Fashion stylist and journalist Mehek Saeed made a long-awaited trip to Hunza this summer; here she gives us a lowdown on how to make the most of a visit to this magical valley, from dealing with flight cancellations (after boarding the plane!) to discovering pristine landscapes, sampling local delicacies to packing right.
How did you travel from Lahore to Hunza?
Our initial plan was to drive to Islamabad, take a flight to Skardu and then drive to Hunza, but as luck and monsoon rains would have it, our flight got cancelled (once we boarded it!!!) We were warned about the cancellations so had a plan B in place, to drive to Chitral and onwards to Hunza.
How long was the journey by road? Where and how often did you stop over?
We left Islamabad at 1 pm and drove straight for 9 straight hours to Hindukush Heights in Chitral with a stopover for lunch. At around midnight, we reached the hotel – a comfortable, cosy spot that I would happily come back to again. The place was clean, had great food and good décor – very cottage in the hills vibes. On our way onwards, we camped at Shandur to and got lucky enough to experience the Persoid meteor shower under the night sky and then left for Hunza the next morning.
What were some of the most interesting places/sights you saw on the journey?
Some of the most interesting parts of the journey were the hours we spent in the car. In no way is flying to the north better than driving – the only time it makes sense is if one gets tired after and takes a flight back. We chose to take a different route on the drive back home. No regrets. Driving around in Chitral we saw the Chitral Fort and Museum, explored the Kalash Valley and went to a cute little trout farm for lunch. My wishlist for next time is to see the Gol National Park and the much recommended hotel around their hot springs called Injegaan. On the way to Hunza via Shandur, we saw the most beautiful untouched land with wild running horses, icy cold streams with water clear enough for us to drink from and ever changing landscapes. Barsat Valley and Phunder Lake were two highlights from the drive to Hunza.
Where did you stay in Hunza?
We stayed at Mountain Story in Aliabad for six nights and after this trip I’m going to deem it my favourite local hotel. It feels rather like a hostel, in that the rooms are small and the focus is on the communal spaces – the dining room and the bar. The owner, Asma, is almost always around and happy to have a chat to fill you in on what to do while you’re around. The hotel ended up becoming one of the most special parts of the trip – from waking up to the sound of distant local music, having breakfast on their balcony, becoming friends with the dogs on the property to having the best times around their bar playing board games. Mountain Story once had a Salt Arts event and the artist Zahid Mayo came and wrote Ghalib’s poetry on the walls of room number 5 which of course, inspired an Instagram upload for me.
What were the top sights that you saw in and around Hunza?
Some of the most memorable things we did were visit Altit Fort which is one of their historical forts but around it is a bustling little community where we witnessed and participated (well… kind of became part of) a local wedding. The Baltit Fort which was also charming and gave a breath-taking view of the city from its height atop a hill. Around both were women development set-ups and even an all-woman run restaurant at the former called Kha Basi.
The Passu cones are also worth visiting and hiking up to the glacier there is recommended. The main market centre in Karimabad also surprised me in so many ways – the shopkeepers were well educated (95% literacy rate) and happy to share the history of the place.
Did you hire a guide?
We had a guide for the first leg of the journey as well as a separate one for Hunza. Salar Kazim of Apricot Tours was an excellent guide for Hunza– being a local, he knew the language and the people.
Did you sample the local cuisine? What are your recommendations in terms of restaurants and dishes?
A bunch of people had told me that the food in Hunza isn’t great but I have to disagree. There were a couple of delicious feasts to be had but at the top on the list would be my meal at the Hidden Paradise restaurant in Karimabad market. They do a tasting of the local cuisine and make dishes with yak meat that are just devastatingly good! I also really like their local Dow Dow soup, of which I had a few versions but the best was at Kha Basi and Hidden Paradise.
I tried a couple of breakfast items at Café de Hunza, a spinach pancake, the rostri and of course their walnut cake and each is a must try! The Glacier Breeze restaurant also had delicious food which serves as fuel before your treak up to the glacier and a reward if you have it after.
The food at Mountain Story should also not be overlooked – they had local, continental and Pakistani food and it was all delicious.
What did you buy?
It’s safe to say – a lot more than I expected to. The Karimabad market was a treasure chest of things that had cultural appeal like their oxidized silver jewellery and some handwoven silk jackets, all of which were too good not to grab. There was also a cool carpet shop called Hunzai Carpets I got a carpet from. They create dyes from naturally occurring stones and use them to create custom carpets. I picked up t-shirts that had local designs on them and couldn’t leave without their local honey, apricot oil and dry fruits in tow! In Chitral I picked up some topis, the belts Kalashi women wear and some kotis.
List 5 essential travel items to take on a trip to Hunza.
It really depends on the time of year one is going in but when we went in August it was rather hot. I’d say:
Comfortable hiking shoes
A notepad to jot down your experiences
A GoPro/camera to capture them and
A solid travel crew!
What do you consider to be the wardrobe essentials that merge comfort + style for a trip up North?
I packed very light for this trip because we were going to be on the road for most of it so I narrowed my wardrobe down to staples and picked pieces that could be styled differently. My mom jeans, a tank top and a light oversized jacket/shirt was what I was mostly in. I picked up local pieces like a Chitrali jacket, the Hunzai tees along the way but it was mostly a comfortably chic vibe that I picked for this trip. I did pack a “The Sun Rises in The East” shirt that was rather perfect to shoot against our epic views from Mountain Story.
Any unforeseen challenges that came up during the trip and how did you deal with those?
We had minor bumps along the way like our flight getting cancelled, flat tires, our friends’ cars getting stuck in traffic, getting left behind and not having signals to coordinate but it was all manageable and we kept the happy energy and good vibes going.
What safety precautions did you keep in mind given the Covid situation?
We masked up whenever heading to public spaces and it was also enforced in the market and at the forts. Besides that, we got tested for Covid as a safety precaution before leaving for the trip and made sure the people we were travelling with were as careful about social distancing as we were.