The 15,000-feet high Deosai plains were on my itinerary for a long time — after hearing stories about its expansive lakes, marmots and bears, and the vast swaths of plains covered with colourful flora.
After staying a night at the Rama lake in Astore, we started for Chillim Chowki, then on to the Astore river gorge and Deosai plains. The gradient was slowly rising, the air becoming fresher and the road quality slowly declining. Soon we were in the highlands, with the gorge widening and water streams joining the Astore river from all around.
In about an hour, we reached Chillim Chowki which is a small town from where you may either take the road to Burzil pass, Minimarg and Gultari along the Pak-India border or take the road up to Deosai plains.
The Burzil pass is the centuries-old trade route from Srinagar to Gilgit. But do not attempt trade on this route presently for your life may be at stake on both sides of the hostile border.
Imagine Francis Young Husband or George Hayward, the great British explorers, trekking through this route in 1890s. While Young Husband was lucky to survive the expedition, George Hayward was ambushed near Durkut in the Yasin valley by the Rajas of Yasin valley.
We took the road to Deosai from Chillim Chowki, and in about half an hour, we reached the famous Sheosar lake, nestled among the snow-capped mountains and formed in a natural depression. We were able to see marmots and many different types of colourful birds.
Our next stop was Kala Paani about an hour away. Kala Paani is named so due to black stones in the streambed. You may go deep into the wilderness to see the threatened brown bears. But a better site for such a venture is perhaps Barra Paani, about half an hour away.
Streams Kala Paani and Barra Paani were once crossed over suspension bridges however the government, in its infinite wisdom, constructed concrete bridges over these streams which are totally incongruous with the natural surroundings.
You may stop for tea at the local dhaba at Kala Paani or continue on to Barra Paani.
Barra Paani marks the border between Astore and Skardu, and is the biggest camping site in Deosai. By biggest I mean it can host 10 or so camps. People normally stop here for lunch or tea. You may even stay here for the night if you feel adventurous.
One persistent issue in Deosai is mosquitoes, and tourists are advised to keep good mosquito repellents handy, especially in evenings.
Once at Barra Paani, you must keep your wildlife guide happy if you want to see brown bears in the wild. Brown bears have been considered threatened since 1990s, when Dr Anis ur Rehman, the famous dentist from Islamabad, joined hands with locals and the wildlife department to save brown bears. Today, their population is slowly bouncing back.
Brown bears live in hibernation in winters, and live far away in gorges and valleys from the main tourist route to avoid noise and people. They live on grass and fish from streams.
To see them in their natural habitat, you may need to trek a few hours from the main route. Brown bears come down from high gorges and valleys around September when the tourist season is over.
Besides brown bears, the Deosai plains also host ibex, markhors, snow leopards, marmots and a wide variety of migratory birds.
From Barra Paani, it takes about two hours to reach the turquoise green Sadpara Lake, nestled in the natural gorge on way to Skardu. The lake was converted into a dam a few years back to supply electricity to the Skardu town, and has a PTDC motel that overlooks the lake. The only caveat being that the motel was taken over by Gilgit Baltistan Scouts a few years back to provide security to the dam.
It takes about seven long hours to reach Skardu from Astore. While the trek is recommended for SUVs, I have seen motorbikes, Suzuki Mehrans and Corollas traversing Deosai. I would advise hiring jeeps instead of testing your cars and your driving skills in such wilderness.
The best time to visit Deosai is August, when the snow is thawed and flowers in bloom — and brown bears wandering about. You can take a day trip to Deosai from Skardu or Astore or stay a night at Barra Paani – but do leave Deosai clean and serene for people visiting after you!