Pakistan – Fairy Meadows

Fairy Meadows is a lush green plateau located at the base of Nanga Parbat, the world’s ninth highest mountain at 8126 meters. Nature lovers have long been drawn to Fairy Meadows for its vibrant green pastures located in the midst of a pine forest and wild flowers, to include the elusive Edelweiss. The meadows offer incredible panoramas of Nanga Parbat, and most visitors opt to camp here for a few nights to revel in the magnificent beauty of this ShangriLa. We were lucky enough to catch an impromptu polo match, followed by an easy horseback ride up to Beyal Camp where we hiked up to Raikhot Glacier. This is a lovely section of Pakistan and can definitely be considered a highlight.

24 July: Breakfast was at the crack of dawn, as we had a long day ahead of us. We checked out and loaded up into the jeep, but were slightly delayed in departing because Zia was disputing the room bill with the Astak PTDC staff. A hotel manager eventually resolved the dispute and we never did find out what the argument was over. Shortly outside of Astak, we came upon a massive road block…a rock slide had occurred early this morning and dozens of trucks and buses were lined up on the road side, taking a break and waiting for someone to clear the rubble from the road. It was impossible to pass via vehicle, but Zia and Jan decided to check it out by foot. Thankfully, no one had been injured when the rock slide thundered down upon the road! The area was still a bit unstable, as Zia and Jan found out the hard way when they got stuck on the other side of the landslide. There was no warning…all of a sudden, a massive influx of rocks came tumbling down and both our driver and guide were stranded on the other side of the road. We had gone down to the bridge area for a closer look, but after seeing the instability of the area, decided to retreat to a safe distance. Fortunately for us, a bulldozer soon showed up and began clearing the road. Apparently, rock slides in this area are quite common. The truckers surrounding us appeared completely unperturbed and some of them had even erected tents in the middle of the road during the night to catch some shut eye!

The bulldozer cleared the roadblock in just over an hour. We watched as a guide (geared with a whistle), would blow on the whistle frantically to signal to the operator to back up fast when more rocks came down careening out of control. Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when the landslide was finally cleared away. Then it was off to the races as everyone ran off to their vehicle and drove like a bat out of hell to overtake each other in the rush to move on. We joined the melee and were impressed with Jan’s mad driving skills. He drove just fast enough for us to make up for the lost time, but slow enough to make us feel comfortable as we careened around a couple tight corners. We reached Raikot bridge after stopping for a quick cup of chai. From here, we were to hire a jeep and local driver to take us up the precarious jeep path leading up to Tato. First, we said goodbye to Jan (we’d be linking back up with him after our Fairy Meadows excursion) and grabbed our smaller day packs from the jeep. All our heavy gear was going to remain with Jan as we only had a short fortnight’s stay at Fairy Meadows. Our guidebook actually had a pretty accurate write up of this area. “Raikot Bridge, which spans the Indus River along the KKH a short distance south of Gilgit and east of Chilas, is the jumping off point for the [Fairy Meadow] trek. A legendary jeep road leaves the KKH here and ascends 1320m to the trail-head. The jeep ride can be so scary that some trekkers prefer to walk along the road rather than sit in a jeep as it inches its way along a dramatic cliff face with heart stopping drop-offs.”

Nothing prepared Becky for how scary the jeep ride would be. It was a nail biting 45 minute ride up to Jhel (2666m) and we strongly suggest if you are scared of heights, do not look down from the cliffs! The view is absolutely petrifying, especially when another jeep wants to pass you from the opposite direction. The narrow path barely has room for one jeep, let alone two. We later asked if anyone has ever tumbled down from the jeep trail and found out that it is forbidden for non locals to drive up the path. This is because an out of town driver (who was showing off his new jeep), attempted to drive up the narrow road and cut around a corner too quickly. His jeep came crashing down and he was instantly killed. After that, it was decreed that only locals would ferry passengers up and down the treacherous path in their jeeps, as they were most familiar with (and maintained) the terrain. Whatever the decision, it certainly is a lucrative monopoly for the few jeep drivers who are permitted to transport passengers up and down the trail. A white knuckle ride later, we finally reached Jhel. From here, it was a two hour hike up to Fairy Meadows. It was already afternoon, so we were eager to hike up quickly to give us a chance to rest and check out the fabled beauty of Fairy Meadows. There were lots of friendly (and encouraging) Pakistani tourists who were hiking back down, as we passed them on our climb uphill. Donkeys were a popular mode of transport for carrying backpacks, but we decided to lug our own uphill. After only making one brief stop to drink some water, we were surprised to see that Fairy Meadows was just up over the horizon…we had made pretty decent time hiking uphill.

