Travel Diaries: Astore

The internet is filled with articles exploring the natural wonder that is our Gilgit-Baltistan. I have extensively traveled and explored the northern areas of Pakistan and let me tell you something, if you haven’t seen Astore Valley, you have not seen anything! Don’t get me wrong, Gilgit-Baltistan is paradise on its own but seriously, Astore Valley is a league of its own. Never have I in my entire life, seen a more serene, mesmerizing and awe-inspiring location. We (I along with a few friends) made a spur of the moment road trip plan. It was sudden, haphazard and exciting! Our destination was undecided even as we departed from Gilgit. Our spirits high, energy even higher and loud curses for the person responsible for losing the camera!

(Viewer discretion: Unfortunately we packed everything “except” a professional camera! Pictures from my cellphone do not do justice to the region but it was all we were left with! Please pardon my limited photographic skills!)

Day-1: Leaving Gilgit

 

After a relaxing Eid in Gulmit - Hunza, I randomly called up a few friends who were stuck in the summer heat of Islamabad. After having a good laugh at their predicament (load Shedding, heat, boredom) I invited the lot to come spend the remaining Eid holidays with me on a “Heat Retreat”. The Gang rallied at PTDC Gilgit In a day’s notice and once there, we decided to tour Astore valley. The boys came prepared for a camping trip and were packed with the basic essentials (tents, sleeping bags, cooking stove etc) and the reminder of supplies were purchased after a quick trip to the NLI market.

All Set to Depart from Gilgit! Let the adventure begin – Gilgit PTDC

Altogether we were seven heads and one vehicle, you can do the math, not everyone got to sit inside the pickup. We drew straws and the unlucky had to eat dust for most of the journey.  It wasn’t a tough journey (at least not for the ones sitting inside), the weather was on our side with a slight drizzle (I felt bad for the boys outside). The road needs a major do-over in this area. It took us 4 - 5 hours and we had finally reached the main Astore bazaar. It was close to Maghrib and the hustle and bustle of the market was slowly dying out. Our day didn’t end here, we still had an hour’s drive left to our destination of the day. As the day came close to the end, we were enchanted as we crossed the winding road up to Rama. The landscape was nothing short of the Swiss Alps. The Potato fields were deserted at this time and there was little signs of any life. Just short of complete darkness, we had arrived to at the exotic land known as Rama. “Wow” is one way to describe this magical fairy land.

We pitched our tents in the evergreen gardens of PTDC and trust me when I say this that this is the most beautiful PTDC hotel I have ever laid eyes on. The entire hotel is constructed within a pine forest. I was informed that not even a single tree was chopped when this hotel was being constructed. The entire structure complements the environment. After a long hard day (especially for the back benchers), we called it a night. Perks for camping in the hotel premises: you have access to decent wash rooms and the kitchen =)

Day-2: Discovering Rama & Darlai (Astore)

VIP Camping - PTDC Rama

We soon realized that “WOW’ and “Epic” had become mandatory adjectives in describing everything that we saw here. We had over slept by an hour or three (Wow! EPIC!) but soon enough, one by one we emerged out of our tents and into the dining Hall for a quick bite. Some of us started wandering around and admired the beauty of the landscape in daylight. Naga Parbat’s South Ridge shined in the sunshine with all its glory while the pine forest seemed majestic and somewhat magical. We were running out of day light even though the day had just started for us. We decided to pack up and then decide our next destination. Some of us were inclined to go up to the Lake but then decided against it for it would have taken a lot of time (and personally, I am not a big fan of this particular Lake). Fun Fact: Rama Lake has no water inlet or an outlet. The water is regulated by the melting of snow from the mountains!

Ready for the next destination! – PTDC Rama

Where to go next? – Rama Meadows

Since we had decided to forgo Rama Lake, there was another lake up on our list Darlai.  If the rumors were true about this place, we would witness God’s unlimited bounty in the form of Trout!
Soon enough, little after crossing Rattu (another small village), we reached our destination. I wouldn’t call it a lake, rather it was just the widening of the river. This time we had reached our destination well in time to set up camp. We were travelling light but we had to carry our belongings all the way from the car to the campsite which was a 20 min hike. The day was half gone, few of us decided to try our luck with fate and geared up our fishing equipment while some of us decided to have on early start on the kitchen tent! I don’t know who slaughtered the chicken (or how) but I must say that the chicken was amazing to eat (EPIC! WOW!) Evening approached and with it came the wind. There was a point where I actually believed that the tents would fly off but luckily it didn’t come to that, but it did get cold! The noise of the wind was scary as it sounded like howling but luckily we had a guitar and everyone was ready to sing (apparently singing is not for everyone). After a mug of strong tea, everything felt great and eventually everyone called it a night.

