The Story of My Travel : Gilgit-Baltistan — Part 1

“The eyesight for an eagle is what thought is to a man”

Whether it was Leonardo da Vinci’s mechanical winged device called the “Ornithopter” or Wight Brothers’ first sustained and controlled device called “The Flying Machine”, the spirit and longing of humans to fly like a bird have always been elusive. Even with modern intricate flying objects they cannot match the flight, freedom and faculty of an eagle high up in the sky encompassing the breadth of view below. This instinctive desire is hardly met through the small window of the small 50 seater turboprop ATR aircraft bound for Gilgit. The moment our flight takes off, my adrenalin pumps up, butterflies start to float in the belly very appurtenant and opportune to overcome the angst and another desire of a unique adventure ahead of us.

Inside the cozy environment of the aircraft, the distinct ethnic facial features surround us, the old and the young including the only airhostess make us feel alien right away. Most of the travelers are frequent commuters except for the few hoppers like us. I am told PIA subsidizes for this sector primarily to benefit the impoverished and landlocked people of Gilgit Baltistan.

In few minutes no sooner had we flown over the dense green Margalla hills we cross Abbottabad and were flying over the Swat Valley. We could view Kaghan mountains that had cradled within its arms the beautiful Lake Saiful Malouke. We now started to head towards Chilas and over miles of snow-capped mountains interspersed with craggy brown and black and blends of yellow structures protruding and peeking out as if reminding their omnipresence to the pristine and serene surroundings overwhelmed by the whiteness and silkiness of nature. The thick and densely laid clouds hung around them as if to console and share that immaculate purity. The pilot informs us that we can spot the Nanga Parbat (Naked Mountain) on our right, perhaps acclaimed as one of the most beautiful and prominent peaks of the world. Sun shone bright and glistening light fell on one side of the peak, reflecting the intermittent glow and shine lustrously. Snow wind was blowing across and we could see sparkling white dust covering the already whitened gleaming and glazed surface. For once I wished the aircraft would just stay still and I could keep on absorbing and worshiping the beauty of nature. Nanga Parbat has been called by a variety of names: the ‘Killer Mountain’, primarily for its extreme difficulty in climbing the very steep and frontal structure leading to numerous deaths and the ‘Mistress of Mistresses’ based on a book written by E.R. Eddison as an analogy to his one of his friends killed in mysterious circumstances.

The landing into Gilgit airport is another spectacular sight. Meandering and drifting between the two mountain ranges the aircraft turns and lands onto a short strip of runway which is why these propeller aircrafts are used. I was told the pilot’s expertise is really tested in inclement or even cloudy conditions. Often the auto-pilot device which is so very convenient these days has to be shut off and it is left totally on the pilot’s faculty and skill to land. The ATR is hence, a very suitable and safe aircraft for short runways and where it has to meander through the valleys and between mountains.

No sooner had we boarded off the plane, the sudden gush of fresh cool breeze embraces our visage and sends a chilling yet refreshing feeling up the spine. Here we stood on the tarmac in close proximity to the small airport building; it was awe inspiring to see and feel a disparate and distinct environment. The small neat airport is devoid of frills and is very basic but naturally nestled and adorned like a bassinet and enveloped around by snow-capped mountains. This place is so precious and priceless for the entire populace who has to depend on key necessities of life southward. Air travel is therefore so convenient. Consider the time, few decades ago when the Karokoram Highway was not built or even the flights were not commissioned and people had to commute on rugged narrow roads to climb down to nearby civilizations of the plains. The small airport and the two flights are hence so paramount.

Our guide was right there inside the airport who greeted us to take us to our lodging at Serena Hotel. Serena Hotel chains are run by the Aga Khan Foundation and they have done well to take over the old Rakaposhi Inn long time ago and convert into a cozy comfortable facility with modern amenities.

Selected frames at Serena Hotel Gilgit

There has always been a spirit of worship.

Our guide tells us that we will wander around Gilgit bazars and go visit the Kargah Buddha. We drove to this place behind few mountains and then climbed towards a small village close to the Kargah Nallah, a small riverine emanating from mountains. There hidden among tall willow and mulberry trees was the Kargah Buddha carving, believed to be sculptured in the 7th century by Buddhist monks who traveled from Tibet. In those days, this area was part of the Tibetan kingdom and we could see the Tibetan influence in culture and architecture across GB. We were told by the guide that there were other Buddhist stupas across the high mountains and these were always visited each year by the Tibetans. They would come in droves, worship and go back. Nowadays, these Buddhist carvings and stupas are special attractions for Japanese tourists. The spirit of worship continues.

On the foothills of Kargah Buddha

Mechanical Engineering at work

There we also saw an interesting grinding mill for wheat that was in dilapidated shape and shut inside a mud-walled enclosure. The potential energy generated by the stream of water coming out from the mountain spring was diverted and used to turn the grinding wheel which essentially was made of stone. Good use of basic mechanical engineering that today is extrapolated for producing small hydro-electric stations that we saw everywhere. The stream from the Kargah Mountain had high velocity and underneath was the old grinding mill. The wooden funnel would direct grain to crush between two heavy stone tablets which were underneath propelled via a small turbine wheel moved by the high velocity of the fresh water stream.

The king of games is still the game of the Kings.

Gilgit has a traditional rivalry in polo with Chitral, a neighboring state. Each year this is played between Chitral and Gilgit on the Shandur Top — a plateau called the “Roof of the World”. This polo ground is considered to be the highest polo ground of the world at 3700m. These games are being played since 1930’s each year and now have been glorified to be part of the Shandur Festival which is now a big event with international tourist presence. Attending this festival is definitely in the list of one of my future ventures.

View from the polo ground

Our guide made us stop by a polo ground, which was apparently under army control. The state of the ground did not look too impressive and lacked appropriate care but one interesting plaque embedded at one of the walls caught our attention: two quotes from Amir Khosro and J.K. Stephen. Later in the evening, we also spotted a polo team going back home after a good afternoon’s practice game.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the gems and handicraft bazaar, where you could buy local rubies in uncut and unpolished form and few other stones from this area. The Hunza ruby is considered one of the best in the world and is quite priced, second only to the Burmese ruby.

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