- Samantha Shea had never been outside the US before she started college in 2014.
- After graduating in 2019, she visited India and Pakistan while developing her travel writing.
- She moved to Hunza Valley in Northern Pakistan in 2021, where she’s lived ever since.
When I tell people from back home that I live in Northern Pakistan, I’m usually met with shock.
Their disbelief escalates when I show them pictures of the snow-capped Karakoram mountain range that surround the village where I live.
“I thought Pakistan was a desert” is the most common response. As wrong as they are, I don’t blame them. I didn’t know much about Pakistan before traveling there after college.
I live in Hunza Valley, 8,500 feet above sea level on the border with Western China, where I work as a digital nomad.
When I first came to Pakistan in 2019, I was a recent University of Miami grad who’d never lived outside the US.
A drone shot of Hunza Valley in early May.
In Hunza, electricity comes on for only a few hours a day, you walk to the local market if you need anything – Amazon doesn’t deliver to the mountainous valley region – and running hot water isn’t guaranteed.
The valley has, despite these elements, become my home. Here, I don’t lock up my bike or my front door, I can walk everywhere, and my recent major home renovation cost me only $3,000.
Current guidance around traveling to Pakistan
The US travel advice for Pakistan is to avoid traveling to Balochistan province, many parts of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, and the Indian-Pakistan border because of the potential for terrorist attacks, kidnapping, and armed conflict at the border.
The US government warns that the assistance it can provide citizens traveling in Pakistan is limited because of these security issues. However, I have personally traveled to some of these areas and did not feel unsafe at the time.
Although this doesn’t mean these threats aren’t real and something to consider, many foreign nationals and local Pakistani people travel to the Hunza Valley without incident. Forbes recently named Pakistan an up-and-coming adventure vacation. CN Traveller also awarded Pakistan as their top holiday destination in 2020.
My journey to a remote village in Northern Pakistan
My love of travel began at college. From 2014 to 2019, I was a student at the University of Miami in Florida. While I loved my school, being by the beach, and Florida’s eternal summer, I never felt settled in Miami.
Shea in Miami Beach in 2017.
Because I grew up in suburban Connecticut, the move to a busy city was a big adjustment. It was noisy and fast-paced, and the proximity to crime, common in urban areas, put me on edge.
I had never traveled outside the US growing up, but I fell in love with backpacking at college. My trips became more and more offbeat. I was traveling through India the summer before my senior year in 2018 when I decided to pursue a career in travel.
I wanted to become a freelance travel blogger after graduation
Shea graduated from the University of Miami in 2019.
I worked three part-time jobs while finishing my degree to save up for my indefinite adventure.
After graduating in 2019, I set off for India again, traveling around the country and into neighboring Pakistan.
Despite media negativity and concerns from family and friends, I didn’t feel nervous crossing the border from India. I traveled from the historical city of Lahore to the Hindu Kush mountains of Upper Chitral — a region that directly borders Afghanistan — and felt comfortable everywhere I went.
Shea in Swat Valley during her first trip to Pakistan in 2019.
I found it easier and more fun to travel here than in India, a much more “mainstream” backpacking destination. I encountered fewer scammers traveling in Pakistan. I also found Pakistan had less trash on the streets, and the roads were in better condition.
I worked for DoorDash and learned Urdu while waiting out COVID-19 limitations
In December 2019, I returned to my family home with the plan to move to Pakistan full time in the spring as a digital nomad.
My plans were halted by COVID-19. I spent the next year learning Urdu, the national language of Pakistan, and delivering for DoorDash. I also finally saw some freelance traction.
I got my first paid byline, increased my blog traffic, and freelanced in content writing and social-media management. I wanted to have established myself as a digital nomad before I left home.
In April 2021, I traveled alone to Pakistan’s capital, Islamabad. I hadn’t arranged a guide and had no plan beyond my first few nights at a hostel. To many, my trip seemed insane, but I was committed.
Shea’s views on a multiday hike to the Shimshal Pass, not far from the Chinese border.
Why Hunza Valley?
Hunza Valley is a remote area in Northern Pakistan. The Gatorade-blue rivers and snow-capped mountains make Hunza a popular tourist destination. The local community is known for its hospitality, and I immediately felt at home – something I’d never felt in big-city America.
The community is welcoming of outsiders — respecting and taking care of guests is a core value here. Before 9/11, there were droves of foreign travelers coming to Hunza, and many locals and their families worked in tourism, so I was welcomed readily.
The Karakoram highway that cuts through Hunza.
Hunza is home to a majority Ismaili community, a liberal sect of Islam. Teens hang out in mixed groups, women own restaurants and shops, and it’s common for girls to receive higher education.
I settled in Hunza and have lived here for nearly two years.
Many Westerners I’ve spoken with have trepidations about Pakistan
Shea with some local women in their home in a small seaside village on the border of Sindh and Balochistan in southern Pakistan.
Hunza itself could not be safer. I don’t worry about locking my bike, or even my doors. I’ve never witnessed a crime of any kind, nor any of the terrorist incidents the US State Department warns travelers of.
Barely a day after I’d arrived, I found myself lost on a 5-mile trek I set out on alone. Wandering, I ran into a young male shepherd. He insisted on showing me the route back and carrying my bag.
I kept waiting for “that moment” for which all solo female travelers are on high alert — but it never came. The shepherd was polite and helped me safely find the trail.
Shea moved to Pakistan alone in 2021 with no plans other than to become a digital nomad.