En route: Darlai - Darlai

Our Campsite - Darlai

Waiting for a night cap! - Darlai

Our only catch of the day! – Darlai

Day-3: Deosai plains and the night in a tin cabin

 

On the 3rd day of our trip, as usual we discussed our Plan of action at breakfast time over a few fried trout, cereal and tea (Tea is life!). We had to decide how far we had to travel and based on that we would have an estimate time to slack off. It’s a given fact that nobody likes to pack up.  It was decided that since we were close to the Deosai national park, we might as well pop over there and set up camp near the beautiful Shausar Lake. Maybe we could get lucky and spot a Brown bear (Spoiler alert: We didn’t see a single bear!). After the grueling ordeal of washing the utensils, packing up and shifting the equipment back to the car, this band of brothers were well onto the next destination. It was after an hour or more (I couldn’t be sure since it was my turn to sit outside) that we reached Chilam Chowkee (3800m). A small Army outpost stood at the fork way of Deosai and the road leading to Minimarg (near the L.O.C). We found out the hard way that permissions are required to access certain areas and this place was no exception. In secret I discussed a plan with one of my fellows and decided that travelling the proverbial “Road less travelled” would be a better adventure. We had some time on our hands till the permission to visit Minimerg came through. Meanwhile we decided to have a quick trip to the national Park since we were literally at its foot.

Onwards to new frontiers! – Chilam Chowkee

The road leading up to the National Park was badly in need of repairs. It was rough and bumpy. The wind also picked up and very soon the mercury dropped to about 3 degrees. I was more excited at the prospect of visiting Minimarg so I was pushing everyone to move faster and be done with the endless selfies. Eventually, we got tired and cold and decided to head back to Chilam Chowkee and get updates on our “Permission”.

A non-flattering image of Shausar Lake

By the time we reached back to the Army post, dusk was fast approaching and still no news of our official permission. It was pointless to travel further in the dark so we decided crash the night in the nearby village. The fate of our trip was hinged on acquiring the permission to travel in the Army controlled area. Usually it’s never such a hassle to get permissions but since we were literally travelling on our whims, it was difficult to plan ahead. We found Shelter in a nearby makeshift dhabba just behind the Army post. By the looks of it, the dhabba had seen better days but we were too tired to complain. It was a small room with a tin roof. A few holes here and there but honestly, no one cared. We took out our sleeping bags and made ourselves comfortable.

Our luxurious tin cabin – Chilam

Rise and shine! - Chilam

Day-4: New Frontier!

 

A new day, a new beginning. Everyone was up and about early for a change. I guess everyone was excited to start the new day. We had a quick breakfast and were informed that our permission to enter the Army controlled area came through! We took a few selfies with the Jawans on guard duty and were again on our merry way.

So that we know we are not lost! – Minimarg

From here onwards, the journey was a first for me. Each and every one of us was very excited and volunteered to sit in the back of the pickup. The landscape was grassy and the valley was very open. A small creek followed us most of the way. The view was nothing short of a post card and one couldn’t help but praise the Al Mighty for such a gift. This route was used in the ancient times for trade between China and Kashmir. One could easily immerse themselves in thoughts of the bygone era. The caravans, the traders and the long road. What a time it must have been!

From this point onwards, I had stopped clocking our journey and was contemplating shifting here for good. I bet everyone in our group was thinking in the same lines based on their expressions and silence. Not long after, we reached Burzil Pass. Having recently been to Khunjerab Pass, Burzil seemed pretty tame but Burzil surpassed everything in its beauty. It seemed as if the fairies made this their personal playground and were inviting me to join them.

I was out of the trance soon after we reached Minimerg. An Army garrison was stationed at the entrance of Minimerg. We went straight to their supply area and bought a few chickens for our meals. We were told that a team of top brass was in the area for inspection which would mean limited access for us. Our group was not allowed to go beyond Domel. We were lucky to get this far so we were content with what all we got to see. After re-supplying our stock, we headed over to our last destination, Domel!

The mighty Invincible! – Burzil Pass

A Happy me! – Burzil Pass

Minimerg approaches! - Minimerg

A little food goes a long way - Minimerg

If I had to sum up Domail in a single word, I would choose Green! Lush thick pine forest covered the entire region. The river shined blue in the sunlight reflecting the ever clear blue sky above. I believe there was lake near by as well but unfortunetly it was closed for us.

Exploring Domel - Domel

We found a beautiful place to set up our campsite near the river. Soon enough, the camp was set up, a cozy fire had been lit and the self-proclaimed chef were at work. The beauty of this place was slowly sinking in and it was safe to assume that no one wanted to leave this place. We spent the whole night singing in front of the bonfire and vowing to return next year.

Like all journeys, this also had come to an end. We had a long journey back to Gilgit ahead of us the next day. The single night we got to spend in Domel was worth it all. I hope all those who get to read this get inspired to visit this area at least once.

Our campsite - Domel

When you run out of food, you mix everything you got! - Domel

Back to the pavilion! – Exiting Domel



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