In the previous article, I had described our stay in Gilgit. The story continues here with our drive to the Naltar Valley.
Naltar is one of the most visited places in the Gilgit area, because it is one the most beautiful in the region. The Pakistan Air Force (PAF) maintains a small unit there for snow survival courses for their personnel. PAF was the first organisation that initiated skiing in the country, and established a Skiing Federation to promote this winter sport in public. It still manages the Skiing Federation and holds national and international competitions at Naltar as well as at Malam Jabba. A few rooms and a mess at Naltar provide an ideal environment for rest and recreation in summers to overworked PAF officers, but the setup is devoted to national skiers during winter months.
Naltar is located on the western side of River Hunza, about 50 km northwest from Gilgit. Exiting Gilgit town from the Heli Chowk to the River View Road, we drove around the airport, across the double bridge complex – guarded by FC personnel – over the Gilgit River, and headed to a small village called Nomal. The route to Nomal supports greenery and some agriculture, though the mountains in the background are barren. We were also surprised by the excellent road in a meticulous condition along the right bank of River Hunza parallel to the Karakorum Highway (KKH), which is on the left bank. We sped on this well-marked winding road with very little traffic. It was hard to imagine that we would soon be bumping on a stony bed that can neither be called a road nor a track.
Entering village Nomal, we spotted a small, nearly filled parking lot on our right. This is one of the places where tourists park their vehicles and hire 4×4 jeeps for the onward journey. Nomal lies at the mouth the Naltar river, where it merges with the Hunza river. It is also the starting point of the road or the track along the Naltar river all the way to the eponymous lakes that are the source of this small but fast flowing river.
At one point, we had to leave the usual track because a glacial breakout had dumped tall trees, huge rocks and large piles of slush on the track. We drove higher up the streams where a clearing allowed the vehicles to pass through two feet of rushing water. The wilderness and the danger of being swept away by torrents put God’s fear in my agnostic heart
We had pre-arranged two jeeps to take us to PAF Naltar, the Naltar Lakes and the next day, bring us back to Nomal for our drive to Hunza. The asking rent per jeep for the entire round trip was Rs. 13,000, which I thought to be a bit exorbitant.
During the drive, I learnt that the senior of the two drivers started his career as a PAF low grade employee. His officers found him to have natural skills for skiing and let him train. Twenty years later, he has won 50 medals, trained in the choicest skiing resorts of Europe and Japan, visited two dozen countries, brought laurels to the nation and bought a Land Cruiser for the busy tourist season in summers. This story of PAF lascars of Naltar graduating to international skiers is reminiscent of PAF lascars from Nawa Kalay, a village close to Peshawar, learning squash under excelling under PAF patronage. Naway Kakay has produced eight world champions, many who started as helpers in PAF Officer’s Mess Peshawar squash courts, winning 37 international tournaments between them. This is a proof that a positive state involvement can create a conducive environment for youngsters to develop their natural skills. That essential role of the state has been missing in Pakistan. Education, infrastructure, health, etc. are the primary responsibilities of the state, that have been marked by dereliction.
The younger driver had started his career as a jeep driver but at the young age of 25, already owned a jeep for the tourist run. He said that they were engaged on average for about 100 to 150 runs a year. The mathematics works out well in their favour.
The ride that they took us on to Naltar, and especially to the lakes, as described below, was as unforgettable an experience as it was challenging. However, when we finally returned and got dropped at Nomal, I thought that the drivers had charged me too less and paid them more than the agreed amount.
As we travelled a bit towards Naltar, the smooth carpeted road turned into a partially levelled, steeply rising stony path that soon transformed into a trackless mass of sand, small stones and large boulders, hugging the Naltar River without a well-defined edge. We had entered the Naltar Valley. If I had worried about the poor track to Lake Saiful Malook, this one was definitely outrightly dangerous.
