Travels to Baltistan: Part I

As the third wave of Covid-19 started to recede and domestic tourism opened up north, we flew out of Karachi—the hot spot of the pandemic’s onslaught with a positivity rate of 26 per cent—on 18 May 2021. Looking forward to wandering into high altitude valleys of Baltistan bordering with Kashgar and Ladhak at the edge of the country, we landed in the Skardu’s spacious airfield surrounded by the fascinating Karakoram, Hindukush and Himalayan mountain ranges. Soon we got out of the simple single-storey airport, which has been promised to be turned into all-weather international airport in the new 5-year Gilgit-Baltistan development package announced by the federal government in April 2021.

We bypassed the Skardu town and headed towards Shigar valley, located in central Karakoram. As the car juggled its way out of the traffic on the main Skardu Road, lined on both sides with shops of all kinds, banks and eateries, and wound its way through the Skardu valley, a landscape out of this world unfolded before our eyes: Indus River, placid, serene, light green and shriveled, contouring around patches of dry white sandy river bed, surrounded by many-hued mountain ranges, the blue sky and white clouds, a panorama like we had never seen before. It was mid-May and the valley’s undulating lands and irrigated slopes were turning green with terraces of wheat, maize and barley, flanked by orchards of apricots, mulberries, peaches, plums and apples. The beauty and the serenity of the landscape took our breath away. After a one-and-a-half-hour drive, we reached the Shigar Fort Residence.

Serena Shigar Fort

Built in the 17th century by Raja Hassan Khan of Amacha Dynasty of Shigar, Fong Khar, or Fort on Rock, is located on the right bank of a mountain stream that flows down to Shigar River. From the outside, you cannot make out what gems the gate is hiding. Adjacent to the gate are a couple of small shops and it is an ordinary village lane. Once you step inside the fortified complex gate, you can feel history blending with nature. A three-storey timber crib structure augmented with stonewalls, Shigar Fort comprises three buildings: the 400 year old palace is on your far left. Right across is an old and sturdy Chinar, platanus orientalis, with a huge tree trunk, its sturdy branches and foliage flanking the jharoka balcony. In front of Chinar tree, a beautiful garden spreads out. On the left is the Old House built in 1900 as the upper storey of pre-existing stables. On the eastern edge of the garden is the Garden House built in the 1960s by the Raja. There is a decorative square pool, filled with lotus, and a pavilion-like wooden structure standing on four carved marble bases. A little wooden bridge connects the pavilion to the garden.

At Shigar Fort Residence

Applying the conservation and adaptive re-use concept, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and the Aga Khan Cutural Services Programme-Pakistan initiated the Shigar Fort restoration, partial reconstruction and re-use project in 1997 with consultation and support of the local community. Shigar Fort Residence was opened in 2005 as a Serena hotel and museum. It won the 2006 UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Award of Excellence. Within the complex, the old 17th century palace has been restored mainly as a museum, with a few rooms adapted for re-use as guest rooms. The Old House now contains the reception area, the kitchen and the restaurant which opens into a courtyard shaded by grapevine over a wooden canopy. The Garden House offers guestrooms which opens into the garden with blooming flowers, creepers and tall trees, flanked by a giant rock. The objective was to introduce to Baltistan, ‘…a particular type of selective, high-quality tourism, based on the visitors’ interest to experience a unique and authentic environment in the building itself and in its surroundings’, as M. Khan and S. Bianca write in the Historic Cities Support Progamme: Conservation and Development in Hunza and Baltistan.

Almost all of the Shigar Fort Residence employees are local and several have been working there since many years as waiters, porters, museum guides, cleaners, gardeners. One of guides, who is serving there since 2005 told me that the restoration of the Fort involved the local communities. Many were trained in lattice work, old-style carpentry and masonry skills. He himself got training in history, museum tour, and hospitality.  “Twenty per cent of the profits earned by the enterprise goes to the local community for development and 10 per cent is paid as royalty to the Raja’s family who donated the main building to the community,” he told us while giving us a tour of the old palace.

Shigar Fort Museum

After some rest, we took a stroll in the garden and went out to explore the village. Shigar valley, bounded on the north with Nagar and Hunza districts, and Kashgar, Xinjiang region of China, earlier a part of Skardu district, was granted the status of a district in 2015. Its population was estimated to be 74,300 in the 2017 Census. The main street and a couple of alleyways that we passed by, did not indicate full utilisation of the development budget given to the district in the last six years! On our right, the road by the stream led us to a small bazaar comprising a few shops and dhabas. Turning left, we found a line of old shops and men sitting and chatting in the local language, Balti, a dialect of an ancient Tibetan language. We entered one shop. Shrivelled vegetables and over-ripe fruit on the shelves indicated local reliance on produce from their own farmyards and the absence of tourists who would have sought the produce. A young man came to assist us as the older men did not understand Urdu. We struck a conversation with him.

