“We are going to Skardu!” my family announced as I was sitting in my living room in Seattle. These five words both excited yet scared me. I had nothing to base my expectations on except for my dad’s infant memories when my grandfather was posted there as a brigadier for six months.
My paternal grandfather had planned this trip as a family reunion so that 25 of us, inclusive of relatives from my father’s side of the family living in Pakistan, could experience Skardu in all its beauty.
We gathered at my aunt’s house in Rawalpindi on June 30 at 7.30am, and left for the airport that morning in a coaster which gave us a taste of a vehicle that would be our only type of transport after landing in Skardu — between mountain valleys and over creaky bridges.
We took off at 9am from Islamabad, and so began our much-awaited trip to northern Pakistan. From the right side of the plane, we were awed by the sight of the Nanga Parbat or Killer Mountain, the third-highest peak in the world. The valley revealed itself later as a barren and rocky wasteland, with an occasional river running through it.
Landing in Skardu Valley was terrifying yet breathtaking. Sailing through the mountain ridges gave a new meaning to beauty and serenity. My mind immediately raced back to Karachi, Lahore, and Rawalpindi and it was amazing to witness the difference in topography when travelling north less than an hour on plane.
Finally after a safe landing, the 25 people in my family, taking up a quarter of the plane, were the first ones to get off. My grandfather led us to a bus waiting on the runway which would take us to the airport complex. The airport, just about 15 minutes away, is a little green house, not more than 100ft by 200ft, with yellow lettering, Skardu Airport. It has one straight baggage carousel.
So all of us, including two infants on board, were crammed into two coasters. We were off to the Concordia Mess which would be our home in the mountains for five days. Riding along the windy and bumpy roads was extremely nerve-racking but it became a norm by the end of the trip. Entering the Concordia Mess, all one could see were towering mountains and the Indus River. It was beautiful. And all one could hear were the clicking of cameras and the oohs and ahhs from all directions. This marked the beginning of an unforgettable experience.
From flying over Nanga Parbat to driving along the muddy Indus while dodging truck traffic, we visited five distinct places in the five days.
We went to the Satpara Lake the very day we landed. The rest included Shigar, Deosai Plains, Shangrila, and Mantokha Falls. Satpara Lake is the second-largest lake in all of Gigit-Baltistan and supplies water to the town of Skardu. The lake is a beautiful teal colour and expands into the vast Skardu Valley. The second day was meticulously planned out, featuring attractions like the Cold Desert or Katpana Desert (the highest cold desert in the world) to the preserved remains of a 17th century palace, Serena Fort.
Next day, at 8.00 in the morning, we embarked on the five-hour journey to the start of the Deosai Plains. On this treacherous journey, there were times when my uncle and aunt had to exit the car to ease the trip up steep and narrow paths. We spotted cattle making the trip up for fresh grass to feast on. Beautiful little red, white, and purple flowers sprinkled the mountains with the occasional golden marmot popping up.
Shangrila welcomed us with a beautiful array of small hotel rooms circling a lake in the middle of mountains. We enjoyed boat rides multiple times and a few of us even made it to upper Kachura where we relaxed by the lake. Coming back had us in awe of a beautiful sunset behind Skardu Valley. The last place we visited was the Mantokha Falls, which was a spur-of-the-moment decision, but worth it. A group of 12 of us decided to take a hike up the cliff next to a waterfall and go through it. The view from the top was beautiful and though many of us were drenched, it was so much fun.
Surprisingly, throughout our trip, we saw what appeared to be an equal number of women and men in the bazaars. Most of the time women would be in fields working and grinding wheat while men would be taking care of shops.
Skardu was unlike any other place I have visited. A breath of fresh air, literally.