SE Asia Guangzhou and Pakistan
This is probably going to be a long post. Or a series of posts. In 2018 I left for SE Asia on an extended trip. We departed the US on September 26th, and didn’t return until March 3rd 2019. I went with Megan, my ex-coworker/training partner/roommate/girlfriend, and we spent a total of 165 days together. Heres a bit about what we did in each country, the lessons learned, and whatever else I can think of.
Before we even left, we did a ton of preparation. I’ve never lived out of a backpack before, we had to get Pakistani visas, we needed to book a 10-day silent meditation retreat in Myanmar (Burma?), etc. So there was a lot of stuff to do.
The days and weeks before we left were pretty hectic in general, I was racing bikes or riding them for extended periods of time and Megan was out on all sorts of adventures. We prepared spordaically, but with quite a bit of detail.
We’d spend hours in coffee shops poring over blog posts, Lonely Planet guides and a loose collection of plans that Megan had made with friends. In the end, we came up with the following itinerary, which we sort of stuck to:
Country # of days - estimate Pakistan 14 UAE (Dubai) 4 Nepal 31 Myanmar 28 Thailand 21? Malaysia? 5? (in the middle, while climbing south) Laos 10 Vietnam 14 Cambodia 7? Indonesia + Bali 10-14 Add Phillipines 7 days?
We used google sheets to plan out all of this stuff. We also had things like vaccinations, guides to book, what visas we needed to get ahead of time, travel insurance, an unused gear list, that kind of thing. It was really all over the place.
We also spent a lot of time on Couchsurfing, trying to find places to stay. This is an exhausting process as well, but pretty rewarding. We found a host family to stay with in Lahore, and another guy to stay with in Dubai (which would end up being kind of a mistake). You have to respond to EVEREYONE, and we used Megan’s profile, so there were a lot of people to respond to. There was more than one late night just saying “Thanks for your offer but no thanks” to a couple dozen people.
The hardest part of the pre-planning was getting visas for Pakistan. It’s not really easy to get in, and to even be considered for entry you have to book a full tour with a company willing to sponsor you for the whole time. We ended up going with Alpine Adveture Guides at the behest of one of Megan’s climbing friends. They’re incredibly solid, kind people and the head of the company, Ali Saltoro, was key in getting our visas through. Turns out he knows just about everybody.
In the end we were pretty confident, but theres always more you can do. At some point you just have to get on the plane.
We boarded our first plane on the 26th, headed to Vancouver, B.C. for short layover, and then after a ~13 hour flight arrived in Guangzhou. We had a 12 hour layover or something, so we decided to go out and explore the city. This was perfect, because Megan doesn’t have a visa. I have one already from my other trips to China, so it was easy for me to get through immigration.
We wandered around, drank coffee at a small cafe, checked out the weird underwear street, and tried not to feel exhausted. We tried to meet up with someone from Couchsurfing, but that fell through. It would’ve been really cool to experience the city with a local, but oh well.
Theres not a whole lot to say about China. I’ve done it before, and most of the cities feel the same. It was really fun to go through it with Megan though, who has never been.
Towards the end of the day in China, we boarded a plane to Lahore. I immediately lost my headphones, credit and debit cards. Hilarious. I didn’t notice, either, for a while. Luckily when you travel with someone else who is paying attention, they can pay for everything.
After a sort of long flight (maybe six hours or so?) we end up in Lahore in the early evening. It was hot, dirty and nuts. Our host, Ali, picked us up in a comically small car. Like barely big enough for our backpacks, us, and Ali. It took us 45 minutes to get out of the parking lot. Megan and I just sat and tried to absorb it, while making small talk with Ali. He’s a mountaineer and has spent some time up in the north, so it was easy to have some common ground.
That first night we were just exhausted, but still stayed up way too late. It seems to be part of the culture over there to stay up late, which is odd because drinking is outlawed. I think Megan hadn’t slept the night before we’d left the US, either, so she was especially exhausted.
Our host family in Lahore was great, and very kind. We stayed in a room all to ourselves up on the third floor of a house that seemed dead-center in the maze that is Lahore. We shared a single towel, which for some reason was really common on the rest of the trip.
