Explore Gilgit-Baltistan: Nature’s Paradise and Cultural Diversity
Gilgit-Baltistan, nestled in the northernmost reaches of the world, boasts some of the planet’s loftiest peaks and most extensive glaciers outside the Polar Regions. In addition to its awe-inspiring natural beauty and impressive man-made landmarks, this region is home to a rich tapestry of ethnic groups, each proudly preserving its own culture and language. It has earned worldwide recognition as a top tourist destination and was historically referred to as the Northern Areas of Pakistan.
Gilgit-Baltistan spans an impressive 72,971 square kilometers (28,174 square miles) and is bordered by China’s Xinjiang province to the east and northeast, Afghanistan’s Wakhan Corridor to the north, Pakistan’s Khyber Pakhtunkhwa province to the west, and the Indian-administered state of Jammu & Kashmir to the south.
Geologically, this region is marked by instability, as it serves as the convergence point of the Indian and Eurasian tectonic plates. The Indian plate’s northward movement at an average rate of 7mm per year has given rise to the majestic Nanga Parbat.
Gilgit-Baltistan consists of three primary divisions: Gilgit, Baltistan, and Diamer. These divisions further house ten distinct districts. Gilgit division comprises Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, and Ghizer; the Diamer division encompasses Diamer and Astor districts; and the Baltistan division incorporates Skardu, Shigar, Kharmang, and Ghanche districts.
A Glimpse into History
Historically, Gilgit-Baltistan has been a crossroads of ancient trade routes and a melting pot of ancient civilizations. The region has, for centuries, remained a significant center of Buddhist learning. The famed Silk Route, now the Karakoram Highway (KKH), boasts over 50,000 petroglyphs and inscriptions between Hunza and Shatial, left behind by travelers, invaders, traders, and pilgrims. These carvings, dating back to 5000-1000 BCE, feature triangular men, hunting scenes, and larger-than-life animals.
Gilgit-Baltistan enjoyed independence until British colonization in the 19th century when it was divided into numerous mountain principalities. During the colonial era, it was jointly governed by the British Indian Government and the Jammu & Kashmir state. Following the partition of the Indian subcontinent and the creation of Pakistan, a local uprising led to the region’s independence. Since then, it has been under the administration of Pakistan, operating directly under the federal government.
Rich Culture & Heritage
The people of Gilgit-Baltistan are renowned for their warmth, hospitality, and resilience. Over the years, they have developed a deep connection to their land and a strong sense of community. Adaptation to the rugged mountain environment has given rise to unique skills like mountaineering and trekking. The region’s major ethnic groups include the Baltis, Shins, Yashkuns, Dards, and Burushos, each with its own distinct customs, traditions, and languages, enriching the area’s cultural diversity.
Traditional attire in Gilgit-Baltistan reflects both cultural heritage and the harsh climate. While modern clothing is common in urban areas, traditional Pakistani dress, such as Shalwar Qameez with a woolen waistcoat and cap for men and Choga (a long woolen robe) for winter, are still popular. Women, especially the younger generation, prefer fashionable dresses, while older women often choose traditional shalwar kameez and dupatta for rituals and events.
Religious beliefs in Gilgit-Baltistan encompass a diverse range of faiths. The majority of the population follows Islam, with a significant Shia Muslim community. Additionally, Sunni Muslims, Ismaili Muslims, and Noorbakhshi Muslims are present. Small communities of Christians and Sikhs also contribute to the region’s religious fabric.
Arts & Crafts
The traditional arts and crafts of Gilgit-Baltistan showcase local creativity, skill, and cultural identity. Handwoven carpets, renowned for their exquisite craftsmanship and traditional techniques, are a highlight. Local artisans excel in woodwork, crafting intricate carvings on various wooden objects, including furniture, decorative panels, doors, and utensils. Basketry is another cherished craft, with skilled artisans weaving baskets and containers from locally available materials like willow. Woolen textiles play a significant role, with handcrafted shawls, blankets, and caps featuring intricate patterns and vibrant colors, often reflecting local motifs, flora, and fauna.
The culture of Gilgit-Baltistan draws profound influence from its geographical location amidst the Karakoram and Himalayan mountains. The region’s isolation and challenging terrain have preserved its unique cultural practices. Home to various ethnic groups, including the Baltis, Gilgitis, Shins, and Wakhi people, each contributes to the region’s diverse cultural tapestry.
In Gilgit-Baltistan, languages are a testament to the region’s rich diversity. Shina, Burushaski, Wakhi, Dhumaki, Balti, Khuwar, Gojri, and various Shina and Burushaski dialects are spoken. Pashto, Urdu, and English are also widely understood and used.
The local cuisine of Gilgit-Baltistan mirrors the region’s mountainous terrain and cultural diversity. Staple foods like wheat, barley, and maize coexist with meat dishes featuring mutton and yak. Traditional dishes such as Chapshuro, Harisa, Burus Shapic, Molida, Dawdo, Giyal/Goli, Ghista, Faqo, mixed vegetables, and Aalo Gosht are beloved. Dry fruits and their derivatives are preserved and savored during the winter months.
