There might be no other good news in the year for the inhabitants of Naltar Valley, Gilgit Baltistan other than their new 180-seater ski chairlift. “Pakistan Zindabad!” reverberated in the valley, as the first successful test run of the ski chairlifts concluded in August. For the Naltaris, it is not just good news, it is great news.
Situated some 40km away from Gilgit, the Naltar Valley is home to all skiing activity in Pakistan. They say skiing comes naturally to almost every girl, boy, man and even housewives in Naltar. Most Naltaris cannot afford the expensive ski kits available in the market and many thus tend to carve their own kits from wood chopped from the pine forests nearby. On these same home-made wooden skis trained Mohammad Abbas and Mohammad Karim; the duo represented Pakistan in the Vancouver (Canada) and Sochi (Russia) winter Olympics respectively. Abbas’ homemade wooden kit is presently displayed in a Canadian museum. Skiing is as much a tradition in Naltar as it is an identity.
The chairlifts therefore are part of the Ski Federation of Pakistan’s (SFP) endeavours to harness Naltari passion and develop Naltar as a world-class skiing resort in Pakistan, equipped with facilities and amenities that are comparable with any winter sport destination across the globe. They have been brought to Pakistan with the help of Swiss and Chinese experts. Naltari ski chairlifts are now the only operational ones in Pakistan for winter games purposes; there used to be another one in Malam Jabba (some 40km from Saidu Sharif), but it fell victim to terrorism. Three chairlifts also operate in Muree, Patraiata, and Ayyubia, but those are only for tourism purposes and not for skiing or any other winter games purpose.
Pakistan gets its first ski chairlift in Naltar Valley but getting there might be a problem
Much of this development has been driven by the incumbent air chief, Air Chief Marshal (ACM) Tahir Rafiq Butt, while he was serving as the president of the federation. In fact, the federation is patronised by the Pakistan Air Force (PAF), who operate a base camp in Naltar. ACM Butt is now the patron-in-chief of the SFP.
About two years ago, ACM Butt had initiated various welfare projects for the children of Naltar, including free education and ski training. With Naltar already boasting an indigenous ski-making cottage industry, the idea was to deliver a facility where international competitions could be held.
It was felt at the time that all the basic requirements of the Federation de International Skiing (FIS), such as a ski slope, snow pressing machines, and ski chairlifts should be made available at Naltar’s ski resort. The slope has successfully been extended while the pending case of a snow pressing machine has also been taken up. An agreement was also inked between a Swiss company and the SFP, under which the company agreed to donate the chairlifts to Pakistan for the ski resort. Pakistan only had to bear the cost of decommissioning the ski chairlifts from the original site in Switzerland, carriage charges and installation.
Last year, PAF engineers started installing the lift at the present site in Naltar — a process that reached completion in the last week of August 2014 with the first successful test run of the ski chairlifts. As per official reports, final testing and commissioning is underway with Swiss experts having arrived in Pakistan to certify the facility.
Tourism experts in the country are attaching great importance to the ski chairlifts in the promotion of skiing and increasing tourism to Pakistan, especially to Gilgit Baltistan. Many argue that due to the law and order situation in the country, Pakistani sport lost almost all international competitions despite the abundance of great talent. But this situation can be reversed through Naltar’s ski resort.
“With the addition of the ski chairlift in Naltar and some other facilities, international ski competitions can now be organised in Naltar, and we can return sporting activities to the country though winter games,” says Colonel (retd) Mohammad Walli, president of the Gilgit Baltistan Ski Association. “We have a wonderful ski slope, perhaps a hundred times better than that of the Indian ski resort of Auli. We only need government support and some public relations exercises. We are confident that we can hold an international ski competition within one year.”
One major stumbling block to Naltar’s development as an international ski resort, however, is the regrettable condition of the road leading from Gilgit to Naltar. As things stand, the one-hour journey to Naltar is near impossible unless ski enthusiasts travel there on a jeep.
“The focal point of development of any place is a road; in the case of Naltar, this point is missing till date,” argues M. Zaffar Yousafzai, the secretary general of the Sindh Ski Association. “Until and unless the road leading to Naltar is carpeted properly, sporting activity in the valley cannot be properly promoted.”
Recent news reports suggest that ACM Butt has requested the prime minister to expedite work on the road, and the PM has acquiesced. “The plan of constructing a wide pucca road from Gilgit to Naltar is already in the pipeline. After the completion of the road, tourists shall be able to visit and stay in Naltar,” claims SFP Vice-President M Javed.
Then there are problems with communication and lodging facilities. Mr Salman, director of a private group, Sports Management Islamabad, contends that the tourism department should attract investors to construct lodging facilities. “Organisations such as the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) or the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), who have their own ski teams and take special interest in Naltar, should build resorts and motels to accommodate tourists,” he argues.
Meanwhile, authorities in Gilgit Baltistan are excited about the follow-on benefit of the ski chairlifts and other facilities. “Not only can winter sports thrive but summer ski sports such as grass skiing and roller skating can also be promoted,” says SFP’s Javed, who also serves as an office bearer of the Alpine Club of Pakistan. “I have no two opinions about this, but to say that sooner or later, Pakistan will be a major player in the field of winter games across the world.”
Published in Dawn, Sunday Magazine, October 12th, 2014