Nestled in the Gilgit-Baltistan province between the vast shadows of ivory mountains lies Naltar Valley, one of the most spectacular places in the country. With a trekking bag strapped on, shoes tied and an overwhelming spirit, I was ready for my very first trek. Particularly instructed to keep our trekking bags as light as possible, we had only packed essentials such as toiletries (especially sun-screen), warm and water-proof layers, and a few light utensils for food. Meals, snacks and first-aid kids were taken care of by our very resourceful trek organizers.
Almost thirty of us enthusiastically jumped onto our bus and began the long journey to Naltar. We left Lahore behind, cruising comfortably down the gloriously ancient Grand Trunk Road, crossing the outskirts of the capital and dashing towards Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa (KPK). The sunrays glistened against the outside of my window as we passed through Abbottabad, reaching Mansehra soon thereafter. With a few stops on the way at cozy local dhabas (food joints) for chai, snacks and restrooms, we continued our ascent north.
After the brutal heat that we had gladly left behind, it was beyond Shinkiari that the weather and scenery began to change. Leaving the smoldering sun behind, we all breathed a sigh of relief as the much-needed cold breeze, soft drizzle and luscious green plains gave us a warm welcome. Enveloped between mountains, the roads began to get steeper, the wind colder, and the view, more beautiful. After spending almost an entire day in the bus, we finally reached Besham at night, and stayed at the Pakistan Tourism Development Corporation (PTDC) motel. With the River Indus running right in its backyard, the hotel was a sight for sore eyes after the tiring journey.
We woke up the next morning with rejuvenated spirits. After satisfying our appetites with delicious daal and roti, we hopped onto our buses and sped towards the wonder that is the Karakoram Highway (KKH). We spent the next seven to nine hours crossing Kohistan through this highway, accompanied by a convoy of security forces due to the politically sensitive situation in the region. The infrastructural majesty of the KKH leaves one in awe; a Pakistan-China collaboration, the project is undoubtedly one of the wonders of the world. Officially recognized as one of the highest (15,397 feet) and longest (1,300 km) paved roads in the world, the KKH connects China to Pakistan, quite often drawing parallels with the great Silk Route. The twirling road has an almost mythical quality to it. Carved within impossibly rough mountains, the robust road is an ode to the hardworking men who toiled under extreme conditions to build it. With the snow-capped mountains watching over the highway from afar and the blissful breeze bouncing off of the raging Indus below, we passed through Kohistan and entered Gilgit-Baltistan. Stopping briefly at Chilas for lunch, we returned to the road and headed further, this time towards Gilgit.
Entering Gilgit through the KKH, one notices the change in scenery – compared to the soaring, “coffee-stained” mountains in Kohistan, Gilgit greets its visitors with snowy mountains, cloudier skies, and a cerulean-shaded Indus cascading within the city. We spent the night here, and after dinner and a much-needed shower, we all huddled inside the homely motel lobby. Brimming with excitement at the thought of finally being so near our destination, we chatted and sipped on hot tea from the decorated cups provided by the hotel staff.
The next morning, we drove upwards on a narrow path between rocky mountains that led to Naltar. The dusty brown of the mountains was flawlessly balanced by the icy blue stream flowing in its feet. The snow-capped mountains drew closer and closer, increasing our anticipation of what was to come. We passed quaint local settlements clustered in the valley, where rosy-cheeked and starry-eyed children merrily waved at us. The diversity of terrains and weathers that we witnessed in the last two days was wondrous, from barren hills to luscious meadows, from dusty waters to crystal blue streams, and from the blazing sun to milky clouds and chilly breezes. The contrast, in and of itself, was flawlessly articulated. We were now all set to experience the wonder that is Naltar.
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