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The Gilgit Walk Experience

Every year we arrange an international trek for volunteers to visit Pakistan Administered Kashmir and see for themselves the work that we do. This year the trip was to the Gilgit-Baltistan region, which is famous for its scenic landscapes. This is a first-hand account of the Gilgit Walk experience, kindly penned by one of the participants.

Day 0

And we’re off! Having arrived in Pakistan after an eight-hour flight, we are invited to dinner at Monal Restaurant, where we are introduced to the field team who will be looking after us over the coming days.

Monal is actually set high up in the side of one of the hills overlooking Islamabad, and as a result affords extensive views across the city. The view at night is particularly good at conveying the thriving metropolis that Pakistan’s capital city has become.

Introductions done, we tuck into our first supper of the trip – a dinner that is thoroughly enjoyed by all, judging by the almost clean plates that everybody leaves behind. There’s little else that builds a hearty appetite than travelling half way around the world!

Day 1

We start the morning off with a debriefing of what’s to come over the course of today, as well as each receiving a participant pack containing the various things we’ll need during the trip. The general mood amongst the group is one of excitement, mixed perhaps with a little anxiety over not knowing entirely what to expect over the course of the next few hours and days.

We leave the hotel for the airport, to find upon arriving there that our flight to Skardu has been delayed due to bad weather. But once we’re airborne, the one and half hour wait at the airport soon becomes a distant memory as we’re dumbstruck by the views we witness of Nanga Parbat from the airplane.

The flight isn’t very long but is certainly full of excitement as our pilot expertly navigates around the forming clouds, sometimes having to dip what feels uncomfortably close to the mountains to avoid the thick cloud. It proves quite the roller coaster ride, with many of us experiencing a rush of adrenaline.

Finally, we arrive in Skardu to a reception of jeeps. We will come to recognise this convoy of all-terrain vehicles as our trusted steeds as we spend hours in them travelling across the Gilgit-Baltistan region over our coming trip.

We load up our convoy and set off for Shangrila, which is a hotel resort set over the Shangrila or Lower Kachura Lake. The picturesque setting of the red roofs of Shangrila set to a backdrop of the majestic Himalayas was simply breath-taking. We have lunch and rest in preparation for the next leg of our journey in what feels like pure serenity.

We leave the Shangrila resort headed for Shigar Valley, which we’re told is the gateway to the high mountains of the Karakoram. The two-hour drive through desert is no less scenic than what we have already witnessed, albeit a different kind of beauty to the lushness of Shangrila.

We arrive at Shigar Fort, which will be our accommodation for the night. Set amongst beautiful orchards and a fast flowing river, this is actually a fort built in the seventeenth century now reimagined as a heritage hotel, with much of the original architecture preserved or restored.

Day 2

After a much needed restful night and hearty breakfast, we leave Shigar Fort early in the morning headed towards the plains of Deosai. Known for its rich flora and fauna, Deosai Plains is one of the highest plateaus in the world at 4,114 metres above sea level.

Our jeep convoy follows the windy roads upwards, the air getting cooler and thinner as we reach the 13,000 feet altitude, passing Satpara Lake on the way.

We spend some time at Deosai National Park, taking in the grassy plains, wild flowers and lake, whilst having a spot of lunch, kindly packed for us by our wonderful support team. Although our day has not started very long ago, we’re already tired, but beautiful surroundings such as these are rarely experienced and it’s not long before the realisation dawns that we’ve walked two miles just exploring.

Lunchtime over, we must now travel another three hours in our convoy to the district of Astore. Here we stop in the village of Gudai to visit an orphan girl who is receiving a scholarship to go to school.

Laiba is an incredibly smart girl who is curious as to why we’re so interested in the life she deems ordinary and mundane. She tells us that she wants to become a doctor when she grows up because she wants to help others who are less fortunate than her. Many of us become emotional upon hearing this. Here is a young girl who lives in the humblest of conditions and wants to dedicate herself to the service of the sick and needy.

Lunchtime over, we must now travel another three hours in our convoy to the district of Astore. Here we stop in the village of Gudai to visit an orphan girl who is receiving a scholarship to go to school.

