To Heaven and Back: Summer in Skardu
When the call to board the flight to Skardu was finally made, my level of excitement matched that of the young children who flew out of their seats, clapping their hands and screaming ‘yes, yes’ upon receiving the welcome news in the airport waiting-lounge. Yes, the confirmation of a flight to Skardu is a cause of celebration. I had attempted a trip to the region on three consecutive days, many years ago, but weather conditions (actually monsoon) prevented me from ever making the trip. But this time, I suppose it was meant to be.
There are few places left in Pakistan that are not plagued by the menace of terrorism or the constant fear of threats to security. Gilgit-Baltistan is one of them. Less than an hour after departing from Islamabad, we arrived in the land where the mighty Indus flows, where there are snow-capped peaks, rocky, barren mountains, grey sand dunes and lush green valleys, a land dissected by three mountain ranges and which boasts the world’s largest plains at an altitude of 14,000 feet. On the way to this land of wondrous beauty, we flew with the Karakoram Range on one side and the Himalayas on the other. And on the plane ride there, we even got a clear view of the Nanga Parbat – a rare sight otherwise. (See the photo slide show below).
Our place of residence was the Khaplu Palace – approximately a three-hour drive from Skardu airport. Inaugurated in June of this year, this 19th century palace was restored by the Aga Khan Culture Service in Pakistan (AKCS-P) and entrusted to Serena Hotels for its management. After five years of hard work, the palace is now open to public.
What’s interesting is the manner in which it was restored. Erected sometime during the 1840s, wherever possible, the original structure of the Khaplu Palace has been kept in tact. As part of AKCS-P’s “adaptive reuse and restoration policy,” where the original structure or materials could not be preserved, materials from other ancient buildings were used to remain as true to the original form and culture as possible. And that’s not all. Local art forms such as music and pottery have also been revived. The clay soap dish in the bathrooms was a particular favourite, and a local potter was contracted to produce all such items of use and decoration. Since the trip was in Ramadan, the musicians were not present, however, we were told that they had specially been trained in local instruments to preserve the dying art and were going to be a constant feature at the palace residence.
Pictures cannot reveal the splendour of the actual palace wing. Apart from a museum space, the rooms of the Raja and Rani too have been restored – which can also be booked by vacationers – and what a sight they are. Especially beautiful is the outdoor sitting area (see photograph below). The intricacy of work on the slabs on the ceiling is exquisite.
Quiet and serene, surrounded by mountains with the Ghangche Nallah flowing at the entrance, the Khaplu Palace Residence is a must visit. Another of the Serena properties I had the opportunity to visit and stay at was the 400-year-old Shigar Fort, also known as the Palace on the Rock. As one enters this 17th century fort, in full view is a huge boulder protruding from the main structure of the building, and it is around this that the fort is built, hence the name. Originally the property of the Raja of Shigar – who is now an MNA and lives just opposite the fort – it was gifted by the Raja to the Aga Khan Trust for Culture in 1999 for restoration and received the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award for the Conservation of Cultural Assets in 2006.
While the residences are a world in themselves with in-house museums, tours of the site (fort/palace) and lessons in history, culture and archaeology, as well as orchards to stroll through (which also provide fresh fruits such as apricots, plums and cherries for consumption at breakfast), there is a vast world waiting to be explored outside of them.
The Deosai Plains are a wonder to behold. At an altitude of 14,000 feet – Skardu is at 8,000 feet – are lush green plains with a river flowing through them (see more photographs of the Deosai Plains and beyond here). As soon as we arrived we were greeted by marmots, animals that look like beavers – only they are furry and golden in colour. Marmots are known to be shy creatures, but not the one we met. As one of our companions alighted to get closer for a better shot, instead of fleeing, the marmot stood up on its hind legs and started screeching at the approaching figure!
The entire trip was three days long, but they were a hectic three days. We visited Hushe valley from where we saw the Mashebrum peak. We visited the recently hit flood site nearby, where over 100 houses have been swept away and where there is still a water trail. But what really proved to be a blessing in disguise was the cancellation of our flight back home. Packed and ready to return back, we were informed that due to bad weather conditions, the flight had been cancelled and there was no guarantee that flights would operate for the next three days. It was a toss up between spending three extra days – could have even been a week – or making a road trip back to Islamabad. We decided on the latter and though many of us were sceptical about a 25-hour road journey, it proved to be the best decision.
