TRAVEL: A DEOSAI ADVENTURE

Published June 18, 2023
Sheosar Lake is a hidden gem found on the plateau of Deosai — a popular travel destination in Pakistan | Photo by the writer
Sheosar Lake is a hidden gem found on the plateau of Deosai — a popular travel destination in Pakistan | Photo by the writer

"And now we are passing through Parayshaan Chowk,” said driver Liaquat. The wide sweep of his much-practised arm was convincing enough to create an eerie silence in the confines of the SUV.

Not that Liaquat’s amazing skill at weaving his four-wheeler through the maze of tourist traffic heading to Deosai was anything short of chilling either.

A meaningful smile and the wink of an eye later, he graciously explained the peculiar name of the chowk located in downtown Skardu: the Public Works Department head office, situated on the busy crossroads, is a landmark of corruption, incompetence and public woe. After years of protests, the people of Skardu have come to colloquially mark the place as one that induces worry.

But there was a lot more than just this landmark to see in Skardu.

Liaquat had arrived early morning right on the dot, to ferry us across the grey-green and brown landscape. Skardu drivers are known to market their skills to tourists through a mix of folk and contemporary tale-spinning on tours.

Deosai in Skardu is the second highest plateau in the world. The journey to it is as wondrous as the place itself. But better care needs to be taken not to spoil its natural beauty

Driving along the Gilgit-Skardu road is an adventure in itself: carpeted perfection weaving its way through the most rugged mountains, the occasional forced breaks as the builders blast the mountains for road space, the comradeship between strangers in between pit stops and then the sudden opening up of the bowl valley at whose far end stands Skardu, the quaint dusty little town.

Passengers disembarking at the Skardu airport miss out on much of the adventure if compared to a road trip.

Meanwhile the locals, whose livelihood depends largely on the tourist trade, crib about how the Gilgit-Skardu road is destined to remain perennially under construction, since it is now a Frontier Works Organisation (FWO) assignment. Apparently the 28 originally designed tunnels (which would have made the road more travel-friendly) by the Chinese firm contracted with the work along its length, have had to be forsaken courtesy a dispute over the rights to the mineral wealth inside the mountains.

Skardu is essentially ‘Sadpara’ land all the way. Sadpara Chowk, Sadpara Lake, Sadpara this, Sadpara that. There is more of Sadpara in the town than Skardu itself and the SUV drivers take pride in the identity. Of course, every other person appears to be related to the famous mountaineering Sadparas. With Sajid Sadpara making another conquest, summer 2023 is bound to be more of Sadpara.

But Liaquat did make a slight detour to point out another Skardu landmark: the tiny library/reading space cheekily sitting atop the city’s most traffic-crazed crossroads! There sat youngsters reading newspapers as SUVs, jeeps, yaks and goats honked and brayed and bleated.

The Skardu-Deosai road weaving its way to Pakistan’s highest plateau makes another point: the springing up of multiple, quaint, private Airbnb set-ups, with gardens of ripening cherries and apricots, a welcome shift away from the dominance of the defunct Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motels.

Liaquat seemed to be gloating, as he saw the demise of PTDC as a form of karmic justice. He thought PTDC had finally paid the price of discharging garbage into the local lake. It is ironic, he thinks, that its wreckage stands on this lake today. Like all his ilk, he is angry at how his land has been and continues to be vandalised by tourists and authorities alike.

ON THE PLATEAU OF DEOSAI

Deosai opens up gently, flowing out of the distant horizons.

Thirty-five kilometres in length and covering approximately 3,584 square kilometres, the grand finale of the Deosai mystique is reached after nearly two and a half hours of driving past winding mountain terrains. There is no human habitation as far as the eye can see.

Passing by Ali Malik Top, thence across 10 kilometres to Shatung Nala, Liaquat continued imparting an information overload, leaving little room for query or pit stops for photography.

It was his word against the towering mountains that the Shatung Nala, which diverges into numerous winding waterways, and wanders off into neighbouring India to finally find its bearing back to Pakistan at Bara Pani. What held greater promise though, was his mention of recent developments that tenders were being floated to divert the Shatung Nala water back to Skardu.

As did the generous sightings of marmots and badgers sliding in and out of their grottoes and between clumps of some of the world’s most exotic flowers that dot the Deosai plateau. Yellow, pink, blue and rose red, they appear along the waterways, between the rocks, lazing beside icy waterways, a stark contrast to the barren mountains and signposts warning tourists not to wander unchaperoned. There’s a danger of encountering Himalayan bears in Deosai that one must avoid.

The Deosai pinnacle receives its tourists generously by providing access to a washroom and deploying a tourist police force, mounted on huge mountain bikes to boot, to maintain order. And yet, the plain is filled with litter.

Strewn with juice and milk cartons, wrappers and plastic shoppers, even the occasional discarded diaper, reflects the true nature of our collective habits. What good are the tourist police?

“Madame,” answers a policeman, “we are only here for purposes of tourist safety. We do not have the authority to advocate a litter-free Deosai. For that we need the written permission from the IG Police Gilgit-Baltistan. Perhaps, madame you could put in a word? It is such a shame when we watch goras [foreigners] pick up the litter strewn by our own people.”

One can walk ahead to the shores of the twinkling emerald waters of the oval Sheosar Lake with rock benches surrounded by ice-covered peaks.

There is, so it appears, no exit or entry point.

But the tale goes on if adventurous folks trek 15 kilometres downslope to Chillim Post and thence to Astore. In summers, even as the littered ground brings tears, there remains the joy of actually seeing firsthand the Nanga Parbat.

And to see the Nanga Parbat with the naked eyes is to believe in Surah Rehman: And which of the wonders of the Creator will thou deny?

The writer is a freelance journalist, translator and creative content/ report writer who has taught in the Lums Lifetime programme. She tweets @daudnyla

Published in Dawn, EOS, June 18th, 2023

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