Never would a French environmentalist and an Italian conservationist have imagined that they would associate Pakistan with their most stirring and soulful memory.
“Wow, we’ve reached paradise!” screamed the French woman Sarah Catharine as our jeep reached the top of Deosai Plateau at an altitude of 13,000-feet.
Not waitng for the jeep to come to a halt, Sarah grabbed her Italian friend Sofia by the arm and the two jumped off and started running across the flowerbeds on the plateau.
“The oxygen supply here is low, maybe the two have lost their senses!” quipped one woman travelling with us, in a group which included 24 Pakistanis.
At an altitude of 13,000 feet, this is one of the highest plains anywhere on the globe
Our experienced guide, Mohammad Hamed, was not prepared for such a turn of events. “Please stop!” he shouted. “You will hurt yourself.”
The driver Ahmad Ali, too, was confused and hit the brakes on his slow-moving jeep.
But the two women did not stop running. This open expanse called for freedom. They ran around the meadow, hands outstretched, pretending to be aeroplanes in the sky.
“Don’t be upset,” I reassured Hamid. “If they are flying, it’s because this place is absolutely stunning.”
About 15 minutes later, Sarah and Sofia rejoined the group. Their faces were red and they were unable to talk, but their body language suggested that these few moments in Deosai had become a lifetime memory for them. “We had read a lot about the natural beauty in Deosai but this place is much more than that!” said Sarah.
Indeed, the Deosai Plains are majestic and magical. Deosai is a combination of two words, ‘Deo’ (giant) and ‘Sai’ (shadow); locals say that it means ‘The Land of Giants.’ Legend has it that the area was once inhabited by a giant who attempted to “cultivate crops and churn butter.”
Balti people also call Deosai ‘Ghbiarsa’ or ‘Summer Place’ — this is because Deosai is only accessible in summer. In winter, very few can cross the area due to heavy snowfall and unbearable cold. Locals say that the temperature sometimes falls to -50 degrees Celsius.
Situated near Skardu to the north, Galtari Kharmang district in the south-east, and the Astore district in the west, the Deosai Plains are about a one-hour-long ride (or about 45 kilometres) away from Skardu Airport. Most tourists to the area, international as well as local, reach Skardu by air. The national flag carrier has recently started an Airbus-320 service from Islamabad to Skardu. The airport, although small, is rather cosy and comforting. A jeep can be hired from the airport which may charge not more than 10,000 rupees for a day trip up to the great Sheosar Lake. These rates can be negotiated, however.
Most foreigners visit Deosai using the Skardu-Deosai road but another route exits from the Astore Valley via Chilam. Last summer a record number of tourists visited Deosai via the Astore Valley and camped near Bara Paani. But for this route, one has to turn towards the Astore Valley from the main Karakoram Highway. There is another route called Burgi La via the Tsoq Kachura Valley but this is far less travelled as most tourists avoid travelling on this route.
That said, the trek between Skardu and Deosai is not very comfortable either. After passing through the main bazaar in Skardu, one has to turn right at the Paraishan Chowk point, after passing by the famous Satpara natural lake. The government has now constructed a dam on this lake to cater to the electricity requirements of Skardu.
Like many others before us, we also decided to camp at Bara Paani. This point serves as a perfect picnic spot but one has to be careful about mosquito bites here. This location is also known as a good spot for sighting the now-endangered brown bear and fox but all we could see were golden marmots everywhere. Despite having camped through the night here, we failed to spot a single bear, much to the disappointment of the 26-strong contingent. Early morning, though, some of us caught the sight of two pairs of brown bear cubs, some distance away from our camp site.
There are natural lakes scattered everywhere on the plateau but it is the Sheosar Lake that is described by locals as a natural wonder of the world. Situated at the edge of the Astore-Deosai road, the Sheosar Lake is described as a “blind lake” since it does not feed any other. The word “Sheosar” is a combination of two words in the local Shina language — ‘sheo’ means ‘blind’ and ‘sar’ means ‘lake’.
The lake is very large indeed and its vast and still surface only adds to its beauty. The length of the lake is almost 1.8 kilometres; at its widest point, the lake is almost 2.3 kilometres wide. The depth of the lake varies from one point to the other, and it has sharp inclines in various places. The average depth of the entire lake is only 40 metres.
As we traversed the plateau, both Sarah and Sofia went into a reflective silence. As wonders of the world go, this place was as natural as nature can be. There is no human interference or construction and that makes the Deosai Plains special. This is a place that no work of art can capture. It is art itself.
Published in Dawn, EOS, October 1st, 2017