With snow-capped mountains on all sides, Skardu looks like something out of a fairytale
Travelling, be it for leisure or for business, fascinates me to no end. But despite visiting more than 70 cities throughout Pakistan, there still are a few important destinations that have somehow evaded my otherwise inclusive itinerary over the last couple of decades or so.
For long, Skardu was one of the places. I remember I was about to embark upon a trip to the region with my father in the ’90s before the news of a landslide made us change our plans. The second time around, I planned a trip with my friends and managed to reach Hunza and the Khunjerab Pass. But again Skardu remained unvisited. This was back in 2002, when we did not have an Attabad Lake.
So when I got a nod from my boss to be a part of the team visiting the Skardu, Baltistan, region for a week, I was over the moon. I was finally going to be there after a 20 year wait. The excitement was augmented by short video clips of the region shared recently by travel companies and pilots on social media. Most of these clips show the last couple of minutes of the aircraft landing on a runway located among peaks of enormous snow-capped mountains that suddenly appear out of nowhere. That is not entirely the case though.
PIA, the sole operator currently, is now running several flights to Skardu. We chose the earliest flight of the day, which was delightful. There were frequent announcements throughout the trip, from the arrival of various mountain ranges on one side of the plane, to highlighting the beauty of Nanga Parbat (the Killer Mountain) on the other. The information is not only thrilling but also fills one with tremendous pride. The excitement can be judged by the fact that as soon as the plane lands at the Skardu Airport – which is more than 7,000 feet above sea level – passengers get out and begin taking photographs of the surrounding mountains, something that is unthinkable at other airports in the country. With snow-capped mountains on all sides, and no man-made structure in sight, the place looks like something out of a fairytale.
We visited a number of destinations during our stay in Baltistan. First off, we headed to the Upper Kachura Lake. The crystal clear waters of the lake welcomed us after a strenuous hike-down. Although there is an evident lack of infrastructure there, the natural beauty can be compared to any international tourist destination. And if the eventful hiking, the beautiful forest and pristine lake are not enough; boating activities on the lake are the icing on the cake.
The next day we went on to visit the famous Deosai National Park. Deosai, meaning the shadow of the giants, lies at 12,700 feet above sea level at the entrance of the Park, the height increasing as one goes further. Deosai, with an average elevation of 13,497 feet, is the world’s second highest plateau, second only to the roof of the world, the Qinghai-Tibetan plateau. Deosai plains are home to brown bears, marmots, hamsters, leopards, unique birds and landscapes of green, golden and red depending upon the month one chooses to visit the plateau. We passed through the Satpara Lake, Bara Pani and Kala Pani. Our goal was to ensure reaching Sheosar which was around five hours away from our hotel in Skardu. Finally, we made it to Sheosar too.
The region is famous for its production of apricots, cherry, apple and grapes. One may come across people selling local fruits and herbs separately, dried or in the form of jams. People opt for apricot oil and jams made by local companies with some unique flavours like fig, sweet buckthorn and mulberry.
The Sheosar Lake is situated at around 14,000 feet above sea level, twice the altitude of Skardu itself. No wonder, wanting to capture a few photographs at different angles set us panting and hyperventilating for the lack of oxygen pressure in the air. There was a freezing-cold breeze blowing and a temperature drop of more than 10 degrees over Skardu. But witnessing the untapped beauty and deafening silence of Sheosar was definitely worth the effort. Once we got back we visited Satpara Lake and finally found ourselves in Skardu city. At the crossroads, I saw a wooden pole erected with compartments containing various books and newspapers for the passerby to read.
Next day, we went to the Manthoka waterfalls in Kharmang valley. Since Kharmang is close to the Indian border, the checks at the check posts were a bit strict. The scenic road, leading towards the sparkling waterfall, was lined with trees laden with fruits and nuts. Potatoes, maize and other vegetables were being grown and harvested. Most of these are sold in Lahore and Gujranwala regions, a local farmer said. The Manthokha waterfall is believed to be 180 feet high. It attracts many tourists, students and families; the crystal clear, cold water is a show-stopper. Further into Kharmang is the Khamosh Waterfall, but we couldn’t make it there.
From here on, our next destination was Shigar. We reached the Shigar Fort palace at around lunch time. A guide took us through the historical Shigar Fort museum hailing from the 17th Century. Displays at the museum have many 400-year-old artefacts and utensils preserved in their original setting. The attractive garden maintained by the private hotel has many fruit-laden trees and vines. Its most attractive feature is a 400-year-old maple tree standing between the entrance and the majestic baradari pavilion. The tree has a hollow inside and a hole on one side of its bark.
On our way back, we stopped at the Katpana Cold Desert for a couple of hours. Many enjoyed powered paragliding, paragliding, camel-riding, dune buggy riding or a stroll in the arid sand. Finally, we returned to Skardu’s iconic Shangrila resort which also has the Lower Kachura Lake. To be a part of the scenes that we had only come across in calendars, in patriotic songs or among the Beautiful places of Pakistan, and which remain etched in our mind, was truly a dream come true. We finished off our tour on a high with an incredible bonfire dinner and some of the most unforgettable memories to take back and cherish. It was nice to see families of international mountaineers and trekkers at the airport. None of them, however, wore masks unless instructed. The return flight was less chirpy and devoid of any exciting announcements.
The region is famous for its production of apricot, cherry, apple and grapes. One may come across people selling local fruits and herbs separately, dried or in the form of jams. Most tourists opt for apricot oil and jams made by local companies in unusual unique flavours like fig, sweet buckthorn and mulberry. One such delicacy, other than the shilajeet – that many people tend to bring back from this region – is kilao. Kilao, unique to the Baltistan region, is usually made with walnuts covered in cooked grape, mulberry or apricot juice.
I have covered my entire Skardu trip on my YouTube channel, DocTree Gardening, with special emphasis on the flora, plantation and harvests in this region.
The writer is a physician, healthcare leader, traveller and a YouTuber host for the DocTree Team promoting Organic Gardening in Pakistan. He tweets @Ali_Shahid82