We went to old Lahore (feels like something out of Aladdin), visited a few mosques (where they made Megan wear a longer skirt and a head-cover) and just tried to soak it all in. Traffic is crazy, everyone is wearing the same thing, and we were stared at a lot. It was harmless staring, but tourists are so rare, even in a huge city like Lahore, that we were fascinating. Very few made the effort to talk to us though, but a few women approached us in full burqa for selfies.
I have only good things to say about our host family. They were kind, treated us to a few meals (homecooked or otherwise) and were great for conversation. We learned a ton about local culture and the history of Pakistan, and got some good beta for our upcoming trip to the north.
Lahore was one of our most culture-shock cities. Our jetlag really didn’t help, and we both remember being so exhausted on the second night that we were actively falling asleep. Our hosts took us out to dinner at like 1 in the morning, and we were absolutely dead. I remember watching Megan fall asleep in the car on the way over. It would’ve been rude but it was just so funny how tired we were, we couldn’t help but laugh
We’d spent only three days in Lahore, but that was more than enough for us. We headed to the airport towards the end of our stay and, after saying goodbye to our hosts, boarded a plane to Islamabad.
The airport was much nicer, and we eventually found our guide. Ali Saltoro himself, who was to be our guide for the next two weeks, picked us up and we made our way out. Megan liked him immediately because of how fast he walked. They got along great.
After paying Ali (we’d messed up and brought Pakistani money, which is so volatile it lost much of it’s value before we even entered the country) via wire transfer, we ran and climbed. Ali took us around town, getting Megan a more acceptable shirt to wear, we had dinner and hit up an artifical climbing wall. We also ran a bit in the heat, which was a nightmare. There were salt lines all over me.
Our time in Islamabad was supposed to be short, but they’d cancelled our flight to Skardu, so we had an extra day. We passed the time by running in the Margala hills and Ali showed his ability to adapt by getting us out climbing in the hills. We met a really kind speed/sport climber who belayed us and showed us some routes. Climbing in the sun sucks, but it’s still climbing.
Islamabad wasn’t my favorite place, but everyone we met was very kind. It also continued the theme of there being trash everywhere. It’s really hard to believe unless you see it first hand, but both Lahore and Islamabad were filthy. Lahore more so, but Islamabad had a couple of little streams and small villages on the outskirts of town which would just collect trash. It was heart-breaking to see it all there and no one doing anything about it.
After too long in Islamabad, we flew out to Skardu. Skardu is beautiful, and after a stressful morning of being almost too late for the flight, it was breath-taking to see the huge, stark mountains everywhere. We saw K2 and Gasherbrum 1 (I think) on the way in, poking out over the cloud cover.
We got setup at the famous K2 Hotel and went on a pretty big run. We checked out the Skardu fort and Organic Village, and got forced into a million different selfies with these two guys. It wasn’t bad, just funny. We picked a few slightly transparent rocks out of the river bed as souvenirs.
On the way back into town we met this guy and started talking to him and he invited us over for dinner. Turns out he’s a hotel/museum owner (weird combo, but okay). We sent a weird message to our guide sort of explaining where we were going, and went and had dinner with this guy. He told us a lot about the area, gave us free dinner and was in general a good host. His Gilgit-Baltistan relics were pretty fun to explore, too.
Later in the night our driver from earlier in the day showed up out of nowhere and took us home. Thats when we learned Ali is kind of a gangster - he looked our host up by his phone number, found where he lives and sent the driver for us. It was kind of scary, Megan pointed out it was like our parents had picked us up from a party we weren’t supposed to be going to. Everything was fine, however, just kind of funny.
The next day we embarked on our long drive. We’d spend the next ten days or so in a Landcruiser. It’s a pretty fun, spicy way to see a place. We traversed lots of tundra, had milktea at small outposts in the middle of nowhere, and took a lot of good pictures.
Nanga Parbat (Tarashing Village)
Nenga Parbat is a pretty famous 8000 meter peak in the himalaya. Since we’re budding young mountaineers and Ali is an Alpine guide, our entire tour consisted mostly of visiting mountainous, out-there places. Nenga Parbat did not dissapoint, and I got some of my favorite pictures on the trip from the glacier on the Rupal-face side. When the mountain wasn’t covered by clouds, it was majestic. We spent a couple nights at it’s base, exploring the glacier and the small village there. The land cruiser ride out there was pretty crazy, too.
