I’m sure at some point in your life, you’ve all heard the statement “what does Switzerland have that Pakistan doesn’t?” If you are a skeptic like me, you may have dismissed these words as merely an exaggerated patriotic summation of our country’s northern areas. However, a family trip to Skardu this month proved me quite wrong and I thought it only fair that I accept my mistake publicly and pay penance by writing about this trip of a lifetime, which actually even managed to outshine my trips to Europe!
We went as a group of 12 adults and children and spent 5 days in what can be only described as paradise on earth. The list of must-visit places I’m sharing is pretty much a generic one – but it does include honest reviews by yours truly! I will also bust a few myths and share a couple of less explored destinations which were truly worth it. So read on and thank me later!
Getting to Skardu was not that difficult. Many people expect a bumpy ride on an ATR plane but PIA flies a Boeing to Skardu everyday, though only from Islamabad airport. We booked our flights well in advance but only after checking the tentative weather forecast of the whole week. Flights tend to get delayed or postponed owing to weather conditions so I would suggest you do the same. We were fortunate to experience a timely departure both times and the flight was also turbulence free. Another tip is to book as many window seats as you can. Trust me, this is one flight where you’d rather sit apart from your family in order to bag a window seat 🙂 The 45 minutes pass by in a jiffy while you’re busy drinking in the breathtaking views. The pilot and crew are also friendly and announce all the peaks that are whizzing by you. We spotted Nanga Parbat and quite a lot of glaciers and lakes enroute.
However, I do hope PIA starts flight services to Skardu from other major airports/cities as well. Traveling to Islamabad just to board the plane unnecessarily adds to the total travel time which one would rather spend in Skardu than on the motorway! (Also the flight is Rs35,000 and just once a day – which does make you think of the regular and affordable mountain rail systems of Europe – Ed)
Once in Skardu there is so much to see.
Day 1–Khaplu Palace: This stone façade gained immense popularity and was googled incessantly post-DiyareDil fame. I admit, I was one of them! I found this palace-turned-hotel to be beautifully intimidating, with its winding corridors and hidden rooms. It was kinda like going back in time. Also, flying to Skardu and not visiting Khaplu palace is unconscionable, so do go and spend a few hours there. Lots of Instagramable nooks and crannies to be found here people!
They charge Pkr500/person fee which can be waived only if you dine in their restaurant. We had already planned to do so but were quite shocked at the menu’s exorbitant price point – even by Serena’s standards (who have possession of the place and run it) They also offer guestrooms for night stays but we couldn’t get a booking when we were planning our trip. And to be honest, we were a little relieved. Because despite its old world charm, it’s quite far from main Skardu city and you end up feeling marooned away from where the real action is. If you still want to tick it off your bucket list, I would suggest spending only one night for the experience.
Pro-tip: on the way to the palace do stop and take a short break at the organic fruit orchard and indulge in some apple, apricot and cherry picking. They taste amazing! Also a group selfie at one of the suspension bridges is a must!
Day 2–Shigar Fort: Far closer to Skardu city and the resort at Upper Kachura Lake where we were staying, this fort (also run by Serena) was simply astounding in its beauty and aesthetically constructed façade. The minute we stepped through the entrance, an inexplicable sense of tranquility engulfed us. We explored the palace at leisure, accompanied by a charming local who was our guide (something that was missing at Khaplu). He showed us a 400 year old tree and shared the folklores attached to its longevity and supernatural powers.
Lunch was eaten in the lush green lawns of the fort and was at par with any top restaurant of Lahore or Karachi, both in terms of variety and taste. The price tag was by no means reasonable but I’d say it was justified. The soothing sound of the gushing river that runs parallel to the fort added just the right amount of mystique to the whole experience. Two nights stay at this magical place is on top of my hubby’s agenda for the coming fall season. Yaaaay!
Enroute to the fort, you’ll also get to see and drive through a patch of Sarfaranga Cold Desert. Nothing much to write about it, I’m afraid. To me, it just looked like any ordinary desert. Maybe it’s a different story in winters though. I’d suggest you spend minimum time here and reach Shigar in daylight and stay there to watch the beautiful sunset…
Day 3–Upper and Lower Kachura Lake: The iconic heart shaped lake where the Shangri-La resort was built more than 2 decades ago is truly a sight to behold. Nestled between snowcapped mountains with water a deep emerald green, it is a sight one can stare at for hours on end! You can go have a cup of coffee and walnut tart at the resort and go apple picking in their orchards for a truly unforgettable experience.
The upper Kachura Lake is only a 30 minutes’ drive plus walk from lower Kachura and is an equally rewarding experience. Sit atop a big rock, take pictures of the family with the blue-green lake water in the background, munch on some freshly made pakoras and then go for a boat ride. My highlight of this trip was definitely the boat ride! We asked the guy to encircle the lake and then take us to the other end, where the lake turns quite narrow and you are literally dwarfed between colossal mountains peaks. As the boat bobbed away, I felt a weight being lifted off my shoulders. A weight I didn’t even know I was chugging but identified it as the “real-world” burden we all unconsciously carry… Aaahh pure bliss!
