Reflections: Northern Pakistan – Gilgit to Chitral via the Shandur Pass

Liza with our jeep as we decended from Shandur Pass to Chitral - Northern PakistanAs the aging process slowly starts to creep up on you, your memories of yesteryear ever so slowly begin to fade. The places you’ve been, the experiences you’ve had, and the people you’ve met along the way. I suppose the brain is nothing more than an organic hard drive of limited capacity. As the sectors begin to fill, it just dumps the stuff of lesser importance or what it perceives as not worth keeping.

At times I feel my mind is in need of a complete defrag, or maybe even a reboot, but my memories of Northern Pakistan are still vivid and strong. They are firmly etched into the left temporal lobe, stored away in that ‘do not delete’ folder, and hopefully will remain forever. There are many great tales and adventures that I can recall from our journey through this harsh and remote part of the world, with nothing more lucid than our three day jaunt from Gilgit to Chitral, and over the Shandur Pass.

There are few area’s on this expansive planet of ours, where an abundant number of prominent peaks tower in such awesome splendor, as those that are found at the intersection of four of the world’s greatest mountain ranges, the Himalayas, Karakorams, Hindukush and Pamirs.

The region of Northern Pakistan is one of the most beautiful, but isolated and rugged landscapes on earth. Grab yourself any topographic map of the region, or better still zoom in on Google Maps (see below) for a birds eye view, as you are confronted with with a series of twisting glaciers converging into a maze of scree covered valleys.

Northern Pakistan an Isolated and Unforgiving Land

Along with it’s prominent peaks, Northern Pakistan also has the highest concentration of glaciers of any place on earth, outside of the polar regions. With some of these glaciers pushing there way down the valleys and finishing just meters from the only tarmac road in the region, the mighty Karakoram highway.

The jagged saw tooth mountains of Northern Pakistan

The jagged saw tooth mountains of the Karakorum Range in Northern Pakistan

Whilst traveling throughout the regions of Northern Pakistan during 1995, I got to reading about a tough but very worthwhile journey that could be made from the northern hub of Gilgit, to the remote and isolated mountain village of Chitral (altitude 2643m).

The route (the only route) was the Gilgit Shandur road, a rocky and at times dangerous jeep track that leads high into the mountains, ultimately crossing the Shandur Pass (altitude 3720m), and then falling steeply as it twists and winds it’s way towards Chitral.

From the AK-47 Arms Dealers, to the bakers and cobblers, these valleys were home to some of the worlds most resilient but generous people, who offered the traveler nothing but great hospitality.

Traffic on the Gilgit to Shandur road is infrequent at the best of times, and the route is only driven by a series of 4WD jeeps, that ferry supplies to some of the more remote villages. It was our intention to hitch a ride on one of these jeeps, all the way to the top of the Shandur Pass.

The Journey Over the Shandur Pass by Begins

Once at the top of Shandur, we then planed to organize and hire of some local horsemen to guide us across the high mountain plateau of Shandur, and down to the lower valleys and the village of Mastuj.

The jeep we took on our Northern Pakistan journey from Gilgit to Chitral

Liza on top of the supply jeep.

Attempting this route at this time of year was pushing our luck a little, as transport was beginning to dry up. The long harsh winter was fast approaching, and the snows were already beginning to fall across the villages at the higher altitudes.

During winter, the Gilgit to Shandur road is all but impassable. Once the road is closed, only the foolhardy or ultra experienced are able to tackle this dangerous area by foot.

After tramping up and down the dusty lane-way where the supply vehicles would leave from Gilgit, we weren’t having much luck. We patiently waited for 2 days, and finally we managed to hitch a ride on a jeep as far as Teru (altitude 3092m).

From the village of Teru we would then have to take our chances of being able to find some local horses to complete the journey over. If this wasn’t an option then we’d then try to hitch a ride on another jeep, that would be heading all the way over (not very likely as the road would soon be closed), or god forbid walk the last section of our journey.

The Gilgit to Chitral Road Was Tough Going

The jeep as we went over the Shandur Pass in Northern Pakistan

The 2nd jeep we caught as it made it's way down from the Shandur Pass and towards Mastuj.