The vehicle jolted from left to right, sometimes dangerously close to edge, overlooking the fast torrents of the Naltar River. Some of the turns were vicious; steep, climbing and over loose gravel. The torrents of the river roared like leaping hungry lions in a Roman arena. The drive was a constant climb as the jeep traversed from 1,600 meters at Nomal to 3,100 meters at Naltar Mess in a mere 10 km at a gradient of 15%. I could see some members of our party keeping their eyes tightly shut. None of us had ever taken an off-road ride, and that too on hilly terrain which is the ultimate challenge for one’s driving skills. A small carelessness or misjudgment could have been fatal. A number of times, we had to stop due to a construction crew at work with earth moving equipment. The surroundings of tall mountains and snow-covered peaks appeared heavenly. The fast torrents of the Naltar, however, were as enchanting as they were intimidating. On the way we crossed five small hydropower projects generating 3 to 20 MW per hour each.
Naltar is a small picturesque span of level ground surrounded by high snow-clad peaks including Chari-Khand at 5,886m to the northeast, Meharbani Peak at 5,639m to the north-northwest, Shani Peak at 5,907 m to the northwest and Snow Dome at 5,929 m to the latter’s east. Some of these peaks are visible from Naltar and form prominent clickable backgrounds.
The mess premises on a flat surface are arraigned in a semi-circle, with the dining hall and kitchen in the centre. The accommodation is built for winters with small rooms, protected by a narrow corridor and properly insulated. In summers, they are claustrophobic. I kept the room-door open for the night.
There is a well-kept lawn on the flat ground in front of the single-story mess building, where children play musical chairs after sunset or just run around in the evening cool. It’s a pleasurable trip. Everyone who visits it once, remembers the place for rest of their life. Some friends have fond memories of sipping Hunza Water in these lawns in the cool of summer months over barbecue. The brew is now hard to come by in this puritanical era. However, we did have chicken barbecue. Naltar is a serenely quiet and cool place to spend a few days. One can sit in the shade of pine trees for hours, or sit on the bank of the wild river.
As the evening was approaching, I discounted the option of staying the night in the open. I suggested that if we all walked and waded through the water, it was possible for the empty jeep to drive through the rising water. The drivers were apprehensive about the suggestion as we had young children with us
The trip to the three Naltar lakes was an unforgettable adventure. The jeeps started off up the river bank. It was completely an off-road trip over a rough track, amid immense greenery, glacial streams and snow-capped high peaks. The drive took us through the bed of fast flowing streams. The drivers had marvelous techniques to keep the vehicle from tipping over sideways. At one point, we had to leave the usual track because a glacial breakout had dumped tall trees, huge rocks and large piles of slush on the track. We drove higher up the streams where a clearing allowed the vehicles to pass through two feet of rushing water. The wilderness and the danger of being swept away by torrents put God’s fear in my agnostic heart.
After over a half hour’s drive, we finally passed by the banks of a stream with turquoise water. A little later, we finally made it to the first of the three glacier-fed Naltar lakes, situated at 10,000 feet and named Satrangi, Blue and Turquoise. The River Naltar originates from these lakes that are fed by the waters of Shani glacier. Unfortunately, due to time constraints, we couldn’t make it to Azure Lake, reportedly the most beautiful of the three. However, we stayed on the Satrangi lake for half an hour, enjoying its peacefully calm surface and the serenity of its surroundings.
The return journey was a harrowing experience as the torrential Naltar River had overflowed its normal course. Even our daring driver looked upset and uncertain. As the evening was approaching, I discounted the option of staying the night in the open. I suggested that if we all walked and waded through the water, it was possible for the empty jeep to drive through the rising water. The drivers were apprehensive about the suggestion as we had young children with us. However, we had no alternative. We got down from the jeeps, which plowed through on 4×4 power.
