Clandestine room at Baltit Fort

Tour de North – Where Air Becomes Breath

Author: Hassan Akmal

It was the 4th of July. Dawn was about to knock at the grey horizons of a mercurial Islamabad when the journey began. Carrying a starless sky above our heads, a deserted Srinagar Highway down our feet, a nocturnal bliss in our eyes and a familiar silence hung among the stranger souls, our coaster was heading towards the North of Pakistan.

It was the Hazara Expressway (M15) where the sunlight fully embraced us first. There was a time when this highway was not there and people used to take the conventional Karakoram Highway (KKH; National Highway N35) from Hasan Abdal. KKH traverses KPK cities of Haripur, Hawailian, Abotobaad and Mansehra before bifurcating into two major highways. One takes the northwestern turn towards Shinkiari and Thakot and carries its title of KKH. The other highway, called the Balakot-Naran-Babusar Highway or N15, passes through Balakot city, Kiwai, Paras, Kaghan valley, Naran, Babusar Top and merges with KKH around Chillas. Our vehicle predictably preferred the Express Way M15, and took the northeastern turn for N15, or the famous Naran road, after crossing Mansehra city.   

4th July: Balakot: 3200 feet

Breakfast was served over the banks of River Kunhar. Refreshing sight of the flowing river energized the tiresome amongst us. We were to reach Chillas, the capital district of Diamir Division today by 7 pm in the evening. So leisuring around the river was not an option. Plus, we feared our driver too. He was a kind soul but a strict administrator. Didn’t let us loose. So we left Balakot in an hour.

4th July: Naran Valley: 7800 feet

Naran was over-crowded and there were a lot of traffic jams. A hydropower project under the supervision of our Chinese friends was under construction in the valley that disturbed the flow of traffic badly. Plus the enthusiasm for tourism. It took more than two hours to leave Naran. Lunch was at the famous Moon Restaurant, Besal. Weather had turned magical. Dark clouds had occupied all visible territory in the sky and threatening calls of a rainfall looked imminent.

The Elegant Lake Lulusar

4th July: Lulusar Lake: 11200 feet

And we arrived at one of the most fascinating lakes of Naran Valley, the Lulusar Lake. The surrounding mountains and their reflection in green waters of the lake presented a magnificent view.

4th July: Babusar Top: 13700 feet

Next stopover was at the highest point of Kaghan Valley, the Babusar Top. Temperature had dropped down significantly because of the elevation and many of us had taken out their blazers from the luggage by now. Babusar pass connects KPK with GB through thrilling mountainous slopes. It was originally known as Babur Top as Mughal Emperor Babur used to pass through this area in his times. The road up to the top is in excellent condition and therefore has become easily accessible for general public. We hardly stopped here for 10 odd minutes and moved into the elusive land of Gilgit Baltistan.

4th July: Chillas: 4200 feet

From Babusar top towards Chillas, the journey was all downhill. Dark clouds had established their place firmly over the sky. Inside, one of our companions started playing Strings and Vital Signs. Another journey had started to take place within. The ever-lasting vocals of Faisal Kapadia, Bilal Maqsood and Junaid Jamshed, accompanied with the melodious compositions and the magical lyrics, created a spellbound aura. And we arrived Chillas. It was 7 pm in the evening when our coaster entered the premises of the hotel. Stay at the Hotel Shangrila was sublime.

5th July: Towards Skardu

We left Chillas around 9 in the morning. Parvez, our Tour Guide from FAC (Falcon Adventure Club), told us that due to the dilapidated condition of the Gilgit-Skardu Road S1 (Strategic Highway), no claims can be made about our arrival in Skardu. 10 to 12 hours if things work fine, and 22 to 24 hours if FWO stops all traffic for longer durations due to either landslide or the construction work going on over the road. The journey garnering high hopes started, nevertheless.

Chilas to Jaglot is a 2.5 hour long journey. Jaglot is a small town located at the junction of the world’s largest mountain ranges Karakorum, Himalayas and Hindu Kush. It is situated at the intersection of KKH and S1 highways. KKH takes you towards Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Naltar, Ghizer, Passu, Sost and the Khunjerab Pass. S1, the Gilgit-Skardu Road or the Strategic Highway, takes you towards Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang, Khaplu, K2, Kargil and the Siachen Galcier. The road S1 is 167 km long that starts at an elevation of 6000 feet in Jaglot and ends in Skardu, the capital city of Skardu District in Baltistan Division, at around 7300 feet. River Indus runs along the entire Skardu Road. The entire landscape is enriched with dazzling and intransigent River Indus surrounded by innumerable towering mountains, some barren, others snow-laden. The whole experience nurtures within you a sense of awe and humility.

