Pakistanis are among the most hospitable people on the planet, as you’ll experience when you take the bold step of traveling to Northern Pakistan.
You’ll be treated to numerous snacks and cups of tea, and you’ll make lots of new friends who will do anything to make you feel welcome in their country!
You won’t regret visiting the Northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan, part of historic Kashmir, which hosts over 8 mountains higher than 8.000 meters.
The valleys and villages between the mountains are magnificent. With hardly another foreign tourist in sight, this destination is very much off the beaten track.
There are two ways to reach Gilgit- Baltistan: by plane or by road.
There are two civilian airports in Gilgit- Baltistan, Skardu and Gilgit. These airports have daily flights to Islamabad, and less regular connections to other Pakistani cities such as Lahore and Peshawar.
Only the national airline, Pakistan International Airlines (PIA), is flying to and from Gilgit Baltistan. Tickets are relatively cheap, at around EUR 80 for a return ticket, which can easily be booked on PIA’s website.
Gilgit Airport is only served by turboprop ATR-planes. Skardu has been extended, allowing larger planes (A-320 or B-737) to land here.
The flight to Skardu is definitely the most beautiful I have ever taken.
You glide between the snow-covered mountains, while the pilot guides you through the names of the mountains and valleys over the intercom system.
Most flights arrive and depart in the (early) morning. Flights are often canceled due to the weather, especially in the winter months.
Driving by road is usually only possible in the warmer months. Most roads are inaccessible between late October and early April. There are three ways into Northern Pakistan:
From China – the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) starts in Kashgar and leads all the way to the Khunjerab pass and the Pakistan border. Once here, the road continues into Pakistan, past Sost, to Hunza and Gilgit.
At Chitral one needs to take the Shandur Pass to reach Gilgit. This spectacular road is famous for the beautiful Shandur Lake, and the infamous polo matches played in July between the rivaling teams of Gilgit and Chitral.
From Islamabad, it is a steep 12-hour drive to reach Gilgit. Take the M-1 to Peshawar, and then the M-15 Hazara Motorway, all the way up to Mansehra.
At Mansehra, turn into the N-15 national highway which leads you through the beautiful Kaghan and Naran valleys to the Babusar Pass, which is the gateway to the North. From here, it’s just 2 more hours until you reach Gilgit.
We rented a Toyota Landcruiser Prado with a driver and a guide which was an excellent and comfortable way to get around.
Some roads are paved and in good condition (the KKH to the Chinese border, and the Gilgit-Skardu road) but most are unpaved and full of potholes.
A 4×4 therefore comes recommended if you want to venture off the beaten paths.
While you could get around with minibuses, it’s really worth investing in a comfortable ride from which you can enjoy the magnificent landscapes on the way.
Situated at the confluence of the Indus and Shigar rivers, at an altitude of 2.500 meter, Skardu is one of the few towns in sparsely populated Gilgit-Baltistan.
The town is practically unreachable during winter except by air, and a good place to stock up on basic supplies which are easier to get here than elsewhere.
Skardu is a good place to explore the Shigar valley, Khaplu, to go to the Central Karakoram National Park or the Deosai Plains.
After arriving in Skardu, visit the Katpana Desert and climb to the Kharpocho fort with wonderful views over the city. Then drive to the Kachura lakes.
The beautiful Shangrila Resort is located on Lower Kachura lake, but if the weather is good, Upper Kachura lake is a real beauty. The clear turquois waters look inviting for a swim, and indeed it’s less cold than you would expect!
Then drive to the Shigar valley (around 30 mins). Stay at the Serena Shigar Fort which has been wonderfully restored by the Aga Khan Foundation and turned into a hotel. This is a truly excellent place to stay, with beautifully decorated rooms, and delicious food. The tourism is sustainable, as most profits flow back to the local community!
Drive back down to the Indus, but leave the main road to visit the Blind Lake, called ‘blind’ as it can hardly be seen from any of the roads (although we could!). The mountains are beautifully mirrored in the still water.
Next stop should be the Sarfaranga desert on the main road down to take a buggy, quadbike, or jeep into the sand dunes. Drive further down to reach the double bridges crossing the Indus marking the transition from the Shigar valley.
From here, visit the Manthokha waterfall which plunges down from great heights, and which you can observe (without getting wet!) while enjoying a cup of local mountain tea on the café terrace.
Afterwards, drive back to the Indus valley and return to Skardu, or turn right to Khaplu.