Unsurprisingly, it was my first time at some real elevation and we got up to 12,000 feet for a day. Later, in Nepal, this would feel amazing, but for that day it was pretty tough.
We spent our evenings eating in the dim light of solar-powered LEDs and playing this card game that Ali taught us. Megan would get pretty good at it, and I started keeping score eventually. I believe Ali and Megan would eventually tie for lifetime-points over the course of the trip.
Hunza Valley (Karimabad)
The drive from Tarashing to the place we would end up staying in Hunza was pretty eventful. We stopped at the world’s most dangerous bridge and detoured to check out the world’s highest border crossing. We listened to Justin Bieber and Taylor Swift a lot on the way down from there, because for some reason the Land Cruiser had a lot of music videos built into this tiny dashboard TV. It was a busy day.
Our hotel in Karimabad was incredible, and definitely had the best view of our stay in Pakistan. Pictures don’t really come close to conveying how insane the 360 degree view was, but it was indescribable.
We visited the Altit fort, went for a run out and back and in general just enjoyed the place. We didn’t stay long.
It should be noted that this whole area is beautiful, the rivers are incredible blue and fierce, and there are mountains dominating the countryside everywhere. The Karakoram Highway cuts through these mountains, and is in a constant state of disrepair because of it. Rockfall destroys the roads constantly, and you’re always seeing crews removing large stones from the middle of the road. The psychedelic trucks and buses don’t seem to mind, though.
Fairy Meadows, Nanga Parbat
“I’ve never seen Megan so excited about French Fries” - October 9th, 2018
We circled back around to Nanga Parbat, this time the Rakhiot face. Getting there was pretty crazy- We drove and drove, then we parked the car and got into these really old 70s-era Landrcuiser Jeeps that are patched together with whatever is lying around, and you enjoy a “1-Hour exciting jeep journey” to a village two hours away from the fairy meadows. The tires on all of these jeeps are super bald, and the roadway to the top is just enough to allow one of them to pass. The drivers are always honking around corners just in case someone is coming the other way.
At some point we stopped, the driver got out and we all looked down into this crazy valley at the wreckage of a jeep. Apparently, just days prior, part of the road had washed out and a jeep had gone down. A bunch of people died, since there are like 8-10 of you packed into a single jeep, and a few more were injured. Pretty sobering. Pakistan is intense.
After a two hour hike at the end of the day (my first with a real backpack and pretty miserable) we arrived in the dark at our lodge, which was incredible. The Pakistani are pretty resourceful, and it seemed like the whole lodge was basically built with chainsaws and grit. What they couldn’t build, they carried up in flip-flops. It was supremely peaceful.
We stayed up there for a few days, hiking up towards basecamp and exploring the area. At some point in the night it snowed, so we were stuck up there in the cold. We enjoyed the wood stove and tried to stay warm. We played a lot of cards with Ali. We explored the upper area on the hike to basecamp, and played around in the snow. We even got into some sketchy bushwhacking.
The food there was pretty good, we ate a lot of french fries that were hand cut. Breakfasts were definitely my favorite; chapati fried in oil is amazing. Especially with milk-tea and these really good little flat omelletes.
Sleeping up there was kind of difficult, elevation does weird things to you. I’d later learn in Nepal that you sleep better after acclimatizing (duh), but I’d end up gasping myself awake a lot. We weren’t even up that high, either. Maybe like ten or eleven thousand feet.
Eventually hiked down and out, through the snow and onto another jeep. We’d run out of time and our flight back was the next day so we had to get moving.
Back to Islamabad
The worst part of the whole Pakistan trip was getting back to Islamabad. Ali hired a different driver, because Ahmed (our driver) had to go back to Skardu. We missed Ahmed and his big smile immediately.
The drive back to Islamabad was terrible; exhaust fumes kept getting into the car so Megan and I just got sicker and sicker as the 17 hour car ride went on. Not to mention weird tensions between Ali and the driver. We all felt so shitty and tired we stopped and spent like two hours at the worst hotel you can imagine. I was so dead I just immediately passed out.
We drove through the night and eventually made it back to the guest house in Islamabad that we had stayed in before and caught a couple of hours sleep. I’ll never forget seeing the driver with his head on the wheel at the end of the journey; poor guy.
We flew out the next day after having some final tea and saying goodbye to Ali. Onto Dubai!