We had to stop twice due to the ongoing work but still managed to reach Lower Kachura Lake (also known as the Shangrila Lake) around 6 in the evening.

The Enchanting Shangrila Lake in Skardu

5th July: Shangrila Lake

The heart-shaped Shangrila Lake of Skardu Valley is famous for its outrageous serenity, deep waters and exquisite Chinese-style cottages. Whether it was the approaching dusk, an overcast sky, a light cool breeze gently caressing our journey-torn faces, or the first glimpse of the magical lake amid those ‘floating’ resorts, an overwhelming joy to be a part of this landscape encompassed us all. Photographs were captured, cigarettes were smoked and life was relived in those moments.

5th July: Skardu City: 8000 feet

Moving towards Skardu city, we came across on our way the Skardu Airport that also serves as a forward operating base for Pakistan Air Force. The mere thought of being air-borne over these massive mountains gives you a chill down your spine.

It was night time when our vehicle traversed the popular Alamdaar Choke of Skardu and finally stopped in front of Skardu Continental Guest House. Luggage was transferred, rooms were occupied, dinner was served (a little late than desired, I’d say), and everybody was off to bed. Some eyes, though, were still wide open in awe of the wilderness of the surrounding mountains.

Skardu deserves more than a mere mention. The valley is abundant in snow-laden mountains, lakes, resorts, forts, fresh water ponds and local hospitality. To the south, it has the second highest plains in the world (The Deosai Plains); to the northeast, it has the serene and tranquil town of Shigar that will lead you to the second highest mountain in the world (K-2, or the Godwin Austin Peak), to the east is the famous Siachen Glacier that lies beyond the north-most point of LOC, to the southeast is the Kargil City that was once home to the one of the highest battlefields in the world (in July 1999), and to the west is the legendary KKH. Skardu becomes a gateway to K-2, Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, Trango Towers, as well as Baltoro and Biafo Glaciers.  To put it in Syed Mehdi Bukhari’s words, Skardu is an “embodiment of nature’s perfection”.

6th July: Deosai National Park: 13500 feet

Three land cruisers were parked in to take us to the “Roof of the World”. Our first brief stop was at the beautiful Sadpara Lake. Parvez, our Guide, told us that the Skardu valley meets its water needs from this lake. Sadpara Dam, built in 2011 downstream of the lake, generates some 17 MW electricity and thus powers up 30,000 households. We wanted to spend more time over the lake but the jeep driver had other thoughts. He forced us to leave the place in no time as the journey ahead was all uphill, bumpy and packed with eroded pathway. He was right, but only partially. The constant sight of mountainous landscape, the melodious sound of fresh water flowing in between, embracing each stone on its way, and the refreshing feel of the original air all around eliminates any trace of exhaustion that may intrude in due to the journey.

In the midst of Deosai

Lush green plains surrounded by snow-caped mountains welcomed us at the first glimpse of Deosai plains. Tea at the small café was unforgettable. One feels total self-annihilation as GB embraces you with full might at the Deosai plains. Who knew this would be just tip of an iceberg. As we moved forward towards Nalla Shatong, Barra Pani and Kala Pani, each turn of the pathway added an inexplicable freshness. Words sometimes are too fragile to carry the weight of the content that a beholder wishes to communicate.

Deosai, as the name implies, meaning ‘Shadow of the Giant’, is a plateau with exceptional beauty and ecological value. The place is well known for wild flowers, butterflies, brown bears, snow leopard and ibex. We wished to witness the popular brown bear or the ibex but could only see some long-tailed golden marmot on our way to the charismatic Sheosar Lake. It was 4 in the evening when we arrived at the lake. Sheosar Lake is nature’s reward for those who dare to ascend the heights of Deosai plains; it is the epitome of the beauty of mystified lands of Baltistan; it is your first encounter with an unadulterated part of the universe. Calm, placid waters surrounded by humungous mountains all around captivate your entire existence instantly and spell an unparalleled hysteria on the minds and souls of its visitors.