The picturesque, wooden Raikot Sarai cabins were a welcome sight, and we were warmly greeted by Raji Wali Khan, a very friendly and personable fellow who served as an Alpine tourist consultant. Warm cups of chai were offered, and no sooner did our steaming cups of tea arrive that the sky decided to pelt us with heavy rain drops. Under a nearby canopy, we got acquainted with the other guests staying here…a British couple who were taking a short R&R break from their work in neighboring Afghanistan, and a super friendly Belgian lady who was teaching English to the children of Fairy Meadows (she fell in love with Pakistan and has visited a whopping 14 times!). We also got caught up on the latest happenings from Raji. He informed us that just tragedy befell the Nanga Parbat Mountain aka “Sleeping Beauty” aka “Killer Mountain” just a few days earlier on 17 July. Three Italians (one of whom was an experienced mountain climber who had conquered K2 and Everest) formed an expedition to climb a new route on the north face. The team leader (the most experienced trekker) fell into a crevice while out reconning the next day’s route. He was still alive and managed to call on his satellite phone to his base of operations requesting that the remaining two members of his team be rescued. Shortly afterwards, he was killed by an avalanche that buried him within the crevice. No one expected the other 2 climbers to be rescued as the weather took a turn for the worse and visibility was limited for the rescue helicopters that had been dispatched to the scene to try to assist in a high altitude rescue attempt. Miraculously, the 2 relatively inexperienced climbers managed to stay alive at the high altitude (Nanga Parbat is the world’s 9th highest mountain in the world at 8125m or 26658 feet), and a successful rescue attempt was accomplished just yesterday morning. The survivors rewarded the pilots with 100,000 Rupees (about 975 Euros) that they had to split between a crew of four. This amount sent tongues wagging around Fairy Meadows as the local townspeople thought it was a pittance for a rescue attempt. The pilots had risked their lives over several days to rescue the two lone survivors and everyone agreed that the reward should have been more.

By the time this somber tale had been told, the sun burst through the dark clouds, and we decided to make a break for it to check out the Fairy Meadows area. Several dozen boys were playing cricket in the field, and we enjoyed watching them play. As soon as they saw us taking photos, all interest in the polo game was lost and the boys became camera fiends, begging us to take photo after photo. It was all a bit much, and we were quickly overwhelmed by the demands to take everyone’s photo! We took as many as we could, and then begged off to go explore further. The one image we had seen of Fairy Meadows was a picture perfect postcard image of Nanga Parbat reflected in a lake. The “lake” is actually a tiny puddle, but taken at the right angle, the outtake is incredibly beautiful. Lucky for us, the clouds had dissipated from the peaks of Nanga Parbat, granting us a gorgeous view of the mountain face. We really enjoyed Fairy Meadows. Strolling around the fields was a pleasure, and everyone was extremely friendly. Off in the distance, we heard a commotion and spotted the British couple, along with their guide, atop a large rock overlooking the field. Apparently, they had angered the locals because they were being told to get down from the rock, lest they might catch a glimpse of the female members of a family that had set up temporary dwelling at Fairy Meadows during the summer. It was all a bit confusing, and we weren’t sure why the Brits were being yelled at. Later on Raji explained that the villagers were being way overzealous, and this had only recently become a problem. Too bad…the experience obviously left a very negative impression on the two Britons who decided to depart Fairy Meadows first thing the next morning.