I think I felt more comfortable in Hunza than I did in Miami for several reasons: The local cuisine shared many similarities with my Polish grandma’s recipes, I experienced daily peace, and being surrounded by 20,000-foot peaks made me feel like I positively was on another planet.
A traditional spread of Hunza foods.
I didn’t have great WiFi for the first few months of living in Hunza, which was stressful at times. I’ve since found work-arounds, but it’s not simple.
The biggest issue is that electricity comes on for only around 5 or 6 hours a day, primarily at night
I knew Northern Pakistan didn’t have great electricity from my 2019 trip to other mountain valleys. Regardless, I always travel with a power bank.
I remember times when the electricity wouldn’t come on as planned and I’d forgotten to charge my devices properly. I found it incredibly stressful, especially if I had a lot of work.
Beautiful cycle rides are a positive for Shea, but remoteness means electricity problems.
Once, while on a road trip through Upper Chitral, another mountainous region in Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province, my power bank fell in water and wouldn’t turn on.
I was in an area even more remote than Hunza and knew the power bank likely wasn’t sold anywhere in Pakistan. The bank amazingly came back to life, but I did end up breaking another one a year later.
When these things happen, it makes me miss conveniences like Amazon, but a company called Daraz does manage to deliver plenty of items to Hunza within two or three days.
Power banks and other electronics can also be sourced from other countries via Packr, an app I’ve used several times to receive items from the US.
Now I have a permanent home, I’ve arranged more long-term solutions.
I bought a $35 UPS car battery at a local market, which keeps my WiFi router and basic lights working 24/7. I also have two 26,800-mAh Anker power banks as backups, the 2nd of which I purchased after that road-trip scare.
Shea uses a car battery to keep her electricity on 24/7.
How I live and work in Hunza Valley
One month of accommodation costs between $150 and $250 on average — a far cry from the $1,300 I paid in Miami to share an apartment with roommates.
My life in Hunza began in Gojal, the local name for the northern portion of the region. When I arrived, I stayed in hotels. Nowhere I stayed cost more than $15 a night, and if I got a long-stay rate, they averaged closer to $8 a night.
A walkway from the street to Shea’s house in Aliabad.
Hunza was slightly more expensive than I thought, especially before I found permanent accommodation.
I was shocked by how expensive some hotels were. Budget options are available, but a large portion of Hunza’s tourism caters to the wealthy sector of the domestic market.
This experience has positively influenced my career as a freelancer. I’ve had my stories published in major media outlets. I also run an Instagram account and a YouTube channel focusing on life here and helping travelers plan their trips.
Shea speaking at a tourism event in Hunza.
I now live in Aliabad in central Hunza, the largest town in the district
Shea and her boyfriend sit outside their house.
I met my now partner, Fareed, in a local coworking space a few months after I arrived in Hunza. He was born and raised in Hunza and now works in trekking tourism.
We’re happily settled in Aliabad in central Hunza, close to my partner’s family, who have become a second family to me.
I’ve started learning Burushaski, one of the two major languages spoken in the valley. My partner speaks perfect English, so there’s no language barrier.
Aliabad has high-speed fiber-cable WiFi, which makes uploading content or taking Zoom calls easy, and it’s where you’ll find amenities like ATMs, stores, small hospitals, and a few restaurants and shops.
Even so, Aliabad is still a village in many ways
The main roads are paved, but many residential areas have dirt roads. Everything from the doctor to my cellphone provider is within a 15-minute walking radius.
My partner and I moved into a house his parents owned. It had no electricity, flooring, or running water. We recently renovated two rooms and added a bathroom with running water and a Western toilet. It ended up costing about $3,000.
Shea with her boyfriend’s mother and grandmother.
If we were renting, it would cost around 20,000 Pakistani rupees a month, or about $50. Renting might have been cheaper in the short term, but I love having a space all our own.
A meal at a restaurant is usually between $2 for local spots and $7 for Western fare, but cooking at home is much less expensive and often tastier. WiFi costs around $8 for unlimited data each month, and I pay $4 for 10 gigabytes of data for my SIM card.
Hot water is also not a given in Hunza — but an $80 gas-powered water heater solved that, with refills totaling about $20 a month. The electricity that does come is only about $2 a month, and the running water, sourced from a glacier, is free.
A 2,000-litre water tank in Hunza Valley.
Aliabad has a cold desert climate.
Shea cooks her favorite local dish – yak burgers – on their traditional Bukhari stove.
The coldest month is January, with temperatures averaging 25 degrees Fahrenheit. Frequently frozen pipes and a lack of central heating mean winter can be difficult.
Having spent most of my life in Connecticut, I was used to cold, long winters, and I find Hunza’s to be shorter.
Winter limits my daily activities, but it almost feels like a cozy hibernation period.
I spend lazy days working by my bukhari — a traditional fireplace.
A Hunza Valley local drying apricots.
The benefits of living in Hunza Valley far outweigh any negatives
I save thousands each month compared with living in a US city, and my quality of life is infinitely better.
I avoid the American hustle culture, which I find toxic. The people I meet in Hunza are generally quiet, polite, and respectful. I breathe clean air and eat organic, home-cooked food for every meal.
Though my solo journey to Pakistan started as a trip, Hunza Valley is now my home. I’ve even obtained the equivalent of permanent residency. With the money I’ve saved, I hope to travel to other countries, with Hunza as my base.