The Celestial Sheosar Lake

An hour passed in no time and we were to leave this magical land before the horizon turned grey. Driver was sleepy and tired. He looked around for aide. I volunteered. So the jeep was given in my custody for the return journey. I drove for two and a half hours in the Deosai Plains and it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. We were back in our hotel around 8:45 pm. Biryani was served in dinner.

7th July: Manthoka Waterfall: Kharmang

Next morning, we packed up our luggage, checked out of the Skardu Continental Hotel and left for Manthoka Waterfall which lies in Kharmang district of Baltistan. The Kharmang journey was lit with fresh water streams and an immortal playlist from a coaster mate. She was reading Alex Michaelides’s “The Silent Patient”, a story of a fashion photographer’s motives into her husband’s murder, and a psychotherapist’s search for truth that threatens to consume him. Another coaster mate carried Paul Kalanithi’s “When Breath becomes Air”, a name that inspired me to title my journey.

Manthoka & a cup of tea

We landed there around 11:30 am and spent some splendid time in freezing water. Waterfall had an enigmatic aura. Had tea and fries from a neighboring café and soon our guide came looking for us.

7th July: Shigar Cold Desert

Soon we were in front of Bab-e-Shigar. Stopped at Safaranga Cold Desert. Kids had ATV rides. Cold desert has a peculiar beauty. You can’t stay long there as the heat radiating from the sand dunes reaches you quicker than the enigma the surrounding mountains carry. We sat back soon and left for Shigar.


7th July: Shigar Town / Shigar Fort

It was a pleasant evening when we reached Shigar Fort, an old fort of Baltistan that was originally constructed long way back but had recently been renovated a decade ago. The historical fort has now become a museum and a luxury Serena hotel. After paying for the entrance fee, which was 400 rupees per person, we scrambled into different directions. Major structures that the 450 years old complex comprises are the Old-Fort Palace, the Old House, Amacha Garden & Baridari, and the Raja’s Mosque. Fong Khar, which means Palace on the Rock, is the local name for the Shigar Serena Palace. 

The visit was not well organized. There was no dedicated guide that would lead us to different segments of the premises and describe the historical significance attached to the fort. A synchronized brief was missing. Exhausted by now, I ordered tea in the open-air dining lounge of Serena Hotel. It was a peaceful sitting, with a beautiful green lawn in front and the rhythmic sounds of Shigar River flowing by the side. There were fully blossomed and ripen cherries over the trees and kids attempted to jump over and catch a few when the manager came around and rebuked them for being too naughty. “Yeh koi khelney ki jaga hai?” He asked them angrily. He probably was not aware k “bachun ko sirf exist kerna hota hai. Khaliney ki jaga wo khud hi dhoond lete hain.”

7th July: Bonfire in Space Hotel Shigar

The hotel was nearby. Took us just 15 minutes to reach the hotel. The first thought that struck my mind was: “ZABARDAST”. A splendid place to stay. An elegant building stood in the middle as if it holds all untold secrets of this place and still keeps a dignified calm. There was a medium sized water pond that added freshness and energy to the hotel. There were lawns with green trees and white chairs in their shadows surrounded by beautifully blossomed yellow and pink flowers. At the far end of the hotel was a dining hall where we had breakfast before leaving this wonderful place.

Space Hotel Shigar

Dinner was ready by 9. Before dinner, we had tried to capture a glittery sky in our cameras. After a lot of futile effort into it, it was decided to allow naked eye to register the enigma of a star-studded sky. But soon after dinner, everybody started gathering around the fire setup in a nearby lawn. The bonfire proved to be an ‘ice breaker’, literally as well as figuratively. Abdullah from Larkana City navigated the conversation well. Parvez disclosed he can speak 4 to 5 languages including Spanish. Ali shared he is a sportsman, and plays cricket and badminton regularly. People from Karachi, Hydrabad, Larkana, Aukara, Lahore, Rawalpindi and Islamabad were part of this glorious journey. There were PhD doctors, Electrical Engineers, a Petroleum Engineer, a banker, a chartered accountant, English language and world history educationists, an MBBS doctor, an aerospace engineer, and a writer / freelance proof-editor. I realized how names, themes, professions and life patterns of certain people produce charm in their persona and radiate a sensational calm in the surroundings.

Bonfire in Shigar

I wanted to view the Shigar sky in complete darkness. So the few of us went outside for a walk in the dark and when there was complete darkness, we looked up and witnessed a glittery sky packed with stars, galaxies, Great Bear Constellations, and lights emanating from unknown worlds.