Once the sun started to set, the temperatures plummeted, so we joined everyone else huddling around the camp fire. The weather was perfect, and we had a fantastic view of Nanga Parbat in the distance. Dinner was a group affair by candlelight, and the chef had done a good job keeping our dishes simple but tasty. Raji kept us entertained with his stories of visiting the Belgian lady for the first time. It was a bit difficult for him to get a Schengen Visa, and he had us all rolling in laughter at his descriptions of seeing an escalator for the first time, or using a coffee maker. We laughed well into the night, and strongly urged Raji to write a book on his travel exploits. What a storyteller…he was a very very funny character and the highlight of our visit to Fairy Meadows.

After dinner, we hung out in the darkness to check out the stars that lit up the sky above…absolutely brilliant. Raikot Sarai has several bungalows with ensuite squat toilets, but there is no electricity. We had to use candle light or a flashlight to find our way around in the dark. We were assured that there would be hot water for our showers in the morning, and we were relieved to hear that. It was pretty chilly at night, but our warm blankets kept us snug as a bug as we both hit the sack hard that night.

25 July: It was a spectacular sunrise as the Nanga Parbat peaks were slowly lit by the first rays of light. We had both slept soundly, and were reluctant to budge from our toasty warm beds. Breakfast was beckoning, so we begrudgingly got ready for the day. A massive barrel of hot water was being boiled for our morning shower. The Raikot Sarai grounds were abuzz already…a rescue team was consolidating to attempt to retrieve the body of a missing Iranian trekker who had resurfaced recently. Nanga Parbat Mountain is not nicknamed “killer mountain” without reason! We had to take turns walking past the search party on our way to the shower (which was out in a wooden shack at the base of the garden), but our morning showers were absolutely glorious. Something about soothing hot water…a great way to start the day.

Breakfast was a cup of chai and some paratha, which fueled us for our morning’s activities. Our plan was to rent horses for an easy jaunt up to Beyal, a two hour hike away from Fairy Meadows. However, the day was young and the weather spectacular, so we agreed when Zia and one of the Raikot Sarai owner’s invited us on a short hike around Fairy Meadows. We got to see where the future Shangrila Resort will be built (there is much controversy among the local population about this lofty development), and checked out a large lake behind the Fairy Meadows plain. Several polo players were gathering for an impromptu polo match on the field, and after our quick hike around, we were invited to attend the game as VIP guests. This meant we got to throw out the match ball at the beginning of the match and again after half time. How cool! The setting couldn’t be beat for a polo match, and we really enjoyed watching this high spirited game in such a beautiful area. The weather started out perfect, but as the match progressed, turned increasingly dismal. After the match was over, we thanked the players for inviting us, and Zia coordinated a horseback ride for the three of us. We agreed on 500 Rupees to Beyal and return, or else 300 Rupees one way.

Before setting out, there was an obligatory stop at the nearby Fairy Meadows Cottage. Apparently, word had reached Zia that we were supposed to stay overnight at the cottage, instead of Raikot Sarai. This was because a reservation had been made by Vertical Explorers and the owner of Fairy Meadows was most disappointed to hear that we had opted to stay overnight at Raikot Sarai instead. We tried to explain that we had not been aware of the arrangements, and begged off on having to relocate to a new hotel. However, once we linked up with the owner of Fairy Meadows Cottage to explain the situation, we could see that he would not take no for an answer. He told Zia that if we stayed at his cottage tonight, everything would be even. However, if we insisted on staying at Raikot Sarai, he would charge Zia for two nights’ stay, because we had a reservation with him but had not honored it. We didn’t want to rock the boat and the Fairy Meadows Cottages were located in a scenic area (much closer to Nanga Parbat), so we agreed to make the move after we returned from our horse back riding.

