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Gilgit-Baltistan's Ghanche district stands almost aloof with its beautiful valleys and settlements inhabited by the most hospitable locals and river irrigated lands.
The central location in the district is Khaplu, which is a beautiful landscape with high summits, flowing blue waters and waterfalls.
The people of this small settlement on the bank of River Shyok, are warm and loving, as they were centuries before, when travellers, wandering through Yarkand and Saltoro, first arrived here.
As soon as one leaves Skardu, a narrow, paved road with poplar trees lined up on both sides provides a soothing shade for the travellers as they make their way through small specks of sunlight filtering through the leaves; casting shadows on the darkened road, leaving an aesthete spellbound.
In autumn, the yellow poplar trees envelope the otherwise dark road with bright yellow fallen leaves. At a little distance from the road on the left side River Indus flows quietly. Moving ahead, a road turns to the Shigar Valley. Shigar is the land where Braldu River originating from Baltoro glacier merges its blue ice-cold water with the bright turquoise water of River Indus and fills the valley with abstract colours.
Taking a view from a height, the scene below looks as if an artist has filled the canvas with abstract strokes of blue, green and brown colours. Going through Shigar Valley, this road terminates at Askole, the last settlement of Shigar district, and from there, mountaineers begin their campaign to scale K2 and Broad Peak (K3).
Going further ahead from Skardu, one passes by several herds of sheep and after crossing the bridge at River Indus, one finally enters Ghanche.
The old wooden bridge on the river is now in shambles. Skardu was left behind, Ghanche was in sight, but the scenery remained the same. One addition in the landscape is River Shyok. In local language, River Shyok translates into 'River of Death'. This river, originating from Rimu Glacier (next to Siachen Glacier) in Ladakh, enters Gilgit-Baltistan from Machlu, a village in Ghanche.
Traveling side-by-side with River Shyok, another wooden bridge upon a river, on the left side, is the path to Saltoro Valley. I crossed the bridge to find myself in a grand plain, filled with countless round gravels. In the backdrop, the Saltoro mountain range stands like a wall. Mountaineers on their way to Mashabrum (K1) usually take this path.
On my way to Khaplu, I saw the bridge to Thally village, so I decided the visit it as well. The entire place was dotted with trees that had turned yellow. When the jeep crossed the bridge at River Shyok, the local police stopped us for checking. The deputy superintendent was present in the police station, and invited the tourists for tea.
During the conversation, the DSP reiterated that since 1972, there has only been one murder in the area; and in five decades, only seven FIRs have been registered. “Then what is the use of a police station here,” I thought to myself.
Near Khaplu, there are orchards on the right side and forests on the left. It is the coldest place in the northern areas. During winters, the temperature here can drop down to -20 degree celsius, with the region often referred to as the “third pole”.
When I entered Khaplu, the sky was filled with clouds. Night falls quicker in mountains than in the cities.
Centuries ago, the entire region was under the influence of Buddhism, and its remnants can still be found engraved on old stones. In 1570, Syed Nasir al-Tusi and Syed Ali al-Tusi arrived in Khaplu from Yarkand through Saltoro and preached Islam in this region.
View the second part of the series: Skardu: An embodiment of nature's perfection
From Khaplu Bazaar, a road goes up to the Khaplu Fort. This fort was constructed in 1840 by Raja Daulat Ali Khan of Khaplu, who was from the Yabgu family.
The Yabgu family made it to Khaplu from Central Asia and ruled this place for over 700 years. The fort-cum-palace has now been turned into Serena Hotel. In this settlement beside River Shyok, there is an old mosque, completely wooden in construction. The silence in the mosque is highly enchanting if one spends a few moments there.
Going a little ahead from Khaplu, the curvy road takes one to the delta of River Shyok, where it splits up, flowing through the gravel filled river plain. The peak of Mashabrum mountain can also be seen in the backdrop.
Further ahead is the village of Machlu, which is far from Skardu, and nearer to Khaplu. This village is settled under the shadow of walnut and poplar trees, and on the bank of river of death.
Yaks, milk, lassi, trout fish, boiled potatoes, happy Balti people, stick-picking women and children, clouds on the blue sky, Mashabrum peak, River Shyok, mountain spring, old wooden mosque, small shops — the beauty and serenity of Ghanche cannot be described in words.
Translated by Bilal Karim Mughal
The writer is a network engineer by profession, and a traveler, poet, photographer and writer by passion. He can be reached on Facebook.