ð Detour KHAPLU
If you feel active, hike to the Marsur Rock (3 hours return) which provides amazing views over the Sarfaranga desert and Skardu. Otherwise, the ninth-century rock carvings provide for another interesting stop.
Spend the night at the Shangrila Resort. The red-roofed cottages dotted around the Lower Kachura lake provide excellent (albeit pricy) accommodation.
Prepare for a long drive, but don’t bother bringing a book—there’s way too much to see on the way! The largely unpaved road takes you along the river to the Sadpara lake, and gradually rises to over 4.000 meters where the Deosai plains begin.
Spend the day hiking between the green fields and see if you can spot an ibex or even a snow leopard!
Continue along the road past the Sheosar Lake, and drive to Astore. If you still have energy after this long but lovely day, drive up to Rama Meadows just outside the village for some more incredible views!
There’s only few places to stay in Astore, and no good hotels. My recommendation is the Wazir Guesthouse; it is basic but clean, and near the Rama Meadows.
The following morning, set course for Gilgit and continue the drive through the Astore valley. Stop on the way to look at Nanga Parbat, at 8.126 the ninth-highest mountain in the world and known as the ‘killer mountain’ as it has taken the life of many an aspiring climber.
The junction point where several rivers flow into the Indus is also worth a stop. From here, you join the well-paved Karakoram Highway (KKH) for the last stretch to Gilgit.
If you feel adventurous, instead of turning right to Gilgit, turn left on the KKH and park your car near the Raikot bridge. Transfer into a jeep which will take you over the dangerous road to the famous Fairy Meadows!
ð Detour FAIRY MEADOWS and NANGA PARBAT BASE CAMP
For this night, I recommend the lovely Riverdale Resort on the outskirts of Gilgit. The houses are built in traditional style, and there’s a nice garden to sit and relax.
The staff can also make a bonfire for you, while you eat your trout dinner (there’s also a fish farm on the resort – best trout I ever had!) listening to the sounds of the Gilgit river flowing by.
I would suggest the Desi omelet for breakfast – it is my personal favorite, but at Riverdale it was particularly good. Then you have the choice to continue northwards over the KKH to Hunza, or to turn west and drive via the Ghizer valley and over the Shandur Pass to Chitral.
ð Detour GHIZER VALLEY, SHANDUR AND CHITRAL
It is a mere 2 hour drive to Hunza, which is lovely after the amazing but car-heavy last few days. There are several stops on the way to break the journey. The best is probably at a sign designating part of the old Silk Road, which is clearly visible in the mountains on the other side of the river.
And if you turn around, you have a great view over Rakaposhi (7.788 meter). Of course if the weather allows it! From here, you can also cross the bridge into the Naltar valley, which even hosts a ski resort!
ð Detour NALTAR VALLEY
When entering the Hunza Valley, you can see the difference with previous days. The valley is lush and green, and is famed for its fruit orchards (especially apricots and apples, depending on the season).
Visit the Altit Fort, the oldest in the region, and which provides excellent views over the Hunza river and valley. Stunning! For those in fear of heights, do not look over the fort walls.
I can suggest the Serena Altit Fort Residence for the night’s stay. The Serena is not located inside the fort, like in Shigar, but in a charming restored building just below the fort, which counts a few rooms in a fruit orchard. I found this Serena not as comfortable and beautiful as some other Serena properties – it is clearly still under development – but it is nonetheless good and clean.
An alternative is the Hard Rock Hotel in Duikar, which occupies a superb location overlooking the Hunza valley. Whether you stay here or not, make sure to visit Duikar Hill for sunset. Seeing the sun sink below the mountains catching the last rays of light over the valley is simply magical
Walk or drive to Karimabad to visit the magnificent Baltit Fort. Younger but far larger than the Altit Fort, the Baltit Fort occupies a fantastic location overlooking the valley. Take the tour, as it really provides insightful information about local history and culture!
The steep winding road to Baltit Fort is lined with tourist shops all selling more-or-less the same things: gemstones, scarves, wooden statues, and jewelry. Some objects are really beautiful! But make sure to compare prices in a few different shops, as Westerners are routinely overcharged.
Have lunch in one of Hunza’s many good restaurants, such as Wild Thyme, which used to be an Islamabad favorite until the owners decided to locate back to Hunza in 2020. Hunza fish and chips might sound plain and boring, but it is very, very tasty. Do try a dessert, they are all excellent!