Shahid, in his 20s, fluent in Urdu, had earned a Master’s degree in economics from Karakoram International University and ran a dry fruit dhaba-cum-chai khana. We went into his shop, bought some dry fruit and asked him what was worth visiting in the village. He told us of an old khanqah and a mosque. ‘Can we walk?’ I asked him. ‘Yes, it is close by, if you go straight on this road, you will find it on your right’, he gestured to a faraway direction. When I enquired about transport availability, he said his father had got one. We sipped the tumoro chai made of wild thyme in his dhaba with a view of the stream and the poplar trees lining up the embankment. His father came in his Toyota Prado and let Shahid drive us to the old mosque and the khanqah.

Amburiq Mosque

The 14th century Amburiq mosque is the oldest mosque in Shigar Valley. Built by Sayyed Ali Hamdani, a Sufi scholar-saint of Iran, the mosque was restored in 1998 by the Aga Khan Cultural Services. In 2005, the mosque was awarded the Unesco-protected heritage status and is still in use by the community. The caretaker of the mosque showed us around. He lived in the house just across the mosque. Close to the mosque, is Khanqah-e-Mualla built by Shah Nasir Tussi in 1614. Renovated twice, the khanqah comprises a large square hall for religious gatherings, a few small rooms, or hujras, and a spacious veranda. Both mosque and the khanqah have the same square structure which historians trace to the influences from Kashmir (as Baltistan was once a part of Jammu and Kashmir) and Ladhak which it borders on the north.

Next morning, Ali, our driver-guide, drove us in his Prado he had bought just a year before the onset of Covid-19 on instalments. Re-conditioned and used Prados have replaced jeeps altogether in the region. “Visitors want comfort so we have to switch to this vehicle,” he said with a smile. Located in the Karakoram mountain range of the western Himalayas, at about two hours’ distance from Shigar town, the Kachura valley is famous for its upper and lower Kachura lakes. It was late May and the valley was turning green. As the vehicle wound its way up the picturesque mountain range, its bends and corners at times reminded me of the wounding way to Nathiagali with its conifer trees. We passed by the famous Shangrila Resort, fortified with high stone walls and barbed wire. As we went up and stopped by a dhaba, we had the panoramic view of lower Kachura lake, a natural heart-shaped, emerald-green lake surrounded by red-coloured pagoda style guest houses, manicured lawns with flower beds and fruit trees. I wondered how could someone put barbed wires around a natural lake, excluding the locals and all the people of the country who may want to view this fascinating gift of nature, and who cannot even enter, unless they pay an entry fee of Rs. 500 per person!

“The resort was built by a retired brigadier who initially bought some parcels of land around the lake from the locals. Then ensued the land grabbing,” the driver told us. The Unrepresented Nations and Peoples’ Organisation (https://unpo.org/article/17652) also notes in one of its articles that the luxurious Shangrila Resort has been built on the land ‘confiscated by a retired army brigadier’. It is alleged that the military is the largest landholder in the region, controlling expansive tracks of land in Jutial, Gamba, Shagari, Kharmang, Bunji, Astore, Gultari, Gilgit and Gangche.

Kachura Valley

Ali, who started his career as porter in his youth, talked about the pre-Covid-19 days when mountaineers came to summit the peaks—K2 (8611 m), the Broad Peak and Gasherbrums I & II (all more than 8000 meter high). “Shigar valley is the hub for expedition and trekking teams from April to October. Base camps of K2 and other mountains are reached via this valley. There are beautiful treks as well, to Baltoro, Biafo, Hispar and Siachen glaciers. Each team employs 250 local men as porters, helpers, cooks, loaders, assistants, etc. In addition, numerous local and foreign trekking parties come to hike remote valleys and trail glaciers on the Karakoram range. Expeditions buy food stuff and other essentials from local markets. This has been an important source of livelihood for local people, Hassan said. Since 2020, the valley has not seen any team. “I hope things will improve, perhaps next year,” he sighed.

