Skardu is basically a town in the Gilgit-Baltistan Region of Pakistan and the capital of Baltistan. Its elevation is about 2,438 metres (7,999 feet) above sea level. It lies in the foothill of the Karakoram Mountain Range. Mainly Balti people are of Tibetan and Caucasian origin. They speak Balti, which is a dialect of ancient Tibetan language. Since the culture, lifestyle and architecture of Baltistan greatly resemble with Tibet, that’s why it is often called “Tibet-e-Khurd” (Mini Tibet).
Significance of Skardu:
Skardu is the 10 kilometres (6 miles) wide and 40 kilometres (25 miles) long area. It is at the confluence of the Indus River, which is flowing from Kailash in Tibet and passes through neighboring Ladakh, before entering into Baltistan, where it joins the Shigar River. The altitude of Skardu is 2,500 metres (8,200 feet) above sea level.
It borders with the Chinese Province of Xinjiang and Indian Kashmir (IHK). The tourist season starts from April and ends in October. It is famous for the variety of tasty, juicy and aromatic fruits as well as dry-fruit, like peaches, apricots, apples, pears, etc. Beside its mighty cluster of Peaks and Glaciers, there are five beautiful valleys in Baltistan;
A stroll around the Eastern end of the Skardu rock, will take to the nearby village of Nansoq. The village of Nansoq is just behind the Kharpocho Fort in Skardu. It is a famous historical site, declared as an Organic village and developed by the Aga Khan Rural Support Program (AKRSP). So many dignitaries including Prince Charles and His Highness Sir Aga Khan, visited it.
There is a large spring of clear water, flowing from the base of the monolith. On reaching Nansoq, walk to the far end of the Skardu Polo field and pick up a trail to the outskirts of the rocky slopes, where there is a Fortress of Zowar Singh. The mighty meandering Indus is just a few yards beneath the feet, along the silvery white sand. On the Western side of bank of the Sadpara Nullah, there is a vertical, beige-color Northern face of a tall rock, carved in circa A.D 900. It is a lovely image of a meditating Maitreya Buddha framed by Bodhisattvas.
Gilgit-Baltistan is not only blessed with natural beauty but also is of historical importance. Kharphocho or Skardu Fort has a similar pattern of Leh Palace and the Potala Palace of Lhasa, Tibet. The name of the fort comprises of Kharpochhe, which means the “Great Fort”. Khar is a Tibetan word, meaning Castle or Fort and Chhe means great.
Kharphocho Fort is an ancient place which was built by Maqpon Bugha in 1490-1515 A.D. There are some contradictory statements from the Mughal historians that great Ali Sher Khan Anchan (1560-1625 A.D) constructed it, but the historians accept the former claim. The Fort stands tall on the brink of River Indus in Skardu city and overlook it. Renovated and opened for the tourists by the Government, the Fort is illuminating at night and it seems as if the olden era reverts with all its glory.
Skardu Fort or Kharphocho Fort lies on the Eastern side of the Khar-Drong or Mindoq-Khar “Castle of Queen of Mindoq”, on 15 metres (49 feet) high hill, above Skardu town. The Fort originated from the 8th century CE. There is an old Masjid perhaps dating back to the arrival of Islam in the region, in the 16th century CE. Since the Fort lies on a hill; Skardu town, Skardu valley and the Indus River are clearly visible from it. It was a seven-storey building and locals often say that Kharphocho is made up by the ghosts, who were the servants of the rulers at that time.
The tell-tale narration of the fort have been found in the Imperial Gazetteer of British India, which states that it was the residence of Ali Sher Khan, the Gralpos (Monarch of Skardu), who ruled the Region till the end of the 16th Century A.D. He was the same Emperor, who conquered Ladakh and Skardu, built the Fort in Skardu.
Shigar valley is the gateway to the great mountain peaks of the Gasherbrum and K-2. It is only 23 kilometres away from Skardu and connects through a jeep road. The field slopes of Shigar valley are full of wheat, maize and barley. It has orchards of apricots, mulberries, peaches, plums, pears, apples and nuts, which is a unique attribute of the Baltistan. The wooden Masjid is jewel of the valley, in the middle of the town. Kashmiri carpenters constructed it, hundreds of years ago. The Shigar River is a tributary of the Indus River, joining it from the Skardu. The Basha and Braldu rivers are northern tributaries of the river Shigar.
Shigar Fort is along the route to the world’s second highest mountain, K-2. “Fong-Khar” is the the local language word, which literally means the “Palace on the Rock”. The architecture of the Fort comprises of the 400 year old fort (palace) and two more latest buildings; the “Old House” and the “Garden House”. The former was the palace of the Raja of Shigar, which has 20 rooms. It is transformed into a heritage guest house, with the grand hall, which serving as a museum of Balti culture and featuring selected samples of fine wood-carvings of the rich cultural heritage.
