I am immensely grateful to Ford Smith and Max Bechdel for believing in this idea, and committing to making the trip happen with me, despite the vast number of unknowns surrounding the agenda. I couldn’t have asked for better company on this adventure, and I can’t wait to go back. For better photos of Pakistan, including several from our trip, follow Imranthetrekker on Instagram.
Our flight arrived in Islamabad at 4:40 am, it was dark and the call to prayer soon echoed over a distant loud speaker as we made our way outside to unwrap our boats and survey the parking lot for Imran and the jeep. For a moment I could hear the voices of my friends, “How did you find this guy?” and my facetious response of, “I found him on Instagram” reverberating in the back of my mind…
Max on day one, Kunhar River near Balakot
KUNHAR RIVER GALLERY
Ford scouting, Kunhar River
Max, Kunhar River
Curious onlookers observe Ford, Kunhar River
Jo, Kunhar River, photo by Ford
Our next destination was the Hunza River, and our plan was to paddle from just below Attabad Lake to the confluence with the Gilgit River, in three or four days. From where Imran left us the Hunza was a piercing blue amongst a sea of browns and greys. It weaves through a maze of boulders, and away from the towering white peaks, looming in the clouds upstream.
HUNZA RIVER GALLERY
Ford carrying a boat to the Karakoram Highway from the Hunza, giving a new meaning to roadside
Lunch break rocks, Hunza River, photo by Max
Camp with a mystery milk stream, Hunza River #milkandhoney #landofplenty
Max, Hunza River
Ford demonstrating drysock envy at camp, Hunza River #plasticbagguy
Max and Ford beneath a forming dust plume from road blasting, Hunza River.
Unfortunately our plan was a little foiled by the onset of the buttpeeing epidemic; the poop diaries and team bonding over bowel movements commenced. Max was reduced to the fetal position in between sessions of double ended intestine expulsion, and after one night we decided to hike out. Ford and I shuttled the boats and gear to the highway in stages, as it became evident we were starting our own poop diaries. Within two hours of deciding to hike out and notifying Imran, he met us where we reached the highway and took us to a guest house in Karimabad for the remainder of our sick day.
Best BBQ chicken in Gilgit, post multi-day feast
Mostly recovered, we launched again the next day from near Karimabad with a solid case of untrustworthy farts. Slightly past the Altit Fort and the Ganesh Bridge, the Hispar confluence from the left turns the Hunza from blue to a silty grey. Local lore attributes the secrets of longevity to the silt in the Hunza waters, and the apricots, they might be onto something.The Hunza provides a complete multi-day experience with hotsprings, huge rocks, rapids, good camping, and views of the Old Silk Road zig-zagging in the scree, and Rakaposhi towering above, dwarfing the foothills. A successful three days later we met Imran in Gilgit and b-lined for some barbecued chicken.
Ford soaking in a rare glimpse of the sun on the Astore River
We spent the next night in Gilgit and set out early the next morning for the Astore River. On the way we passed where the Gilgit River joins the Indus, which happens to also be where the Karakoram, Hindu Kush, and Himalaya mountain ranges meet at a bewildering confluence of big rivers and even bigger mountains. The bottom part of the Astore, near where it meets the Indus, is stout as. I’m not sure if I found the thought of running the stouts, or the one-lane wide, two-way road overhanging them scarier. I struggled between trying to road scout stouts and trying not to look down. I distracted myself from the terrors of oncoming traffic by discussing the perils of relationships and relevance of snapchats with Ford in the backseat of the jeep. Further up towards the town of Astore are several sections of the river to choose from. We picked a pleasant one, it had roadside access at the put in and takeout, and several fun rapids. The locals enthusiastically cheered to us from the road as we made our way down the river, and helped us with our boats at the takeout.
Ford, Astore River
Of all the places we traveled in Pakistan, to me Shimshal felt the most other-wordly, more like another planet than a different drainage. After the police checkpoint at the mouth of the Shimshal River, we encountered no other vehicles or people on the road to Shimshal, by far the longest we’d gone without seeing anyone since arriving in Pakistan. The road zig-zags back and forth across the river, and only separates from the canyon for a short while on the climb to Shimshal. The village is situated at 10,029 feet, not far from China, and surrounded by 7000+ meter peaks. Upon reaching the village we went to the Sifat Guest House, and were welcomed into a sitting room with a wood stove and intricately carved wooden framing. We didn’t end up paddling the river due to the low water level, and even lower temperature. Instead we indulged in the cultural experience of attending a Shimshali wedding (essentially the whole village attended), complete with traditional food, music, and dancing. An elder at the wedding explained to me that during two winter months, though the sun rises, the mountains block it entirely from shining on the village. The Shimshali people are hard as. Despite not paddling, Shimshal was definitely one of the highlights of the trip for me.
Sifat Guest House, Shimshal
Max and Ford lifestyling in the warmth at the Sifat Guest House
Wedding festivities in Shimshal
Mulungutti Glacier meets the Shimshal River
Back to the Hunza
The Shimshal flows into the Hunza River near Pasu, at the base of the Pasu peaks, and soon after the Hunza flows into and out of Attabad Lake. Since we were in the neighborhood, we stayed the night in Karimabad and the next morning launched for a day run on the Hunza, just below Attabad, to finish the section we hiked out of when we were sick.
