zygmunt korytkowski

From mid July until the end of August 2009 I spent the summer in Pakistan.

During my six week journey I travelled across the northern parts of the country. Prior to, and during my stay, the security situation deteriorated rapidly as the Pakistan military launched an offensive across the Swat Valley.  The military was attempting to drive out the Taliban from areas they had recently gained control of and where they were imposing Sharia law. The offensive left circa 2 million people displaced.  Most were living in refugee camps. The Swat Valley during this period was closed to foreigners.

The security situation certainly did not help in the planning of my trip as highlighted by the lengthy time it took me to obtain a Pakistani visa.  Foreigners wanting to enter Pakistan were subject to extra security screening.

My journey, given the circumstances above, was very unstructured with no planned schedule prior to my arrival. As it turned out this did not impact what was a very happy, fascinating and safe visit to the country.

My first stop was Rawalpindi. I did not plan to stay there for long but things turned out somewhat differently. My luggage was lost. I had to wait for the next inbound flight to deliver it. I was stuck and there was nothing I could do but take advantage of the delay by exploring the town.

After finally being reunited with my rucksack I headed to Peshawar, a city located in West Pakistan. Peshawar is known mostly for its proximity to Afghanistan and the autonomous Tribal Areas.

Atmosphere is all in Peshawar. The old city is buzzing with life and it is a fascinating place to get lost in. However due to the Pakistan military offensive in the Swat Valley against the Taliban, the city was overwhelmed with refugees. People were queuing to get food and other basic supplements.   UNHCR tents were spread around the outskirts of the city.

I found a room in the Rose Hotel - a great option because of its close proximity to the Old Town. I met an amazing person there called Prince Mahir Ullan Khan.  He showed me Peshawar and the surroundings areas.  Prince is currently working for several NGO organisations focusing on education, tourism promotion, legal aid and drug abuse.

Refugee camp (Peshawar)

Prince took me to a Buddhist monastic complex dating back to the 1st century BC called Takht Bhai.  In 1980 the complex was listed as a World Heritage Site by UNESCO. On our way we stopped to see the Edicts of Ashoka which are a collection of 33 inscriptions on the Pillars of Ashoka. These inscriptions represent the first tangible evidence of Buddhism.

During my time in Peshawar I visited an Afghan refugee camp where the local children work in an on-site brick factory. I also visited the local madrasa and met their religious leader. This helped me to understand more about Islam.

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My next stop was Lahore, centre of Pakistani cultural, intellectual and artistic life.

The main reason for going to Lahore was my curiosity surrounding Sufism – Islamic mysticism.
The encyclopaedic description of Sufism is that it is an ancient practise and Sufis are described as the mystics of Islam. Sufism fits awkwardly in accepted religious categories. There are many Sufis that are not Muslims and there are many Muslims that are reluctant to consider Sufism as a part of Islam.

I had the opportunity to visit two different shrines when they were hosting a sort of “Sufi Night”.  It was an extraordinary experience to watch Sufi dancers and dhol drummers (a dhol is a type of traditional drum) in action.

Sufi dancers were spinning around, whirling and shaking their heads to the rhythm of the hypnotic drumbeat. Their bare feet and bodies were being pushed to extreme physical exhaustion and they were drenched in sweat. It looked like chaos mixed with perfection! Dance lets them experience a supreme state in which they are purified of all what is considered to be dirty and inhuman, and enables them to reach a level of spiritual purity.

Events take place every Thursday night and local women are not allowed to participate. People from the shrine, pilgrims and visitors were sharing food and drinks; they made me feel so welcome that I felt like an honoured guest.

The atmosphere, filled with music, energy, candle light and the strong smell of incense, was surreal.
At one of the events I had the pleasure of meeting the charismatic Saeen brothers.  The brothers (Gunga and Mithu) are supremos of Sufi music.  Their music and perfect synchronisation was remarkable! It is worth mentioning that the older brother was born deaf and learnt to play dhol from feeling the vibration of the drum. 

I left Lahore and the Sufis behind but they will stay close to my heart forever, especially their drums. They still beat somewhere inside me...

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In the heart of Karakorum in the Northern Areas of Pakistan lies an amphitheatre of the highest mountains in the world. This is where K2, the Gasherbrum and Broad Peak ranges are located. This area is also known for the Baltoro Glacier, the longest glacier in the world outside the Polar Regions.

In midsummer I attempted to tackle the Karakorum and to cross Gondogoro La.

My expedition began with a 19-hour mini bus drive from Islamabad to Skardu along the Karakorum Highway. This route was part of the famous Silk Route linking China with Pakistan. Much of the Highway leads along the Indus River which separates the Himalayas from Karakorum.

I met my companions in Skardu and together we made our way to Askole where the trek actually started. It was a strenuous but extremely enjoyable two weeks’ walk.  Every morning was a dawn start and a hearty breakfast followed by a trek till lunchtime.

The pace of the trek was leisurely with plenty of time to enjoy the scenery. The trek was organised very well taking in to consideration the fact that we had to acclimatise to the high altitude. During our trek we had one day off to relax, catch up with washing dirty clothes or just lie down and read books.

View of the Karakorum from Askole

Unfortunately after we reached Concordia the weather changed leaving us with little hope of continuing the trek. The snow and heavy wind were so bad that we were trapped in our tents. After dinner that day my companions decided to head back to Askole. I could not come to terms with heading back and, thanks to the support of my fantastic tour operator (Snowland) and their understanding team, I was able to continue my trek.

On the following day we left for Ali Camp and, surprisingly, the weather was fabulous. But it did not last for long. After our arrival at the camp again the weather drastically deteriorated and the risk of potential avalanches during the crossing of Gondogoro La was too high. We had no option but to go back the same way we had walked.

Sadly I did not manage to cross Gondogoro La, but the experience of the trek and exploring such a remote part of the world as the Karakorum Mountains was incomparable.

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Kalasha’s  beaded headdress called a “susutr”

The Hindu Kush Mountains of Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province is home of an indigenous tribe known as Kalasha. It was also my home for several days as the Kalasha people invited me to stay with them and share their daily routines.

The invite came as a result of meeting Imran Schah and it was he who introduced me to one of the families. Imran became a great friend and companion. He lives in Peshawar and writes regularly for Lonely Planet covering the North-West Frontier of Pakistan. As well as a writer he is also a great photographer.

The Kalasha people are rumoured to be the descendants of Alexander the Great’s army which conquered the Hindu Kush in the 4th century B.C. In Kalasha oral history the people are the children of “Salaxi”, their name for Alexander.

Most scientists and anthropologists dispute the legend. They claim that Kalasha are Indo-Aryans whose religion has some commonalities with pre-Zoroastrian Iranians. No significant connection between Kalasha and Greeks has been proven.

Today only about 3000 people remain in three villages spread across the Kalasha Valley.

Kalasha culture is very unique and drastically differs from any other of the various ethnic groups in Pakistan. Throughout the last century tens of thousands of Kalasha people were forcibly converted to Islam. Their identity also suffers from exposure to tourism, the impact of foreign aid organisations and constant pressure from both Christians and Muslims.

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Pakistan was a wonderful experience and the people the most hospitable that you can imagine. It is truly a hidden jewel of the travel world.


all content © 2011 by zygmunt korytkowski