Growing up my parents took us to Pakistan to visit family every year over our Christmas holidays. As time passed we visited less and less, family moved all over the world and we simply didn’t feel much of a connection to it. I didn’t think I would visit Pakistan ever again, it had been ten years since my last visit but with my growing interest in both travel and photography the thought of visiting was becoming more appealing and I must thank the Art of Seeing for organising the trip because it’s not a country I would have had the courage to travel around alone, and in fact it may have been a very different experience if I had. I wasn’t really sure what to expect. It was the first time I was going to visit as a traveller and see the country rather than hop from one family home to another. Upon arrival at Islamabad airport, I must admit that I did think why on earth did I come?! I was suddenly overwhelmed by all of the things that irritated me about it! The staring from the masses of men who seem to just hang about, the complete disregard of the system of queuing…! (before this becomes a very different kind of blog, I shall stop!) My point is, despite having my reservations about Pakistan - I’m so pleased I visited. No, Pakistan hasn’t got the best reputation politically, and for me, on a personal level – but, if you love mountains and hiking and being immersed in culture and tradition, I’d definitely recommend it as a travel destination. From a photographers perspective, whether you’re a landscape photographer, a street photographer or a portrait photographer – Pakistan has all the ingredients for amazing photography.
Northern Pakistan, Hunza Valley
I shall begin by saying that Hunza and its people were nothing like what I had experienced when I arrived at the airport! No staring and I felt welcome and comfortable straight away. I was very quickly swayed by their wonderful nature and the beautiful landscape.
Getting to Hunza is not the easiest of routes and I must admit I was kind of terrified about taking the domestic flight from Gilgit to Hunza. But looking out of the window and seeing these magnificent views melted that fear away quite quickly! It also helped having the lovely Floris Scheplitz, and his most calming presence with me. Totally Zen! From Gilgit, Hunza is about a couple of hours drive – it’s a nice scenic route – scarier than the plane ride if you have a crazy driver like we did! They say rocks from the mountains fall onto the road, so around some parts where they know this tends to happen, they floor it ‘til they’re in the clear! I thought this was a nuts idea, until I saw the ‘rocks’ on the road and realised they were in fact gigantic boulders, and yes, if that fell from above, it would crush you. Having to break real fast because they’re already on the road ain’t so grand either! Having said that – I would return for a second visit - it’s all part of the risk of travelling to unique and unexplored places and tourism is most definitely on the up, so I imagine road safety can only get better!
Hunza, a peaceful Himalayan valley of long-lived people, has some of the most spectacular views I’ve ever seen and it made for excellent mountain photography. The Hunza valley lies where the northern border of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan meets China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan. It is surrounded by the Tien-Shan mountain to the north, the Hindu-Kish mountain to the west, the Kara-Korum mountain to the east and the southern Himalayan mountain range. The mountain ranges are simply breath-taking and combined with the hospitality of the people, it is a wonderful destination to visit. Many of the locals speak of a time when most families in Hunza ran some form of travel business because it was such a popular travel destination, but in recent times, with Pakistan having such a bad reputation they’ve taken a real knock, which is a shame.
The people of Hunza have a long, interesting history and mixed heritage. Some believe they are the descendants of Greek soldiers who were part of Alexander the Great's army. This would explain their beauty - they have the most striking features – what a joy it was taking portraits of them! Photographing the people of Hunza is definitely a portrait photographer’s paradise, they were some of the most photogenic people I’ve ever had the pleasure of capturing.
We had two amazing guides with us, who made travel around Hunza so easy – they have a great deal of knowledge of Hunza and it’s history. They really went above and beyond in making us feel welcome and comfortable during our time there.
My time there was short, and I by no means had the chance to explore as much as I would have liked to, but here are some places I’d recommend;
Sadly Attabad Lake was created by a landslide dam which took the lives of 20 people and displaced thousands of others, but it has since become a tourist attraction for its spectacular turquoise colours and dramatic mountain backdrop. There are a variety of water sports available here, taking a boat ride is a nice, peaceful way to enjoy the area. It is picture perfect with colourfully decorated boats, making the place look authentically Pakistani. With such a perfect combination of colours, rugged mountains and boats, it made a great location for travel photography.
I didn’t know what to expect when I was told we were going to see a bridge…“Oh dear god!” was my reaction! It’s a very precarious looking suspension bridge that hangs over the Hunza River, connecting Zarabad hamlet to Hussaini village. Locals cross the river for various work, often carrying heavy loads on their backs – just watching them made me nervous so there was no way I was going to try and venture across it myself – not even for a photo!
It has become a bit of an adventure activity for tourists and hikers. It takes some guts to cross it and if, like me, you have a fear of heights it’s a massive no no! It moves with the wind and there are massive (although evenly spaced out) gaps between the planks. I believe after crossing the bridge and climbing up a rock stairway you are rewarded with an undoubtedly stunning view over a lake and mountain range from the top. It was good fun watching people walk across, albeit a little scary when the locals decided to show us how confident they were crossing the bridge by running and even racing each other across it!! They were all so sweet and lovely, stopping to say hello and ask where we from – despite carrying the load on their backs! Another great spot for both landscape and travel photography.
