In the boundless Northern Area of Pakistan the world’s greatest mountain ranges all come to meet. Pushed upwards by the subduction of the Indian subcontinent, their snowy peaks rise above parades of clouds providing habitat for The Golden Eagle, Snow Leopard, Himalayan Ibex, and The Tibetan Wolf. This is where the Hindu Kush, Himalaya, and Karakoram mountains merge, hosting five of the world’s 14 peaks higher than 8,000 meters (26,247 feet), including K2, the world’s second tallest peak after Mount Everest. Flying over this region provides perspective, as seas of snowcapped summits reach the horizons in all directions, and you actually have to crane your neck upwards to observe them towering above the plane.
In the lulls between mountains lay little stone villages, and idyllic resting places like Fairy Meadows, where small streams carry pieces of geological time from melting glaciers into deep river valleys. Carving away at the base of these sovereign ranges is the Indus River, a swirling rush of cloudy chocolate milk, flowing 3,180 km (1,980 miles) down into the plains of Punjab, which 5,000 years ago nurtured the famous Indus River Civilization.
Through this land of tectonic shifts and glacial melts, ungulates a complex history of European, Asian and Arabian civilizations. The Kalash people of Chitral ferment red wine in an otherwise Muslim region and trace their culture back to the conquest of Alexander the Great in the 4th century. Giant carvings of Buddha from the 5th century are etched onto sheer mountain walls. The people of Baltistan speak Balti a derivative of ancient Tibetan, while in neighboring Gilgit people speak Shina, of an Indo-Aryan origin.
Across these mountain passes ran the southern route of The Silk Road controlled through the centuries by Persian and Tibetan Kings, different dynasties of Han Chinese, Roman Emperors, Turkish Sultans, Islamic Caliphs, and Mongol Khans. It brought Chinese jade and silk to Mesopotamia, the Syrian Desert, and Mediterranean ports in exchange for Roman perfumes, and gems from the heart of the mountains.
The ancient Silk Road has long been abandoned, but its legacy lasts in the Islamic culture it left, and the Afghan rubies and Roman coins the merchants in Gilgit hawk. The people still build stone houses like swallows’ nests on impossible cliffs, and dart with goat-like ankles along ledges and over avalanches, planting cherry, peach, and apricot trees, which ripen in the summer. Locals eat spicy Dodo Chicken Soup, Nan Karai, and dry dhal, and can tell the time of day from the ever changing kaleidoscope of sun and shadows on the surrounding mountain faces.
While the Northern Areas of Pakistan have been peaceful and stable for many years, the lands always hold the potential to be of remarkable geopolitical significance, as in the days of the Silk Road. However, it takes incredible resources and dedication to try and hold power in these great mountains. It is one of the last regions of the modern world where almost all the borders are still dotted lines, disputed between Afghan, Chinese, Pakistani and Indian governments — too daunting for fences or standing guards. This has left the valleys of region militarized and constantly on alert. Police with long beards, friendly smiles and automatic weapons accompany travelers from one province to the next, handing them off like batons at each border in a gesture of hospitality, and a show of safety.
However, with China’s contemporary successes, there is again a regime with enough power to influence the region, looking to revitalize the area’s importance with the development of the new Silk Road Economic Belt. The 15 year project promises to spend US$ 50 billion dollars creating a superhighway through the region, connecting inland China with the Pakistani coast, potentially changing the economic corridors of great nations on three continents.
The fate of these fabled lands, often cited as the geographical inspiration for Hilton’s Shangri-La is uncertain. Will the economic growth sheer the alpine forests of their trees, and pollute the great Indus River, or just facilitate access to this mountainous paradise for an ailing tourism industry that desperately needs it? Will timeless tribal villages be reconstructed with concrete, and the hand painted birds and romantic Sanskrit poems on trucks be replaced with corporate slogans?
What is clear, is that these areas hold extreme serenity now, and these ambitious plans will likely change that, making it a destination to visit now for those willing to blaze their own trail through this mecca of mountains.
This article was subsequently published in The Pakistani Express Tribune on 9, August 2015: The Mecca of mountains in Pakistan’s Shangri-La.