Trail mix

June 14, 2015

It’s that time of the year… when the trekkers are in their element and ready to go out explore the less explored

Trail mix

For long, trekkers and mountaineers have cared for Pakistan. The rising mountains and their splendour, the crystal clear lakes and glaciers have lured many, from within the country, the West and elsewhere. The post-9/11 and all the uncertainties presented in media about the fear of Taliban may have pushed the number of tourists to come down, but the trekkers’ lure never really reduced.

Now with the trekking season setting in, trekkers seem to be in their element and packing for trips to the mountains and their glory.

Pakistan’s northern area is a paradise for mountaineers and trekkers alike.

It is the most heavily glaciated region, as 5 glaciers with a total length exceeding 315 kilometres are situated here. It offers some of the best trekking routes to the adventurers, such as K2 Gandogoro La trek, K2 base camp Boltoro trek, Snow lake Hispar trek, Fairy Meadows Nanga Parbat trek and Shimshal Manglik Sar trek. Over 200 trails in Pakistan have been quoted in different guidebooks.

Irfan Ullah Baig, President Pakistan Association of Tour Operators says over 2,000 trekking routes of different categories are in Gilgit-Baltistan (GB), Chitral, Swat, Kaghan and Kashmir. "Pakistan is ranked among the top five countries when it comes to adventure tourism."

Ev-K2-CNR, an Italian organisation working in the Central Karakorum National Park (CKNP), has categorised treks in the park as classic, discovery, adventure and cultural. "We are compiling a comprehensive trekking guidebook with the help of all stakeholders including the government, tour operators and local communities. The book will be ready by next month," says Arif Hussain, technical representative of EV-K2-CNR in Pakistan. "We have identified over 35 treks. It took us over three years to compile the book. It will include all the details related to trekking".

The treks are categorised as easy, moderate, strenuous, difficult and highly strenuous.

"We have all kinds of trails in Pakistan," says Salman Rashid, Pakistan’s leading travel writer and a member of the Royal Geographical Society. "Majority of them were pathways of shepherds and hunters. People from the West have introduced majority of the trekking routes in Pakistan to the world."

The government of Pakistan defines trekking as walking below 6,000 metres and, it identifies three trekking zones -- open, restricted and closed. Foreign trekkers need permit from the federal interior ministry, different security agencies and the provincial tourism authorities to trek in restricted areas, while no trekking is allowed in areas near Pakistan-China or Pakistan-Afghan borders and the Line of Control (LOC) in Kashmir.

The closed zones include any place within 30 miles of the Afghan border and within 10 miles of the LOC.


K2 Gondogoro La trek  one of the most famous Pakistani treks, was declared a restricted zone a couple of years back. "It was a major setback to adventure tourism and local economy. Almost 70 per cent of inquiries from Europe are about this trail," says Muhammad Ali Saltoro, a Skardu-based tour operator, climber and guide.

He says that Gondogoro pass provides unparalleled view. "Gondogoro La is spectacle. K2, Broad peak, Gasherbrums, Trinity peak, Laila peak and numerous others are majestically towering peaks."

Saltoro says that trekking in restricted zones becomes hectic and expensive. Foreigners need to get permit from the GB Council, which takes at least one to three months to get clearance from various agencies.

Before 9/11, Pakistan lured about 15,000-20,000 foreign trekkers and mountaineers every year, but, in recent years, the number has dropped drastically to 2,000. Clearance takes time because different security agencies have to issue it. Also, a liaison officer (LO) must accompany trekkers to the restricted zones, which may cost them up to USD3,000, which increases the total cost to between USD1000 and 1500. And, "the cost of hassle is not added to this cost," he says.

Nanga parbat-0Aoun

"Only a few tracks pass through villages. So, the trekking parties need to be self-sufficient. They must carry their own stuff. This makes the trek an expensive and a tough proposition," says Abbas Ali Khan, an Abbottabad-based guide who has been in the business since early 1980s.

This stuff includes camping gear, weather-appropriate clothing and footwear, and odds and ends like torches, candles, matches, mobile phones and eatables and medicines.

Besides, he adds, "We don’t have a tea house system like they do in Nepal".

Assessing the cost of trekking to a remote area, Khan says it can be as cheap as Rs500-1,000 per day per person in Margalla Hills, Rs9,000-10,000 to Nanga Parbat and Rs15,000-20,000 to Concordia. "It also depends on the size of the group. A group of 10-12 is ideal but as the group size shrinks, the expenses swell."

Although the companies which arrange treks provide most of the equipment, the trekkers need to bring a sturdy backpack, flashlights, raincoats and, most importantly, good boots. "Sunglasses and hats are essential no matter where or when you trek, especially on snow and glaciers. Most of this stuff is expensive; this is where the thrift shops can come in handy," says Khan.


Elist 10 which provides the top 10 things in the world in various topics ranked Pakistan 8th among the ‘top 10 Countries for Trekking to Mountains’. But the dark side of the picture is that the World Economic Forum’s Travel and Tourism Competitiveness Index (TTC1) 2013 ranked Pakistan 122 in 2013 out of 140 countries in travel, tourism competiveness report.

Experts say that security is one of the major reasons that adventure tourism is on the decline. They also blame high expenditures and lack of infrastructure as the reasons for declining tourism. "Foreign tourists are harassed by our security agencies. There is no tourism infrastructure available in Pakistan. The government has done nothing to promote adventure tourism in the country. In fact, the government of Pakistan has a policy to discourage tourists to visit Pakistan," says Salman Rashid.

"The maps of treks are not available in Pakistan. They are our ‘national secrets’," he adds.

Irfan Ullah Baig says that in 2014 only 30 expeditions and around 100 trekking teams visited Pakistan. "The number is on the decline since 2001. The attack on mountaineers in Diamir is 2013 was a 9/11 for Pakistani adventure tourism," he says. According to him, the government is least interested in promoting tourism. "India has given Chinese tourist a facility of on-arrival visa but, to get a Pakistani visa, they need to appear for an interview at our embassy in Beijing."

A team of tour operators is going to meet the government high officials in a few days. "The government must make the country tourist-friendly or we will leave this business," he says.

"It is true that the government departments have done nothing to attract adventure tourists to especially GB," says Inayatullah Shamali, caretaker minister of tourism of GB.

"It is also true that we cannot provide facilities to the tourists from say Europe. Security agencies have their own responsibilities and we cannot stop them from performing them. Being a border region, there are so many challenges. Foreign hands are also involved," he says.

The minister says his government has prepared a working paper to improve the adventure tourism facilities. "I hope things improve in next few years."

Trail mix