Gilgit’s dusty bazaar is not particularly colourful but it’s lively and eclectic, filled with people drawn from Karachi to Kashgar. It’s not unusual to hear Uyghur, Wakhi, Burushaski, Khowar and Pashto; Urdu and English are also widely spoken. The town wakes early to muezzins in scores of mosques calling the faithful to dawn prayers.
Baltit is Hunza’s ancient capital. Its magnificent fort, on a throne-like ridge with Ultar Nala yawning behind it, has always been the kingdom’s focal point. The fort served as the royal palace for over 750 years until last century, when sounder quarters were built below in what came to be called Karimabad.
Gojal & the Khunjerab Pass
The Khunjerab and Ghujerab Rivers merge below the Khunjerab Pass to form the Hunza River, the only stream to cut across the high spine of the Karakoram. It does so in Gojal (the still-used historical name for the region commonly described as ‘upper Hunza’), which extends from the pass to where the river turns west into ‘Hunza proper’.
Mingora & Saidu Sharif
In recent decades the two towns of Mingora and Saidu Sharif have merged into one another to form a sprawling unit. Mingora is the older market town with a heaving bazaar, long-distance transport and most of the hotels. Saidu Sharif is the traditional seat of Swat power and the administrative headquarters for the Malakand Division that also covers Dir and Chitral.
Rounding the western end of the Himalaya at Nanga Parbat (8125m), the Indus River cuts a gorge so deep that some parts see only a few hours of sunlight a day, and are so inhospitable that even the caravan routes bypassed it. The Highway traveller is surrounded by this fractured, crumbling landscape with barely a blade of grass visible – magnificent and ominous.
The Indus barely seems to move across the immense, flat Skardu Valley, 40km long, 10km wide and carpeted with silvery grey sand dunes. In between dust storms the land seems cleansed and freeze-dried, and the light is intense. The brown mountains give no hint of the white giants beyond.
Tourists don’t pay much attention to Mansehra except to get out and squint at three rocks on the northern outskirts, on which King Ashoka inscribed a set of edicts over 2200 years ago. The bazaar is lively, bearing traces of the town’s history as a Sikh garrison town in the early 19th century.