We drove all day and all night to reach Teru, clinging to the tie-down ropes, atop of the small and rigidly built jeep. At times it was quite uncomfortable, and as we were perched upon a bundle of supplies, as soon as the sun dipped below the jagged peaks, it was also quite cold.

During these two days, I experienced some of the most amazing scenery I’ve seen in all my travels. The jeep would cross many wire suspension bridges, with some in complete disrepair, dangling haphazardly over the raging torrents below.

On arrival in Teru it was extremely cold and dark. We were fortunate enough to be put up for the night by a friend of the driver, and we feasted on a hot meal of curried goat (Liza actually got quite sick for eating this, but it didn’t effect me to greatly).

The next morning we tried to arrange the horses to complete our journey as planed, but everywhere we went, we were given the same response. ‘Winter is approaching’, and all the horses have been rounded up and taken to the safety of the lower valleys’. ‘What now?’, would we have to walk the remainder of the journey or would we be lucky enough to catch another jeep?

The Waiting Game on Top of The Shandur Pass

A man slaughtering goats in Chitral- Northern Pakistan

A man slaughtering goats by the side of the road. The people of Chitral were extremely friendly.

We sat at the side of the road for the best part of the day, and without luck. By lunch I was tossing up the idea of walking (probably about 6 hours or so), but soon after we managed to hitch a ride with another jeep that was ferrying down a couple of Pakistani soldiers, who had just finished their shift atop of Shandur (the Shandur pass is quite a strategic vantage point for the Pakistani military, and there were many military checkpoints along the way).

We were dropped at a small village on the other side of the pass, where we would stay with another local family, before resting up for the night and continuing the final leg of our journey towards Chitral.

Although just a minute amount of time from all of my travels, this short adventure of crossing the Shandur Pass in Northern Pakistan, is still one of my fondest memories of the year long overland journey across Asia, and ranks highly with other adventures I’ve encountered elsewhere in the world.

Your Thoughts and Comments?

Has anyone else been to this part of the world?  What were your thoughts on the landscape, and the people? Maybe you’ve been to another part of the world that is similar to Northern Pakistan, why don’t you share that with us here.

Do you agree, that your most fondest travel memories, are always obtained from the most physical or mentally demanding journeys. At the time you think to yourself ‘What the hell am I doing this for!’, but it’s these memories that are always destined to be saved in your ‘do not delete’ folder.


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     About the author

Jason has traveled the world extensively during the last 20 years, with overland journeys on six continents and across over 90 countries. This site serves as a chronicle of the images and tales from these journeys, as well as offering advice and general information for other like minded travelers.

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  • Anonymous

    Great story. I haven’t been to this part of the world before, but I have some friends who’ve been there. I totally agree that sometimes the journey is one that sticks out in memory most. It reminds me of how much money I spent getting from central Costa Rica to Nicaragua. I took several different vans, crossed a scary looking border until I finally made it. It was so worth it though.

  • Anonymous

    What a cool story, again you have added another place on my to-see list. I had no idea the geography of Northern Pakistan was like this, it looks amazing. The people here sound like they were very warm and welcoming as well. I agree with your comment above about the fondest memories being the most physically or mentally grueling journeys. One of my biggest memories was a hike in Peru where we got caught in a torrential rainstorm that caused landslides down the mountain while we were climbing up. A few times we were almost swept over the cliff by rushing water and mud. By the time we finally reached the top where our camp was, my wife released all the fear and anxiety that she had to bottle up, to the point of hyperventilation. That day will never be erased from our memory.

  • Dave from The Longest Way Home

    Excellent, excellent post Jason. Talk about a defrag of memories you are providing me with too!

    I have a friend from Chitral, and during my time there Mr Musharaf made life quite difficult in terms of getting around there.

    The AK-47 houses and the trucks full of men with rifles. There really is not other place in the world like this. In someways it’s great that not so many tourist can, do, or should go there anymore. Only a rare few have in the last decade.

    I kinda hope this continues. That said, I would go back with out a doubt. Might not be so lucky this time around! ;)

  • Jason

    Hey Steve, Thanks for your input mate. Northern Pakistan is no doubt a fair bit more dangerous today than it was when I was there, but with careful planing (and a bit of luck) you could still have a great experience there. I know what you mean when you talk about multiple vans and buses to get across some borders. Sometimes you wish they could go from point A to point B and not via C,D & E first. That’s cool you’ve been to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. They are the only two countries I haven’t been to in central America. Maybe I’ll have to take that multi van ride one day in the future.