It is in the interest of the valley that the area be upgraded from its Wildlife Preserve status to a National Park
We then prepared to walk through the cold fast-flowing water. The youngest child with us was four years old. I walked down the left bank, looking for a suitable spot to cross. I found one where the water was about a foot deep and some large stones provided stepping space. I asked my family members to plant one foot at a time and take a step only if they were standing firmly. With our fingers crossed, hearts pumping and the name of the Supreme Deity on our lips, we slowly pushed through the ice-cold water, emerging safely on the other side to board the jeeps once again. We can now boast of having walked through the ferocious Naltar River.
On way back, midway to Naltar Mess, we stopped for a while at the Snow Leopard sanctuary and saw its sole inmate. In Naltar, as in rest of the Northern Areas, potatoes are a staple crop. In small clearings, the crop planted was invariably the potato.
The Naltar River flows in a valley that is the western most edge of the Karakorum range. The next river to the west is the Karambar-Ishkoman, a tributary of the Gilgit and part of Hindukush Range. The mouth of Karambar is the eponymous lake at around 13,000 ft, that is a stone’s throw away from the mouth of River Yarkon but shielded by a 2,000-ft-high massif below the 14,000-ft-high Karambar Pass. The Yarkon later becomes the River Kunar, flows through Chitral and joins the River Kabul at Jalalabad.
Traveling from Lower to upper Naltar, with a skiing resort in between to the left, the unregulated infrastructure development that we earlier noted in the Kaghan Valley, was rearing its ugly head here too. Naltar is a picturesque valley, and the indifference of our regulating authorities is about to turn it into a slum. It is a narrow valley and soon its rough track would be lined with all sorts of tea stalls, makeshift grocery stores, hotels and restaurants. Most of these would be owned by outsiders – as is already the case in Naran – whose sole motivation would be profits, with scant interest in the long-term well-being of the area.
Tourists are of two types. One, who go to remote places, soak in the wonders of this beautiful planet, camp in the wild and, perhaps, not spend much on food and beverages. Two, who would go as far as they can travel in their transports, have karahi gosht, spend a bit of money and come back. The Gilgit-Baltistan government would do well to keep the second type of crowd limited to Lower Naltar. Thereafter, only trekking or jeeps should be allowed up to the lakes, but no restaurants or hotels should be constructed in Upper Naltar and beyond. It is in the interest of the valley that the area be upgraded from its Wildlife Preserve status to a National Park, so as to protect this gift of nature for our future generations. It is also hoped that the local permanent residents would keep their long-term survival supreme instead of indulging in short term gains. They are already in danger of becoming a marginalised and impoverished community in the land of their ancestors.
Having had a terrific unforgettable trip that far, we were confronted by the darker side of our socio-political environment.
In Gilgit, we had faced the closure of the Shahrah-e-Quaid-e-Azam to demand the release of some persons held in prison due to a factional fight. At Naltar, next evening, we learnt that the KKH was closed at Nasirabad, a little short of Hunza, due to an issue related to mining rights in an area where some valuable stone had been found. We spoke to the hotel management at Hunza, who called back later to inform us that the protestors had agreed to lift the blockage from 4pm to 7am. We were advised to leave Naltar at two in the afternoon to enable us to reach Hunza well within the daylight hours. We accordingly left Naltar, picked up our cars and joined the KKH after crossing River Hunza.
We had only driven about 30 km and reached Rahimabad, when we saw a long line of parked vehicles on the road. Clearly, there was some trouble. We parked our vehicles at the end of the line and walked ahead to see what the trouble was. We went to the dharna camp and found about 300 women, children and men inside. Here, we learned that they plan a sit-in of three days. So, we came back to Gilgit and found all the messes and Serena Hotel full of people stuck like us.
We finally found a decent hotel for the night on the road to Jaglot. Next day, we drove back to Naran, from where we returned to Islamabad.
The next, penultimate article of this travelogue will describe the nature and extent of alpine Pakistan.
Parvez Mahmood retired as a Group Captain from the Pakistan Air Force (PAF) and is now a software engineer. He lives in Islamabad and writes on social and historical issues. He can be reached at: email@example.com