Pierced by the deepest ravines and gorges on earth, some so narrow that even in summer the sun is visible for only three hours a day, blasted and pummelled by icy winds that never cease to blow, the highest land in the world rejoices in the name of “Little Tibet”.
No diminutive this, though. Baltistan’s 26,000 square kilometres (10,500 square miles), crowned by the majesty of K2, at 8,610 metres (28,250 feet) the world’s second-highest mountain, sit at an average height of more than 4,570 metres (15,000 feet). There is no higher land in the entire world. In this once-forgotten kingdom there is nothing below 2,133 metres (7,000 feet) and level land at that altitude is rare and surprising.
Bleak granite cliffs, almost sheer, rise from one and a half to six kilometres high on every side. These jagged barren spurs, devoid of any vegetation, are broken beneath by expanses of rocky alpine desert. And from the great glaciers above, vast reserves of water filter slowly away during summer to nourish the Indus watershed. The Siachen, Baltoro, and other glaciers of the Karakoram form the largest and longest in the world outside the polar region.
From their spectacular birthplace in Concordia, at the base of the K2 and the Masherbrum range, the Siachen Glacier runs for more than seventy kilometres (43 miles), the Baltoro for more than 59 kilometres (37 miles), while the Batura Glacier to the north, hanging over the Karakoram Highway, streams down a similar distance from the northernmost ramparts of the Karakoram.
The new roads carved to once, isolated communities like Askole, the highest village in the region, perhaps in the world now, however, bring tourists and poachers and hunters and this last Himalayan faunal reservoir is under threat. Once a kingdom that held its people in bondage for a century and a half, scattered areas of the valley blossom in the summer with cherries, apricots, almonds, and pears, and the fields yield rice, maize, wheat, and fodder for the animals.
Villages of stone and timber houses with dark and narrow stairwells riven by gloomy, unlit alleys cluster within the embrace of the fertile terraces, glittering jewels set in the tarnished silver clasp of the granite barren cliffs and soaring peaks. Such interludes of fertility are brief and far between. Basically, Baltistan is an alpine desert, perhaps the most forbidding and fearful landscape anywhere on earth.
Lying north of Indian-held Kashmir along a stretch of the Upper Indus, Baltistan is cupped between the Karakoram mountain range and the uninhabited, desolate Deosai Plateau of the Himalaya. Since time began Baltistan has remained isolated from the rest of the world. It was first mentioned in the annals of an AD 747 Chinese military expedition to aid Ladakh against a threatened invasion from Tibet.
Fascinated, the ancient Chinese geographers named it the “Tibet of the Apricots” W because of the abundance of this fruit that grew there, and still does. Long a Buddhist country, Islam was embraced in the fifteenth century and during the Mughal era it was annexed to India. But when Aurangzeb died it soon reverted to its isolated, independent ways, only to come under a succession of local rulers, Dogras, Sikhs, and Afghans, finally to be annexed by the kingdom of Kashmir.
At Independence in 1947, however, Baltistan chose to join Pakistan, although for many years India has consistently contended that the icy slopes of the Siachen Glacier and the heights around 7,461-metre high (24,480-feet) Teram Kangris, a sister peak of K2,were hers.
How to reach:
So formidable is the Indus gorge out of Skardu that not even the hardy Baltis ventured to cross it. Not until October 1978, with the completion of the 170-kilometre-long (105-mile) Shahrah-e-Skardu, did Baltistan have any permanent access to the rest of the world.
It represents a major feat of civil engineering construction and already Skardu, long a Mecca for the high altitude mountaineer, has become a major tourist resort as coaches, cars, and jeeps flood down the road across more than twenty bridges to the town.
In the 1980s, however, many visitors opted for the sixty-minute flight from Rawalpindi along the Indus Valley, past Nanga Parbat, banking sharply starboard to follow the Indus through one of the narrowest ravines ever flown by a civil airline.
The walls rise thousands of metres above, dwarfing the Boeing 737 jet. Nonetheless, it’s best to book at least a month in advance and be prepared for disappointments. The planes only fly in clear weather and a huge backlog of passengers often builds up.
The airport is fourteen kilometres (9 miles) from Skardu and the taxi is more expensive than the air fare.