  • Jason

    Hey Peter, Glad you liked the story. The Northern Pakistan region would be a bit more restrictive and dangerous to visit today, but if well researched and with local knowledge, would still offer a great experience in my opinion. The war in neighboring Afghanistan (that spills over the border from time to time) has no doubt caused the people of the region great hardships, but I know they would still welcome the traveler with great respect even today.

    Your adventure in Peru sounds like it was a bit crazy at the time, and I’m glad you both got through it unscathed. There’s no doubt though, when you sit around a camp fire at night with a few beers you always love to tell people about that memory. I can understand Dalene’s emotional release after you made it through, those moments can be quite intense and it’s just pure instinct and adrenalin that gets you through. Appreciate your comment mate, thanks for stopping by.

  • Jason

    Hey Dave, Glad you enjoyed the post and I’ve helped defrag that organic hard drive for you. There’s no doubt that it would be a different place today, and must have been tough when you were there as it was only a couple of years ago. For me, the region of Northern Pakistan is one of the best places I’ve ever been to, and I’ve seen my fair share.

    Having a friend in Chitral would have been quite handy for you. Did you catch any polo games when you were there? I watched a match that was quite a spectacle indeed. There were thousands of people watching it. Pakistani military and VIP’s everywhere, and when they played Buzkashi during the half time break in the polo, the place went crazy. It was quite a site, and a great experience. Many thanks for the comment mate.

  • Mick

    G’day Jase, Your photos of the Karakoram nearly made me cry. Too much Aldi gin perhaps, or rather sweet nostalgia for a time of my life when the wonders of traveling in and around and this wonderful region left me so full of joy i decided to stay.
    To begin with it was those soaring mountain ranges that captivated me, the adventure they offered for hiking and climbing, the “other worldly” landscapes of glacier and ice. The most beautiful part of the world i have seen.
    Then i was lucky enough to visit the Kalashi for their spring festival. The Kalash are a close knit people of only a few thousand who live in a few small valleys that run towards Afganistan, they are pagan and under a great deal of pressure to maintain their beliefs whilst living in an Islamic state. My time there was again a wonder. I was welcomed into their homes and into their festival and it was an absolute pleasure to be there. The culmination of the festival for me was dancing on a ridge top above the valley, arm in arm with the men as we ran up behind the women of the village, who were dancing arm in arm, and swapped good natured and suggestive banter as to what the immediate future might bring for us if only we could all agree. There was little agreement.
    Then there was the history of the place, the ancient trade routes from China to Europe, the local intrigue within the royal families, the early British adventurers of the “Great Game” and later the colonisers. First Buddha and then Islam. I was engrossed.
    But for all this, my sweetest memory from my time there was the warmth, generosity and hospitality of the people of Chitral. Outstanding. It was a time before the invasion of Afganistan by the Americans and a relatively peaceful Pakistan existed then. I wish the people of Chitral a peaceful future and thank them for their kindness.

  • Jason

    Well hello mate. I knew it wouldn’t be long until a few people such as yourself tracked my blog down. I think Liza let the cat out of the bag though. Mick your description of the region above, could only have come from someone who’s spent quite some time in the area, compared to myself who only breezed through. I think we’ve spoken before about the Kalashi people, and we were only fortunate enough to spend a day with them. The festival sound’s like a once in a lifetime experience.

    Hiking the mountains, and crossing glaciers on our own with no one else around was also a great experience, but as you know all to well the people from this region (and especially Chitral) are a special breed. Tough and generous, are two words that come to mind for myself. I’ll never forget the time a street cobbler fixed one of Liza’s hiking boots. He done a terrific job and when I went to pay, he refused. I tried again to pay and once again he refused, so I thanked him kindly for his generosity and we went on our way. The man was probably struggling to feed his family, and here was a rich westerner (relatively speaking anyway) willing to pay and he did not want my money. This is one of many instances such as this.

    Thanks for stopping by mate, and I believe we have your latest number and I must give you a call. I’m starting to feel guilty.

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