“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step” – Lao Tzu
I am not a travel writer and neither do I intend on being one. This account is simply an attempt to articulate a once in a lifetime journey to the fabulously mountainous north of Pakistan.
Formerly known as the Northern Areas, Gilgit Baltistan is located in Pakistan’s North, bordering Afghanistan’s Wakhan corridor to its North and China to its Northeast. Since 2009, Gilgit Baltistan has been granted limited autonomy and unlike Kashmir, GB has its own Chief Minister and Governor, like Pakistan’s other 4 provinces. GB is host to 5 of the world’s 13 highest peaks and the tourism industry, mainly trekking/mountaineering is blooming there.
Gilgit Baltistan is mainly divided into 2 parts:
- Gilgit whose main attractions include Gilgit city, Hunza valley and the Khunjerab pass.
- Baltistan whose main attraction is Skardu city.
Due to the large distance between the two, people mostly go only towards the Gilgit side and finish their trip at the Pak China border, at Khunjerab pass. I was lucky enough to not only visit both sides of GB but visit every single tourist destination of Gilgit Baltistan extensively.
We set off from Islamabad and Naran was supposed to be our first journey break. Although Naran is just 250 kilometers away from Islamabad, the journey takes around 7 hours due to the curving and winding roads. The famous Saif-ul-Mulook lake is situated in Naran and it sure is a must-visit for anyone who’s traveling to Naran or beyond. Located at an altitude of 10,578 feet above sea level, commercial jeeps take tourists up to the lake as normal cars are not fit enough to traverse this way. Other than this, there’s not much else to see in Naran.
We set off from Naran and Chilas was our next destination which we would reach by passing through the Babusar pass. Just before the steep climb of the Babusar pass begins, there is another lake, the Lulusar lake, which in my humble opinion is more picturesque than the Saif ul Mulook lake. The reason it is not mentioned in the same breath as the Lake Saif ul Mulook is because it hasn’t really come in the spotlight due to it being out of reach for many people. While the Saif Ul Mulook has its own aura, the Lulusar lake has its own beauty and charm. It is cleaner as compared to the Saif Ul Mulook lake and is easily accessible.
The Babusar top is almost an hour away from here and is located at an altitude of 13,691 feet. From here we proceeded to Chilas upon formally entering Gilgit Baltistan. We had lunch at the Shangrila resort in Chilas and finally set off for our final destination of the day: the Rama valley in the Astore district. Astore is around 3 hours away from Chilas and the Rama valley is a further 15 km’s away from Astore.
The Killer Mountain, Nanga Parbat is at a stone’s throw away from the Rama valley. The PTDC has constructed a very well-maintained motel there. By virtue of its location, it can conveniently serve as a base camp for trekkers and mountaineers intending to scale the mighty heights of Nanga Parbat. The other specialty of this resort is that rooms are constructed out of stones and wood only which gives it a very antique touch.
Our stay here was memorable for more occasions than one. First, the proximity with Nanga Parbat felt intimidating at times. Secondly, the mobile signals vanish as soon as you enter Rama. Being at a place so close to nature and being cut off from the outside world simultaneously is an adventure which you don’t experience every day so that felt great too.
Skardu was our next destination as we set off from Rama early morning. During the course of this leg of the journey, we would cross the Deosai plains. At an altitude of 13,497 feet, Deosai is the second highest plateau in the world and covers an area of almost 3000 square kilometers. It is not only famous for its flora and fauna but also the scenic views of the snow-clad mountains it has to offer.
The Deosai National Park was formally established in 1993. Its main purpose was to protect the habitat of the Himalayan Brown Bear, which has for years been a prized target for poachers and hunters. The plains also house some other extinct animals which include Himalayan Ibex, Snow Leopard, and the Red Fox etc.
We entered Deosai from the Astore side which begins near Chillum. When I saw Deosai for the first time, it struck me as if William Wordsworth wrote his poem daffodils specifically for Deosai. I’m not even exaggerating – one should visit and see for themselves. The Deosai National Park and the Sheosar Lake are literally the personifications of Wordsworth’s poetry.
Sheosar lake is the first landmark in Deosai if you enter from the Astore side. Once you cross the Sheosar lake, there is nothing but lush green fields for literally kilometers around you. The hours of wilderness finally end at Barra pani, where there is a small camping site and a flowing stream. The plains end about half an hour after this and the Deosai National Park ends near the Sadpara Lake in Skardu.
After traveling the whole day, we finally reached Skardu around 5. Skardu is the second biggest city of GB, behind Gilgit only. We stayed at the Shangrila resort which is 15 kilometers outside the Skardu city and it sure is a thing of beauty. Built around the Kachura lake, there are 5-6 buildings in the resort, all of them on the bank of the lake. This place has to be on the go-to list for anyone who plans to travel to Skardu.
We visited the Shigar fort which is located in District Shigar, around 40 kilometers from Skardu. The Shigar fort is a group of forts which has been overtaken by Serena hotels. Serena has not only renovated and maintained them but also outsources rooms in the fort to people who want to stay there overnight. On the way back from Shigar to Skardu, I was pleasantly surprised to see a desert there and upon enquiring I got to know that this is known as the cold desert of Skardu and is the world’s highest desert.