Choutroun comprises of two Balti words; “Chou” means water and “Troun” means “Hot”. It is at a 3 hour journey from Shigar. A jeep track leads from Shigar valley through small villages like “Gulabpur”, “Niali” and “Wazirpur”. On the way to Choutroun, there are some beautiful meadows; the most beautiful one is “Kayou Rana”. Choutroun is a small village itself, with some specific attributes. There is a hot water spring. The astounding aspect of it is that its water remains hot even in the winters when everything gets frozen on the temperature, as low as -25 °C. Locals believe that this water can heal all type of body pains, especially joints pain.
Roundu also Rong Yul in Balti is the fourth biggest valley of Baltistan after Skardu, Khaplu, and Shigar in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is called the gate way to Baltistan. The population of the Roundu valley consists of Balti people, who speak Balti and Shina languages, the archaic forms of Tibetan. It is away 65 to 70 kilometres from District Skardu and one of the Sub-divisions of Skardu. Its headquarters is Dambudas and the population of Roundu valley belongs to Shia sect of Islam. The literacy rate of Roundu is around 90%. 75% people speak Balti and other 25% speak Shina. Generally all can speak Balti.
The significant areas of Roundu are;
- Istak (commonly known as Staq)
- Tallu Broq
This beautiful valley of Khaplu is along the Shyok River. It is 103 kilometres in the East of Skardu. Khaplu is the starting point for most of the trekking and climbing expeditions. Some of the famous mountains are Masherbrum, Saltoro, Sia Kangri, K-6, K-7, etc. Chaqchan is one of the oldest Masjids in Baltistan (1504 AD), attributed to Syed Ali Hamdani. There is a Palace of Raja of Khaplu, the Khaplu Palace, and remains of Thors.
Mindoq-Khar is ruins of an ancient Palace, built by Gul Khatoon or Mindoq Gialmo named after the Queen as ‘Mindoq-Khar’ meaning the ‘The Flower Palace’. It is on the same hill, where Kharpocho Fort is situated. The Palace was destroyed by Sikh ruler of Kashmir, Maharajah Gulab Singh, when he invaded on Skardu, in 1840 A.D.
Hilal Bagh (Crescent Gardens) is near the Mindoq-Khar (The Palace of Flowers) where it was once stood on the marbled pillars with magnificent fountains. The ruins of Royal Gardens scattered from Mindoq-Khar to the Bazar of Skardu. The Palace was destroyed by the vigorous floods.
Chahar Bagh was once found, exactly at the place where the building of the Girls College, now-a-days. The garden was constructed by the Queen (Gul Khatoon) of Skardu, when her husband went on the expedition to Gilgit and Chitral.
(The Queen was of Persian origin that’s why she had adorn the Persian name to both of the gardens)
The majestic Shangri-la Resorts, is just on a 35 minute drive from Skardu. It splendidly stands tall, along the beautiful lower Kachura lake; surrounding by the most mesmerizing and enchanting scenic beauty of the Skardu valley. Tourists stay there with pleasure to enjoy their long holidays while strolling around the city, in leisure. They can take a boat-ride or trekking to the nearby hills and when they will go back, they will have a lot of everlasting memories of the dreamland.
Shangri-la lake is about 32 km (20 miles) from Skardu and it take two hours by the jeep track. The shimmering, peaceful, and deep Shangri-la lake also lower Kachura lake, teeming with brown trout. During the spring season, many exotic and colorful flowers adorn the banks of the lake, while peach, apricot and apple trees are laden with blossoms in April.
Buddhist Rock Carvings:
The only remaining Buddhist Rock in Skardu is on the brink of Sadpara Road, which is leading to Skardu valley. These Rock Carvings and Images of Buddha are contemporary of the period of Great Tibetan Empires. The people of Tibet migrated to the Gilgit-Baltistan, now in the North of Pakistan. While their stay over there, they displayed their creative skills by the drawings of Stupas.
They illustrated their travelling experiences and images of Buddha in Kharoshti Transcript. There were numerous such Buddhist Rock Carvings, which were scattered in the Skardu valley. The illustration of Buddha sculpture, surrounding by his Disciples, are dated back to some 2000 years. It remained the central place of worship, for the Buddhists Monks until the mid of 14th Century A.D. The Rock reveals the ancient Buddha scriptures. In the 8th century AD, a huge Buddha figure hemmed in small Buddhisatvas is carved on a rock. It is three kilometres from Skardu, across Sadpara Nullah, on Skardu-Sadpara Road.