On the way to upper Kachura Lake, we came across several dhabas offering trout fish. During our visit to Baltistan, I noticed quite a few trout hatcheries—earths ponds and floating cages– in the rivers’ tributaries, streams and lakes. According to an FAO’s old project document, brown trout was introduced in the Gilgit-Baltistan area, formerly known as Norther Areas, way back in 1908. The fish established a self-sustaining population in the waters fed by the glaciers and the rivers, and subsequently transplanted to the accessible waters of the Satpara and Kachura Nullahs, Kargah, Sai and Nultar Nullahs, and the tributaries of Ghizer and Astore Rivers. Rainbow trout was introduced in the regions’ waters in 1978.

Upper Kachura Lake

The fascinating ride to upper Kachura Lake came to an end and the driver stopped at a clearing surrounded by sloping forest and a rough terrain. From that spot we walked up and then down the rugged pathway for about twenty minutes. As we descended the slippery slope, there emerged a beautiful emerald green lake, edged by the Himalayan range, conifer and apricot trees, and a row of swaying trees at the embankment. A few orange-coloured boats rocked gently at the bank while the boatmen and locals sat on the pebbly shore. There was just a couple of man-made structures at the far end slope facing the lake. All else was pure pristine nature!

The shimmering green waters of the lake were enticing. Manzoor, who ran a dhaba and a boat service, handed us the life jackets and I and my daughter boarded the motor boat along with our driver-guide. Manzoor told us he lived in Karachi for many years and worked as a salesman in the famous, now closed, Agha’s Super Market. “Once Benazir Bhutto came to the store and I served her,” he reminisced. “But the situation in Karachi worsened in the 1990s. There was political violence, too much bloodshed. I couldn’t take it anymore and returned to Kachura valley in 2006.” Manzoor started a dhaba at the lake. “Then I saved money and bought this boat,” he said, and he looked content and happy in his home town, pursuing a livelihood in the hospitality sector.

Boating in Upper Kachura Lake

We got down at the other side of the lake, a quiet, deserted spot with rocks and sandy bank. While I rested under the shade of a massive rock, my daughter climbed up to have a panoramic view. A group of young men at a faraway spot beckoned the boatman. Their voices echoed in the valley. Manzoor sped up the boat to bring the boys ashore and returned to take us back. The climb-up towards the car was tiring for me and we sat down to sip the herbal tea we had come to relish. While descending, we passed by a group of Skardu city girls in head scarfs, a boy, probably their cousin, and a few kids, resting under a shady tree, a few looking at their mobiles, probably at the pictures taken during excursion.

Visitors from Skardu City

From upper Kachura lake, Ali drove down a narrow, deserted, pebbly dirt road that led to Soq Nullah, a short cut that bypassed the village in the Soq Valley. We stopped by a wooden bridge hanging over the gushing stream that flowed down the boulders and rocks. A group of local young men were crossing the bridge. I stayed on the swaying bridge while my daughter got down on the rocks to dip her feet in the cold stream water. After breathing in the panoramic view, we went back to board the Prado. On the way we saw a few children playing and an old man walking slowly and then stopping to catch a glimpse of the passing vehicles and the outsiders. The road finally ended at a clearing by the stream. Placid and shrivelled, the stream, Soq Nullah, flowed calmly. The arid mountain range, the trees and the green fields at the edges gave the valley a haunting aura.

There were three dhaba type structures, with boundaries secured by ropes and planted trees, chairs and tables placed at the centre. Ali took us to the farthest and oldest one open at that time. “It belongs to a friend of mine. I advised him to open chai khana here several years ago when the place was totally deserted. He opened a dhaba, and now look, it is doing good,” Ali told us with pride. On the stream, linked to a small pier was a wooden platform where a family sat. We took the chairs near the bank of the stream and ordered trout and herbal tea. We waited for the family to come down the pier. One by one, as if reluctantly, they came down, and we climbed up the platform, sat down on a chair and looked at mountains, the clear blue sky, the fluffy clouds and the crystal clear water of the stream. Bonding with nature is so relaxing. It empties your mind, you feel light, thinking of nothing, just breathing in the nature.

Soq Valley

The next morning, we headed to Satpara Sar Lake, about one and half drive away from Shigar valley. Ali parked the car on a patch of flatland that sloped to the bank of the lake. We came down and stood by a rock. In front of us lay the placid, emerald green lake, surrounded by mountains. Fed by the ice melt of Deosai plains that flows down the valley through the Satpara stream, the lake was quiet. There was no visitor, no boats and neither was it an easy access to the lake. “Boating and fishing is prohibited now, after the dam construction began in 2003,” Ali told us. “Earlier it was one of the most attractive tourist sites.” The multi-purpose, earth-filled dam, completed in 2012, was built on the lake to provide drinking and irrigation water and electricity to the town of Skardu located about 9.5 km south of the lake and the valley. Without any facility for excursion, we just sat on the rock for a while, took pictures and boarded the vehicle to have a look at the Manthal Buddha Rock.

