there was a traffic jam due to a rockslide that had occurred just the night before and the army was busy clearing it and allowing only 1-way traffic. So we had to stop and wait. I could not help it; I had to get out, take some pics and talk to some “dadhi-walas” (much to Dilshad’s dismay) who were also waiting for the road to clear. These men were from Dasu (capital of Kohistan) and had rural farms there. They were very nice and friendly; definitely not the Taliban dadhi-wallas :). Dilshad stayed in the car, as she was not comfortable
After driving thru more beautiful countryside, we stopped at Besham for a late lunch. We stopped at Farman Karim’s hotel (another Hunza ismaili) and had lunch with him. (This Hunza connection is pretty good, and seems like most Hunza people have Karim as the last name; I must have some connection to Hunza 🙂 in a previous life).
We kept driving and at one village, we were signaled by a police pick-up truck with armed policemen, to follow them. OK, what did we do now? Were we driving too fast (over limit)? Dilshad thought it was because I was taking pictures. Turned out that they simply were escorting us through the town. How did they know we were foreigners? I guess our faces gave us away, as we had not exited the car when they signaled us. Or maybe it was the License plate of the car that gave us away?
We kept driving through multiple small picturesque towns and cities, like Dandai, Thakot, Chanjal, Kandar, Chappargam, Sharkah, Dhodial etc. We drove through a couple of large cities like Manserah and Abbottabad. I wanted to stop in Abbottabad and visit the Osama compound, but Abdul informed me that the military had demolished the place and had shut down access to that area. So nothing to see there
It was now getting to evening. Fortunately, the commercial trucks are required to pull over and get off the KKH between 5PM and 9PM, to allow people in towns to get to the bazaars etc without the heavy truck traffic. So we were able to make good progress. Finally arrived in Islamabad; this was the end of the KKH that we had started on from Kashgar, China. And fortunately, we did not encounter any Taliban while in Kohistan.
Islamabad seemed like a lively and clean, well laid out city, clean, with areas/neighborhood sectors clearly marked. Roads were very nice, and wide, multi lanes in each direction. Civilized, after all, this is the capital city of Pakistan. After a small dinner, went to sleep.
Islamabad and Lahore next.