Gilgit-Baltistan: Escape into the Land of Fairy Tales

Gilgit-Baltistan, Pakistan’s paradise in the north, is known for its mesmerizing natural beauty. Pakistan has recently gained fame for revived international tourism and none can match this splendid country. Forbes magazine also recently listed Pakistan as one of the top ten coolest travel destinations. From sandy deserts to snowy peaks, Pakistan has so much to offer and Gilgit-Baltistan is its crowning glory. 

Tucked away in all this beauty is, hidden in a niche, the valley of Hunza termed ‘the epitome of mountain grandeur’ by Eric Shipton. The best time to visit Hunza Valley is in the fall when the valley is aflame with amber leaves on trees marking the end of the lushness of summer. For trekking and camping, months of June till August are the best time. In winters however, Karakoram Highway is often blocked by heavy snowfall so accessibility is problematic. To get to Hunza you are likely to pass through Gilgit, the capital city of Gilgit-Baltistan. The less strenuous way to travel to Gilgit, given that the flight is not cancelled, is by air. The flight also offers the traveller a chance to experience changing landscapes and hues along with the thrill of being in a plane that flies at an altitude that is lower than the mountains it has to go through. From Gilgit it is a two-hour drive on to Hunza. The flight is likely to get cancelled due to the unpredictable weather, therefore, another option to travel is by bus from Islamabad to Gilgit and then on to Hunza. It is probably the most reliable mode of transportation for travellers planning to go up north. Though the drive is a long one but worth every minute as the scenic route is one of its kind.
The valley is a diverse blend of cultures; languages spoken in the region include Shina, Balti, Burushaski, Khowar, Wakhi, Domaki, Gujari, Pashto, Ladakhi, Zangskari, and Purgi. Dripping in cultural heritage, Hunza is also famous for its local cuisine with delicacies like Gholmandi, Chapshuru, Mantu, traditionally embroidered merchandise and paffu — hand woven cloth —  local handicrafts, and gemstones like blue lapis lazuli and red rubies.
Hunza is situated at the union of two rivers: Khunjerab, which flows from the Khunjerab Pass and comes in from the northeast, and Ghujerab from the southeast. The valley is surrounded by apricot and plum orchards and fields.Irrigation canals swept by the melted glacier to the terraced fields and the local villages are a noticeable feature and a favorite amongst the tourists visiting from around the world. 
The best known attractions of Hunza are the historical 800-year-old and  1,000-year-old forts, Baltit and Altit (respectively). Baltit fort, nominated for World Heritage status by UNESCO, is inspired by Tibetan architecture. However, over the years, various Hunza-Nagar rulers have made changes to the original structure. It was inhabited until 70's by the last revered Mir of Hunza, Mir Jamal Khan who passed away in 1974. He started visiting the Fort recollecting his memories as a child and was sentimentally connected to the place. It is about 3km jeep drive, built at the top of a hill overlooking Karimabad. Now a museum and a cultural center, the three-storied building has a total of fifty-three rooms with a fascinating and splendid bird’s eye view of Karimabad village. The first floor of Baltit fort consists of guard houses, a dungeon and a private meeting room. The kitchen on the same floor still houses the utensils used in the times of the Mirs. 
Altit, translating to ‘this side down’, was initially built to serve as a palace for the Mirs. However, after the addition of the watch tower, it was turned into a fort. The fort was restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Cultural Historic Cities Support Programme.
Khunjerab Pass is a well-known trekker cross from the village of Hopar that is reachable only by a four wheeler. Batura-Passu Glacier is the fifth longest glacier in the world, a white natural formation of magnificent scenic beauty. Passu Valley lies between Batura and Passu glaciers, famous for Tupopdan Peak or Passu Cones is one of the most photographed peaks in the region. Barpu Glacier, located in the heart of Hopar Valley, is the base camp for treks into glacier-draped peaks, one of them being the second highest peak of the world, K2. Golden Peak Trek or Spantik is a dream for all those wanting to experience mountaineering at high altitudes. Spantik lies in the Karakoram Range and it can be reached in four-days including a one-day jeep drive from Skardu. Every year the fascinating peaks attract dozens of adventure seekers from all over the world, from which 80% successfully climb this beautiful mountainous dream.
Shimshal village lies at a height of 3100m above sea level and is the highest settlement in Hunza. The bordering village inhabited by the Wakhi connects China with Pakistan. Shimshal is famous for its hydro-electricity base which provides electricity for five months during the harsh winter season. Shimshal has the largest adventure area in Hunza and known as the ‘village of mountaineers’, is surrounded by many renowned peaks like the Destaghil Sar, Shimshal White Horn, Minglik Sar and Yazghail Sar.
The beautiful Borith Lake is located in upper Hunza, situated around 2km to the north of Ghulkin. The lake is accessible by jeep or a two to three-hour trekking route directly from Ghulkin
Attabad Lake, translating to ‘cruel beauty’ is located in Gojalwas, formed in Attabad Village in January 2010 due to a massive landslide is famous for its uncommon shade of turquoise. At the time of its formation no one could ever imagine such a glorious lake being formed, which would hold so much natural beauty and would become a hotspot for locals and tourists. The beauty of this region is one of its kind and no one can ever imagine the majesty until they make it to the lake and experience it for themselves. A boat ride on the colorful boat across the full length of the lake with a hot cup of tea from the tiny stalls on lake side, is an experience unlike any other. There are also many activities to be enjoyed by those who have a liking for water sports. 
The road from Attabad winds onward towards Khunjerab Pass at the border between China and Pakistan. No tour to Gilgit-Baltistan is complete without paying a visit to this pass which has been a corridor for merchants and traders for centuries. When one is travelling from Gilgit to Khunjerab Pass, the ancient Silk Route can be seen going parallel at places to the modern-day road that replaces it.

