A few weeks ago, I saw an incredible documentary on the US national parks narrated by the inimitable Robert Redford. It traces the protection and conservation efforts that led to the creation of the state parks in the US designed to protect areas of national beauty, such as the Yosemite Valley or the Redwoods of California. Apparently Theodore Roosevelt, distressed by the successive deaths of his wife and sister, escaped to the parks and realized the healing power of nature. The Act was sealed into law in 1916 and because of this far-sighted legislation, millions of modern day tourists can enjoy areas of national beauty in the United States.
John Muir, a famous Scottish-American naturalist and author, wrote the following about the mountains: “Thousands of tired, nerve-shaken, over-civilized people are beginning to find out that going to the mountains is going home; that wildness is a necessity; and that mountain parks and reservations are useful not only as fountains of timber and irrigating rivers, but as fountains of life.” Though written many years ago, this hold true even today. Our exhausted family of six, ranging from ages seven to over seventy, decided collectively to disconnect from our urban lives for a week and run to the hills for family bonding. Living abroad, I wanted our children to experience the pristine beauty of the northern areas, the thrill of long mountain drives as well as the completely different cultures present in Pakistan.
Baltistan has been described by writers and explorers as the Roof of the World and a place of exquisite beauty and culture. Nothing quite prepares you for it as the landing in Skardu where one flies through mountains and lakes to land. The topography changes dramatically during the 45-minute flight from the dusty hot plains of the Punjab to the towering slate grey mountains looking imperially over their kingdom. The majestic Indus runs through the sandy plains, wavering over into smaller rivers towards Siachin and K2. Day trips included being literally breathless in the Deosai plains, which have been beautifully captured in Salman Rashid’s travelogue of the region, “Land of the Giants”, as well as swimming and trout fishing in upper and lower Kachura.
Having been a long-standing admirer of the amazing work done by the Aga Khan Foundation Network, I have come away with a renewed appreciation at their tireless efforts to restore history and culture whether in Aleppo, Syria or closer to home in Gilgit and Baltit. I was keen on exploring the palaces in Shigar and Khaplu. In his wisdom, the local Raja has handed over the safekeeping of these properties to the Aga Khan network, which shows farsightedness and responsibility. Too many heritage properties have fallen into ruin and disrepair by families who no longer can maintain them; whether in the subcontinent or Europe.
Nowhere is this commitment to preserve the past more dramatic than the lovingly restored old forts at Shigar and Khaplu by AKDN. Beyond restoring the authentic architectural heritage through international architects, the forts are also reflective of the Serena chain’s commitment to sustainability and stunning examples of ecotourism. Care is given to combine cultural preservation with job creation and income generating activities for the local population.
The grounds are lined with fresh fruit trees under which one can lounge around and read on old wooden day beds. We would start early mornings by picking local seasonal fruit for breakfast, guided by patient gardeners explaining that this was the last of the summer cherries in late July, the peak of the apricot season and the beginning of the apple season which lasts until autumn.
It was an idyllic retreat – one wakes to eat a breakfast of fresh apricots and cherries under lush grape vines, with organic buckwheat pancakes and fresh local honey. We would wash fruit in icy fresh river water and go for walks around the grounds and the villages. Occasionally, we would take out our watercolor paints to try to capture the beauty around us, whether the intricate Islamic geometric patterns on the ceilings of Khaplu Fort or the breathtaking views from the rooms. The Serena shops stock fresh apricot and mulberry jams as well as nutty apricot oil made by local NGOs produced according to industry standards.
My children quickly became used to being given luxurious apricot oil massages in the evening after spending their days trekking up hills like mountain goats. It felt otherworldly, a land that time had forgotten. This summer, we had been reading the Persian lyrical poetic Shahnameh and it was like stepping into that magical world of stories – of young princesses with rosy cheeks, green eyes and jet black hair, of young princes on wild horses playing polo, of spiritual men who wander the valley and dispense advice on life, of fishing and swimming in emerald lakes and of animals which could not be found anywhere else. I enticed my kids with stories of children who grew up on diets of fresh trout and apricots rather than Nutella and i-Pads.
The Baltistan region is a well-trodden path, particularly for foreign mountain climbers and trekkers. On our way past Khaplu towards the K2 base camp, we came across a foundation in memory of Felix, a mountain climber from Spain who had spent his time trekking and climbing in the area. On his untimely death, his family still manages the Foundation, which has set up girls’ schools and other initiatives for the social and economic uplift of the local community. One of the foundation’s many recipients is a young girl who trained as a gender specialist and focuses on educating and empowering women in the area. While it appears that there is so much that can be done to drive up the Balti people’s income and living conditions, they seem to have a better life than us in so many ways.
On the way back from Skardu to Islamabad, the plane was scattered with experienced trekkers from UK, Italy and even America, who had come to trek to Concordia in the summer. We began chatting and had an interesting discussion that this would be the land we would all like to escape to – devoid of Trump making daily pronouncements about Muslims or the depressing cycle of violence that plagues the news.
So we have resolved to return to our daily lives, a little less over-civilized, armed with bottles of apricot oil to try and retain some of that magical Balti feeling. For those of you who consider a trip up there, do visit before this too succumbs to the modernity of civilization.