Shangri-La, in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by British author James Hilton, describes a mystical, harmonious valley. It has become synonymous with an earthly paradise, in particular, a mythical Himalayan utopia – permanently happy, isolated from the outside world.
One can imagine how this legend, famous from the time the novel was published until well into the 1970s, inspired Brigadier Muhammad Aslam Khan. The high, narrow valley of Skardu is surrounded by serrated walls of peaks, each buttressed by piles of rubble; the rock, sand and boulder of erosion. Banked up against the river are pale sand dunes, stretching towards the road, broken here and there by lines of trees. There is the constant sound of water, flowing fast and clear through springs and streams that join tumultuous rivers. And there are lakes, almost turquoise in colour, so clear that when still, they mirror the landscape on their banks. When a breeze ruffles the waters, the ripples move from one end to another in one continuous wave. Fruit trees laden with apricots, almonds, and apples grow around the villages, and in summer, the rocks blaze orange with a carpet of fruit laid out to dry.
Hard to think that this idyllic paradise lasts only a short summer, spent largely in preparing for the long, harsh winter in which humans and cattle would bunker down together to survive the cold, until time and facilities make living comparatively easier.
A campaign fought against India in 1948 by the Northern Scouts, led by Brigadier Aslam Khan, ensured that Skardu and the Deosai Plains remained part of Pakistan. For his bravery and endurance, the government offered the Brigadier a reward. Having fallen in love with the valley, he asked for permission to buy the chunk of land which today includes lower Kachura Lake and its surroundings.
In the early 1950s, an Orient Airways (later to become PIA) DC-3 aircraft crash landed in early winter in the Indus riverbed and, over the next few months, was moved to the land by labourers, yaks and horses. Fitted with bunk beds for the six children, it became a summer cabin for the Brigadier and his family during summer before the end of the ’70s, when work on the resort began in earnest.
This was a time when the Karakoram Highway was a narrow road, before it became the eighth wonder of the world. Accessibility was limited and the road was frequently blocked by landslides. Skardu was a very small town with no modern facilities, and the infrastructure to build the resort had to be transported from Lahore. Work could only be carried out during the summer months, as in winter the valley was snowbound.
The Brigadier’s ideas were innovative and unusual. Although the Pagoda Restaurant has been over-featured in photographs, the building is quaint and the wood work inside it is superb: smoothly polished planks fitted one against the other, rise to the roof while upstairs, at each end of the hall, wooden banquettes are backed by windows overlooking the mountains. Delicately carved Kashmiri doors decorate the dining room and some of the cottages.
There are plenty of places to walk around the resort without having to get into a jeep. Above the resort’s helipad, a short walk along the water pipeline leads one to a rocky outcrop with a panoramic view of fields, a terrace strewn with massive boulders, and the river. At the back of the resort is a steep walk past small villages; turnoffs lead to a waterfall by the river, and a little further on, upper Lake Kachura. To reach this, one enters through the tiny, picturesque Nazara Café, with its unassuming exterior and narrow door, where we were served pale yellow apricots, different from the usual orange fruit, and tasting of pure honey. Past the café, painted in mustard and blue, are a very steep wooden ladder and then a pathway by which one descends to the lake, which appears like a small, hidden turquoise jewel. I was fascinated by the clarity of the water: if you take a boat ride, you will see that the rocks and trees by the bank are clearly reflected in it.
The Rock Lounge is just that: it is built around and incorporates an enormous boulder, while the wall and a long counter are decorated with Hala tiles. Behind the restaurant, in the lawn, is a cave-like nook overgrown with creepers. The gardens are planted with apple and plum trees, laden with fruit in early August; there is also a grape arbor with garden furniture. Although the lawns around the restaurant and the cottages are well manicured, the large boulders remain in place.
Behind the cottages and along the water pipeline, vegetation has been allowed to grow naturally; there are heady clumps of wild thyme and flowers such as Queen Anne’s lace with its filigree white flower heads, and a grove of poplar trees interspersed with massive rocks.
With the restoration of Shigar Fort, set dramatically above the Shigar River and managed by Serena Hotels, some of the focus has shifted from Shangri-La. But when it opened in 1983, there was nothing to match it elsewhere in Pakistan. The concept of a resort, a world in itself, did not exist.
After my visit with a group of friends this August, I felt that it has a quality of charm and peace, perhaps because of the still, clear water of its lake; the magnificent views from its comfortable cottages; and the open, homely atmosphere. Although it has been much photographed, these have never really done justice to the place, possibly because they have focused on one or two features rather than on the panoramic views around.
Initially, the resort provided riding facilities, and the old stables still exist, although they are no longer used. There is a zoo with ibex and various exotic birds, particularly pheasants and peacocks; a tennis court; an indoor ping pong table; and boating. Or one can relax and enjoy the view, whether from the verandah of one’s cabin or from the garden. The small library has a selection of books that includes both new, and some very old volumes, which reminded me of my adolescence at the Gymkhana Club in Lahore.
Currently run and managed by Brigadier Aslam Khan’s son, Arif Aslam, Shangri-La’s management is efficient and smoothly run. Important on a holiday, the food is satisfyingly good: the restaurant serves excellent trout from the resort’s own trout fish hatchery, besides other dishes; and breakfast includes in-house cherry and apricot jams. The rooms, which are to be renovated in time for the next season, are comfortable and whether one sits inside or on the cottage verandah, there is a magnificent view.
With experience running his father’s enterprise, as well as that gained in his position as ex-Chairman PTDC, Arif Aslam is all too aware of the importance of helping the tourist industry regain its health. One of his efforts has been to campaign for Skardu airport to be declared an international airport, which recently came to fruit. This will allow international airlines to fly directly into the valley in the future. He would also like to see the existing aircraft on local flights replaced by ATR, which can fly low and would have less weather delays than the present Boeing 737 aircraft. However, key to improving tourism is winning the confidence of international travelers, who often confuse the term Northern Areas with the trouble-ridden areas of the Frontier.
The Deosai Plains
Skardu has plenty of places to visit, both historical and natural. Our concentration on this trip was on the latter; the Deosai Plain was paramount on our list. The jeep ride took us past Satpara Lake, which is now being dammed. The water on our way up early in the morning was crystal clear, reflecting the mountains above it: it was almost dizzying. Further ahead, Shigar Town, built on terraces above the river, was visible on our right, well below the road. We climbed higher and higher, eventually over road that had recently been blasted but was as yet un-metalled, running along a stream, until we reached the plateau itself. We were lucky to arrive when the flowers were still in bloom, and the grass was carpeted with tiny flowers in all colours; the stones and rocks were covered with lichens and mosses in pale green and brown. Although we did not reach the lake, as the river was too high for our jeep to cross, we found the landscape breathtaking: miles of green plain with streams running through it, dipping gently here and more deeply there, and bordered on all sides by grey peaks capped by snow. I don’t think that photographs can do justice to it. You have to drive through the plateau to see the movement of the shadows of clouds over the plain, the bright meadows after the steep, rocky drive to reach them, and the unusual birds. We were lucky to see marmots, two of which greeted each other with an embrace. At the first river crossing, we collected rocks that were like miniature versions of the peaks, with bands of different colours running through them, or others with green, grey and pink-maroon fused together.