To travel is to discover that everyone is wrong about other countries.
Before leaving for Pakistan, some of my friends appeared somewhat sceptical: Why was I going there? This is due in part due to the media, which likes to feed on fear and portray the country as a dangerous war zone. However, nothing could be further from the truth. Look beyond the headlines and you'll find a wonderful place just waiting to be discovered—with some of the friendliest and most hospitable people I’ve experienced in the near sixty countries I’ve visited.
Pakistan is a nation where many great civilizations come together. It’s a melange of regional cultures and languages. On my recent visit there, I was fortunate enough to enjoy a slice of these cultures during my visit to the northern region of Gilgit-Baltistan.
The crown jewel of Gilgit-Baltistan is the stunning Hunza Valley, home to some of the most magnificent mountains in the world. But just how beautiful is it? With its snow-capped jagged peaks, it’s been described as heaven on Earth. In the early 1930s, British author James Hilton visited the area. So inspired was he by this isolated green valley on the western end of the Himalayas, he coined the term Shangri-La in his popular bestselling novel Lost Horizon.
The Karakoram Highway forms the transportation backbone of Gilgit-Baltistan. Stretching 1,300km from Islamabad in the south to Kashgar in China, it’s dubbed the eighth wonder of the world after the near impossible engineering feat that built it. Part of the highway includes the highest paved road on the planet: the Khungerab Pass crossing from Pakistan to China at a height of 3,693 metres. As part of the massive $62 billion China Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) infrastructure project, much of the route is being reconstructed and upgraded.
In October, 2017 Federal Minister for Kashmir Affairs and Gilgit-Baltistan, Muhammad Barjees Tahir said that CPEC will help boost tourism in the region. He enthused, “The government of Gilgit-Baltistan has introduced a tourism policy with job creation for locals being the main goal.” Tahir added that during the previous tourist season large numbers of overseas travellers had been provided entry permits and that improved law and order had been the biggest incentive to improving tourist flow.
His comments were echoed by Pakistan’s Minister for Tourism Fida Kahn who, speaking at the Lahore Chamber of Commerce and Industry in February 2018, said that as gateway to CPEC, the corridor would serve as an incentive for investors to develop the region’s tourist infrastructure.
As the security situation continues to stabilize and tourism enjoys a strong resurgence, the ongoing challenge will be to balance economic growth with the need to preserve the region’s spectacular beauty for future generations to come.
I would like to express my sincere thanks to my host, Impact Resolutions Resettlement Expert Arshad Jami who made this road trip possible, as well as GIS Specialist Usman Dar whose detailed knowledge of the region added immeasurably to my enjoyment of the trip. Thanks also to Usman for his expertese in kindly producing the above map.