Ditching the Guidebook: My First Trip to Northern Pakistan

Within minutes I’m surrounded by local women from the village. Usually I can hold my own in Urdu conversation, but many of these women speak Burushaski, a language that is unrelated to any other language in Pakistan. Linguists class it as a ‘language isolate,’ and there are estimated to be some 87,000 speakers living in Hunza Valley and the surrounding region.

The door to the screened porch swings open, and a freckled girl with waist length black hair brings in a large tray of tea and bread. A colorful cloth is spread on the floor, and the women pass out teacups and quarter plates. The tea has been brewed with milk and sugar, like most tea in Pakistan, but it surprises me that the women add a pinch of salt to their cups before taking a swig.

The thick, freshly baked bread is nothing like the flat chapattis of the Punjab, and our teatime is rounded out with a teeming plate of hot, hand cut fries.

After spending five months teaching in Lahore, I was ready to travel and see Pakistan’s Northern Areas. I had spent weeks marking up my guidebook, figuring out which hotels to stay in and budgeting for different treks. When I told my Pakistani friends that I planned to go up north, many of them voiced concern for my safety.

One of these friends, Rana, decided to use his connections to contact locals in Gilgit, the capital of the Northern Areas, and get the low-down. Rana ended up chatting with the manager of a bank in Gilgit, and the manager offered to meet me at the bus station and introduce me to his daughter, Rukhsana, who was also in her mid-twenties.

Rukshana’s dad met me at the station and assured me that the situation in the Northern Areas was calm and that I could travel freely on my own.

“If you’d like, I can take you to my village to stay with my family. But if you prefer, you can stay in town in a hotel. It’s up to you.”

I clutched my guidebook and thought about all the highlighted destinations and editors’ picks. All the sights I wanted to see and souvenirs I wanted to buy. I hesitated for a moment before loosening my grip on the guidebook and accepting his invitation.

Rukhsana gets my attention using my Urdu name, “So Mishal, tell us, are you married?”

The photo of my mehngator (fiancé) gains a round of approval, but one of the older women looks concerned. After a hushed conference in Burushaski, she asks in Urdu, “When is your wedding? Your hair is much too short to get married now!”

I learn that 15 inches of hair is just not enough for a bride. I eat pomegranates straight from the tree, get lost in cornfields and wade in glacial streams.

I don’t have any notes to write in my guidebook, but that’s more than okay with me.

This post was entered in the Gran Tourismo & Home Away travel blogging competition.

10 Comments on “Ditching the Guidebook: My First Trip to Northern Pakistan

  1. “The photo of my mehngator (fiancé) gains a round of approval, but one of the older women looks concerned. After a hushed conference in Burushaski, she asks in Urdu, “When is your wedding? Your hair is much too short to get married now!”
    I learn that 15 inches of hair is just not enough for a bride.”

    It was fun to read this. The Northern Areas especially Gil git and Chitral are beautiful beyond words. Did you get a chance to see the lakes, glaciers, meadows and some of the world’s highest mountains?

    • I was able to go to the Northern Areas several times, although I could go back hundreds more, meet new people and see more of the beauty of the region. My husband and I have actually talked about building a summer home there in the future.

  2. miss heather
    i went through briefly what you have written in above paragraphs. it gives me immense pleasure to see my dearest sister Rukhsana in the picture. i hope you carried good memories with you from Sultan abad thats what i perceive from your text. i came across you once when i came on leaves from college most probably with Farhan. i am happy that you have good memories of our family. i wish you best of luck. please relay this message to all the people of your country as you are already doing a good job in this regard. wish you Gods speed. i am writing this in hurry my mistakes in typing or punctuation may be overlooked. i was unable to stop myself from leaving a comment after seeing picture of APA RUKHSANA at the top :)
    Rahim haider

    • Dear Rahim,

      Thanks so much for your comment! My times with your family are some of my fondest memories of Pakistan. I really hope to come back someday with my son (he’s 5 months old now) and visit you all again. We are in the US now – please let me know if you ever come to visit Massachusetts (Boston)!

      Heather Michelle

  3. Hi Heather Carreiro.Thanks for sharing your great memories of life there in northern areas. If you want to come back and enjoy the moments of your beautiful life there in Hunza i am here to guide you and stay with us as family member…

  4. Hello Heather

    Hope keeping well. Glad to see your blog. The new name of Northern Areas is Gilgit Baltistan. May I correct the population of Hunza is around 55000. Hope to meet you some day some where. God Bless you.

    Ikram Beg

  5. I live in Lahore and sad enough I’ve never had a chance to visit northern Pakistan. I had chance to visit China (Shanghai), Singapore and Malaysia (KL and lot of cities), but I still believe nothing matches beauty of norther Pakistan.

    Damn, I wish I get to visit Hunza soon.

  6. Hello there,
    You are so lucky that you get to see one of the beautiful areas in that region and enjoy the hospitality of people living there. Wish you all the best in your future endeavors!


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