There is a little shop by the bridge, where you will find people selling tickets for a small fee and offering guidance. There aren’t any safety measures in place, so it is a purely ‘at your own risk’ adventure! From the car park, it’s a 10-15 minute walk downhill – bare this in mind for the walk back uphill afterwards! For the regular hiker, really not a big deal at all but just beware if you aren’t much of a walker or if you have little ones with you.
Altit Fort and Baltit Fort
If you enjoy a bit of history, visit :
Built in the 11th century, it is considered to be the birthplace and capital of Hunza city. It became a cultural hub in its earlier days, as the settlers of the city and traders, making their way to the land from China through the ancient Silk route brought goods from across the world.
There are some absolutely stunning 360 degree views of Hunza Valley from Baltit Fort. A perfect viewpoint for taking photos of the valley. My most enjoyable part of the visit to Baltit Fort might well have been the walk to get there. An amazing opportunity for portrait photography. It’s a really lovely walk through the village to reach where you pass by lots of charming little traditional shops, soaking in the culture and essence of the lifestyle of these heart-warming generous people. I met this sweet 84 year old woman on the way who allowed me to take photos of her – she couldn’t understand why I wanted to, she said she wasn’t beautiful anymore and had all these wrinkles from working in the sun all day. I told her her wrinkles were part of what made her so beautiful – I think she thought I was crazy! It was an absolute pleasure to photograph her. The little time I chatted with her was a really moving experience, she just seemed to have so much love to give – I was a bit taken by her.
The fort itself stands below the Ultar glacier in the central Hunza valley, among the Karakorum mountain range. It was built in the 8th Century and has been on the UNESCO World Heritage Tentative list since 2004.
A great spot to take photos of sunrise, it is right by the Eagles Nest hotel. From here you get a brilliant surrounding view of Rakaposhi, Ultar, Golden peak & other snow-capped mountains. We had a little picnic here, but unfortunately it was starting to rain so we had to leave and reach a safe place just in case it came down hard and heavy!
As I said, these places are just the tip of the iceberg – there’s much to explore in Hunza, lots of hiking and trekking opportunities, great food, great people, great landscapes. It’s a no brainer.
After being in the serene, calm Hunza valley – I didn’t think I’d enjoy the hustle and bustle of Lahore. It is the busiest city I’ve ever visited; it’s a complete sensory overload (in a good way if you’re just there for a day or two!). It is immensely rich in culture, there’s something interesting happening around every corner, the food is to die for – I would go back for the food alone, and I’m really not much of a foodie! It’s colourful, it’s full of life, it’s loud, it’s kind of like being on another planet – there is such a massive variety of things going on all in one place, donkeys, carts, bikes, heavily decorated trucks, rikshaws, old, young, it’s very difficult to describe and something one just has to experience! As I said, a day or two is more than enough and then run to the north of the country for calm and beautiful scenery! Or go back home, which is what I did and felt like London was very, very quiet, where was everyone? That is how full on it is – London felt quiet!
We arrived in the evening and had dinner on Food Street. A walk down Food Street is a treat and a feast for the senses – there are amazing traditional buildings along the street, colourful and decorative and once again, mouth wateringly good food. We ate at Haveli, very traditional décor, safe for the sensitive stomachs and it has a really nice view of Lahore Fort from the rooftop. Your options of places to eat along this street are endless, hence the name! It is where the more ‘privileged’ hang out, so you can bet on high quality, decent facilities around here.
I had an excellent day in the old town of Lahore, which is one of the best places for street photography in Pakistan. I was definitely weary about having my camera out and taking photos of people in such a big and busy city, I expected most people wouldn’t like it and maybe even be a little angry about this invasion of privacy! This was not the case at all. They were all so chilled about having cameras in their faces, to the point where this newspaper reader didn’t even flinch; he looked up, noticed 4 or 5 cameras on him, and just carried on reading, completely naturally as if this was an everyday occurrence! It’s what made the photos so good (if I may say so myself). The people there were completely in their element – au natural - there was no hesitation or discomfort with being photographed, they were very welcoming and approachable - a street photographer’s dream!
We started our photography walk at the Delhi Gate, which is the entrance of the old town, it was early morning – around sunrise, but there was still a great deal of activity. I loved taking photos of the narrow alleyways and broken buildings. Wazir Khan mosque was a beautiful location to shoot in, with its rich colours and arches that made perfect frames. As a photographer it was so exciting to have so many great photo opportunities, if you missed one because you weren’t quick enough another one was right there, such great fun!
We had a traditional Pakistani breakfast at the Shahi Hammam restaurant, I think any breakfast around the old town would be just as delicious but be careful with your tourist tummies! After a wander around the old town, we took a rickshaw ride to Badshahi mosque and Lahore Fort, which I never would have thought I’d do because it just looks SO dangerous – but it was really fun and I’d recommend it for a short journey!
For great food, hospitality at its best, portraits of some of the most striking people, street photography of a city enriched with culture and one of the most photographic landscapes in the world, plan a trip to Pakistan!
Watch a video of my journey below!