Village life, mountain vistas, and good friends at the most famous homestay in Pakistan, plus information on how to reach this homestay in Gilgit Baltistan.
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I first met Rehman in 2016.
Though Rehman is Pakistani, our first encounter was in a small restaurant in the Chinese border town of Tashkurgan.
… several days too late.
I meant to connect with him as I traveled through Northern Pakistan. But thanks to my unorganized tendencies and a week of lethargy-inducing local encounters, I failed to find him on his home turf. Instead, we chatted over parathas and eggs on the other side of the Pakistan-China border.
Rehman insisted I come stay with him and his family in his house in Ghulkin. I promised I would once I returned to Pakistan.
But my plans are notoriously shifty. My 2017 return to Pakistan saw me visiting only Lahore and Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province—places not remotely close to Rehman’s home in the far north. This time ‘round in 2018, I planned to divide my northern nature time between Phander and Yasin Valleys. Not quite as far away from Ghulkin as Khyber Pakhtunkhwa… but not in the same direction, either.
I told Rehman as much, but he was persistent.
> Just one cup of tea buddy. Only one day.
> I will give you transport.
> Please, give me time for only one day.
His requests wore away at my mind, and fate conspired with him against my previous itinerary.
A few days of tension thanks to involuntary security guards in Yasin Valley was the straw that broke this camel’s plans. Bleary eyed, I hopped on a local minibus heading in Rehman’s direction at 5:00 the next morning.
The road to paradise
Seven hours of cramped minibus rides later, I finally spotted Rehman waiting for me by his small blue car in Aliabad, Hunza. I waved, and broad grins simultaneously spread across our faces; two years later, we finally had our reunion!
Greetings out of the way, I climbed into the car with Rehman and Judy, an older American woman (and blog follower) also staying at his home. Chatter filled the car as the silky smooth curves of the famous Karakoram Highway led the way back toward Rehman’s village.
Turquoise waters of Attabad Lake glittering in the sun; ruins of an ancient Silk Road route hugging the mountainsides; cigarette smoke mixing with fresh mountain air rippling through open car windows; the (upper) Karakoram Highway is the perfect road trip. As the sun warmed my arm hanging out the car window, I felt as though we were driving towards paradise. An hour passed; our happy conversation never ceased.
Gravel crunching beneath the car’s tires announced our arrival at our final destination: Ghulkin village.
I stepped outside into the bright afternoon, sunlight illuminating the village just so. Ghulkin looked straight out of a classical painting with rustling trees, stone houses, and women in colorful salwar kameez working fields sprouting with green.
Grabbing a big watermelon and my dusty backpack from the trunk of the car, I followed Rehman and Judy up a narrow dirt path between houses. Just when my legs began to protest at all the high altitude activity—Ghulkin is more than 2,000 meters above sea level—Rehman pushed open a wooden door, and we all entered his guest room.
Laid out in traditional style with a sunken center surrounded by four raised platforms, the room was definitively cozy. Red carpets on the floor lent a warm atmosphere; beds laden with fluffy blankets completed the picture. I flopped in a spot of sunlight on the ground to continue my chat with Judy; within mere minutes, Rehman’s mother—known affectionately as “Grandma”—appeared with cups of hot mint tea.
It was the picture of contentedness, and that feeling persisted over the following days. To stay in Rehman’s home is to become a part of his family, to join his village for a time.
The kitchen was the center point of their sphere of existence. Lounging on pillows around the warm stove at its heart, I helped Rehman’s daughter Rafya with her homework, and learned bread-making from his wife (and English teacher) Sitara. Grandma always made sure my belly was bursting at the seams, and Rehman’s father entertained me with stories of summiting mountain peaks and developing a fondness for beer when he visited German years ago.
Early mornings were for village wanderings. One morning saw me scaling hilltops in search of sunrise views. Another brought an encounter with an old woman in a colorful box cap. She proceeded to take me by the arm and lead me through the village, happily explaining things in Wakhi despite my not understanding a word of her language.
Sunny afternoons and evenings were spent with Rehman. We dodged local boys commandeering the road for their football matches as the sun set; oohed and aahed at golden hour light hitting the famous Passu Cones; visited his sister’s home for a cup of tea and some biscuits after a shouted conversation across the valley.
One morning, Rehman drove some of us to the nearby Passu Glacier, where we (very inelegantly) slid down steep walls of loose rocks to access its icy spires. There, Rehman taught me ice climbing basics, cackling as I failed miserably to scale the sheet of ice as nimbly or gracefully as he did. (I have a sneaking suspicion he is part mountain goat, part Iron Man.)