Laiba is an incredibly smart girl who is curious as to why we’re so interested in the life she deems ordinary and mundane. She tells us that she wants to become a doctor when she grows up because she wants to help others who are less fortunate than her. Many of us become emotional upon hearing this. Here is a young girl who lives in the humblest of conditions and wants to dedicate herself to the service of the sick and needy.

This is our last stop of the day, everyone is pretty tired, but tonight’s accommodation is still a three-hour journey away, through the mountains to the valley of Rama. The guesthouse in Rama is fairly basic but after an action-packed day and fourteen hours on the road, we’re glad to be getting some rest.

Day 3

In the morning, after breakfast, we leave the guest house to travel to Eidgah School. Everybody at the school receive us with a warm welcome and spend some time there taking part in the classroom activities with the children. Of course this proves a little disruptive but the children enjoy themselves, as do we.

We even get to play a game of cricket with the children at the school, and proceed to being thrashed by them. The final score escapes me currently… ahem.

Our next stop is to meet with an orphan child but before we do there’s still time for distributing some gifts and one more picture.

Meeting Mehak, the young orphan girl receiving a full scholarship, is an emotional experience for us all. We learn that her father passed away in a road accident when she was only a toddler, and since then her widowed mother has provided for Mehak and her siblings as best she can. Today her brother has taken over from her mother as the family bread winner, earning a small income working as a gatekeeper, which is enough to provide basic food stuff for the family to eat. Without the scholarship, school would be only a dream for Mehak and her family.

After our meeting with Mehak, we continue on to what will be our final leg of the journey today – a three-hour drive to Gilgit, travelling along the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) – where we will check-in to the Serena Hotel for tonight’s stay.

Day 4

We’re up and out early as we have another full-on day ahead of us.

First up, we’re taken to Gilgit School, which accommodates primary aged pupils, including nursery. We receive a wonderfully warm welcome by the children, who gift each of us a traditional Gilgit hat that is characteristic of the region.

After the welcoming ceremony, we split off into groups and visit each of the classrooms to take part in class activities with the children, who are so warm and inquisitive that in no time at all we’re answering a bazillion questions, and even breaking into song with them.

Our groups reconvene for a presentation delivered by READ’s field team, which gives us some insights into how some of their operations are conducted, the number and kinds of activity being delivered and what the effect of this is on local communities.

Next, we head to Gilgit College, where boys and girls study up until the age of 18 to complete their equivalent of A levels, in preparation for university. The boys are lined up for morning assembly, and we are all greeted with a welcome speech delivered by the head boy, followed by the national anthem and further speeches by some of the participants. We are struck by how bright and disciplined these children are, and how well organised the college is.

Upon conclusion of the morning assembly, the boys leave for class, and we move on to our next activity of the day – tree planting. The college wants to honour us and mark our visit by getting us to plant a number of fruit trees within the grounds. We duly oblige.

We finish up at Gilgit College and leave for Hunza, which is a three-hour journey along the Karakoram Highway. Here we visit the Baltit Fort, which is a 700-year-old fort that has been restored and repurposed as a museum and tourist attraction.

As Baltit Fort is built on the mountain top, we get the chance to take in the extensive views across the fertile Hunza Valley. We’re amazed by the number of fruit orchards the valley boasts.

Hunza is our final activity of the day, after which we head further up into the mountains to our guest house for tonight’s accommodation.

Day 5

Today is our last day of activities before we head back home. We have witnessed breathtakingly beautiful landscapes in the past few days, and so we decide to change the itinerary for the day and instead visit more schools. So we head back to Gilgit School, where we split into smaller groups and visit orphan children that live nearby.

Our group meets a young girl whose father passed away when she was only two years old. She lives with her siblings, a sister and two brothers in a very humble home. While we’re saddened to hear of the difficulties she has experienced, we can’t help but be impressed by her positivity. Despite their obvious financial difficulties, she has dedicated herself to learning and is top of her class.

We reconvene at the school and together leave to check-in to our accommodation for the night at Serena Hotel in Gilgit. We arrive at the hotel late afternoon, and after resting for a while, we meet in the hotel’s conference room for debriefing and feedback session of the past few days. Everybody agrees that the trip has been an amazing experience, with the top three highlights being visiting the schools, meeting with the children, and witnessing the beauty of the region.

The Gilgit Walk Experience is certainly one that has given us all memories that will be cherished for many years to come.

 

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