Our horse trek through the woods to Beyal from Fairy Meadows was along a really picturesque route. It would have been a much easier hike than yesterday (the terrain was relatively flat), but we were happy that the horses were doing all the work! Unfortunately, the weather took a turn for the worse and the sunny skies from earlier this morning were a distant memory as raindrops soon pelted us into submission. At Beyal, we quickly sought refuge at the closest cottage where we ordered some cups of tea to warm us up. Everyone here was super friendly, and we met a local who showed us an old 1937 letter that he claimed to have recently discovered at the nearby glacier! The letter was written in German, and had the original postage stamps indicating its age. We examined the letter and found it to be in remarkable shape. Too bad our German was not as good as we would have liked, because we wanted to translate it. If the tale told was true, it would be a remarkable find. How on earth could the letter have survived intact in the glacier for all these decades…the boy who found it claimed it was wrapped up in a pouch and he was lucky to find it when it surfaced. Amazing…we kept checking it over and over again expecting it to be a fraud, but it looked like the real deal. After our tea break, we decided to hike upward towards View Point. From Beyal meadows, it was a steep trek up the trail. Needless to say, we had to take quite a few rest breaks, but the reward once we reached the top of the hill was a nice view of the glacier and Nanga Parbat itself. Too bad the weather wasn’t cooperating, as clouds hung out by the peak. There were several breaks in the clouds, but we didn’t get the spectacular mountain view we kept hoping for. Regardless, the hike up to View Point was well worth the effort, and it was a hell of a lot easier trekking back downhill than up! Once we returned back to Beyal, the dreary rain stopped drizzling and we took this break to mount our horses for the ride back to Fairy Meadows. We were glad we decided to rent horses here, as it provides a bit of income for the locals and was a really fun and relaxing way to spend the day. We still had to check out of our Raikot Sarai room, and bid the friendly crew here goodbye before checking into our Fairy Meadows Cottage. The Fairy Meadows Cottage complex consists of 9 cabins and 32 tents, with external toilets and showers. Water is heated for showers in the morning, and we were amazed to see that micro hydro power provided electricity for lights in our cabins.

The lodging here is extremely popular with large Pakistani groups, as we noticed we had a lot more company tonight. There were two large groups of local tourists (including both male and female members of a military group). It was awesome to see the guys and girls interact with each other like it was no big deal, just like in the West…the girls spoke impeccable English and we were most impressed. We were starving for dinner, so Zia ordered us some tea, soup and dinner. After eating our fill, we sat outside by the campfire, and met some of the other tourists overnighting here. Everyone was curious about our favorite part of Pakistan thus far, and we were really pleased to see that Fairy Meadows is a popular destination for local and foreign tourists alike. Neither one of us had any problems falling asleep…our warm comforters lulled us to into a deep slumber for the night.

26 July 2008: Wake up call at 0630 for breakfast at 0700. We both wanted to get an early start for the day as we had a long drive ahead of us. The Fairy Meadows Cottage owner was thrilled we had decided to stay the night here, and was super friendly this morning. He gave us his business card, some post cards and posters of Fairy Meadows, and we happily took some photos with him before checking out and heading back down hill. First a brief stop at Raikot Sarai to settle the bill from the night before. Our trek from Fairy Meadows back to Tato was quick and we managed to descend in about an hour. We had a 0800 reservation for a jeep to take us back down to Raikot Bridge, but at 0845, it was still a no show. Apparently, the other jeep drivers have an arrangement that if you book a jeep ride with a particular individual, it is hands off for the rest of them. So no one was willing to take us back down hill and we had no idea when our originally booked jeep would arrive. It was a bit frustrating, and we kept urging Zia to try to work something out since we had no clue if our jeep would ever be arriving! Eventually, one of the drivers agreed to take us down, and we all happily jumped into his jeep. The locals are not bashful about hitching a ride…they signal that they want to bum a ride, get the obligatory head nod, climb up and perch half in, half out of the jeep and hang on for the ride. Whenever they wanted out, they would just yell and hop off. We picked up several hitchhikers on our ride down, and finally reached Raikot Bridge at 1015. Jan was just pulling up with our jeep, and we were thrilled we made it up and down in one piece!

We were on the road again by 1030, stopping to buy some fresh grapes along the way. At 1400, we took a brief stop so that Zia and Jan could have lunch (neither one of us was hungry) but we had our obligatory cup of tea. At 1800, after a long day on the road, we finally pulled into Besham. Zia kept trying to contact VE to determine if we had a hotel booking, but was unable to get in touch with them. We did check out several hotel alternatives before agreeing to stay at the super pleasant and inviting Besham Midway Hotel & Restaurant (Karakuram Highway Besham). Dinner consisted of hot and sour soup, chicken fried rice and garlic chicken for dinner…yummy! Hot showers were next on our agenda and we did a bit of laundry before hitting the sheets. Our wonderful hotel had AC, hot water, fan, and reliable electricity. Needless to say, we both fell asleep with big smiles on our faces.

