The first time that Pakistan’s Northern Areas captured my imagination was in the early 90s. My father was participating in the National Defense College Course, which brought together senior bureaucrats and military officials for academic training in strategic affairs. A trip to the Northern Areas was part of the course, and the destination that year was Skardu, one of the main towns of the Baltistan region, in the Gilgit-Baltistan province. It was one of childhood’s most exciting experiences.
We stayed at the Shangri-La resort, which was a quirky, Chinese-style structure beside a lake. The resort was in an interesting location. It was surrounded by towering mountains, some of which were snow-capped even in the summer. Many government and military officials were visiting, and some of them were family friends, so I was in good company throughout the trip. There were many interesting adventures. However, since it has been many years, the stories come to mind like a collection of short clips.
I remember the weather being cold, but not so much that it was unpleasant outside. We enjoyed a full range of outdoor activities. This included boat rides in the lake in the evenings. I remember that the first afternoon we took a boat ride, a rainbow formed in the lake. It was one of the most spectacular things I ever saw. Another memorable experience was horse-riding. Back then, I had not yet learnt how to ride horses, but one of my father’s friends was in the military, and his son was an expert. Somehow (I am sure it was due to a brilliant idea by one of the elders), he befriended me, and would take me along with him on afternoon rides on nearby trails. I dont know where the horses came from, but there were likely military stables in the vicinity.
Another thrilling activity was apple stealing, ahem, picking. On the way back from the resort to our residences, there was a long road lined with apple trees. The trees were full of beautiful apples, ripe for consumption. On one of the first few days, my friend and I, while casually strolling down the lane, spotted them. We walked up to the tree fascinated by the apples (at least I had never seen one on a tree before), and thought it would be a good idea to break one off and take it back with us. Little did we know that the trees were being watched. As I broke the apple, I heard a baba jee (a respectful title for senior security-guards in Pakistan) shout, “Oai, kia kar rahay ho?!” (Hey, what do you think you are doing?!). Scared to death, my friend and I started running. As I looked back, I saw that baba jee was chasing after us, wooden stick in hand! A ridiculous situation, which was to repeat itself several times again in my life. If only I had known back then. We streaked down the dirt lane as fast as our legs would carry us. Mid-way, thinking that he would let us go if I threw away the apple, I chucked it to one side. No use. He caught up with us just outside the residences, and once cornered, we froze like ice-sculptures, expecting a thrashing from baba jee’s stick. “Oh tumain saib tornay ki ijazat kisnay di hay?!” thundered baba jee (Who allowed you to pick the apples!). “Sorry uncle, ghalti se tora tha!” we pleaded our innocence. A long lecture followed, and we were warned never to go near the apples again.
Of course, the lecture only partially succeeded in having its intended effect. From that day on, whenever we would walk by the apple trees to the residences, baba jee would send nasty looks in our direction. I am sure I had nightmares about him trying to kidnap us during my time in Skardu! However, undeterred, I promised to steal at least one apple before the end of the trip! By watching the baba jee’s movements closely, I was able to figure out his patrol route. Once that was done, it became a question of timing. One afternoon I executed the plan, and then raced down towards our residence, with a precious green apple in my hand, which I later presented to my mother and her friends with a great sense of achievement. Just getting the apple, rather than eating it, was the objective! If only Eve had thought of doing the same.
During the daytime, excursions were planned to other scenic locations nearby. One of these was to Satpara Lake. It is a beautiful, Azure-blue body of water near Skardu. Satpara lake is one of the largest freshwater lakes in Pakistan. Apart from the colour of the water, I remember the water being really cold.
On the way back from the lake, the jeeps we were traveling in stopped at a location, perhaps to let the engines cool. After getting out of the car, I began walking around, and found some interesting rocks nearby. I had always been fascinated by rocks of different shapes and sizes, thinking that I would find either a fossil or precious metal one day. These particular ones were white in colour, and were by the side of the mountain. I was playing around with pieces of different sizes, when one of the travelers with us told me to take two small pieces and strike them together. I did so, and noticed that the action produced bright, multicoloured sparks! He told me to wait till the evening, when even more colours would be visible. I found slightly larger pieces of the rock, which I learn’t was called “chigmuk” and carried them with me throughout the remainder of the trip. I never got bored of striking them together and watching the sparks, and would wonder why that would happen with normal rocks. A question to which I still dont know the answer.
In the evenings, the resort would light up. The desolate mountains surrounding it would cast a menacing figure against a sky lit by stars. The stars have to be seen in person, for one to believe how many of them are visible from the more remote parts of Pakistan. Other other evening activities included having tea at the resort’s aeroplane cafe, known as the DC-3 Cafe. The plane, which can be seen in the first picture, crashed nearby, and was then recovered and converted into a restaurant. More can be learn’t about it on Shangri La’s website.
Oh and on a last note, getting out of Skardu proved to be much more difficult than getting in! Our flights were delayed for three days! In those days, there was only one daily flight to Islamabad (I dont know how it is now). We would have to pack our belongings in the morning, and drive in Jeeps to the airstrip. I would always pray that the flights would be delayed, or cancelled due to weather, so that the adventures in Skardu would continue! My wish was granted a total of three times, before we finally had to return to life in the Capital.
Skardu, and the Shangri La resort in particular, is a beautiful place. At a young age, it was like a magical valley tucked away in between the mountains. I was completely enamoured with the scenery, and to this day, the Northern Areas remain my favourite part of Pakistan. Not only is the area abundant in natural beauty, but also in warmth, and hospitality when it comes to its people. Whether you go to it by road or take the short flight from Islamabad, it is a destination I highly recommend visiting.