Pakistan region is heaven for mountaineers
GILGIT-BALTISTAN, Pakistan -- Gilgit-Baltistan is a favorite destination for tourists inside and outside of Pakistan, thanks to its eye-popping scenery. It features some of the world's great mountain ranges -- the Himalayas, Karakoram and Hindu Kush.
The region, as a whole, is like heaven for mountaineers and hikers. Other than its lofty peaks, it also offers a unique cultural heritage, beautiful valleys, dazzling high-altitude natural lakes, glaciers and an array of rare fauna and flora.
It has been called the Roof of the World, the Wonderland of Asia and the Jewel of Pakistan. More than 50 peaks reach above 7,000 meters in the area, including the mountain known as K2.
The snow-topped mountains lie in spectacular contrast to the green fields of the valleys below. The climate of Gilgit-Baltistan is different from area to area. There are towns, such as Gilgit and Chilas, that in the summer are hot during the day yet cold at night, and valleys -- Hunza, Astore, Khaplu, Yasin, Baltar and Nagar -- where the temperatures are cold even in the summer.
Hunza, possibly the most beautiful valley of Gilgit-Baltistan, is located on the top of a hill and is the home to two ancient forts. One is the Baltit Fort, whose foundations date back 700 years. It has been restored and is being maintained by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture, which works to keep amazing architecture that it is still standing in its original glory.
To visit the fort, one must climb a huge number of stairs to get to the top. Inside, utensils, clothes, furniture and more are on display.
In the 16th century, the local prince married a princess from Baltistan who brought master Balti craftsmen in to renovate the building as part of her dowry. The architectural style is a clear indication of Buddhist influences in Baltistan at the time.
The Mirs (rulers) of Hunza abandoned the fort in 1945 and moved to a new palace down the hill. The fort started to decay, which caused concern that it might possibly fall into ruin. Following a survey by the Royal Geographical Society of London, a restoration program was initiated and supported by the Khan Trust's Historic Cities program. It was completed in 1996, and the fort is now a museum run by the Baltit Heritage Trust.
Altit Fort is another ancient fort in the Hunza valley. It was originally home to the hereditary rulers of the Hunza state who carried the title Mir. They moved to the somewhat younger Baltit Fort three centuries later. Altit Fort and in particular the Shikari tower are around 900 years old. The tower is the oldest monument in Gilgit-Baltistan.
Gigantic glaciers like Baltoro, Biafo, Hisper and Bilafound add to the importance of the region. The many lakes, such as Satpara, invite those interested in fishing as they are full of trout.
There is also Deosai, the world's second-highest plateau, with hundreds of beautiful wildflower varieties, and thousand-year-old palaces and forts like Kharphocho (the mighty fort built on a hill in the heart of Skardu city), Phong Khar Sghigar (the palace on the stone) and the palace of Raja Khaplu, and mosques and tombs featuring brilliant Kashmiri, Mughal and Iranian architectural structures.
The surrounding rocks embellished with monuments and carvings of 1,200-year-old Bonism and Buddhism religions lure those tourists who are interested in archaeology and ancient history.
The hotels in Gilgit-Baltistan exemplify the local tradition of hospitality and give wonderful care to guests to the area, where they set up special night-view points of the peaks, valleys and glaciers in the moonlight. The scene gives indescribable peace to the mind and soul.
A range of continental and traditional foods are offered to guests. Popular resorts in the area are the Pakistan Tourism Development Corp. motel, the Serena hotel and the Riviera Hotel and Hunza Inn.
A thriving tourism industry can become an engine of change in Gilgit-Baltistan, helping its people escape years of poverty and backwardness in an area that makes up part of the disputed Kashmir region.
The Pakistan government has also taken the right step by returning the Gilgit-Baltistan name the region, along with provincial status, instead of the "Northern Areas," as it had been called.
But more needs to be done to cash in on the potential the region has for tourism, local tourism operators believe. They want Skardu to have an international airport, but for that a heavy investment has to be made.
Currently, Pakistan International Airlines operates regular flights from Islamabad to Skardu and Gilgit to bring domestic and international tourists to Gilgit-Baltistan.
Yaqoob Malik recently spent three weeks in Charleston as part of a U.S.-Pakistan partnership program arranged by the International Center for Journalists in Washington, D.C.