Most travelers to Pakistan head for the north, where the weather is pleasant, the views spectacular, and trekking opportunities ample.
The trek from Skardu to the Baltoro Glacier gives the best close-up views of K2, and the trail along the Braldu and Biaho rivers takes hikers right into the heart of the Karakoram Mountains. The early part of the trek passes through green orchards, and summer visitors will be able to sample apples, apricots, peaches and cherries along the way. The terrain soon becomes rugged, however, and trekkers should be prepared to navigate trails covered with sharp stones and punctuated by glacial streams and steep gullies. The dark stone of the lower peaks provides a dramatic contrast to the glittering snow-capped peaks in the distance. Concordia, the base camp for K2 expeditions, offers spectacular views of some of the highest mountains on Earth, including K2, Gasherbrum, Masherbrum, and Chogolisa.
The valley of the Hunza River was supposedly the inspiration for Shangri-la in James Hilton's famous novel Lost Horizon. According to local legend, the river water contains traces of gold and has life-prolonging powers, and the people of Hunza are noted for their longevity. Many of the Hunzakut, as they are known, have light-colored hair and eyes and claim to be descended from Alexander the Great's soldiers. Their dialect, Brushaski, has no apparent link to any existing language family.
The town of Hunza is the starting point for treks to the Batura, Hopar and Hispar glaciers. The trek to Ultar Canyon gives especially dramatic views of the surrounding glaciers and granite peaks. Trekkers can stay overnight in distinctive shepherds' huts built of piled stones. The sound of ice crashing down from the surrounding glaciers provides a unique lullaby.
Visitors who want a taste of northern Pakistan's historical variety should head for this lush valley. Located in the monsoon belt, it receives more rain than most northern areas, so the land is particularly fertile and green. The Swat River and its tributaries gush through rocky gorges and are particularly known for trout fishing. The houses of the small villages in the area are stacked one on top of the other up the mountainsides, with the roofs of one level of houses used as a front street for houses on the next level.
The hillsides abound with forts, a testament to the region's strategic importance. Alexander the Great and his army marched through Chakdar, and subsequent invaders left their mark: the town still has remains of Buddhist monasteries from the 1st to 7th centuries, while Hindu forts from the 8th to 10th centuries loom on the hilltops. Worth visiting are the valley's graveyards, which have been used for 3,500 years.
Mount Ilam (2,811m, 9,222 ft) has been considered sacred since prehistoric times. A trek to the top brings visitors to a group of massive square blocks of stone, which archaeologists guess were used as an ancient altar.
Taxila, one of the most important architectural sites in Asia, is within easy distance of Islamabad and Rawalpindi. The excavations, spreading out over 25 sq km, include the remains of cities dating back to the 6th century BC. The architecture and artifacts show the influence of a steady stream of rulers: Persians, Greeks, Scythians, Parthians and Kushans. Taxila was famous in ancient times as a center of learning, with a university that dated back to the 6th century BC. The city was destroyed in 455 AD by the White Huns; burned and charred wooden window panes can still be seen at the site.
The complex includes remanants of several different ancient cities and historical sites. Jaulian, the best preserved, is famous for its Buddhist monuments and monasteries, which date back to the 2nd century AD. The stone statue of the Healing Buddha has a hole at the navel; worshipers believed they would be cured of illness by putting their finger in the hole. Sirkap, another well-preserved site, was a walled city built by Bactrian Greeks in 185 BC. There is also a museum at the site, which contains the best-preserved artifacts and has displays on daily life in the towns of Taxila.
The Cholistan Desert
In the southeast of Punjab begins a dry, barren region known as the Cholistan desert, where the wind blasts across sands dotted by magnificent ancient fortresses and remote villages. So inhospitable was this landscape that some of these kingdoms were never conquered by the British Raj.
Today, the wonders of the Cholistan desert can be unlocked by a unique form of travel: camel safari. Accompanied by a knowledgeable guide, visitors can explore the desert and see its ruins, many of which are well-preserved because of the arid climate.
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