It was a crisp morning in the shade, getting ready required prying frozen spray skirts onto cockpit rims and knocking ice out of our helmets. Shortly after putting on, I added another chapter to my poop diary, I didn’t poop for three days, and then I did. At one point I thought the boys were throwing rocks at me while I was pooping (for the second time on the same portage), then quickly realized I was being pummeled by rockfall as the cliffside above crumbled, and I donned my helmet and scooted for cover. We made it to the takeout near Ganesh Bridge about three minutes before the sun set behind a mountain. That evening we dined in Karimabad and played ping pong with the kids at our guest house.
RETURN TO HUNZA GALLERY
Ford beneath the Altit Fort on the Hunza, near Ganesh Bridge
Ford stroking in the sun, Hunza River
Max amongst it, Hunza River
Ghizer (upper Gilgit)
We left Karimabad and the Hunza drainage bound for the Ghizer Valley, and its tributaries. The first evening we ventured up the Ishkoman River and stayed in a village called Chatorkhand. We continued driving up the Ishkoman River without finding any rapids, and by the time we reached a section where rapids were more likely, the river flow had reduced to a barely runnable level and we turned back.
Waiting for the radiator to thaw at the guest house in Chatorkhand, Ishkoman drainage
We returned to the Ghizer drainage and stayed in Gupis for a night, and then spent the next morning paddling a section of the Ghizer River we had scouted from the road the prior afternoon. After paddling we continued up river to Phander, situated at about 9,500 feet and one of the last places to stay before crossing Shandur Pass. In Phander we had a Thanksgiving dinner of yak stew, and tried to teach a policeman who loaned us a deck of cards how to play presidents and assholes. I’m fairly certain we were the butts of several trump jokes, pretty much every time we said president he said something in urdu and laughed, especially when we told him he was the vice president.
Thanksgiving Day team photo, Ghizer River, photo by Imran
Ghizer River, from the road
Ford, Thanksgiving day, Ghizer River
Road scouting the Ghizer from Khalti Lake outfall
We crossed 12,000+ foot Shandur Pass and stopped for a cup of tea on the summit. Shandur Lake was frozen over, and the famous polo grounds were empty. The temperatures prompted us to not stay long on top of the windy pass. We started our descent towards the Laspur River, optimistic that there would be water, and that it might even be warmer.
Shandur pass summit looking towards the Laspur drainage
The Laspur River did have water in it, despite the elevation of its origin. When we reached Harchin, our anticipated put in, it was late afternoon. This would be our first run on the trip that we didn’t drive up, or road scout at all prior to launching. We decided to wait till morning to have more daylight. A very friendly local, Manzoor, operates a guest house with his uncle and teaches in a nearby school. He gave us a full tour of Raman, the village across the river from Harchin. He told us the history of the bridge dating back to 1931 that connects Raman and Harchin, showed us a flour mill built on the edge of the river, and introduced us to his polo pony. Locally grown apples, pears, and dried apricots were served as an appetizer. Later that evening we feasted on slow cooked yak and potatoes. The people in this area were exceedingly nice, our police escorts met us at the takeout where Imran picked us up, and even joined us for lunch in Mastuj afterwards.
LASPUR RIVER GALLERY
Max, Laspur River
Ford walking to the Laspur put in, Harchin
Laspur takeout with our security detail, photo by Imran
Chitral – Mastuj River and Luthko River
Not far from where we took out, the Laspur flows north into the Mastuj River which flows west and becomes the Chitral River at the confluence with the Luthko River, not far from the town Chitral. We stayed in Chitral and first thing in the morning set out to register as foreigners and obtain the necessary permission to paddle. On our way back to the guest house we visited a mosque, and squeezed through a maze of micro markets. By afternoon we were headed for the Mastuj River. The section we picked turned out to be a lot of fun. Daylight constricted our run that day and we’d seen at least one canyon from the road that we didn’t get to; naturally, we went back the next day.
Max boofing the entrance, Mastuj River
The Mastuj was every bit as fun on the second day, and then some, because we went through a few more gorges. Almost immediately after the tightest gorge of the whole trip, the river opens up and the road is conveniently right there, and so was Imran, and our friendly police escort. As we took off our kayaking gear by the jeep a swarm of boys came running from a distant school and before we knew it we were surrounded. Rather hilariously Imran and our police escort drew an imaginary line and proceeded to herd the children behind it until we finished changing.
Max, Mastuj River
For the last day paddling on our trip we were tempted to return to the Mastuj, again, but ultimately decided to give the Luthko a go. The further up the canyon we drove the higher the canyon walls grew, but the road conveniently remained quite near the river. The whitewater was continuous and the gradient steep. It eventually tapered out and opened up, and the sun hit the water.
MASTUJ AND LUTHKO RIVER GALLERY
Max scouting, Mastuj River
Roadside rapids, Mastuj River
Max and Ford, Mastuj River
Mastuj takeout scene
Looking down the Luthko River
Ford, Luthko River
Max, Luthko River
Jo and some skeptical locals at the Luthko takeout, photo by Ford
The Stans are calling, and I want to go back.