Ups And Downs Of Journeying To The Hindu Kush – Pakistan Part 1

While traveling to Afghanistan was a major accomplishment of mine, I was surely not going to overlook neighboring Pakistan,  a country that is the fifth largest in the world by population and that is famous for its rich culture, mountainous terrain and turbulent political history.

After an amazing yet challenging trip to Libya, I planned to travel for three weeks through Pakistan, starting with a week in the Hindu Kush mountains, followed by a couple of days in the Karakoram mountains, a week in the Himalayas and a few days in Lahore and Karachi. Reaching the famed Hindu Kush proved challenging, but doable, with the help of an elite Pakistani police force guiding myself and my fellow travelers through ISIS-infested territory. Read on to find out about us overcoming the ISIS threat and other hurdles along the road to the Hindu Kush mountains.

The approximate route I planned to take in Pakistan

But first, I had to get there. And the story of my Pakistan adventure all started with a missed flight… ✈️

The Trouble Begins

My plan after flying from Libya to Istanbul was to spend a night in Turkey and fly to Pakistan the next day. Of course, only the first half of that itinerary went according to plan. I landed in Istanbul and spent a night at the landside airport hotel, blissfully unaware of the fate that would befall me the following day.

When I first arrived in Istanbul, I was glad to be back. I had no idea of what was to come.

In the morning, I ventured further into Istanbul to meet a business partner for a nice lunch and a good discussion. I returned to the airport that evening, looking forward to taking the flight I had booked with Pakistan Airlines, but which actually flew with Turkish Airlines.

It was nice to take in some of the local sights before the drama began. This is Istanbul’s futuristic new TV radio tower.

All of my problems began when I went to check-in for the flight. They told me that I wasn’t in the system, but they still issued me a ticket, so I thought that everything was fine. I went through airport security and got a nice pizza and beer while I waited for my flight. Three hours later, I walked over to the gate to board.

When I handed my ticket to the attendant, the machine beeped instead of accepting my ticket. They ran it through a few times, but the system would not accept it. So I was put off to the side while they boarded everyone else on the plane except for me. They checked my ticket over and over, but despite repeated attempts, even with my ticket confirmation, they could not manage to find my ticket in the system. In the end, they would not allow me to board the flight and fly to Pakistan.

Turkey was beautiful, but I was ready to go.

Another guy on the same flight was going to be one of the five who would make up my Pakistan tour group. He had some problems boarding too because something was wrong with his e-visa, but in the end, he was permitted to board the plane, and I was stuck on the ground. I was furious because I had paid a lot of money to be on that flight. I cursed and swore that I would never fly with Turkish Airlines again, but there was nothing I could do to change the situation.

A New Plan

I went back and spent another night at the airport hotel. This time I slept at the airside hotel because I didn’t want to have to go through security controls again the next day. I had a good enough sleep, all things considered. The next day I had to spend quite some time just chilling at the airport, waiting for my flight again. I had some lunch and got a lot of work done.

In the evening, I flew Emirates business class with a stopover in Dubai in order to avoid flying with Turkish Airlines. I had a nice, uneventful flight from Istanbul to Dubai before finally boarding my long-awaited flight to Islamabad. I flew overnight and got some good sleep on the plane to prepare me for the day ahead.

It ended up being a much better flight with Emirates than it would have been flying economy with Turkish Airlines anyway 😏

I arrived in Pakistan early in the morning and went through the visa process, which was relatively easy. In Pakistan, they issue an electronic visa, which makes the process a breeze.

I finally made it in to my 162nd country!

In the end, I arrived one day later than I had planned. Due to a conflict in timing with my Libya trip, I had already planned to miss the first day of the group tour exploring Islamabad. I had expected to arrive just in time to join the group before they left Islamabad for Swat Valley. Unfortunately, because I missed my flight, they headed off to Swat Valley without me. 😞

On the way to Swat Valley

I would arrive the next morning to Swat Valley, where the group planned to have a free sightseeing day. I hired a private driver/guide to take me to Swat Valley from the airport in Islamabad. Of course, it was just my luck that I couldn’t find him for about half an hour when he came to pick me up from the airport. It turned out, he was not allowed to enter the arrivals area due to the covid protocols. After a long time of looking for each other, he finally found me and we made our way toward Swat Valley.

