By Khabeer ul Tanwir
I am a lucky man to have travelled to many countries of the world except my own country, though I have always desired to explore the scenic northern areas of Pakistan. My wish came true last year when I went on a trekking trip with my class at the base camp of the sixth highest mountain of the world, Nanga Parbat which is also known as the Killer Mountain. We have been requesting our father to take us to Gilgit Baltistan and around. Luckily these Eid holidays provided us the opportunity to fulfill the long awaited desire. My Uncle Commander Rashid Tanwir, a retired naval officer and his family (his wife, Dr. Fazeelat and two sons, Samee and Sabeh) also joined us for the trip.
Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit Baltistan province is situated at an elevation of 4770 feet above sea level, carries a geo strategic importance. It is the gateway to the famous Khunjareb pass which leads to Pak-China border. Additionally the historical silk route on which Marco Polo travelled passes through the Gilgit valley. Administratively Gilgit is divided into four districts i.e. Gilgit, Ghizer, Hunza-Nagar and Astore.
DAY ONE: We started our journey after offering Eid prayers. As it was a national holiday so the national highways were free of extra traffic. We reached our first destination Abbotabad after travelling for six hours without facing any problem and went to Army mess for the night rest. Abbotabad is a famous military town in the province of Khyber Pakhton Khawa. It is famous for its public schools and the Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) which is located in the nearby town of Kakul. One more famous incident about Abbotabad is the operation of US Navy Seals in which Osama Bin Laden was killed on 2nd May 2012.
DAY TWO: After resting for a night in Abbotabad, we started our journey for Naran and Kaghan. The road to Naran from Abbotabad was good. There was landslide between Kaghan and Naran, resulting in a heavy traffic jam and we got struck up for almost three hours. The road runs along the river Kunhar which shines like a sword in the valley, as we climb upwards, the vertical distance between the river and road increases. Mountains are full of green forests and the gardens are full of fruit trees. During night driving on that road is difficult due to sharp turns and steep ascent and descent. We changed our plan and decided to stay for one night in a small village near Kaghan called Batakundi. There were no telephone signals in Batakundi but there was a regular supply of electricity in Batakundi because the local people were producing electricity with the private turbines installed at the nearby river. This method of producing electricity has made the whole area self-sufficient for their electrical requirements.
DAY THREE: The next morning, our hosts came all the way from Gilgit to escort us from Batakundi to Gilgit. After travelling 25 kilometers from Batakundi, the metalled road turns into a katcha road for the next 30 kilometers up to Babusar Top but the surrounding scenic beauty makes you mesmerized and won’t let you think of the road condition. This whole 30 kilometers patch was crossed in over two hours until we reached the Babusar top which is above 12000 feet AMSL. The speed drops to 10 to 20 km per hour until we reach the Babusar top. Two to three kilometers short of Babusar top is the famous Lalusar Lake. The crystal clear water of the lake and the beauty of the adjacent mountains force everyone to praise Allah. We stopped there for a while to take some photographs and refreshments. The Babusar top is the border between Gilgit Baltistan and KPK. At this border post, the cars have to stop for security clearance which takes about ten to fifteen minutes. After the entry clearance, there is a continuous descend of almost 7000 feet to Gilgit valley. We went to Army Guest House located in Jutial Cantt after reaching Gilgit and checked in the Nanga Parbat mess. After taking some rest, we went for dinner to the residence of our father’s class fellow of school days, Mr Shafqat Wali who is the president of Gilgit Baltistan High Court Bar Association.
DAY FOUR: My grandfather was posted in Gilgit as Airport Manager from 1967 to 1972 and my father passed his matric from Government High School Gilgit. Many of his class fellows are now well settled in different fields of life. Breakfast was arranged at the garden of Mr.Raja Mir Wali, another class fellow and a local landlord, who lives just five kilometers out of Gilgit at Baseen Valley. For all of us this was a unique experience as we witnessed the hospitality of the local people. We received a warm welcome at his garden for the breakfast with the traditional seating of round pillows and carpets arranged under lush green mulberry trees and the roof of grape orchids. It was a heavy breakfast full of eastern and western dishes and the fresh fruits of his garden, never eaten before.
After the breakfast, we left for Phandar Lake, which is ten thousand feet above sea level and about 50 KM short of famous Shandour valley on the Gilgit –Shandour road. (In the local language, Phandar means still water).Uncle Wali also joined us and as we join the road to Phandar lake, there is huge board with the photographs of Shaheeds of Giyari and Kargil, with the caption that we have not forgotten you. This particular area is known as land of shaheeds. We were told that people living in this area proudly join Pakistan Army. Right from Baseen upto Phandar Valley, the graves of shaheeds can be seen on both sides of the road. Pakistani flag hoisting on the graves is an indication that this is a grave of a shaheed. The total distance between Gilgit to Phandar Lake is 173 kilometers which is full of fruit gardens, green valleys, water springs and loving people. The road runs along the river Gilgit and various small rivers and mountain Naalahs merge into the river Gilgit. As the road climbs higher the distance between the road and river increases to hundreds of feet below the road level.
Just two kilometers short of Phandar Lake, we were received by the son of my grandfather’s friend, Haji Mir Hassan Khan a local landlord. His family members and important personalities of the village were present at the entrance of the village to receive us. Cars were left at the road and we were escorted to his Baithak (guest room) on a Kutcha mountainous track, 300 feet above the road level where the lunch was arranged. Ladies were sent inside the house and we all sat on the laid carpets. My father was decorated with the Chitrali cap which is a traditional way to honor a special guest. A goat was sacrificed for this occasion, another local tradition to entertain the guests. Hand washing was done by the youngest son of our host which is again a local tradition. Each guest was served with a round pillow at his back. Another interesting observation about this lunch was the presence of everyone i.e. hosts, guests and workers having lunch together at the same time, on the same place. After the lunch , we went to PTDC motel at the top of hill over the lake .We all were excited to see the beauty of the lake and did not waste a minute and rushed to the lake below .Words cannot describe the beauty of the lake. The view around the lake was eye catching. Blue water under the blue sky, surrounded by mountains, covered with green trees full of different fruits. Water of the lake was crystal clear and one could see the trout fish swimming in the lake. At times they jump out of water in the air and attract the attention of tourists around. We sat there until the sun set and this scene was another great experience as the sun seemed to be setting in the lake.