Naltar valley has a dense pine forest with magnificent green landscapes echoing with the chirping of numerous wild birds. It is 40km away from Gilgit city and can be reached by jeep. It is famous for skiing activities in winter. 
Kargah Buddha is an archaeological site located outside of Gilgit. It is carved with an image of a large standing Buddha in the cliff-face in Kargah Nala. A narrow spread of road leads to a rustic village beside a freshwater stream. The Kargah Buddha is a man-made wonder worth visiting.
The Air Safari to Skardu is a spectacular experience. It is a flight like no other! This magnificent flight encompasses 300km of Gilgit-Baltistan region. It goes without saying that this will be your most memorable and awe-inspiring flight ever. The best part of this adventure is overlooking the cold desert of Skardu, where white sand adjoins with the snowy mountains and the blue sky in the backdrop.
Deosai National Park is home to a diversity of flora and fauna. Deosai is the combination of two words ‘Deo’ meaning giant and ‘Sai’ meaning shadow. It was believed that this place is haunted by giants, thus the name Deosai, meaning ‘the Land of the Giants’, came into being. Deosai remains covered with snow for eight months and the rest of the year, it hosts a range of beautiful flowers of all hues and colors. Deosai is famous for its trout fish, wildlife, Himalayan golden eagles, brown bears, red foxes, white tigers, and marmots.
Another place that is an absolute must to visit is the Fairy Meadows, which is nothing short of a magical dream. At 3300m a lush green plateau with a view of the majestic Nanga Parbat or The Killer Mountain, the name Fairy Meadows is part of the legend that fairies once inhabited the plateau. Hermann Buhl, the Austrian climber who made the first ascent of Nanga Parbat in 1953, named it Fairy Meadows due to its surreal scenic beauty. For anyone looking to get away from the hustle and bustle of the crowded cities, Fairy Meadows is the perfect get away to unwind in peace and harmony of this green plateau. 
Khaplu is the administrative capital of the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan. It was the second-largest kingdom in old Baltistan of the Yabgo dynasty. Khaplu is a base for trekking into the Hushe valley which leads to Masherbrum mountain. According to Forbes magazine, Khaplu is the coolest place for tourists. Annually, approximately a hundred thousand tourists visit Khaplu to see Siachen Glacier and 3rd, 4th, 5th, and 6th highest peaks of the world. Khaplu has a mosque named Chaqchan, a 700-years old mosque, founded by Ameer Kabeer Syed Ali Hamadani. Tourist places, Hanjor, Thoqsi Khar, Kaldaq, Chaqchan Mosque, and Shyok River view are known tourist places in Khaplu town. Khaplu Palace, locally known as Yabgo Khar (meaning ‘The fort on the roof’) is considered architectural heritage and tourist attraction. Home of the Raja of Khaplu, the summer palace in Khaplu was built in the mid-19th century, replacing an old fort on higher ground. The Khaplu fort, was restored between 2005 and 2011 by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture. The fort now restored to a hotel with an attached museum is a famous tourist attraction for all.
The region, with a variety of terrains and landscapes, from barren lands in winters to lush green orchids in summer, from plains to three mighty mountain ranges coming together, remains one of oldest civilizations. Gilgit-Baltistan is covered with sheer raw beauty: beautiful crystal clear lakes, snowy peaks, white glaciers and exotic wild life with breathtaking views and the most hospitable people. It has a literacy rate of 90%, the highest in any region in Pakistan and it reflects in every sphere of life — a shining example and an excellent model to emulate for rest of the world. The people of Hunza are known for their courtesy and the region is considered as one of the safest places for families to travel. Improvements in facilities for tourists and focus on their security has increased tourism in Gilgit-Baltistan considerably over the past few years. Gilgit-Baltistan is paradise on earth, protected by nature and touched by God for the world to enjoy. HH

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