I asked the driver to make a detour to visit Peshawar, the famous Pashtun town that borders Afghanistan, divided by the Khyber Pass. In contrast to the Wakhan Corridor, which straddles Afghanistan and Tajikistan, there’s a big city located beside the Khyber Pass.

Peshawar is notorious for being somewhat sketchy and dangerous, which I kind of wanted to see. We had some tea there and took a few pictures of the main sites, although many of them were closed due to covid.

A snapshot of life in Peshawar.

From there we continued to a very famous, amazingly well-preserved old Buddhist monastery called Takht Bhai, which was built in the first century.

You can see the ruins of many old Buddhist temples on the hillside

It was pouring rain outside, which continued my streak of bad luck from the day before. I wouldn’t let luck and a little (okay, actually a lot of) rain stop me from reaching my goals, though. I still wanted to visit the monastery, so we walked up many steps in the heavy rain to see the old ruins.

There were a lot of things I expected to see in Pakistan, but heavy rain was not one of them.

There was a big stupa and quite beautiful views of the surrounding area, where you could see the mountain peaks rising up in the distance. Although we were not in the mountains yet, the landscape looked amazing with lots of greenery and rolling hills.

The big stupa of Takht Bhai

Settling into Swat Valley

In the late afternoon, I arrived in Swat Valley in the city of Mingora. We went first to the hotel, where I got to meet up with the other four guys that would make up our tour group to explore the mountainous terrain of Pakistan together. One of the guys was an old friend who I inspired to register for the trip, and is now a perpetual traveler. He’s a day trader and was the oldest member of the group at fifty years old. All five of us ended up having a lot of fun discovering Pakistan together on this trip.

The first evening in Swat Valley, I took a few consulting calls. Actually, I did a ton of consultations that week because I hadn’t been able to do them for several days at Heuereka, or in Libya afterward. In Pakistan, you can find a strong internet connection in the big cities. Unfortunately, there wasn’t much signal out in the mountains, even with a local eSIM card. So, I managed to do about four consultation calls per night, on average, with a limited internet connection.

A hard-working man has to eat well, too. Cross your fingers (and toes) that this kebab doesn’t give me food poisoning like the one I ate in Afghanistan.

The nice thing about Pakistan is that there isn’t a big time difference from what I’m used to, so I could easily schedule my consulting calls every night. I was making a lot of money, but I was always very tired afterward. Anyway, this is not a story about work. This is the tale of my journey through the beautiful, mountainous country of Pakistan, which our group would continue to explore together the next day.

The first small mountains we saw the next morning

A Dangerous Drive

The next morning, we headed toward the Lowari Pass to get to the district of Chitral. The drive was very dangerous, so we had an elite special police unit accompanying us the entire time. The road didn’t look particularly dangerous from where I was sitting, but apparently, there have been some Pakistani ISIS in the area, along the road leading from Swat Valley at the Afghan border to Chitral. There had been reports of ISIS-affiliated shootings and snipers nearby, so we were grateful for our police escort.

Our police escort paved the way for us.

Not only did they keep us safe, but they also allowed us to drive very fast, as all the other traffic stayed clear and let us pass by them on the narrow roads. It would have taken much longer to get through traffic on our own. We posed for some photos with our police escorts and enjoyed the incredible landscape.

A photo with the Pakistani elite police, who got us where we wanted to go.

It was quite a drive over the mountain passes, as we saw the landscape change from green to gray as we drove higher into the mountains. The roads were sometimes paved and sometimes gravel, but they were almost uniformly narrow and winding.

We made it to the Lowari Pass, which is one of the most dangerous passes in the world with many hairpin turns. I actually really like that type of pass, but unfortunately for me, we couldn’t go through it because it would have taken too long. We just took the tunnel instead, which is underneath the high mountain pass, and was frankly rather boring.

The underwhelming tunnel 🥱

It was still nice to see the scenery leading up to the tunnel, and after we emerged, we were met by an amazing view of the snowcapped mountains. Even the weather changed as we entered a deep mountain valley of the beautiful Hindu Kush range.

Breathtaking views as we entered the valley

We still had a long way to go to get to our next destination, the Kalash Valley in the Chital district. Exploring the Kalash Valley and learning about their culture turned out to be one of the highlights of this trip to Pakistan, which you can read all about in the next post about my wondrous journey through Pakistan.

A peek at the beautiful sights you have to look forward to in my next entry!