Baltistan through my lens

Baltistan through my lens

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Muhammad Ibrahim J.

The past couple of years have brought a positive boom in Pakistan’s tourism industry. This has predominantly been due to the massive increase in local tourism with Pakistanis venturing out and choosing to explore their own country. The likes of Murree, Naran and Hunza are closing in on their maximum capacity to facilitate tourism. However, one such region which is far from its tourism potential is Baltistan. I say this because Baltistan is a mystical land unlike any other, being blessed with crystal clear alpine lakes, quaint little mountainous towns, roaring rivers and towering snow–topped peaks.

It is also notable for attracting a fairly appreciable number of local and foreign adventure seekers owing to the fact that it has 20 peaks with an altitude of over 20,000 feet! Apart from the road leading to Skardu, the administrative centre of Baltistan, there are regular flights as well between Islamabad and Skardu. With access to this spectacular land easier than ever before, now is the time to discover it for yourself.

country. The likes of Murree, Naran and Hunza are closing in on their maximum capacity to facilitate tourism. However, one such region which is far from its tourism potential is Baltistan. I say this because Baltistan is a mystical land unlike any other, being blessed with crystal clear alpine lakes, quaint little mountainous towns, roaring rivers and towering snow–topped peaks.

It is also notable for attracting a fairly appreciable number of local and foreign adventure seekers owing to the fact that it has 20 peaks with an altitude of over 20,000 feet! Apart from the road leading to Skardu, the administrative centre of Baltistan, there are regular flights as well between Islamabad and Skardu. With access to this spectacular land easier than ever before, now is the time to discover it for yourself.

A stunning sunset in Skardu with the Indus River flowing to the right / Photos by the writer

A stunning sunset in Skardu with the Indus River flowing to the right / Photos by the writer

Arriving in Skardu

The flight to Skardu presents jaw dropping views of the Karakoram and Himalaya Ranges. It is one of the most unique experiences you can have, flying over several lakes and high peaks, including the 26.660ft high Nanga Parbat. Whereas, driving to Skardu is another thrilling and exciting experience, despite the road being a bit dangerous owing to its narrowness and frequent landslides.

The town itself is lively and abuzz, especially in summer. The people of the region are extremely warm and welcoming. There are lots of tourist companies offering tours to areas further up into the numerous surrounding valleys. Accommodation is fairly reasonable and easy to find in Skardu, with many decent hotels and guest houses.

Most tourists tend to set Skardu as their base, venturing further to explore surrounding areas. On the outskirts of Skardu is also the Satpara Lake, which used to have a small island in the middle. Now a dam has been built on one end of the lake which meets the water and electricity needs of the town.

The chalets of the Shangrila Resort / Photos by the writer

The chalets of the Shangrila Resort / Photos by the writer

Shangrila Lake

At a 40-minute drive from Skardu is the famous heart-shaped Shangrila Lake (also known as the Lower Kachura Lake). Perched at an altitude of 8200ft and surrounded by snow-capped mountains, it is considered to be one of the most beautiful lakes of Pakistan.

For accommodation, the Shangrila Resort was constructed on the lake. The reflections on the clear, greenish blue water of the lake is particularly spectacular and breathtaking.

Lush green valley floor and fast flowing streams / Photos by the writer

Lush green valley floor and fast flowing streams / Photos by the writer

Upper Kachura Lake

Another lake close to the Shangrila Lake is the Upper Kachura Lake, located in Kachura village. What’s interesting about this lake is that to this date, its origins are unknown.

Throughout the day, local kids can be seen taking a dip in the green waters of the lake. The trek to the lake itself passes through the fields in the village and down towards the lake. Something peculiar about the houses here is that they are constructed entirely of wood or rock. Upon reaching the lake, a boat ride in one of the vibrant boats is a must!

A view of the Shigar Valley cold desert on a stormy day / Photos by the writer

A view of the Shigar Valley cold desert on a stormy day / Photos by the writer

Exploring Shigar

Another must–explore destination is the Shigar Valley, which is at an hour’s away from Skardu. Entering the valley you pass the Shigar desert, which is one of the highest cold deserts in the world! Very recently, this was the location of a jeep rally.

Moving deeper into the valley, there is a denser covering of vegetation. The changing colours of the trees with seasons add to the beauty of the region. Terraced fields of wheat and barley add contrast to the bare, towering mountains in the backdrop. This route goes onto Hushe, the last village before the K2 base camp where innumerable mountaineers try their luck at conquering the second highest peak in the world.

A major historical attraction here is the Shigar Fort, a 17th century castle renovated by the Agha Khan Foundation and now run as a hotel by Serena. Inside it is also a museum of well–preserved artefacts depicting the lives of the locals, centuries ago. What’s unique about the fort is that it’s stilted on a single, giant rock.

Inside is also the Raja’s private mosque and a royal garden. Apart from the fort, there are also old mosques built in the traditional Balti and Tibetan architecture such as the Amburiq Mosque.

A panoramic view of the valley from a walking trek / Photos by the writer

A panoramic view of the valley from a walking trek / Photos by the writer

Deosai National Park

The Deosai Plateau is one of the most magical and enchanting places on earth. At an altitude of 13500 ft., it is the world’s second highest plateau. Due to its altitude, it is frozen for nine months of the year. However, the three months in which the park is open to visitors, it is full of a large variety of flora and fauna, and covered with a carpet of wild lavender. Glacial streams flow from every direction.

Every year, the Gujjar tribes from the south bring their animals here for grazing. Apart from them, it is largely uninhabited. There is also a vast variety of wildlife such as the Himalayan brown bear and the Golden Himalayan Marmot. The Sheosar Lake is also located on the plateau and it further leads into the Astore Valley.

Khaplu

Khaplu, the administrative capital of Ghanche district, lies 103km east of Skardu. The area had a strong link with Ladakh until 1947, when road links were closed down. The heritage of its royal family is still present in the form of the grand Khaplu Palace which was restored by the Agha Khan Foundation and a Norwegian fund. Now it’s run by Serena as a hotel. Tourists can even stay in what used to be the king’s bedroom!

Apart from the palace, there is also a 700-year old mosque in Khaplu, the Chaqchan Mosque. The mosque is well-maintained for its age and is still in active use. The architecture reflects a traditional Tibetan style of construction. The Siachen glacier is also a short distance from Khaplu.

On the banks of the mighty River Indus / Photos by the writer

On the banks of the mighty River Indus / Photos by the writer

More places to explore

Apart from these main destinations, there are a lot more beautiful places in Baltistan awaiting tourists. The Kharphocho Fort in Skardu provides a spectacular, panoramic view of the town, whereas the Katpanah desert near the banks of the Indus is a popular spot for tourists.

Apart from these, the Manthoka waterfall, at two and a half hours’ drive from Skardu, is a frequented place and famous for its rainbow trout. A rising destination is the Basho Valley, which is one of the greenest valleys of Baltistan. The only concern here is that the road is a bit dangerous. However, the meadows at the top of the valley are worth every bit of the trouble!

Baltistan should be on every traveller and tourist’s bucket list. There are few places in the world that can come close to the natural beauty of this region. Many foreigners have explored its valleys and developed a great appreciation for the land and its extremely generous and hospitable people over the years.

Published in Dawn, Young World, October 14th, 2017

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Pamir Times

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Pamir Times is the pioneering community news and views portal of Gilgit – Baltistan, Kohistan, Chitral and the surrounding mountain areas. It is a voluntary, not-for-profit, non-partisan and independent venture initiated by the youth.