LOOSING A WAGER
It was way back in 1992, when I started my regular trips to Northern areas (NA) and later on as an expert of NA, I was invited by many social gatherings to share my experiences about the beautiful places of Pakistan. It was during one question and answer session sometimes back when one senior Col. Of the Armed Forces asked me Sir, have you been to the second coldest desert in the world?
I replied that NO! I have not been to that place and where is it?
He said that is located in SKURDU valley in Pakistan to which I showed my ignorance about this desert and told him that no such place exits in Pakistan.
On this the Col. Wagered with me that such a place exits and at that time after consulting the Wikipedia I realized that I had lost the wager.
Since I lost the wager I became very much anxious and enthusiastic to visit this place, but it was not until August 2016 when my son USMAN ALIM came especially from Calgary Canada to make a small expedition to visit SKURDU VALLEY.
Finally the day came when I got an opportunity to visit the famous deserts of SHIGAR also known as KATPANA deserts and SHIGAR FORT.
The KATPANA DESERTS are located in SKURDU, GILGIT-BALTISTAN in Pakistan, and is the second COLDEST DESERT IN THE WORLD.
There are sand dunes in SKURDU around the Indus River. This desert stretches from the KHAPLU VALLEY to NUBRA LADAKH and SHIGAR SKURDU valley to ZANSKAR in India. But the largest desert area is found in SKURDU and SHIGAR valley. Locally called BIANA NAQPO and KATPANA BIANA.
There is a historical perspective about this desert when On October 13th, 1950, a DC-3 aircraft belonging to Orient airways crash landed after three minutes of take off from SKURDU Airport. All passengers and crew survived. One of it's famous passengers was JAMES MITCHENER.
James Mitchener first book Tales of the South Pacific which was published in 1947, when he was 40. It won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 1948.
Brig Aslam Khan the owner of Shangrilla resort at that time bought this plane from Orient airways for Rs. 150.00, and after three months of efforts involving hundreds of men, bullocks and horses, moved it to its present site in the Shangri-La Resort located at GAMBAH about 30kms from SKURDU. This plane can now be seen in the Shangrila resort gardens as it has been renovated refurbished and turned into a coffee shop.
It was early morning on 24th July 2016, I had my usual ritual of bed tea followed by breakfast in my GILGIT BALTISTAN scout mess and by 0945, had put all my entourage in the vehicle and made our way to the town centre to have gasoline filled and headed north towards Hospital Road on to SHIGAR Road where after 10 km, had to make a left turn towards ASKOLE and SHIGAR.
We Crossed the SHIGAR river at the SHIGAR bridge and after climbing for some time, came across the sandy deserts of SHIGAR which are the second coldest desert in the world.
This wide expanse of wilderness of the SHIGAR desert makes you fall in love with it immediately, Why can't we develop these tourist resorts like the one we have in Dubai which is famous for the desert Safari and one has to pay 200 dirham’s for a roller coaster jeep ride in that desert.
The road running through the SHIGAR desert is very well maintained and is a good mettled road which bisects the SHIGAR desert into two equal halves as you stand in the centre of the road and look on each side you can see the wide expanse of the deserts as far as you can see silhouetted by the gigantic mountains on all four sides giving you the impression as if you are on a floating sandy platform with the surrounding mountains being your anchor.
This expanse of Sandy wilderness gives the enthusiastic hot Roding youngsters to mount on their off road 4x4 and drive at a breakneck speed from one end of the desert to the other end as if they were filming for the movie FAST AND FURIOUS.
I stood there for a long time and took pictures and I went down the memory lane when as a regimental medical officer with 4, Engineers Battalion stationed at SHATOOT village near SHENGUS in 1976, I did not get an opportunity to visit this magnificent desert although I was only a stone throw away.
Going uphill for quite some time you slowly gain altitude and come to the vantage point where SHIGAR valley comes into view. This valley is lush green with vegetation and foliage and the SHIGAR river flows around the small hamlet of SHIGAR.
SHIGAR valley is the home of gem stones and minerals and also boasts of having the oldest AMBURIQ MOSQUE of the GILGIT-BALTISTAN region. The other places to visit here are the SHIGAR fort, the local bazaar JARBASO LAKE, KHILINGRONG MOSQUE.
My own opinion of the SHIGAR fort is that a local hotel chain has usurped it and imposed an entrance fee per head which is not worth it as you can go around the fort in just ten minutes.
There is nothing worth buying in SKURDU / SHIGAR as things are brought from Punjab like shawls and handicrafts and resold here at exorbitant prices. The only thing recommended for buying here is the Serpentine Stone (ZAHAR MORA) which comes from SHIGAR valley and is considered to be an antidote for poisoning and for healing bones and joint problems.
The meaning of the name of this crystal, comes from the Greek word 'serpens', meaning snake, because of the way that many pieces of this stone have a similarity to the appearance of snakeskin.
There are other small walking trails like the THALAY LA trail which goes behind the SHIGAR fort up into the mountains where you can view ibex and mountain cats in the wild and descend on the other side into GANCHE District in the east.
There are plenty of lakes and streams and can be considered a hiker's paradise but one word of caution, please do not go on these trails by yourself but hire the services of a professional trained guide.
I saw many people who were taking selfies and plucking apples, plums and cherries from the trees. One notable point about this place was the neat and clean aura and ambience of the surroundings.
SHIGAR desert must be put on the top priority of your must visit places while you are in SKURDU VALLEY.
DR. BABUR ZAHIRUDDIN