8th July: Back on Skardu Road: Towards Gilgit

The next morning was destined for a journey towards Hunza valley in Gilgit. Kachura is a two-hour drive from Shigar. Uncertainty was in the air. You cannot guarantee when and where the Skardu road gets blocked and you have to wait for hours before you get the green signal to move ahead. Soon our vehicle came to a halt. The journey was finally resumed in an hour. Second interruption was turned into lunch break. So we had Chicken Qorma & Daal Maash with chilled drinks in regular glass bottles at a riverside dhaaba.

8th July: The Breathtaking, The Glorious, The Massive Rakaposhi

The Breathtaking Rakaposhi Peak

The place was lit with golden light emerging from the Rakaposhi peak.  The entire scene emanated a strange glow as if it was a full moon night and announcement of the worthy arrival of a celestial being was likely, and that he intended to meet the shattered souls tonight to lift their spirits and to inform them that there is a reality larger than the daily mundane.

We had tea and pictures in front of the incredible Rakaposhi. Talking of this mountain, its uniqueness and peculiarity should not go unnoticed. Rakaposhi rises 19000 feet in just 11 km, i.e., it is the only mountain in the world that rises this swiftly straight from local terrain to an altitude of 25000 feet (ranked 27th worldwide). The spectacular front view of the mountain was glowing like a diamond that night.

8th July: Hunza Valley: 8000 feet

Kids were getting desperate now. “Uncle, how far is Hunza now?” Musjil asked uncle Parvez in utter dejection. “You seeing those lit up residences atop those glorious mountains? That’s where our destination is”. After like an eternity, Musa asked the same question. “Now, uncle?? Uncle’s answer wasn’t quite different from his last one, and with the same energy in his voice. We could appreciate the growing enthusiasm in his voice on reaching his home town. Parvez was a free, unawkward soul from lower Hunza. He had travelled on these roads a million times before. So for him these trivial distances didn’t matter. Parvez’s answer foreseeably disappointed kids. “Your answer was the same a century ago, Parvez bhai”, I uttered. Everybody laughed. Except Parvez, this time.

A Hunza Morning

My first face to face encounter with Hunza was in darkness, although the ostentatious and flamboyant lower Hunza market lured many eyes. Lower Hunza looked cool, developed, organized and well settled by its outlook in the dark. We arrived at the Old Hunza Inn by 9. It was a small peaceful residence in Central Hunza. Houses of a peaceful Hunza valley, the placid Hunza river, the across the river somewhat lonely Nagar Valley, apple and apricot trees, and the Rakaposhi … all was within a single field of view from my room window .

After the dinner at the famous Mulburry Restaurant, the plan of a stroll in the central Hunza market was dusted as Arham obstinately refused to move an inch further. Turning back to the inn was the only option left.

9th July: Hussaini Suspension Bridge: 8500 feet

If thrill and skill can be metamorphosed into some tangible form, it has to be Hussaini Suspension Bridge of Upper Hunza in Gilgit Baltistan. Planks about six feet long to walk on, with many of them missing now, tied together with ropes to hold your hands on while crossing, and a ferocious river running deep down, ready to devour you up as you panic and lose focus. The motion is two-dimensional; to and fro, and sideways, depending on the potential crossers’ BMI index and the blowing strong winds. Ranked as one of the most precarious rope bridges around the world, the bridge connects Zara bad with Husaaini village.

The Perilous Hussaini Bridge

“What if someone loses his balance and slips out into the river? ..  Any chances of survival? .. And if he’s a skillful floater, you know? “Ali kept asking the supervisor. “Even if you are a skillful diver and a trained swimmer, the freezing water of Hunza River will freeze your mind. So be careful”, was his stern response. And we were about to start our return journey over the bridge!

9th July: Towards Khunjerab Pass

Our next destination was traveling for the highest international border at Khunjerab National Park through the incredible Karakorum Highway. The journey coincidentally intermingled with an inside journey. As the KKH turned and twisted like a serpent making sharp maneuvers to hunt enemy, heart was feeling the resulting gravitational pull. As the grandiosity of the surrounding mountains besieged us like a tiny insect finding its way out of an intricate maze, mind felt encapsulated in the midst of a heaven yet to have a human touch. As the coaster ascended towards the top with voice of Junaid whispering “Keh do jo bhi man mein aaey”, the trance felt real. And the soul felt the final blow as “Sar e Lamakaan se talab hui ..” annihilated all that was present before the very eyes. Both journeys had experienced a unique confluence.

