Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan: The Third Pole
Texts and photos by Françoise Spiekermeier
Glaciers took a hold of a country where no one sets foot anymore, except a handful of fine adventurers. Perched between Afghanistan, Uighurstan in China, and Ladakh in India, this Eternal Snow Country, once visited by expeditions of climbers going on to attack the K2 or peaks of more than 8000 meters, is an enclosed world, whose foothills keep the traces of the ancient silk road. The people living here have tamed the elements and cultivated a Garden of Eden by channelling glacier water. This water, a source of eternal youth, floods the landscapes with sumptuous beauty.
Who has heard of Gilgit-Baltistan? Of this lost region located 60 km north of Kashmir and also claimed by India but proudly clinging to Pakistan? You must be a trekker or mountaineer to get there. And yet, this crossroad abounds with an unsuspected wealth of humanity. A mosaic of peoples and their religions reflecting the diversity of cultures that have criss-crossed these valleys long before Jesus Christ or the Prophet Mohammed, where the ancient sects of Islam, Sufis, Ismaili, Shiites, Sunnis, still feel on their skin the wind of Buddhism that had established a kingdom there: Gandhara. It extended its borders to eastern Afghanistan today and as far as Taxila, near Islamabad.
At the beginning of our era, this leading commercial centre between China, India and the West absorbed foreign invaders and their culture, melting them into a composite and tolerant local culture. “Genetically, for 2000 years, people have belonged to Buddhism, and Buddhists are peaceful,” says a religious official of Khaplu, a Sufi Muslim. In his village, he proudly shows the wooden mosque, one of the oldest in Pakistan, and the foundations of a Buddhist temple on which it stands. “The first preacher of Islam in the GB (“Gilgit-Baltistan”) was Sufi: help, mutual aid, respect are the pillars of our community”. Nicknamed “Little Tibet”, Baltistan was a land of shamans until the arrival of Buddhism in the 4th century, which did not resist the Islam introduced in the 14th century. The features of the inhabitants of the Balti-speaking region, an ancient Tibetan dialect, clearly show this origin.
Khaplu is the last city before the Indian border of Ladakh. The main street climbs up, and is lined with shops. The DNA of the city, an ancient commercial crossroad and a small Buddhist kingdom, is palpable. The tankers that left Islamabad took two days to get here, going up the Indus River, for a while on the Karakoram Highway linking Pakistan to China. The road is breathtaking and goes through villages. In the evening, the girls return from the fields carrying hoods filled with herbs on their backs. At nightfall, the bad boys ride their mopeds. Everywhere, farmers collect water not from rivers but from high glaciers. They irrigate their fields in both winter and summer with this running water, of absolute purity that whips up nature and strengthens it. The gardens are covered with flowers and lush plants. The foothills are covered with apricots with thick and gnarled trunks, ageless. All kinds of berries, fruits, vegetables and cereals grow there, defying the laws of altitude and climate.
At the top of the city, Khaplu Fort, built by the raja in 1840, was restored in 2000 by the Aga Khan Foundation, the spiritual leader of the Ismaili people, whose community is very present in Baltistan. It is a haven of sweetness with Indo-British colonial charm, dominated by the snowy and sharp peaks of Karakoram. The thick stone walls hide comfortable rooms with wooden furniture and rustic parquet flooring, bathrooms covered with white marble from Pakistan’s quarries, and a hanging garden where we can decipher the itinerary of the region’s treks from the comfort of rattan chairs and their deep cushions. Tchaï, a sweet black tea made with milk and green cardamom seeds, is brewed in teapots. A night visit to the restored fort completes the wonder. In the raja apartments, on the top floor of the building, a terrace opens onto a panorama of mountains, which can be admired through the elaborate hazelnut wood jambs, with their thousand and one night scents.