On our way back from Upper Kachura, our drivers told us about Soag valley that was only 30 minutes away and offered to take us there if we were interested in watching the sunset from that picturesque locale. They further tempted us by saying the river flowed at a gentle ebb there and we could even dip our feet in the freezing river water if we liked 🙂 What more could one ask for?! So off we went on a bumpy, winding road further ahead, with the river noisily thrashing by our side… By the time we turned the last bend, the flow of the water had indeed slowed down. The sun was still peeking out from between the mountains when we got off the car. But within 10 minutes, the whole valley was bathed in the breathtaking amber glow of the setting sun, leaving us awestruck!
Day 4–Deosai National Park: Deosai is the 2nd highest national park in the world, situated at a whopping 14000 feet. When I was doing my online research of Skardu while planning the trip, Deosai was the top destination that was recommended by one and all. Upon googling images, all I saw were vast fields of green grass and flowing streams. To be honest, I couldn’t figure out what the hype was all about. But I knew visiting it was a must and boy am I glad I did! It was only when I saw it with my own eyes that I understood what all the people were raving about. It was truly a wonder of the world! During the thrilling 4-hour drive leading up to Sheoshar Lake, situated at the highest point of Deosai, I was simply lost for words. Nature, in all its mindboggling glory, was on full display.
I finally understood why I couldn’t come up with pics that did justice to this magical place. Our phone cameras failed. The DSLRs we were carrying failed. NOTHING could capture the beauty we witnessed here. Only our eyes hungrily drank up the scenes, leaving a treasure trove of indelible memories for us to cherish. Rain clouds, fog, golden sunlight, lush green plains, snow covered peaks, gushing waterfalls – ALL could be witnessed in one scene. SubhanAllah!
But a word of caution needs to be added here: because it is situated at such a steep height that you reach in merely a couple of hours, some people experience dizziness and have trouble breathing due to oxygen deprivation. Keep lots of water and sweet edibles with you and stop often on your way up to let your body become acclimatized to the increase in altitude. Anemic people should be avoiding it completely.
Day 5–Bassu Valley: On our last day, based on the strong recommendation of the drivers of our rented SUVs, we decided to go to Bassu Valley. After a hair raising journey, that entailed driving 2 hours on a road that could only be described as a dirt track and frankly too narrow to be called a road even, we finally reached Bassu Valley. An “out of world” experience is how I would describe this place. Because it is so inaccessible and dangerous, not many people venture into this territory. It was as if God had broken off a chunk of heaven and placed it on this mountain top. You had cows and ponies grazing the field, clouds hanging so low they clung to our bodies, a long-winding stream that led to a lake. At one point, I felt myself tearing up, truly overwhelmed to witness this flawless creations of Allah…Well there you go! As promised, I’ve given you the top destinations to explore on your 5-day trip to Skardu. Mind you, these are all full-day activities, and if you’re pressed for time, don’t try to squeeze in two of them in a day. It just won’t be possible and you’ll end up not doing justice to even one of them. All roads leading to all these places are perilous and quite damaged while some are under construction. The scenes you’ll be witnessing from your car windows will also compel you to hit the break more often than not, so you’ll be covering the distances more slowly than anticipated. It’s okay!! Remember: Skardu is not about ticking the maximum boxes from a list, it’s about taking it all in and experiencing it in the moment.
But before I sign off, here are my parting words of wisdom
Plan ahead and start early. The sooner you’re on the road, the better it is. Also, don’t forget to pack an extra set of clothes if you’re travelling with kids. Stock up on junk food or sandwiches/finger food that can be consumed in the car in case of delays or just because it’s nice to have something to munch on! Most of these destinations are far away and you won’t find any shops or roadside dhabaas on the way. Always keep an umbrella and an extra warm layer with you – even if it’s a sunny day. The weather is unpredictable and tends to change quite often.
Sun blocks are a must too – coz when the sun comes out, it comes out with a vengeance! The local cuisine is interesting but don’t get carried away. Do order something safe and familiar off the menu – not every local dish will be up your alley 🙂 Arrange for transport and reliable drivers before landing or as soon as you land. A powerful car and expert driver will make a world of difference to your excursions. As an extra favor to you all, I’m sharing the contact numbers of the two drivers we hired for our trip. Both were thoroughly professional, punctual and shared many useful tidbits about Skardu city with us.
Lastly, don’t forget to let loose, have fun and take lots of selfies!! Best of luck!
Driver contact numbers:
Mohammad Asif: 0355-5390100 Mohammad Ijaz: 0355-4128572