Tours can combine style and adventure

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 23 March, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 23 March, 1996, 12:00am

Those with an adventurous spirit and an eye for the naturally beautiful need look no further than Pakistan.

The country has Asia's most dramatic mountain landscapes and a multitude of cultures, including remnants of a lost civilisation thought to be descended from Alexander the Great.

In particular, the Himalayas offer spectacular mountain-biking and an unspoiled 'Shangri-la' for trekkers.

Pakistan is home to some of the earliest human settlements, an ancient civilisation rivalling those of Egypt and Mesopotamia, and is the crucible of two major religions, Hinduism and Buddhism.

It is also effectively 'undiscovered' by tourists - only about 500,000 visitors explore the country each year.

For those who make the effort, a treasure trove awaits them.

There are two gateways to the rugged mountains. One starts in Peshawar, the provincial capital of the romantic North-West Frontier Province where Britain and Russia contested 'The Great Game' for colonial dominance last century.

North of Peshawar is the Swat Valley, which boasts some of the loveliest scenery in Pakistan, and Chitral, an unspoiled area of lush valleys, hot springs and great walks.

For access to the Northern Areas, head for Gilgit, the base for Alpine walks, trout fishing and world-class mountaineering, or the neighbouring region of Hunza, Nagar and Gojal, towards the Chinese border.

Trekkers can find several of the highest peaks, most notably K2. There are many options from overseas companies and Pakistan operators, such as the holiday arm of Pakistan International Airline (PIA).

But trekking is, by nature, restrictive for all except those with a lot of time. Mountain-bikers, however, can journey through nearly all of Pakistan's most spectacular scenery in only two weeks, by driving and flying between some less interesting areas.

'PIA's interest in the promotion of sports in Pakistan goes far beyond the cricket fields and the hockey arenas,' a PIA spokesman said.

'The bicycle tour along the Silk Route, which PIA has organised with great success over the years, is a prime example. It provides an excellent opportunity for those who like cycling as a sport, and for the adventurous.

'This tour also attracts some of the world's famous cyclists and a host of thrillseekers.' On the tour that starts and ends in the Pakistan capital, Islamabad, cyclists ride through the beautiful North-West. The Silk Route winds its way through some of the most spectacular scenic spots: the Swat Valley and Gilgit, with mountains and rivers along the way.

Riders can see and travel along the 'Eighth Wonder of the World', the Karakoram Highway.

The route takes them to the Pakistan-China border at Khunjerab Pass, 4,800 metres above sea level.

PIA also organises holidays tailored for summer and winter visitors. Summer Adventures features what the carrier describes as 'unique mountain adventures in the long lost kingdoms of the Karakoram'.

This region of Northern Pakistan, where four mountain ranges meet, used to be the domain of fiercely independent mountain kingdoms.

Although assimilated into modern Pakistan, the locals maintain a fierce pride of their old mountain warrior heritage.

PIA organises trekking, mountaineering and jeep safari tours to this region.

Trekking options include hikes to the base camps of K2 in the Karakorams, Nanga Parbat in the Himalayas and Tirichmir in the Hindu Kush.

'A wide range of treks, from day hikes in the Hunza Valley to near expedition-like treks to the base camp of K2, are available to meet all types of customer demand,' the PIA spokesman said.

For the less energetic, four-wheel-drive safaris ply old caravan routes through the gorges and valleys linking the Hindu Kush, Karakoram and Himalayan ranges. Travellers can visit remote villages, camp and see the natives of the historic mountain kingdoms.

Meanwhile, PIA even organises Soft Adventures for those used to holidaying in a bit more style. By night, travellers stay in well-furnished motels and lodges and, by day, they hike, drive or ride horses in the valleys of the Kafir Kalash in Chitral, the mountain orchards of the Hunzais and the hospitable villages of the Baltis.

'There are also pony treks, trout fishing and ornithology and botanical tours - and all can be combined with one of the most spectacular airborne experiences in the world, a one-hour 45-minute breathtaking air safari over the Karakorams, with a bird's-eye view of K2 and other renowned peaks.' This flight can be combined with PIA's Winter Adventures to southern Pakistan, the cradle of civilisation in the Indus Valley. By camel or jeep, or a combination of both, safaris through the Cholistan desert, which borders the Indus River, can be organised.

Expeditions also follow the paths of nomads who cross into Pakistan from Afghanistan near Quetta through the Bolan pass to the southern lowlands in Punjab and Sindh.