Better Than I Dreamed: GeoEx CEO Brady Binstadt in Pakistan
GeoEx’s new CEO, veteran staffer Brady Binstadt, recently fulfilled a travel dream when he journeyed to Pakistan and spent three weeks traveling up the Karakoram Highway to Hunza and beyond. The seed of that dream had been planted more than two decades ago, soon after he began working at GeoEx, and as it turned out, the long-anticipated trip surpassed his fondest imaginings. Soon after his return, I was able to sit down with Brady and ask him about his adventure. His palpable exhilaration rekindled my own wonder-filled memories of that extraordinary land. I hope our conversation rekindles your wanderlust too!
I know you just got back from an amazing trip to Pakistan. I’m excited to hear all about it! To begin, what was the original inspiration for this trip?
Way back in 1999, when I had just started working at GeoEx, I read about Pakistan tours in our catalog. There was an overwhelming feeling from a passionate group of GeoExers—Tom Cole, Jim Sano, Vassi Koutsaftis, Al Read, Ann Aylwin, and others—that Hunza deserved to be on a special pedestal for those who love mountains.
I was deeply impressed by their passion for this place, and at the same time, it all just seemed so out of my comfort zone—and to be honest, it still did until a few months ago. But in my new role, I wanted to visit a spot that really exemplified how valuable GeoEx can be in the field, and Pakistan shows that in spades every day, thanks to our 30-plus-year history there, deeply experienced leaders and colleagues, and beyond-wonderful support staff.
Did you have any hesitations about traveling now?
Well, I like to think I have a high tolerance for exploring the world, but this trip tested me a bit more than normal. If you combine the Covid hoop-jumping that is required now with the events unfolding next door in Afghanistan, it surely would have been easy to just postpone. But once I did the proper research, I was confident—and correct!—that going was definitely the right choice.
How were the flights to Pakistan?
Aside from the new normal of additional Covid testing/paperwork required, the flights were pretty dreamy. Qatar Airlines flies nonstop from San Francisco to Doha and then there’s a short connection to Islamabad. I upgraded to business class and it was worth every penny—probably the most comfort I’ve ever experienced both in the air and at the lounge in Doha.
What were your first impressions of Pakistan?
I hadn’t explored much of this part of the world, so my first day was overwhelming—the calls to prayer filling the air five times a day, the omnipresent shalwar kameez (the light and loose Pakistani suit that combines a knee-length tunic with drawstring pants) on nearly all the men, the hectic yet oddly honk-less streets, the colorful fruit and vegetable markets. But most impressive of all was the unspoken gratitude of nearly all passersby—the inquisitive look, the warm smile, the random handshake from an elderly gentleman, the occasional high-five from a little kid. I felt welcomed without hesitation, and while I’m not naïve to the problems of Pakistan, it was a reminder that the vast majority of people on this planet are by nature good-hearted and curious.
What was your itinerary and what were some highlights?
Well, the mountains were a prime lure, and I wanted to ensure that my first trip to Pakistan included proper time to get to know the Karakoram intimately. I felt that an immersion in that pure, high, clarifying air would be a great tonic, particularly after the roller-coaster world of late. So for the first part of my trip, I did a solo trek. Traveling with two of our indescribably wonderful local guides, I made my way from Islamabad to the hardscrabble town of Gilgit, acclimatized for a few days in the incomparable Hunza area, and slowly—very slowly—made my way across a few mildly treacherous suspension bridges with chilly glacial rivers beneath.
Then, we started off on a trek from Hoper to Rush Lake. This was an amazing five days of mountain scenery that was just off the charts, including a few glacier crossings, dozens (or hundreds?) of snow-capped peaks, the highest alpine lake in the country (at 15,400 feet), thousands of sheep, and the invaluable support of our superb staff. It was humbling, cathartic, and exhausting—and I’d do it again in a heartbeat.
The highlight of the trek was perhaps surprisingly also the hardest part of the trail. One day at Rush Lake, we woke up to about six inches of snow on the ground. We walked all morning in a light snow surrounded by partially covered peaks, complete peace, and deafening silence. Then, with the necessary and constant assistance of my guide, I managed to imperfectly slide down a section of trail that was about a 2,300-foot descent in two-and-a-half really slippery miles. I thought on that day about how getting out in the world again is, on many levels, mentally and physically challenging, and at the same time truly so very good for the soul.
