Whatever our expectations might have been, Pakistan defies them all. We are in the Phandar Valley, which connects Gilgit-Baltistan to Chitral in Northern Pakistan. After a difficult expedition in the adjacent Hunza Valley, we’re here to unwind in the turquoise lakes and rivers that wind gently between the majestic mountains of the Karakoram range. Pakistan has received bad press over the last few years, and like much of the Islamic world, has suffered greatly from the decline in international tourism since 9/11. As we drift down the river in our packrafts, it’s almost impossible to reconcile the violent images of Pakistan we see on the news with the rural idyll we see before us. On either side of the river, grassy banks and cultivated fields blanket the valley floor. Children splash in the shallows, men cast fishing lines and women chatter brightly as they wash clothing at the water’s edge. It is a way of life that hasn’t changed for generations, yet with the growth in domestic tourism, all this could change.
In Phandar the river is a startling clear blue. It’s the most striking feature of the valley (apart from the mountains, which, by the time you’ve managed to get here, you’ll have grown accustomed to). The wide valley floor is a patchwork of bright yellow and green fields, carefully delineated by an intricate system of narrow irrigation channels painstakingly maintained by hand on a continuous basis. Here and there a cow is tethered to a stake, chewing cuds idly, and every now and again a motorbike putters by on nearby dirt tracks.
The morning air is fragrant and cool. Exhausted after so much arduous travel, we slept like the dead and woke refreshed. Supper comprised of locally-caught trout, which can be bought by the kilogram. Deep fried to perfection, they are the perfect antidote to the weeks of super noodles and chocolate we’ve been eating on the expedition. Having sent our kit ahead to the next hotel, we make our way through the fields to the water’s edge and start to inflate the rafts. We attract one or two curious glances, but nothing more. It’s not until we’re actually on the water that people start to take notice. Surprisingly, few people come here to raft. This seems inexplicable to us. True, if you need grade five extreme white water, this might not be the place for you, but for everyone else, it’s perfect. We find sections of manageable white water to play around in, interspersed with long languorous stretches of smooth river.
We glide from one village to the next, with little effort. We try to stay within hailing distance of one another, but after ten minutes of this, we give up and resign ourselves to the gentle current that pulls us slowly downstream. Stretched out on top of our rafts, we let the sun warm us through our dry suits. The greatest hazard we face are fishing lines cast into the mid-stream, but these are easily avoided and are often accompanied by a friendly exchange of words. Everyone is eager to show us a different side to Pakistan from the one to which we have grown accustomed. We are constantly asked what we think of Pakistan, and whether we are enjoying ourselves. People here are understandably proud of their country and feel hurt by the negative stories we encounter in the media. Foreign tourists like us bring much-needed revenue to local communities in the area. The welcome we have received has been, at times, overwhelming – humbling almost. How many people in the UK would offer cups of tea to Pakistani tourists hiking through their villages, we wonder?
As far as we can tell, we are the only tourists here. Most people – whether foreign or domestic – are drawn to the neighbouring Hunza Valley, and Phandar appears to have escaped, for now, the worst effects of mass tourism.
As a foreigner, you can travel freely and unencumbered up and down the valley. Transport and accommodation can be found at short notice and no great cost. If you don’t mind bedsheets that stick to you when you roll over or pillows that haven’t been changed since last tourist season, you can stay in any one of the countless little roadside motels that have sprung up in recent years. Catered mainly toward domestic tourists, set your expectations low, and you won’t be disappointed. If like us, you’ve spent the last three weeks bouncing down river rapids and slogging it out through the mountains, you may feel deserving of something a bit more luxurious. Last night, we decided to stay at the comparatively expensive PTDC (Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation) hotel. Located throughout the country, these are government-owned hotels, where you can reliably expect internet, a clean bed and, if you’re lucky, hot water.
This one did not disappoint. You pay more than twice the going rate for a room, but at $40 a night for two people, you can hardly complain. Our hotel wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Alps. A cavernous lobby of glass and wooden beams greeted us as we entered, and a stuffed Ibex eyed us warily through marble-eyes. The World Cup was playing on a flatscreen TV pinned incongruously, and rather unflatteringly, above the large stone fireplace. The staff were transfixed, and it was with some difficulty that we attracted their attention. Like everywhere else we travelled over the last few weeks, everyone speaks fairly good English which is just as well, as we speak neither Urdu, nor one of the myriad dialects in this region including Brusheski, Wakhi, Balti, Shina, and Khowar. The staff were courteous and professional and smiled with mild amusement as we swaggered out that morning in full rafting regalia, with the deflated packrafts over our shoulders. We spend three days like this but wish it could be three months.
Phandar exemplifies the paradox of tourism development facing many communities around the world. The greater the number of tourists, the greater the risks of environmental and cultural degradation. Mass tourism has caused unprecedented environmental damage in Thailand, Australia and many other countries besides. Phandar remains a bucolic and largely unspoiled area, but encroaching developments from the newly upgraded Karakoram Highway may spill over into this peaceful valley.
For now, at least, we have the river to ourselves.
Of course, we’re here at the best time of year. The harvest is ripening, the weather is good, the flowers are in bloom and people are outside, working and playing. It’s easy to forget that in the winter life here is very difficult. With only one road connecting Phandar to the rest of Pakistan, landslides, flooding and avalanches are a constant hazard. Temperatures drop to well below freezing and the ground is covered in deep snow.
Quite what they make of us as we saunter in and out each evening in our drysuits, helmets and deflated rafts slung over our shoulders in anyone’s guess; they are far too polite to comment. Unlike young children, who flock to the river banks to watch us go past. They call out to us in Chinese and English until we stop and agree to take a couple of them for a ride.
Jonathan runs Aleph Strategies, a consulting firm specialising in overseas development and humanitarian aid. A Fellow of the RGS, Jonathan trained as an archaeologist at the Universities of Nottingham and Oxford before working in public affairs in Westminster. Later, in Afghanistan, he worked for the Aga Khan Foundation, before managing conservation activities for UNESCO at the Bamiyan World Heritage Site.