Figures of pre-historic men and animal are carved on the rocks, along the Kachura lake. Some rock carvings and diagrams are found in the Monastery near Perkuta (Mehdi Abad).
Peaks and Glaciers:
Askole and Hushe are the gateway to the snowy peaks, above 8,000-metre (26,000 feet) including K2, the Gasherbrum, Broad Peak, and the Trango Towers. The nearby huge glaciers are Baltoro, Biafo and Trango. It makes Skardu as the main tourist and mountaineering hub of the area.
Madhupur village and Manthoka waterfall are two really magnificent places to visit in Kharmang, Skardu. Manthoka waterfall is accessible by road from Skardu and it is about 70 kilometres away, lies in Kharmang or Kargil valley. The height of the gigantic waterfall is 180 feet. Besides the big waterfall, Madhupur itself is an excellent tourist attraction, at the distance of 40 kilometres from Skardu city. The scenery of these places is awesome and ideal for camping and fishing.
The Deosai Plains is the second highest in the world, after the Chang Tang of the Tibet. Its elevation is 4,114 metres (13,497 feet) above sea level. In the Balti language, the name of Deosai is, meaning the ‘summer place’. It covers an area of about 3,000 square kilometres (1,158 sq. mile). The Plains extends to Ladakh and provides a habitat for snow Leopards, Ibex, Tibetan blue Bears and wild Horses.
Deosai National Park:
The Deosai National Park was established in 1993, to protect the diminishing Himalayan Brown Bear and other rare habitats of the Plateau. The Himalayan Ibex, Red Fox, Golden Marmot, Gray Wolf, the Ladakh Urial, the Snow Leopard, and more than 124 local and migratory birds are living there. Birds include the Golden Eagle, Lammergeyer, Griffon Vulture, Laggard Falcon, Peregrine Falcon, Kestrel, Sparrow hawk and Snow cock.
Kachura lake is 32 kilometres (20 miles) away from Skardu and it takes two hours to reach there via Jeep, on the shimmering waters of the lake. During the spring season, the colorful flowers are visible abunduntly, while the trees are fully blooming with the peach, apricot and apples. The lake offers a real treat for those tourists, who love fishing, especially the trout fish.
Sadpara or Satpara lake is 8 kilometres (5 miles) away from Skardu, in the South. It takes just 20 minutes to get there, via Jeep. Surrounding by the high glacial mountains, there is an Island in the middle of the icy clear water of the lake. The island is easily visible in the clear water and accessible by the boat. The lake is the home of the fish and wild migratory birds from Siberia.
Upper Kachura Lake:
Upper Kachura lake is just ten kilometres upward from the lower Kachura lake. It is approachable through a Jeep track, as well as hiking and trekking. The leading road is now suitable for all types of traffic. Boating in the Upper Kachura lake is really a wonderful, enjoyable and fantastic experience.
This is one of the most mesmerizing lake in Gilgit-Baltistan. It is unique due to strange aspect that there is neither entrance nor exit, of water from this lake. It is accessible by a 30 minute away s jeep track, from Shigar valley through Lamsa, the first village of Shigar valley. One can see the Blind lake, from the view point of Shigar. The water of the Blind lake remains hot (Luke warm) all the time, except winters when it gets frozen. The color of its water is green and crystal clear. It is full of trout fish.
Sheosar lake is in Deosai Natural Park; Pakistan at an elevation of 4,142 meters (13,589) is one of the natures marvels. The lake reflects different forms with the changing seasons. It becomes either ice covered or filled with greenery, refreshing and soothing impacts on tourists. Sheosar is one of the highest lakes in the world. The approximate length of the lake is 2.3 kilometres (7,500 feet), width 1.8 kilometres (5,900 feet), and average depth is 40 metres (130 feet). It lies on the Deosai Plateau, second highest plateau in the world, after Chang Tang. Chilam valley is in its vicinity also. The plateau is at the border of Karakoram and the Western side of Himalaya.
The beauty, crystal clear water and lush green surrounding mountains, make Sheosar a best camp-site. The camping on the North side, of the lake is better. It is the big square hollow out there, to prevent any damages to the tents from strong winds. While going towards East, there lies Chakor Pass. The adventure lovers can do surfing in the lake. Sheosar Lake looks more stunning on sunny days and it is full of fish. There are no trees over there, so in order to make fire to cook etc. carry wood, light gloves and insect repellant.
Skardu is accessible by two methods, by road or by air. The common route to Skardu is the Karakoram Highway (KKH) and Skardu Road (S1). There are four or five roads, which Skardu could link to Srinagar and Leh. Daily one or two flights are operational between Skardu and Islamabad.
