Rising in Tibet, as one of the four sacred rivers, the Indus flows northwest almost to Gilgit, in a deep trough dividing the Himalaya from the Karakoram, and the Indian subcontinent from Asia. Before turning south it drains Baltistan, or ‘Little Tibet’, an arid land inhabited by people who today speak classical Tibetan and in the 17th century were the masters of Chitral, the NA and Ladakh.
Buddhism probably came to Baltistan in the 3rd century with Gandharan missionaries, and again when it was part of the Tibetan empire in the 8th and 9th centuries. Islam arrived in the 15th century, probably via Kashmir. Baltistan then consisted of several small kingdoms; the most important were Rondu and Skardu on the Indus, Khaplu, Shigar and Astor. Skardu’s Maqpon dynasty gradually absorbed the others.
Near the Balti capital of Skardu the Indus is joined by the Shigar and Shyok Rivers, flowing down from the Baltoro Muztagh, a segment of the Karakoram backbone containing the densest mass of glaciers and high mountains on earth, including 8611m K2, second only to Mt Everest. Naturally, there are unparalleled opportunities for trekking and mountaineering, and it is the escalating impacts of these activities that led to the establishment in 1993 of the 9738-sq-km Central Karakoram National Park . This is by far Pakistan’s biggest protected area, stretching north into Gojal, west to Haramosh and Rakaposhi, south almost to Skardu and Khaplu, and east to the crest of the High Karakoram.
Until an air route was opened from Islamabad in the 1960s, Baltistan remained almost medieval in its isolation. From 1972 to 1985, simultaneous with construction of the KKH, Pakistan Army Engineers cut a road up the Indus that is more formidable than most of the KKH.
The poorly defined northern end of the Line of Control tempted India in 1982 to send troops onto the Siachen Glacier in Baltistan’s eastern corner, which Pakistan regards as part of the NA. The two countries have militarised the area, skirmishing repeatedly in what has come to be called ‘the highest war on earth’.
But away from this off-limits zone, amid awesome scenery, are world-class treks, two national parks and villages that seem hardly touched by the 21st century. Nearly everyone is Shiite Muslim and not a woman is visible in Skardu. Men and women visitors alike should dress conservatively; shorts are out, and even bare arms put orthodox backs up. Many people of Shigar and Khaplu belong to the Nurbakhshi branch of Islam, whose women are unveiled and as open and brightly dressed as the Ismailis of Hunza.
The tourist season is April to October. Midsummer is hot in Skardu; it’s also prime mountaineering season, so jeeps and hotel space may be hard to find. You can fly in from Islamabad even in winter, though schedules are very unpredictable and only a few hotels still operate then.