Each day began and ended in serene bliss. I could’ve stayed for weeks, but alas—all good things must come to an end, right?
Doing things right
On my final day, Rehman drove me back to Aliabad when I couldn’t find a ride to hitch. As we followed the Karakoram Highway once more, he asked me questions about his business.
What can I do better? Where can I learn more about hospitality? How can I get more people to come?
I answered him earnestly and in detail. Partially because he’s a friend and I want him to succeed, but also because I believe his business needs to succeed.
You see, Pakistan’s northern areas are gradually being consumed by poorly managed mass tourism. As the numbers of domestic tourists voyaging to Gilgit Baltistan increase every year, so, too, do the numbers of hideous concrete hotels and mediocre tourist establishments serving greasy Punjabi dishes. Locals see the success of neighboring businesses, and abandon their roots in an attempt to greedily cater as quickly as possible to the needs of tourists from other parts of Pakistan. Outsiders move in to capitalize on business opportunities, and take work from locals.
Homestays like Rehman’s are essential for preserving culture and setting an example of how tourism can be done responsibly. Tourists have no choice but to engage with local culture, to adapt to it and appreciate it, unlike the tourists who stay in new concrete hotels and only emerge to take selfies and eat the same food they eat at home. My hope is that Rehman’s success inspires more people to set up local homestays instead of generic hotels.
Pakistan’s northern areas are a place to enjoy nature and peaceful village life, not stroll down streets of ugly hotels and tacky souvenir stands. There’s only so much that we can do as tourists to slow the frenzied development of the north… but choosing homestays over hotels is one of them.
Visiting Rehman’s homestay in Pakistan
So I’ve sold you on Rehman’s homestay, eh? Great! Here’s what you need to know about visiting his home.
Cost of Rehman’s homestay
There’s no set cost for a night at Rehman’s home; he simply asks you to pay “as you wish” when the time comes for you to leave.
Pay what you like, but remember that this is one of the very few ways he and his family can make money up in Ghulkin. I recommend paying at least $15 (or 1,500 Rs) per day per person. More is always appreciated.
What’s included in Rehman’s homestay
Facilities are basic in Ghulkin, but you can expect to have…
- 2-3 meals a day, plus tea and snacks
- Clean drinking water from a spring
- Fruit trees galore starting in June or July
- Communal sleeping area with some raised beds, some mattresses on floor
- Bathroom attached to communal sleeping area
- Bucket shower with hot water
- Mobile signal available in Gulmit village, a 30 minute walk away
Rehman can also arrange treks and camping (with or without gear) in the region for an extra fee.
Is Rehman’s homestay a good fit for me?
If you’re a foreign tourist interested in learning about village life in a safe and easy environment, his homestay will be a great experience for you.
I especially recommend the area to (solo) female travelers, as you will be very safe and well taken care of in Ghulkin.
Pakistani tourists are a more delicate matter. Rehman does not accept groups of Pakistani tourists. He’s also uncomfortable having male Pakistanis staying in his home/village, as he’s concerned about potential issues between male tourists and the women of his village.
However, I discussed this at length with him and he said he’d likely allow solo female travelers or small groups of Pakistani women, and might consider solo male travelers on a case-by-case basis.
If you’re an open-minded Pakistani traveler truly interested in learning about the local culture, feel free to contact him and let him know so. However, if you’re just looking for a vacation spot for you and your friends, please consider another venue.
How to contact Rehman and book a stay
You can’t book a stay online—calling or texting are your best options. Rehman does use Facebook, but signal is virtually nonexistent in Ghulkin, and there’s a chance he won’t receive your message for several days.
You can call or text Rehman from within Pakistan at 03555120343.
How to get to Ghulkin and Rehman’s homestay
Ghulkin is a small village close to Passu, a well-known stop on the Karakoram Highway.
Transport up the Karakoram Highway in the form of minibuses is readily available in Gilgit, Karimabad (Hunza), and Aliabad (the town before Karimabad). Ask locals or your hotel staff for transport to Passu, and they should be able to help. Once you’re on the minibus, call Rehman and ask him to speak with your bus driver so he knows where exactly to drop you off.
Rehman might also be able to pick you up in Karimabad or Aliabad depending on his schedule for the day. Call ahead or text to check with him and get more details.
Want more on Pakistan’s northern areas? Don’t miss my guide to the stunning Phander Valley!