Gilgit-Baltistan is a sanctuary of natural beauty, boasting five of the world’s 14 highest peaks above 8,000 meters, more than 50 peaks over 7,000 meters, and an abundance of mountains exceeding 5,000 and 4,000 meters. The region is also home to three of the world’s longest glaciers outside the polar regions.
Gilgit-Baltistan celebrates a blend of cultural and religious festivals with fervor:
- Naltar Ski Festival: An international ski competition held in Naltar every February.
- Navroz: Celebrated on March 21st to welcome the new year with blossoms.
- Ginani/Ganooni: Celebrated from June 21st to 25th to express gratitude for the wheat crop with local dishes and communal celebrations.
- Shandur Polo Festival: An iconic event occurring every July on the highest and most historic polo ground, featuring the rivalry between Gilgit and Chitral polo teams.
- Nasalo: A tradition involving the slaughter of animals on December 21st to preserve meat for winter consumption. Additionally, various religious festivals like Eid ul Adha, Eid ul Fitr, Eid Milad un Nabi, Shab e Meraj, Shab e Qadar, Shab e Barat, Jashan e Ramadan, Youm e Ashura, and Imamat Day (of His Highness the Aga Khan) are celebrated, illuminating the surrounding mountains with joy and devotion.
Gilgit-Baltistan’s economy thrives on agriculture, livestock farming, tourism, and natural resource extraction. The fertile terrain supports the cultivation of potatoes, maize, apples, apricots, cherries, almonds, walnuts, peaches, pears, figs, and more. Livestock farming is another vital sector, providing meat like mutton and yak. Tourism plays a pivotal role, attracting visitors from far and wide to experience the region’s beauty and adventure. Handicrafts and artifacts, particularly the handwoven carpets, hold significant market value, contributing to the local economy. Herbal products, such as traditional medicines, have also gained prominence. Moreover, natural resources like minerals, marble, and precious and semi-precious stones find a place in the international market, generating foreign exchange. The trade and commerce sector, especially the export of dry fruits, handicrafts, and precious stones, further bolsters Gilgit-Baltistan’s economy.
Gilgit-Baltistan’s climate is a unique blend of extremes due to its northern location and proximity to the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges. The region experiences distinct seasonal patterns and significant temperature fluctuations. Summers bring mild and pleasant weather, with daytime temperatures ranging from 20°C to 30°C/ (68°F to 86°F) in lower valleys and plains. At higher altitudes, temperatures are cooler, with highs around 15°C to 20°C/ (59°F to 68°F). Autumn ushers in pleasant weather, marked by mild days and cooler nights. Winters, especially in the elevated areas like Skardu and Hunza, are cold and snowy, with heavy snowfall. Daytime temperatures hover between 0°C to 10°C/ (32°F to 50°F), often dropping below freezing at higher altitudes. Spring acts as a transitional period with fluctuating temperatures, gradually transitioning into milder conditions. As the snow melts, valleys burst into colorful displays of blossoms and greenery, creating a picturesque landscape.
Ideal Time to Visit
For travelers seeking the best time to explore Gilgit-Baltistan, the months from April to October are most favorable. Spring, particularly in April and May, offers mild temperatures and a vibrant landscape with blooming flowers. Summer, during its peak tourist season, provides pleasant weather for outdoor activities, clear skies for mountain vistas, and ideal conditions for trekking and mountaineering. Autumn, from October to mid-November, presents another excellent opportunity to visit, with pleasant temperatures and stunning foliage. The region becomes a canvas of vibrant colors as the leaves change, making it ideal for photography, hiking, and cultural festivities.
Gilgit-Baltistan offers a plethora of activities for visitors to enjoy. Renowned worldwide for mountaineering, the region boasts five of the world’s tallest peaks and countless other challenging summits. Trekkers flock here for various trekking adventures. Additionally, the area is a treasure trove for sightseeing, with some of the world’s most breathtaking sceneries. Adventure enthusiasts can partake in Air Safaris, paragliding, rafting, boating, rock climbing, yak safari, and off-road jeep excursions. For those interested in hunting, bird watching, Gastronomy tourism, cultural immersion, or extended stays for senior citizens, Gilgit-Baltistan provides options to suit every traveler’s preferences.
Getting to Gilgit-Baltistan is convenient through various means. There are direct flights from Islamabad to Gilgit, operated by PIA, and Islamabad/Lahore/Karachi to Skardu directly by PIA. Air Blu also operates direct flights to Skardu from Islamabad. Alternatively, visitors can fly to Skardu and then drive to Gilgit or vice versa. By road, the 630-kilometer Karakoram Highway remains open year-round. During the summer months, the shorter and more scenic Naran-Gilgit road offers an adventurous route. International tourists can also enter Gilgit-Baltistan via Khunjerab Pass from China, providing a unique border crossing experience. Skardu has been upgraded as an International Airline and has recently received direct flights from Dubai.
Gilgit-Baltistan, with its natural wonders, rich culture, and adventure opportunities, stands as a testament to the diversity and beauty of Pakistan’s northern region. Plan your visit during the ideal season and immerse yourself in the magic of this extraordinary land.