I traveled to Gilgit, Hunza and Attabad Lake between April 30 and May 3, 2015. This was all done on public transport and rent a car as I did not want to take my car on these unforgiving routes. I have the following suggestions for anybody going this way.
This is the best option if you want to travel cheap and still have some reliability. I took an 8:00 pm NATCO VIP bus and reached Gilgit at exactly 4:00 pm the next day. Although the 20 hour journey was quite taxing on the body but I felt quite safe in the bus. The cost of the ticket was Rs.1700 and I got onto the bus from the station next to Metro Cash and Carry in Islamabad. The main reason for the journey taking a bit longer than expected was that there were plenty of stops on the way for security reasons. NATCO bus is only allowed to travel in convoys escorted by the local police through the Mansehra and Kohistan regions. As far as the road condition is concerned the roads have improved quite a bit over the past few years but the 100 km track north of Besham is still in pretty bad shape. Thakot to Besham and Raikot to Gilgit roads have been newly constructed and you can easily do 100 km/hour on these patches.
I had previously stayed at Madina Hotel in Gilgit Bazar in 2006 and had fond memories of it. So I decided to visit it again but I found that it was in total disrepair as the ownership had changed and Mr. Yaqub was no longer in charge. It was still quite cheap though as a double room cost us only Rs.1000/night (I had found a traveler from Faisalabad in Gilgit bazar and we decided to travel together further north). But the good news is that now there is a new Madina by the name of Madina 2 which is also not too far from the main bazar. We tried to get a booking in Madina 2 for the second night in Gilgit but it was fully booked. The rate we were told for a double bed was Rs.1500-2000.
Hunza and Kareemabad
Hunza is about 100 km north of Gilgit but it hardly takes 2 hours to get there as there is a newly constructed road to Hunza and beyond. We got a rent a car for Rs.4500 which took us to Rakaposhi Point, Baltit Fort, Altit Fort, Eagles Nest and Attabad Lake. All these places are worth visiting but you must start early to be able to do so in a day. You need at least three hours for Attabad Lake if you want to do the full end to end journey, unfortunately we did not have time for this. If you do not want to make the full journey to the other end you would have to hire a boat which will cost you at least Rs.2000. The cost of a ticket on the regular passenger boat is Rs.200/person. The entry cost to Baltit and Altit Forts is Rs.200 and Rs.250 respectively. If you want to enjoy a private food and music night at Baltit Fort it can be arranged for Rs.70,000 for a group of 10 persons.
I had to return early to Islamabad so I split up from my friend from Faisalabad, who ventured further to Fairy Meadows for a day trip. The route to Fairy Meadows starts from Raikot Bridge from where you can get a 4×4 jeep. It cost my friend Rs.6000 to hire a jeep for the trip from Raikot Bridge to Fairy Meadows and back (it also cost him Rs.3500 for Gilgit to Raikot Bridge and back). The journey time from Raikot Bridge to Fairy Meadows is about 2.5 hours by jeep and a further 1 hour on horseback. If you do not want to hire a horse you would have to travel about 2-3 hours on foot to reach Fairy Meadows. I plan to travel to Fairy Meadows in the near future and would like to spend at least 2 days there camping and exploring the various treks and base camps of Nanga Parbat.
Since I was running short of time and had to reach Islamabad by Sunday night I decided to make my return journey on a jeep which usually takes much lesser time than the NATCO bus service. The cost of a front seat on a Land Cruiser operated by Karakurum travels was Rs.4500. The jeep was right on time and picked me from Madina hotel at 8:45 am on Sunday morning. The jeep usually takes the route through Kaghan and Naran Valley via Babusar Top but it is still early summer and routes have not opened, so we had to travel on KKH. After about 14 hours of travel we reached Islamabad (according to the driver we could have made it in 12 hours via Babusar Top). We took plenty of stops on the way for food and water which contributed about 2 hours to the journey time. One point that I would like to mention here is that the jeep driver was quite aggressive in his driving and if you are offended by drivers breaking all rules to get to the destination quickly you might consider travelling by NATCO. Lastly, jeeps do not travel in convoys so you might consider them somewhat less safe.
We tried everything that came our way from Chicken Tikkas to Vegetables and Daal but avoided local water as it is supposed to be quite high in mineral content. One thing that I would like to recommend is that, if you can, try to avoid local chai (tea) as it also contains unpurified water that may cause an upset stomach.
I tried to get tickets for either Gilgit or Skardu but was unsuccessful as the flights were totally booked for weeks. The only destination that had some openings was Chitral but it was not in the plans at the moment. Even if you do get tickets the flights to these Northern destinations get regularly cancelled due to weather conditions. I would not recommend air travel to anybody working around tight schedules. The airfare for Gilgit and Skardu is around Rs.8000 whereas that for Chitral is around Rs.9000.
Wireless and Internet
There is good mobile coverage between Islamabad and Besham but there is hardly any coverage beyond Besham up to Gilgit. However, it’s a good idea to keep your phone on as even if you get wireless signals momentarily all your SMSs will go through and you can send and receive important information about your journey. GPRS service is available in Gilgit but browsing is quite slow. 3G was not available at any of our destinations.