Words and images by Epic Backpacker Tours Co-founder, Chris Lininger
I found myself heading to the Islamabad airport in the middle of the night to pick up a client for the first time in 17 months. The city buzzed with a strange vibrancy at 2 am as many people keep nocturnal hours across Pakistan during Ramadan time.
This was a powerful moment for me personally as it could only mean one thing: I could finally run a tour again in Pakistan after we saw Covid 19 take that away from us for all of 2020. My 2 am cup of coffee had not tasted this good in months.
The next day our crew was assembled in Islamabad and we decided to depart the city early for the mountains. A new country-wide lockdown had been announced just a few days before – while we literally had clients in the air or already in Pakistan. I truly think being a tour operator in the Covid era has made us quite resilient to such news – which was basically taken with the attitude “we will find a way”. But I will not deny it: this was a stressful time.
The one-week lockdown had been announced to stem the spread of Covid during the busy Eid holiday – a period where millions of Pakistanis are on the move in normal circumstances. We made it to Gilgit Baltistan a day early to settle in, prepare for our trek, and to ensure we would not get trapped outside of the Northern Areas where we intended on being during the “lockdown”.
The result? We were almost the only foreigners or tourists in all of Gilgit Baltistan – it was glorious.
The icing on the cake came when the Government of Gilgit Baltistan gave us special permission to carry on with our itinerary, given the fact that 90% of our activities were trekking in remote places and everyone in our group had been vaccinated. We were in the mountains and for the first time since I began working in Pakistan – we would have almost every interesting point in the North to ourselves. We were psyched.
Getting Back to Ghulkin
Ghulkin Village is where Epic Backpacker Tours started basically. Our dear friends Rehman, Sitara, and their children are from Ghulkin, running a homestay hosting travelers since 2017. This was also the first time for them that a group of foreigners had rolled through since the start of Covid. We were all just enjoying the feeling of normalcy seeing old friends brings.
Staying in Ghulkin, sleeping in my tent in the apple orchard, eating the delicious local spinach and potato dishes – these are the things I personally dream of when I am away from this village. Our village stay turned out to be the highlight of the trip for our clients as well.
Life just slows down in this part of the world. Our clients come from diverse backgrounds and busy lives back home. Generally, they are living in cities and have fast-paced jobs and lifestyles. For me as the trip leader, it is special thing to behold as our group begins to find their rhythm in this new rural environment where the community is more helpful. We split our days between challenging treks, hanging out with the local kids, and chilling in the hammocks hung between apple and cherry trees. This is the life.
Hikes and Apricots
The month of April had been colder and grayer this year than in years past. It was the first time I saw cherry and apricot blossoms coated in light snow. By the time May rolled around – I was curious about the weather we would be encountering as we started doing more stuff outside.
Luckily, by the time we started hiking a few days into our trip, we had near-perfect conditions. The Karakoram gods blessed us with excellent weather for the most part.
Our most action-packed hike on this trip takes us across Passu Glacier and to a camp 800 meters below the rocky meadow called Patundas. I could feel that everyone was getting excited for this part of our journey. To be honest – all of our trip members crushed it as we traversed ice fields dotted with enormous, otherworldly formations of rock and ice. I found myself stopping to shoot a few photo frames of our crew, taking a minute to feel great gratitude that we were able to be back here, doing what we love, playing in these epic mountains.
As we sat around the campfire we sipped tea, laughed a whole hell of a lot, and took in the whole scene before our cooks served us an incredible spread both nights we camped there. The simple pleasure of eating a hot meal under the stars with a fire roaring nearby is something that never leaves you once you have experienced it.
Over 15 days, our crew traveled from sweltering Pakistani cities to remote glaciers and alpine camps, to the China border, and back again. Thanks so much to Skylar, Sam, and Yunus for always trying hard, keeping a positive attitude, and trusting us to show the magic of Pakistan. We look forward to the next adventure!
Highs and Lows of Pandemic Travel
I have a HUGE amount of gratitude to the people who chose to come with Epic Backpacker Tours to Pakistan this past May. For me this was not about restarting business or the money we would earn – it was about being able to get back on the horse again and ride both in actuality and mentally.
Coming into the trip, I knew that all of our group members were vaccinated and took PCR tests before arriving so none of us were very concerned about catching or spreading Covid at this point. The main risk and stress involved airlines, transits, and the fact that the rules within Pakistan seemed to be changing all the time.
Through all of these external factors – the group kept their calm and were truly present: they knew why they were here: to enjoy the landscapes, hike hard, and spend time getting to know people of Pakistan – and that is exactly what they did.
Planning and running a trip during the Covid pandemic taught me a few things: 1. this trip required the most logistics planning power I have ever put into a trip 2. All the hard work paid off (as hard work usually does) + the satisfaction and pleasure of seeing this trip succeed felt more rewarding than any other trip I have run as well.
I want to take a minute and thank all of our wonderful staff in Pakistan and the people behind the scenes who support everything we do. This trip was one for the ages because of our amazing community that I could not be more proud to be associated with.
Thanks for reading this first write up from The Epic Journal.
We have a few more tours on the horizon – which means more good stuff is happening soon!