During the afternoon, drive up the Karakoram Highway to the Attabad Lake, which was formed in 2010 after a landslide blocked the river and submerged villages and roads under water.
The Chinese have built several tunnel sections here bypassing the disappeared road, in-between providing magnificent views over the lake. Go for a swim or ride a jetski if you’re up for it!
The Cultural Museum in Gulmit is worth a brief visit, but the Hossaini Suspension Bridge (known as the most dangerous bridge in the world!) is a must-stop. From the parking lot, you walk down for 10 minutes to reach the rickety-looking bridge. Daredevils will love this – try to cross to the other side! But don’t worry, no accidents have happened here (yet!).
There are two options for the night. The finest (and most expensive!) option is the Luxus Hunza Attabad Lake Resort. The wooden cabins are nice, and the views of the lake are fantastic through the wall-high windows, but is it really worth the price…?
A better option in my view is the Borith Lake Resort, 5-10 minutes over an unpaved road from the KKH. Basic but fine rooms have nice terraces with excellent views over the hidden Borith Lake. Walk around it in around one hour.
Drive further along the legendary Karakoram Highway up north, all the way to the Chinese border on the Khunjerab Pass (at 4.693 meter).
If you can brave the elements here, and the cold weather, build a snowman! If you need money though, try elsewhere, as the proudly announced ‘highest ATM in the world’ has not been working for quite a while…
On your way there or on the way back there are several worthwhile stopping points. The bazar of Sost, the last village before the Chinese border, is one of them. Many salesmen try to sell you cheap Chinese knock-offs of Western brands in this harsh climatological environment.
One place you certainly MUST stop is the Yak Grill, just outside Passu. The chef worked in Dubai for several years, and decided to open a yak-meat restaurant here, in the middle of nowhere. And the food is just amazing. The yak steak was among, if not the best steak I ever had!! The other two options on the menu, the yak burger and the yak dry chili are equally tasty.
The drive down from Khunjerab back to Gilgit is long, but the landscapes are just awesome. If you’re lucky, it is slightly cloudy – otherwise the sun will be shining right in your face most of the time…
As you need to catch a flight back to Islamabad the next day, stay at the Gilgit Serena Hotel, a mere 15 minutes away from the airport. This is actually the only real hotel in the entire province. The rooms are small but very good, and the restaurant (which can only be reached by stairs) is delicious!
On day 8, fly back to Islamabad from Gilgit, or continue your journey westwards, through the Ghizer valley and the Shandur Pass to beautiful Chitral.
Fairy Meadows – breathtaking landscape, although increasingly encroached on by tourism. The road to Fairy Meadows is outright dangerous. You need to rent a jeep from Raikot Bridge, and walk the last few hours. You will be accompanied by an armed guard. Fairy Meadows provides basic accommodation, where you can stay if you want to continue on to Nanga Parbat Base Camp. It is an eight-hour return hike from Fairy Meadows.
Khaplu – more beautiful mountain scenery, with turquois-colored mountain lakes and another beautiful Serena hotel located in the Khaplu Fort. From Khaplu, you can do the two-day hike to Machulo-La which provides an excellent viewpoint over K2 and other famous peaks in the area.
K2 Base Camp – first, you drive to Askole (around 6 hours from Skardu in a 4×4 vehicle). Then it’s a 12-day return trekking, staying in tents in the camps along the way. Beware of altitude sickness! But if you make it, the views of several 8.000+ peaks, including K2, are simply amazing.
Ghizer Valley, Shandur Pass, and Chitral – the Ghizer valley is the new Hunza, equally beautiful but without the tourists! From there, take the Shandur Pass, famous for its lake and the annual polo match in July between rivals Chitral and Gilgit, eventually arriving in the old kingdom of Chitral (see the guide on Chitral). From here, you can drive south to Peshawar (around 8 hours), or take the twice-weekly flight to Islamabad.
For more travel inspirations in Pakistan check out the post: Chitral Weekend Getaway from Islamabad
Arjen aims to visit every country in the world (currently at around 85). His wife thinks he is a walking GPS! As an avid traveler, Arjen has successfully arranged tours for family and friends around Europe, Morocco, China and Pakistan. When he’s not wrestling with world affairs he loves diving, traveling and reading in no particular order.
This page may contain affiliate links, which means I will receive a commission if you buy one of these products, at no additional cost to you. I only list things that I personally love.