Gilgit’s dusty bazaar is not particularly colourful but it’s lively and eclectic, filled with people drawn from Karachi to Kashgar. It’s not unusual to hear Uyghur, Wakhi, Burushaski, Khowar and Pashto; Urdu and English are also widely spoken.
The town wakes early to muezzins in scores of mosques calling the faithful to dawn prayers. The major Muslim branches – Shiite, Sunni and Ismaili – overlap here, with sectarian tensions just under the surface. In 1988 Sunni–Shiite hostility exploded into virtual warfare at Jalalabad in Bagrot. Sectarian battles erupted around Gilgit during 1992 to 1994 and, after a long period of relative calm, again in 2005. Since then, the overwhelming presence of heavily armed police and army has become everyday normality, though it can be quite a shock for visitors.
Gilgit is becoming a city, its headlong growth owing more to its position on modern trade routes to China and Central Asia than to tourism. There is always talk (but little action) of extending the airport runway to allow jets to land, but basic public services such as electricity and water haven’t kept pace with the town’s growth.