Listening to the Azaan e Fajar from a mosque, below in the valley cannot be explained. It seemed like that the mountains are responding to the call of Azaan as the sound echoed around the valley. The good thing about the journey to Phandar Lake was that now we were mere spectators as the driving responsibility was taken over by the two sons of our hosts Waqas bhai and Usama bhai. This made possible for us to enjoy the beauty of the area.
DAY FIVE: We left our hotel early in the morning, our hosts took us for a drive in the Phandar Valley which was surrounded by lush green meadows while the river Gilgit was flowing in the middle of the valley, shining in the bright sunshine and flowing down the valley with thundering noise. After seeing the valley, we started our journey back towards Gilgit. On way back, we stopped at Gupis Lake for breakfast, 7000 feet above sea level. This particular lake has developed recently as a result of a big mountain slide into the river. As we passed the town of Gahkuch which is the capital of Ghizer district, we were shown a mountain behind the town and two very interesting stories relating to this particular mountain were also told. We were told that centuries back, people of this area used to throw the bodies of their dead from this mountain and leave it there for the birds to eat. There is also one contradictory story that since people have very long ages in this area due to fresh water and fresh food, whenever an old man or woman wanted to die, the villagers will take him or her to the mountain in a procession like a groom or bride properly dressed and decorated and throw him or her down the mountain in the presence of all villagers and let the bird enjoy the food.
After reaching Gilgit, we headed for Gilgit city and our first destination was Government High School Gilgit from where my father passed his matric in 1970. As we reached the school gate which was closed due to summer vacations, he stood silently in front of the gate with tears in his eyes. He left Gilgit to take admission in a college in Lahore and never got an opportunity to visit his school again until this day. He explained to us the changes around the school which have taken place in these 44 years.
We took a round of the Gilgit markets. Gilgit is a small city but as China is not far away thus there is a lot of commercial activity and trading business of Chinese products. The new markets have opened up like the NLI market built by Pak Army and can be compared to any modern shopping centre of the country.
DAY SIX: A trip to Hunza was planned for today .Hunza is located at a drive of two hours from Gilgit at an elevation of 8000 feet but the most enjoyable part of the Gilgit to Hunza trip is the comfortable road journey. The state of the art road which leads to Hunza is made by Chinese engineers. The road is in such a good condition that one does not feel it to be a hilly road. The engineers have made this road on the historic silk route. On way to Hunza, we saw a board displaying the information about the exact location of the continental plates collided around 50 million years ago resulting in the development of Karakoram mountains. The reason of this area being prone to earthquakes is the presence of these plates.
Mid way between Hunza and Gilgit, there is a Rakaposhi peak view point and the tourists stop here for a while to have some rest and take few photographs of this beautiful peak. We did the same and continued our journey to Hunza after about fifteen minutes.
After reaching Hunza, we went for the trek towards the historic Baltit Fort which was the official residence of Mir of Hunza. There are so many antique things for display including a 350 years old Quran Pak and few very old maps of the world which may not be available anywhere in the world. The entire Hunza Valley can be seen from the top of the Baltit fort and one cannot take his eyes off from the beauty of this area. Lush green fields and meadows, fruit gardens and green forests on the slope of hills all around are pleasing to the eyes.
Twenty kilometers out of Hunza towards Khunjareb pass is the famous Aattabad Lake which has developed due to a landslide of a mountain in Hunza River and is now spread to few square kilometers in the valley. We were short of time but it is advisable that whenever one visits Hunza, he should stay there for a minimum of three days as there are many more things to see in this beautiful valley. After coming down from Baltit fort, we went for a round in Hunza markets.
DAY SEVEN: We left for Islamabad at 5 AM in the morning after Fajr prayers. We had decided to take the Karakoram Highway for our return journey so that we can also see the area along KKH. Six kilometers short of Jaglot which is approximately 30 kilometers out of Gilgit, there is a three mountain ranges view point which is a unique geographical location on the earth and God has blessed Pakistan with this unique location. Karakoram, Himalaya and Hindukush ranges originate from this particular point called Bungi and the tourist department has displayed it by a map along the road. As we passed Chillas, we saw the place where Basha Dam is planned to be built in future. We continued our journey on KKH along the Indus river upto Thakot bridge where we leave River Indus which continues its flow towards Tarbela and KKH turns towards Abbotabad. The road is in very good condition and there is more greenery on these mountains than along the KKH on Indus River. Thick forests are spread over the slope of mountains and along the road. We got stuck up in a heavy traffic jam between Manshera and Abbotabad and this short distance almost took three hours. We reached Islamabad at 1 AM and after having some rest we continued our journey towards Lahore via Motorway and entered Lahore with the Azan a Fajr from Mosque of Lahore.
It was a memorable trip with lot of information and sweet memories. We feel proud to have such a beautiful country. God has blessed us with deserts, forests, mountain ranges, few of the highest peaks of the world, rivers, lakes, beautiful and loving people with different cultures and signs of flourishing and eliminating human civilizations. We have a lot to show to the world tourists, but proper support from the government is unfortunately not available. Tourism can be a big source of foreign exchange, if tourism department uses proper channels to inform the world, what they have here to explore.