Thus, after a day’s drive, we reach another valley, the Shigar valley, with its hills of aquamarine mines that make up the region’s wealth. Beyond the district gate, a desert of white dunes stretches between black mountains. The contrast is sublime. The softness of the colours, like a precious embroidered cashmere, contrasts with the geological reality. The show is never-ending throughout this journey like a piece of motion art, which brings out landscapes each more sumptuous than the other and that the camera never stops capturing in an attempt to retain their beauty, to describe the indescribable.
A day’s drive from Gilgit, the capital of GB, is the Hunza Valley. It is also said to be the Valley of the Immortals, where people live until they reach 145 years of age. The majority of the inhabitants here are Ismaelians. The Aga Khan has built more than 130 schools there, raising the level of education above the average. We arrive in Karimabad where we visit the fort of Baltit at the top of the village. The climb, steep, sparkles with small shops where you meet old Hunza, with a keen eye. What is the secret of Hunza’s longevity? Glacier water, of absolute purity and rich in minerals, food: essentially vegetarian and extremely varied in vegetables and fruits, rich in barley seeds, buckwheat millet… all this does not exceed 2000 calories per day. Almonds and apricots are a major part of the caloric intake. They fast for several days, in spring, do field work (exercise!) and yogic breathing: the Hunzas are masters in this field.
Glaciers give mankind youth and vitality. Yet it is in Pakistan that global warming is most visible on the ice sheets! The glaciers are blackening, retreating to the tops, in front of our very eyes. The tumultuous waters of their decay devastate the villages on the edge of the beds, the flow of climatic refugees rises, and, to top it all off in the land of longevity, the number of suicides. In addition to the ravages of global warming, the country of eternal youth has been dying since the 11th September 2001 due to the proximity of its tribal areas to Afghanistan. After a period of five years of successful security, the Pakistani authorities in the region and Islamabad want to revive this region, a national jewel that has once again become “tourist friendly”. This trip is possible with good logistics planned before departure and a good guide, ambassador of this region of the world which conceals authentic and priceless beauties.
In these remote regions, a land of mountaineering and expeditions to the highest peaks in the world, the spiritual leader of the Ismaelians, a religious minority widespread in Baltistan and the Hunza Valley, has woven a network of comfortable hotels, true havens of serenity at the foot of the mountains. Shigar Fort is one of the jewels of this mesh offering comfort after a long journey on the Karakoram Highway. 400 years old, the former Shigar Raja Palace, completely restored and transformed into a sixteen-room hotel, has joined the collection of a group of four hotels in the region, alongside the Serena Khaplu Palace, the Hunza Serena Inn, and the Gilgit Serena Hotel, as well as the Swat Serena Hotel in the Swat Valley, rich as a result of its exceptional Buddhist heritage.
Time difference between France and Pakistan: + 3h
The Paris-Islamabad flight with Pakistan International Airlines lasts ten hours with a stopover in Barcelona https://www.pia.com.pk/ but it is direct for the return flight (7 hours)
Hotel in Islamabad: Islamabad Serena https://www.serenahotels.com
Incoming agency in Islamabad and throughout the country: PTDC, Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation. Contact on behalf of Françoise de Plumevoyage: Arshad Ali firstname.lastname@example.org
30 km from Islamabad, Taxila, Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology and UNESCO classified archaeological site: a must!
Domestic flight Islamabad-Gilgit: 1 hour with PIA
Serena Khaplu Palace Hotel, www.serenahotels.com
Hotel Serena Shigar Fort www.serenahotels.com
Serena Hotel Hunza www.serenahotels.com
The CALL OF THE MOUNTAIN international conference at UNESCO in Paris on the 25th October on the Pakistani mountains, organized by the Embassy of Pakistan in Paris. Link to register: http://www.pakembparis.com/
Your guide in Gilgit-Baltistan: Karim in Hunza, Perch Guest House, email@example.com
Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Authorities: contact: Kashif Ali firstname.lastname@example.org
Guide Petit Futé Pakistan, www.petitfute.com