By Air Travelling:
Planes of Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) fly daily from Islamabad to Skardu, though only on clear days, because of precautionary measures. Passengers can take a glimpse of Nanga Parbat (the 9th highest mountain in the world) and K2 (the 2nd highest mountain in the world, from the plane. The Air journey is full of thrills. Gilgit connects to Islamabad/Rawalpindi by the same route, when the plane turns right and flies over the gorge of the Indus River.
By Road Travelling:
Skardu is accessible by road from Islamabad, through the Karakoram Highway (KKH). It’s also possible to get to Skardu from Gilgit. Though it’s less than 200 kilometres, yet the journey will take a bit long time.
Mountaineering, Trekking and Hiking:
The area is ideal for mountaineering, trekking and hiking. Permit for mountaineering and trekking, for restricted zone, is issued by the different departments like, Ministry of Tourism, Government of Pakistan. Fishing permits are issued by the Fisheries Department at Gilgit and Skardu.
Flora and Fauna:
There are so many varieties of roses, lilies, pansies, willow, pine and fir trees in abundance, in the Skardu. Apples, apricots, peaches, plums mulberry, walnuts and grapes are fully ripe from June to October and almonds from October to March.
The wildlife of Baltistan consists of Markhors, Ibex, and Snow Leopard, including a variety of birds, namely Chakors, Partridges and Ducks. Limited shooting and hunting is allowed to protect the species by issuing permits by the local administration.
Shopping Centres in Skardu:
The most popular cloth of Baltistan is “Pattu”, which is a hand-woven woolen cloth for jackets, coats etc. Then there are colorful “Chugas” (Baltistani gown) with intricate embroidery. There are so many crockery and cutlery shops, where Chinese crockery is also available. There are Naya Bazar, Old Bazar, Botto Bazar, Hussain Chowk, Alamdar Chowk, Kazmi Bazar, Gamba Bazar, Benazir Chowk, Yadgar Chowk etc.
Hotels and Restaurants:
Dewan-E-Khas, near SCO Office, Skardu
Pagoda Restaurant, Shangri-la Resort, Skardu
The Lake View Restaurant, Shangri-la Resort
Tandoori Village, Skardu
Cafe DC-3, Shangri-la Resort, Skardu
Karakoram Café, near Benazir Chowk, Skardu
Karakoram Inn, Hotel & Restaurant, Skardu
Concordia – II, Near K-2 Motel, Skardu
Hunza Inn, Naya Bazar, Skardu
Baltistan Tourist Cottage, Chowk Yadgar, Skardu
Baltoro Rest House, Satellite Town, Skardu
Northern Areas PWD Rest House, Hamid Garh, Skardu
Yak N Yurt Sarai, Satellite Town, Skardu
Skardu Inn, Main Bazaar, Skardu
Indus Hotel, Skardu
Shangri-la Resort Skardu
Karakoram Hotel, Main Bazar, Skardu
Shigar Fort Residence, Skardu
K2 Motel (PTDC), Skardu
Khaplu Fort Residency, Skardu
Some Glimpses of the History:
The name Skardu was first mentioned during the 16th century, when Mirza Haider (1499–1551) described it as Askardu, in the Tarikh-i-Rashidi Baltistan. It was one of the districts of this country. Ali Sher Khan Anchan officially used the name, after conquering it, in 1586 on the orders of Mughal Emperor Akbar (1556–1605). The kings of Skardu were stated as rulers of the “Little Tibet” in the historiography of the Mughal Empire.
In European literature Skardu was mentioned by a Frenchman François Bernier (1625–1688). Bernier was a physician and world traveller, who visited India in 1659 and in 1663, in the era of Mughal emperor Aurangzeb. He travelled to Kashmir as well. He described his encounter with a King of Little Tibet in 1670, Murad Khan, and mentions it as Eskerdou (Skardu), one of the places of Baltistan in his travelling memoirs. When he wrote Little Tibet and Skardu, these were quickly drawn into Asian maps in Europe. Skardu was first mentioned as Eskerdou in the map of “Indiae orientalis nec non insularum adiacentium nova descriptio” by Nicolaes Visscher II, published in 1680–1700, whereas it recorded Baltistan as Tibet Minor, for the first time.
The climate of Skardu during the summers remains moderate due to surrounding mountain. The tourist season starts mainly from April and ends in October. The temperatures vary from maximum of 27 °C (81 °F) and a minimum 8 °C (46 °F) during the tourist season. On the contrary, the weather remains cold in the winters. The temperature falls down to zero and this area becomes nearly inaccessible to get there in the winter months.
Logistic Support on Shigar: Saqlain Haider Rathore
Author: Fehmeeda Farid Khan