In the summer of 2013 I was lucky enough to land an internship in Skardu, of all places. Skardu, the hub of the picturesque Baltistan region of Pakistan, is a small town nestled amongst towering peaks. During the two months I spent in Skardu I got the chance to visit many a tourist attraction in and around the main town; Shangrila Resort, Upper Kachura Lake, Sadpara Lake, Manthoka Waterfalls and the Shigar Fort to name a few. However, by far the pick of my (many) outings throughout those memorable two months was the night of camping spent at the Deosai Plains.
Located at a two-and-a-half hour drive from Skardu, the Deosai Plains are counted amongst one of the highest plateaus in the world; the average height of the plains is above 13,000 ft. Oozing with a large array of flora and fauna, the 3000 or so square-kilometers of treeless wilderness are truly a sight to behold.
Anyways, I happened to go to the Deosai courtesy of a highly spontaneous plan; two hours after receiving the initial message, I, along with four of my internship colleagues (all of them at least ten years my senior), was on my way to the Deosai Plains. I still remember the feeling of disbelief I experienced as we passed the Sadpara Lake en route to the Deosai Plains; with the onset of Ramadan during my second (and last) month in Skardu, I had come to accept that it was unlikely I would be able to go to the fabled Deosai plains.
Along the way, I also remember the remarkable change in scenery as we took that last turn towards Deosai – much like the last turn en route to Shandur. How the narrow gorge, through which the jeep track had twirled throughout, gave way to the opening up of this vast expanse was nothing short of paradisiacal: livestock having a field day grazing on the undulating pastures, marmots frolicking here and there, flowers of all colors and sizes sprouting everywhere, streams with crystal-clear water; all of this set against a backdrop of snowcapped peaks standing in stark contrast to the cerulean of the skies.
Since it was Ramadan and iftar time was fast approaching we were forced to set up camp, not next to the Sheosar Lake but, at a site next to a stream well before the famed lake. At our campsite, we were greeted by an army of mosquitoes who attacked us as soon as we got off our jeep; these mosquitoes were larger (and had better attacking precision) than any I have ever come across.
Upon setting up camp, we divided into teams to prepare iftar: one person cut the vegetables, one ground the flour, two people washed the chicken while I was sent to fetch firewood – this otherwise simple task proved to be an uphill one since the vegetation at such an altitude hardly consisted of wood. This preparation, however, was for dinner. Iftari consisted of melons, mangoes, dates and plain cake complemented by lemon and orange juice.
After iftari, a session of cards ensued. All the while we played cards, the chicken was allowed to cook which meant that the cooking pot intermittently let out fumes that increased our craving. The temperature outside dropped considerably after Iftari and I remember having to wear a second jacket midway through our cards session – keep in mind that it was the middle of July.
We had chicken qorma with roti for dinner. I strongly believe that well-heated food served high up in the mountains has few parallels when it comes to satisfaction – gastronomical, or otherwise. Thus, the qorma did not disappoint. Later that night someone commented, rather befittingly, that it seemed all we could do up in the mountains was either eat or think about eating, and that was great.
After dinner, I set up the bonfire. Mind you, this was (regrettably) the first time that I, myself, had collected the wood and then actually lit up the fire; on all my other outdoor experiences, the local porters who accompany us on treks do these tasks for us – much to our collective relief. Since I had managed to collect only about a kilo of damp shrubs in my quest for wood before sunset, the fire barely lasted half an hour. However, for me personally, it was greatly satisfying.
Another round of cards was played after the bonfire died out. This one was rather painful since everyone’s backs were starting to hurt and we were fed up of playing the same game for so long.
Sehri preparations were scheduled to start at two in the morning. Before that, however, I decided to perform ablution in the river, taking it as a challenge and trying to make an experience out if it. I can clearly recall that while I was washing myself, the water did not seem particularly cold. However, once I came back to the tent, I noticed that my hands were turning blue!
Along with freshly-made parathas, the remainder of the qorma is what we had for sehri.
While the others went to sleep after sehri, I had plans of my own. Initially I sat outside the camp gazing at the myriad of stars dotting the night sky; I had been told that I was bound to spot a few shooting stars, which (unfortunately) I did not. Later, I walked for a while before settling at a spot and looking at the sun rise. On all previous outings to the wilderness, I had, for one reason or another, missed out on watching the sunrise. Therefore, this time even though I was very tired I chose to sit outside. And my God was it worth it! How the colors of the sky changed and the sun gradually draped the peaks all around me was just surreal; no words can begin to describe it, one really has to experience it to know what it is like.
Therefore, a trip to the Deosai Plains is something I would recommend to not just everyone going to Skardu but also those of you not planning on picking up their backpacks any time soon. I am always taken aback by the natural beauty that Pakistan’s Northern Areas have to offer. And the Deosai Plains definitely rank high up there, even by Pakistani standards.
Pictures from the outing, along with others the author took during his time in Skardu, can be found over here.
The author tweets @paharibakra