Mother Nature has been very kind to Skardu. It is almost inconceivable that a small city is host to a number of lakes, rivers, mountains, deserts and the Deosai plains. Skardu is surely a must visit place for anyone who is enthralled by all this.
We set off for Gilgit early morning and this was the most arduous part of our journey. Although the distance is only 208 kilometers but the road between Skardu and Gilgit is probably the shabbiest road in GB. With land sliding a common phenomena and the road being single and unpaved, one is not surprised to see an accident every 50 kilometers or so. It took us 6 hours to reach Gilgit, the capital of Gilgit Baltistan and after a brief rest there, we continued our journey towards Hunza, our final destination for the day.
The road from Gilgit onwards till the Chinese border is as good as any other road in the world. Built with the help of Chinese engineers, it would probably give our motorways a good run for their money if there ever was a competition. We reached Karimabad, the capital of the Hunza valley. Originally scheduled to stay here for a day only, we were clean bowled by Hunza’s mesmerizing beauty and ended up staying 3 nights there.
This day started with us visiting the Altit and Baltit forts, which are 2 very famous forts in Hunza, located around 3 kilometers away from each other. Because their names sound similar, one is forced to believe that they might have belonged to the same emperor but behind their names lie the sad stories of power grabbing.
The Altit fort was built during the 11th century. In the 16th century, a dispute between two brothers of Hunza’s royal family, Prince Shah Abbas and Prince Ali Khan, saw the rise of another fort called the ‘Baltit Fort‘ which soon became the new capital of Hunza. Prince Ali, the younger brother made Altit Fort his strong hold and launched offensives against his elder brother. Legend has it that Ali was buried alive against a pillar inside the watch tower by Abbas who then became Hunza’s undisputed king.
The comical part in this is that the animosity between the tribes living adjacent to the 2 forts still hasn’t subsided. Both sides give different accounts of what happened between the brothers and accuse the other of betraying them. This is a classic example of how far man can go in his lust of power and anyone who is intrigued by history should give these 2 forts a visit.
In January 2010, a massive landslide blocked the flow of River Hunza, creating a natural dam and burying 20 people beneath it. The rising water displaced thousands of residents and submerged countless villages, fields, orchards as well as a 19-kilometre stretch of the Karakoram Highway. This lake is now known as the Attabad lake and is a tourist destination for people travelling to the Khunjerab pass.
The Khunjerab pass or the Pak-China border is around 4 hours away from Hunza but due to the road being in immaculate condition, one enjoys every single moment of this journey. We reached the Khunjerab pass from Hunza and due to it being at an altitude of 16,200 feet, breathing sometimes gets difficult there. Add to it the frosty winds blowing from all 4 sides and heavy snow falling, it wasn’t humanly possible for us to stay there for more than 15 minutes.
When you reach Khunjerab Pass, you see a beautiful meadow with snow-covered mountains on all sides and a grassy landscape with small ponds – truly a visual treat. But the harsh weather conditions remind you of the amazing accomplishment that is the Karakoram Highway. To build a road in such conditions, and that too in the 1960s and 1970s, is simply mind-blowing. Some people have rightly called it the eighth wonder of the world. But all in all, visiting the Khunjerab pass is a once in a lifetime opportunity and a few obstacles shouldn’t hamper your spirit in case you ever visit it.
We had to bid farewell to the beautiful Hunza valley and depart for Naltar, a very famous skiing resort near Gilgit. Just outside the Hunza valley lies the daunting Rakaposhi mountain which is the 12th highest mountain in the world.
Naltar is around 2 hours away from Hunza while on the way back towards Gilgit. It is the biggest ski resort in Pakistan and holds a number of both domestic and international tournaments there every year. The road leading to it is in shambles but once you get to the Naltar valley, you realize the struggle of getting here was worth it. We spent a day here and embarked on the trip back home the next morning.
As our trip was coming to an end, so we slowly had to start moving back towards Islamabad. Gilgit would be our first stop in the way and we set off for Gilgit on the 9th day of the trip. Gilgit is the capital of GB but probably is the most boring city there too. Housing over 300,000 people, it isn’t much different from other metropolitan cities with almost all basic amenities available there. However, for people travelling from Islamabad to Hunza or Khunjerab etc, Gilgit acts as a night stopover because going all the way in a single day is impossible, specially if you’re travelling with kids.
The 10th day formally brought an end to this eye opening journey. I call it eye opening because we don’t even realize what we’re blessed with in the shape of Gilgit Baltistan. Having travelled to over 15 European countries, I can very proudly say that if not better, our North is at least par with all those countries. Add to that the hospitality of the locals and you’ll come back wanting to go there again. The people of GB are the most literate people in Pakistan and anywhere you go, you’ll find the locals welcoming you with open arms and a smile on their face despite the language barrier. And contrary to public perception, the whole of Gilgit Baltistan is as safe as any other city in Pakistan, or maybe even safer because the terror rate there is 0%.