Towards Khunjerab Pass

9th July: The Khunjerab Top: 15500 feet

We were at Khunjerab Top. There was a long queue that our guide Parvez managed to bypass with his yet to be disclosed skills. It was a breathtaking view. Snow-capped mountains all around blended us with the mesmerized landscape. Temperature was bearable, wind was steady, and oxygen level sufficient for normal breathing. Not enough time was left as the day had seen its zenith and now heading towards afternoon, and we had yet to stop at the splendid Passu Cones and the magnificent Atabaad Lake.

At Khunjerab Top

9th July: Passu Cones & Samita in Upper Hunza

There was a small tea break close to a fertile Khyber town in Upper Hunza while we were heading back from Khunjerab Top. There I met a 4-year old fairy, Samita, whose eyes had a shine that pledged a resolve to summit those unspoken insurmountable peaks of life. She was pretty like a rose, innocent like a saint, as smart as a whip, and as confident as an invincible youth.

Parvez had the best idea of where to pose for the most photographed peak (The Passu Cones) of the region; in the middle of a busy KKH. Some in us settled for a more traditional ramp walk as in a Milano Fashion Week while others ventured into innovative themes like sitting in the middle of the road with the miraculous Passu Cones in background.  

The Quintessential Passu Cones

9th July: Jet Skiing in Atabaad Lake

On Jan the 4th, 2010, a major landslide in Atabaad village formed a 20 km long and 350 feet Atabaad lake which later became one of the most sought-after tourists spots in GB. Some portions of KKH also submerged due to the landslide which resulted in realignment of a 24 km long patch through five masterpiece tunnels constructed to restore the link to China.

All kinds of water sports including boating, fishing and jet skiing were rampant over the lake. They were charging 1000 rupees for a 7-minute ride on a jet boat. Clean green waters of the lake alongside the grey and white Karakoram mountains provide a remarkably spectacular view. Hard to carry along. Harder to leave behind.

The Serene Attabad Lake

9th July: Karimabad Market in Hunza

Visit to Karimabad market remained one of the rare downsides of the trip. Overcrowded, poorly managed, dilapidated road to walk on and limited options for dinning in, this Hunza market blemished the otherwise immaculate face of Gilgit Baltistan.   

10th July: Baltit Fort Hunza

It was only a refreshing visit to Baltit Fort of Hunza that washed away some of the disappointment that traveled alongside us for a while. “Now we will see how strong are these little musketeers wearing yellow t-shirts and doing all naughty stuff all the way ! ”, our coaster drivers joked with the kids while dropping us at the point from where we had to start “trekking”. For the novice expeditioners, the steep 20 minutes cobblestone road track shared a resemblance with the monstrous Concordia trek.

A Clandestine Room in Baltit Fort

10th & 11th July: Return Journey

The return journey had started. Our vehicle for a brief while stopped at Rakaposhi Zip line where some of us enjoyed the zip line experience in Ghulmat, Nagar while others watched the thundering Indus flowing nearby. The stay lasted till 3 pm and we left for Chillas and for Islamabad the next day.

Paul Kalanithi once said: “Beauty manifests in mountains, lakes and people. Richness in experiences, friendships and relationships.” This Gilgit Baltistan trip became a testament to those lines. While the coaster arrived at the Daewoo Terminal Islamabad and everyone departed and bade farewell, I was surrounded by a strange melancholy layer that dared to make an astounding impact on the ordinary soul. As I was heading for home and was thinking about the gone GB trip, these lines from the soundtrack of Jerry Maguire kept echoing in my heart, as if someone was disclosing a tightly kept secret about the unadulterated land of Gilgit Baltistan (GB):

She’ll lead you down a path
There’ll be tenderness in the air
She’ll let you come just far enough
So you know she’s really there
She’ll look at you and smile
And her eyes will say
She’s got a secret garden
Where everything you want
Will always stay
A million miles away
Bruce Springsteen

Author: Hassan Akmal

Hassan is an Aerospace Engineer working in a Public sector Research & Development organization in Islamabad. An avid book reader and a good-music maniac. Hassan cherish friendships, Long walks at nights, Deep conversations, Long drives.