Broad and fertile, just 1,200 metres (4,000 feet) above sea level, Gilgit is glorious in spring when the apple, pear, almond, apricot, mulberry, and walnut orchards blossom. Tall plane trees, upright as guardsmen, poplars, eucalyptus, and leafy willows stand sentinel around the well, tended terraces. The little lanes and trails make easy and ideal walking and the mountain foothills are gentle at first.
The minute you leave the airfield you walk into a time-warp. Though now the most bustling bazaar on the Silk Route, dusty Gilgit still seems to hang suspended in a long forgotten limbo, despite the obvious presence of a large army and the continual stream of traffic on the other side of the river where the Karakoram Highway clings to the eastern wall of the narrow valley.
By Karakoram standards, Gilgit Valley is broad, dominated by perhaps the loveliest of all northern Pakistan’s mountains. The elegant spire of 7,787 metres high (25,550-feet) Rakaposhi hangs suspended above the terraced fields of grain and rice and the flowering apricot orchards.
Colourful cloths and beautiful Chinese silk fluttering in the breeze, fruit, spices, and the staple of the region, dried apricots give the sprawling bazaar that stretches kilometres down the main street a vivid Technicolor aspect.
In these improbable emporiums, Chinese goods, crockery, cutlery, electronic products, range alongside beautifully crafted local handicrafts, shawls, woollens, baskets, batiks, even old-fashioned ski-boots. At least 350 different vernaculars and local dialects ring through the constant hubbub of the bazaar.
The greetings carved on the tall cliffs on the east wall of the valley, to catch the Aga Khan’s eye when he flew in on a visit in the early 1980s, still proclaim Gilgit’s joy at playing host to the leader of the world’s Ismailis. It’s on the polo ground that some of the most exciting polo tournaments in the world are fought with heated, passionate, and ever valiant enthusiasm. The major event is staged in November to mark Independence Day and there are also matches in March, but you may find exhibition and practice matches taking place at other times of the year.
Nearby a stone memorial honours the many brave men who died in the early struggle against Indian held Kashmir. Near Gilgit one of the longest suspension bridges in Asia, a trembling, graceful 198metres wide (650-feet) structure of wood and steel cable anchored only by its support towers in the cliffs, crosses the Hunza River. It leads on to the Gilgit suspension bridge that crosses the Gilgit River into the town centre.
Crossing it also is the constant stream of life of far northern Pakistan. An old man nearby from Sinkiang, China, watches shish kebabs sizzle over his charcoal fire. Chinese dumplings steam in old saucepans and everywhere there are blue-eyed Hunzakuts.
Just a few kilometres west of the town, at Kargah Nullah ten kilometres (six miles) along the Punial Road, is a stunning three metres high (ten feet) image of Buddha carved on a cliff face about fifty metres (160 feet) above a small path by a stream to the left of the road. Some 400 metres (1,300 feet) upstream are the remains of three Stupas, excavated in 1934.
Lakes and rivers in the valley teem with plump and tender trout. The Gilgit hatchery is based near one of the valley’s small hydroelectric projects on the floor of a narrow and precipitous ravine just a few kilometres north of the town.
There are many delightful easy walks you can take along the Gilgit valley, through the maize and vegetable fields and the orchards of apple, mulberry, walnut and apricot trees, to the foothills and the grazing lands beyond.
West of Gilgit the region offers unbridled adventure. The 225-kilometre (140-mile) long trail through Punial, Gakuch, and Gupis to Yasin in the north and the Shandur Pass in the west is rough going at its best.
Forty kilometres (25 miles) north of Gilgit, along the Gilgit River, Punial, once a feudal kingdom of twelve villages and 17,000 people, became part of Pakistan in 1972. Filled with orchards and small terraced fields, to its citizens it’s “the place where heaven and earth meet”.
The capital, Sher Qila (Lion’s Fort) earned its name because it was unconquerable. From Punial the track continues through Singal, sixteen kilometres (ten miles) beyond Sher Qila, Gakuch, and Gupis, to the 3,734-metre-high (12,250-feet) Shandur Pass which connects Gilgit with Chitral.
Phandar Lake, about halfway between Gilgit and the top of the Pass, is idyllic with a good rest house on a ridge overlooking the flat, meandering river on one side, azure waters of the trout-filled lake on the other.
Encircled by its cluster of ice peaks, its fields shaded by stands of Chinar trees and willows of deepest green, another valley, Yasin, remains one of the most remote of the valleys in the Gilgit area, lying at the foot of the Hindu Kush range, slightly north of the road from Punial. “
The gem, like tarns and glacial streams of the 3,000-metre-high (10,000-feet) Naltar Valley, perhaps Gilgit’s loveliest alpine valley, in the shadow of graceful Rakaposhi, offer not only hardy anglers joy, but trekkers and ski enthusiasts, too.
Dotted with sparse clumps of pine, the Pakistan Armed Forces have installed two lifts on the Valley’s steep-sided walls to make it one of the few ski resorts in northern Pakistan. Trekkers can walk up the valley to Naltar Lake and then over 4,800-metre-high (15,750-feet) Shani Pass. There’s also a rugged trekking trail over the 4,217-metre high (13,836-feet) Naltar Pass to Pakhor.
There are many delightful places to fish in the lakes and rivers of Gilgit. Permits are issued by the Fisheries Department, Gilgit. Carry your own tackle.
The most favoured spots for trout are Kargah, sixteen kilometres (ten miles) from Gilgit, Singal in Punial, fifty-six kilometres (35 miles) from Gilgit, and Phandar Lake, and 117 kilometres (73 miles) from Gilgit, on the Shandur Pass road.