After the trek I joined a small group of GeoEx travelers for the next two weeks. We enjoyed more time in Hunza, exploring stunning old forts, eating apricots and walnut cake, and marveling at the 360 degrees of mountain extravaganza surrounding us. Then we headed north towards the currently closed Khunjerab Pass, which connects Pakistan and China—and which, for people who like travel oddities, is home to the world’s highest ATM machine.
In northern Pakistan, many of the small valleys and villages were separated from the outside world for centuries, and the relatively recent advent of anything resembling a road is still a bit of a novelty. We covered roughly 1,500 miles over the course of this trip—at an average speed of about 22 miles per hour. The drive eastward from Gilgit to Skardu was perhaps our biggest test. This stretch was enlivened by colorful “jingle” trucks that passed with inches of wiggle room, so many rockslides that we lost count, stupendous drop-offs just beyond our wheels, and more. This was definitely not for the faint of heart, but the reward was access to a truly special part of the world.
Our itinerary included remarkable forts (including a few that had been converted to hotels where we stayed), gorgeous hikes on lakes, and a couple of especially memorable visits to schools, where it was so heartwarming and inspiring to see girls getting an education too.
We stopped at remote villages like Khaplu and Shigar. The names alone sound so distant and exotic—and they are! In these places, when we foreigners hopped out of the car, all music and conversation would immediately stop. Everyone would just eye us with intense curiosity. Then I would put my hand on my heart and say, “As-salumu alaykum” (“May peace be upon you”), and wide smiles would immediately emerge.
Finally we drove up, across, and down the Deosai Plateau—the second-largest in the world—then headed back towards our last destination, bustling and toasty Islamabad, to wrap up three remarkable and enlightening weeks in a place now so close to my heart.
Certainly one of the greatest highlights on this portion of the trip was the people—the local Pakistanis who joined us, the incomparable Bill Jones who led us, and the wonderfully resilient GeoEx travelers.
How was the weather and how were the traveling conditions, such as transportation, hotels, and meals?
Well, the weather was generally wonderful, hovering between the 60s and 80s Fahrenheit during the day in northern Pakistan. We did have a handful of days that were much colder (as low as 0 degrees on my trek), and a dash of rain to keep us honest, and Islamabad was probably hovering around 100 and humid for our short time there.
Transport was done for the most part in smaller SUVs to maximize comfort/safety, though as mentioned earlier, the roads in northern Pakistan are a test of mettle for even the heartiest traveler. It’s exhilarating after a while, and you just have to sit back and marvel at the fact that people even considered building a road in some of these places, much less accomplished the feat.
Meals were tasty and hearty, along the lines of Indian food—naan, dahl, tikka masala, a lot of staples like that and I never tire of them. Hotels varied from quite basic (but clean) to very comfortable, with the Serena Islamabad taking the cake. As you know, GeoEx tends to prefer properties that provide a great sense of place and are filled with character, and quite a few on this trip did just that—some old forts, a beautiful lakeside retreat, and a little getaway just above Hunza where you’re perfectly positioned for a world-class sunrise.
Was Covid much of an issue on the trip?
Our local staff and most hotel staff that we encountered were quite diligent about Covid, wearing masks when inside and using sanitizer whenever possible. We did have a few times where officers stopped us on the highway to ask if we were vaccinated before we entered a certain part of the country. We needed a negative test to leave the country, and that was done easily and quickly at a lab near the hotel in Islamabad. I was pleasantly surprised to get a free at-home test kit on arrival back at SFO.
What are the greatest lessons you’re bringing back from the trip?
I learned so much about the landscape, the history, the culture, the people. And I also learned that even if you’ve been dreaming about a place for a few decades, the reality can be even better, richer, and more enlightening than you imagined.
Do you have any final words you want to say about the experience?
I would say that if you want a destination that hits all the marks in terms of grabbing and keeping your attention, go to Pakistan. From politics to geography to cuisine to religion, it’s intense in an invigorating and captivating way. There’s simply not a dull moment and there’s so much to learn and enjoy for those who are willing to make the journey.
This trip definitely reignited my wanderlust. I can’t wait for my next adventure to Peru in a few short weeks!
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Thank you for joining us on this conversational journey! If you have a question for Brady about his travels to Pakistan, or a special memory from your own adventures there, please share it in the comments section below. Thank you!
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To find out more about our small group journey to Pakistan’s Hunza Valley, call our travel experts at 888-570-7108.