We had some of Pakistan’s leading tour operators and guides as companions and that is what made the road trip even better. Along the way, they pointed out various landmarks and shared interesting anecdotes. “Look at the small cave-like openings where you can see small figures, here they are mining for gemstones…. This place we’re passing through is called Waadi-e-Jinn…. This town was swept away in last year’s floods; see the marking on the stones, this is how high the water was…. This patch on the road was destroyed by a landslide…. This is where the Taliban had blown up a bridge and were driven out from.”
Just as one touches the Karakoram Highway comes a landmark called viewpoint, better known as “Teen Paharon ka Sangam” (Where the three mountains meet). This is the meeting place of the Karakoram, Himalayan and Hindukush mountain ranges. All the way from Skardu till one reaches the Karakoram Highway, we drove with the Himalayan range on one side and the Karakoram on the other. There on, we drove with the Karakoram to our left and the Hindukush to our right. In Thakot, we bade farewell to the river Indus and the rocky, barren terrain, and greeted the lush green landscape.
From Gilgit-Baltistan to Kyber Pakhtunkhwa to Punjab, not once was there an untoward incident. Not once were we targets of conservatism, terrorism or criminal activities. The only place in the entire journey we had to be cautious was in Chilas, which is infamous for bloodshed, sectarian violence and dacoits. Normally, no traffic is allowed to pass through between 8pm and 5am. Since we arrived in Chilas at nightfall and had to reach our hotel, we were made to travel in a convoy and with a police escort – standard procedure after dark. But this stretch, too, we covered safe and sound.
I was awestruck by the breathtaking beauty and magnificence of the place, but then there were moments when I was filled with anger. From adventure tourism or tourism in general, to export of local fruit and dry fruit, from mining to setting up of power plants – there is huge potential for the development of industries in the region.
Gilgit-Baltistan generates electricity for its own use. More can be generated for the rest of Pakistan. We passed by the site of the Bhasha Dam, a project yet to be completed. Additionally, more dams can be constructed. There are vast stretches of unoccupied, uninhabited land, so initiating macro level projects should be easier as relocating the locals would not be a cause for concern.
This region is also a historian, archaeologist, botanist and geologist’s paradise. Up in Deosai and on the way, locals pointed out several plants that are used for medicinal purposes. There is tea growing in the plains of Deosai. The flora and fauna of the place merit a study in their own right. There are sulphur and granite deposits and an unexplored treasure trove of minerals and gemstones. While there are small, private companies at work, there are no large-scale projects.
The tour operators have their own set of problems, a major one being the issuance of visas to foreign tourists – more so now. If it is the fear of the entry of another Raymond Davis to the country, the intelligence networks need to be improved so the people of the area are not deprived of their livelihood. The region’s mainstay is its tourism industry which, the tour operators reveal, is not earning even half of what it used to. There is abject poverty in the region. The introduction of such stringent visa policies and travel restrictions on foreigners and diplomats is leading to a decline in tourist traffic. The rest of the country is under siege; the one region that isn’t should be thrown open to holiday makers.
It’s a totally different world up there. People wear smiles on their faces, raise their hands to greet passing vehicles and children wave out to passengers. They are not unduly concerned about people eating and drinking during Ramadan. There are no reproaches or even frowns; the tendency to create a hue and cry appears to be an urban phenomenon. Moreover, as a woman, you are not made to feel awkward and neither are their women confined to the chaar diwari. In fact, it is mostly women one sees working in the fields, in their usual modest attire – a shalwar kameez with the dupatta on their head. Says a local from Shigar, “Now we don’t even think of marrying them (the daughters) off before they’ve completed their education.” And he says it is the girls rather than the boys, who are excelling.
This brief yet thorough trailer of the region has left me pining for more. I’d like to explore the entire Gilgit-Baltistan region the next time, and stay at the other restored heritage sites. Why not partake of the traditional hospitality?
Click any photo to begin the slide show:
Photography by Arjumand Hussain and Farieha Aziz
For more photographs from around Gilgit-Baltistan, click here.
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