27 July 2008: Jan had already warned us we had another long day ahead of us today. The drive from Besham to Islamabad would take the majority of the day, and we were going to try to squeeze in a visit to Murree, a series of colonial hill stations developed by the British as a summer retreat from the heat of Islamabad. Besham marked the end of the KKH, but the route we took back towards Islamabad was equally as fascinating. Goat and sheep markets sprung up in some towns, colorful fruit markets caught our attention, and we quickly noticed the temperature rising as we headed south. Just before lunch, we stopped at Abbottabad for some delicious fresh mango and banana juice…what a nice treat!

The group took a consensus and decided to detour to Murree, located about 70 km away. Zia assured us this route, taken up through the hills, would be a cooler drive than going straight down towards Taxilla and then onward to Islamabad. We were completely flexible, and were surprised to see the carnival like atmosphere in the hill towns around Murree. It was a Sunday, and it seemed that a majority of Islamabad’s residents had joined us here for a short weekend getaway. The roads were packed, meats were grilling, families were all out in full force having a merry old time. We really liked the vibe here, and strolled around Murree’s “The Mall” pedestrian street, seeking our own fun. More mango juice ensued, followed by some tasty fried snacks, and window shopping. The women here appeared a lot more laid back and relaxed about wearing the head scarf, and the scene here was reminiscent of any other holiday town. Everyone was out to have a good time. Robby decided to shoot a bunch of balloons with a pellet gun, and had to laugh when the vendor decided to bump up the price afterwards. Some of the locals joined in to haggle the price down, saying it wasn’t right for the vendor to try to take advantage of tourists…the price was compromised down to a reasonable level and we escaped Murree with a hitchhiker, Ishaq, who runs a digital media studio in Rawalpindi.

The drive back to Islamabad flew by, and before we knew it, we had dropped Ishaq off near his home (he had invited us for dinner but we declined as we had other plans). We were pleasantly surprised when we were greeted by the Vertical Explorer staff that had come out to meet us in the parking lot of our hotel, Hotel Usmania at Committee Chowk, Rawalpindi. Saeed was there! Yeah…we were sooooo happy to see him again and thrilled that he surprised us with a visit. Another surprise was in store for us and Hamid was also in Rawalpindi awaiting our arrival. Thus, we had all 4 of our guides/drivers all at one place…it felt like a family reunion. We were so excited to see everyone and quickly checked into our room so we could get caught up. We talked on and on, and finally had to take a break for dinner. Saeed was going to accompany us to the restaurant of our choice (Chinese of course!) and Jan, Hamid, and Zia were going to return back to the Vertical Explorer’s apartment and crash for the night. We agreed to link up with them again tomorrow for our ride to the airport (more clientele was arriving so it was great timing wise). The Mei Kong restaurant in Rawalpindi was an excellent choice, and our dinner was absolutely sumptuous. We were so craving good Asian food, but we were stuffed after our massive bowls of tum yum soup. We made every effort to eat the rest of our dinner and left the Mei Kong extremely satisfied. After bidding Saeed a good night’s sleep, we both fell promptly asleep, with the anticipation of getting up early to pack for our onward trip to Dubai tomorrow.

28 July: It was a short drive from Hotel Usmania to the Islamabad International airport, but the whole gang showed up early and in full force to ensure that we had plenty of time to catch our Emirates flight. Parking at the airport was the trickiest part…we had to find enough room for a jeep and an SUV and the parking lot was packed. Eventually, we managed to find two parking spots, and immediately it hit us that this was it…the final goodbye. We hate goodbyes so instead we said “until next time”. Saeed had already filled our imagination with more sights to see in Southern Pakistan, so a return trip with him as our guide is definitely in order! We thanked Saeed, Zia, Hamid and Jan for the adventure of a lifetime before waving our final goodbyes in the check in line. The past three weeks had been a non stop whirlwind of sights and sounds, and we will never forget our summer excursion into one of the world’s prettiest destinations. Pakistan is a country that invades your soul…now that we’ve been, we can’t wait to go back!

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