Manthal Buddha Rock

A massive granite rock, located in Manthal village towards the south of Skardu city, the Manthal Buddha Rock is famous for its ancient Buddha relief. An insignificant gate and a boundary wall have been put up along with a tuck shop which operates as a ticket booth. Our guide told us the rock was unprotected until recently, and was being vandalised, so the officials asked a local young man to run a tuck shop, charge entry fee and keep an eye on the historical site. We found the rock in a pretty bad shape due to wear and tear of time, weather and human mischief. Turned yellow at the lower half, the relief is defaced with wall chalking. Still, the carving of the meditating Buddha in the centre, two standing Metreyias (future Buddhas), surrounded by small Bodhisattvas sitting in rows at the top, bottom and the two sides of the meditating Buddha are clearly visible. On the side of the rock you find inscriptions in Tibetan language. According to the historians, the relief was created during the ‘Golden Era of Buddhism’ in the upper Indus valley between the 8th and 10th centuries. Representation of the Council of Buddha was said to be a way of disseminating the Buddhist teachings. I wish the officials would have done a better job in protecting this ancient Buddhist monument.

Zarba Tso Lake

‘There is another lake which you should not miss’, our driver told us. It was mostly a dirt road, littered with boulders and rocks. The ride was circular and downward: we were descending into a narrow valley. We slowly drove by several hairpin curves and finally landed in a flatland. A small patch of marshland, with tall reeds, by the lake, curved into a bank augmented by rocks and the roots and thick branches of a couple of trees. On our right was a yellow-green pasture. A few villagers had their cattle munching on the green grass. The scenery was flanked by a massive, dark brown mountain. We sat on the bank and dipped our feet into the cool waters of Zarba Tso Lake. ‘Zarba means blind in our language. It is called a blind lake because the source of this lake in not known’, we were told. We had chai and fries from a kiosk run by a young man, and inhaled the quiet, lingering beauty of the place.

Local men at the Zarba Tso Lake kiosk

The mornings in Shigar Fort were golden: air cool and crisp, sunshine that brightens up the trees and shrubs, and a leisurely breakfast at the courtyard canopied by the grapevine and facing the gurgling stream whose water swelled day after day as the glacial melt gradually increased. We stayed at Shigar Fort that day, reclining on a traditional takht with gao-takiyae placed in the beautiful garden, flanked on one side by a massive rock, reading or listening to the music, breathing in the fresh air to our heart’s content. For lunch we decided to try a local dhaba, and walked up a narrow pathway shaded by trees planted along the stream in front of Shigar Fort. After crossing a small concrete bridge, we turned right on a metalled road. There were a couple of eating places. We went in to one and sat on the terrace overlooking the stream, enjoying the food and the herbal tea.

Fields of Shigar Village

Afterwards, we strolled down the village lane. There was a mix of dwellings, made of mud, wood, concrete. Children were playing outside and women chatting at the doors. We greeted them. One of the young women, who knew Urdu chatted with us for a while, asking where we were from. I asked her where the agricultural fields of the village were. She said, “If you come at 4 o’clock, I will take you to my farm. It is nearby.” Her name was Anita and she had studied until Class 12 (Intermediate). At 4 PM we were in front of her house. We asked a man outside about Anita who went in to call her. “I did not think you would come,” she said. A little girl of about four of five trailed behind her. “She is my daughter,” Anita told us, who herself looked to be in her early twenties.

Residents of Shigar Village

She led us through the village dwellings on twisting narrow pathways shaded by trees. After a 20-minute walk we were suddenly in a vast flatland, green with wheat crop in the tillering phase. The mountain range at the far end had disappeared in a mist. The vista presented a totally different topography of the Shigar valley. “We women come to the farms twice a day, in the morning and evening, for weeding and other work. Many households have farms here. Boundaries of some are not demarcated but we know our fields. Earlier, no one put the borders. Now they do, and so it takes more time and effort to reach our parcel of field.” Once the snow has melted with manuring the fields which at times happens at the end of February, levelling of field and sowing of wheat are done at the beginning of March. Next, ploughing is carried out with the help of cattle and yaks or by tractor if the field is larger, Anita told us. On our way back, Anita invited us for a cup of tea in her house, but the long walk had tired me. I was sad to miss out on her hospitality.

Read Part II here.

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