7 days in Skardu

May 4, 2014

7 days in Skardu

Travelling is almost always meant to be packed with fun and adventure, but little did we know what entailed when we set out to Baltistan for Wardha Saleem’s latest campaign.

Our team included Sanam Saeed, Wardha’s brand ambassador for lawn, Wardha herself, Tapu Javeri, Nubain Ali and hair and makeup stylists Nida Khan and Anam Farooq Khan from the Tariq Amin Salon. While Tapu and Nubain handled all the photography and filming, yours truly was responsible for styling and coordination. Wardha and Nubain’s mother, Shereen Memon, accompanied the team and later proved to be a vital part of the trip.

In Karachi, when we sat down to discuss options for a final location for the campaign, the choices were ample but the patriotic team was hell bent on shooting within the country. Pakistan is one of the few countries in the world that witnesses all the seasons prominently. Rainforests, mountains, deserts, plateaus and valleys; almost every landform can also be found within Pakistan, and yet its potential remains largely unexplored. Also, with lawn being a purely Pakistani product, we felt there couldn’t be a better a site to shoot at than the breathtaking, scenic areas of Baltistan!

Here’s an account of our seven day quest to pull off a picture perfect campaign. It proved to be a memorable and exhilarating experience for all of us and I’m sure it will inspire all of you to plan a trip too…

DAY 1: Cloudy and no chance of flying

In the wee hours of April 13, we all flew out from Karachi to Islamabad only to discover that the connecting flight to Skardu had been cancelled. We were mentally prepared for this, so we contacted Tariq Amin and shifted to his residence. After many phone calls and much discussion, our options were restricted to changing course and heading to Muree and Nathiagali for the shoot or staying in Islamabad for the night and taking the ‘chance’ flight to Skardu the next day. We mutually agreed on the latter. Fortunately, it was a Sunday and Tariq, his hospitable and gorgeous wife Faeyza, lovely daughter Dia and entertaining friend Pucci showed us quality time in Islamabad. Our day went by, as we shifted camp to Lush, a nearby guesthouse, and then chilled out at Tariq’s cosy farm house situated near the Rawal Lake. We returned to the guest house at sunset, had an early dinner and called it a night.


DAY 2: From the Capital to snow-capped mountains in 40 minutes!

5 a.m. wake up call! After a quick cup of tea, we headed to the airport and lady luck was on our side! The flight to Skardu was on time! And the flight from Islamabad to Skardu cannot be described in words. The plane flew over and along the Karakoram Range, the Rakaposhi and the Babusar Pass; within 40 minutes of flight time, we shifted from green pastures and landed between snowcapped mountains! The second we stepped off the plane, all our jackets, scarves and gloves came out. The temperature drastically fell from 20-something degrees to 8 degrees! We got out and summoned two jeeps to take us to the nearby Shangrila Resort, which served as our habitat for two days. During the 20-minute ride, Tapu and Nubain stopped multiple times to shoot the gorgeous landscape we were surrounded by. But no time was to be lost, since we had already lost one day in Islamabad. Immediately after checking into the serene Shangrila Resort, Nida and Anam were directed to start the makeup and once that was done, we took off for the stunning Upper Kachura Lake with pristine blue water and white sand, situated bang in the middle of snowcapped mountains and outlined by pine and birch trees.

The jeeps could not go beyond a certain point, so we became clothes mules and carried outfits, shoes, accessories and camera equipment as we crossed an apricot and cherry blossom garden, walked over a ladder laid atop a water stream and trekked all the way down to the Upper Kachura Lake. It was one hell of an expedition to say the least! Because there was no changing room, Anam, Nida and I tied two bed sheets together and held it against a slightly discreet side of the mountain where Sanam perched herself on a stone and changed outfits. With the sun out, the chilly winds didn’t bother Sanam much until she got onto a boat with her feet dangling into the lake. She was quite a sport about it even as her toes started turning blue! There was a small roadside café sitting on top of the mountain leading to the Upper Kachura Lake, where we ordered some tea and fries. That kept us going. Four outfits down, we started to lose natural light and so called it a day. Back at the hotel, we ordered the hugely popular trout from the in-house Trout Farms for dinner and hit the sack around 10 p.m. Nothing could have kept us awake!

DAY 3: Moving on to the Khaplu Palace with Siachin in sight!

Early bird Tapu was in-charge of waking the team up at 4 a.m. Without any delay, Nida and Anam commenced hair and makeup duties, while I got the outfits pressed. Tapu and Nubain spent that time searching for locations to shoot at and decided on the Shangrila Resort itself, which was picturesque enough. The cherry and apricot blossom tree garden, the centuries old rock inscription, the lake within Shangrila Resort, the mud house and other exquisite sites were spotted to shoot nine outfits. Shooting within the vicinity of our rooms made it convenient for us but an unexpected temperature drop made working conditions worrisome. Sanam’s resolve was undeterred. How she managed to compose herself for each shot with her body shivering and teeth chattering was incredible! After the third outfit, we asked for breakfast to be served in the cherry and apricot blossom tree garden. Pakistani style omelettes, parathas, handmade apricot jam and tea made for a perfect morning feast.


We were on the last shot when it started to rain and we had to abruptly end the shoot and run indoors to keep warm. The lights went out so there was nothing left to do but sit for a candle lit dinner of chicken karahi, daal and mixed vegetables at the Shangrila restaurant. Straight after that we packed our bags and left for Khaplu. It was a three hour drive through the mountains, replete with darkness and silence on bloodcurdling roads. We were stopped at two army check posts where we all had to give our NICs to the guards; standard procedure for entering the valley. The other guard on duty pointed to a snowcapped mountain behind us and told us that it was the disputed Siachen Glacier, from where Kargil can also be seen. Danger zone!

We arrived at the magnificent Khaplu Palace at an ungodly hour of the night. From the minute we got off the jeep, we were treated like royalty! Mr. Abbas, the manager and his team greeted us with some divine apricot juice and gave us a tour of the Khaplu Palace. We all dined at the Serfa Khar restaurant where the traditional local karahi, desi pizza and popular apricot mousse were served. Suddenly the level of exhaustion became directly proportional to the level of excitement! The Khaplu Palace and Residence is magical and spellbinding to the point that it will consume you. We all stayed outdoors inhaling the beauty of the place till fatigue started kicking in and we were forced to call it a night.

DAY 4: The Shigar and Khaplu Fort

In the summer of 2012, Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme restored the Shigar and Khaplu Fort before handing them over to the Serena Hotels Pakistan. Shanaz Ismail, Dean of Design at Indus Valley School of Art and Architecture, was given the monumental task of refurbishing the interiors and she chose Wardha as her assistant for the Khaplu Fort project and together, along with other team members, they meticulously overhauled the textiles and furnishings for the Khaplu Fort. So the decision to shoot there was a no-brainer.


A 5 a.m. wakeup call led us outdoors, where the Khaplu Palace appeared ten times more spectacular in the daylight! We commenced shooting at the patio where the Raja would dine back in the days. Moving onto the majestic courtyard from where he gave speeches, the roof, the outhouse, the cherry and apricot blossom tree garden and taking the final shot in front of the palace. Since Khaplu is more elevated than Shangrila, the temperature was almost touching freezing point! Sanam relentlessly continued shooting till sunset, with her skin and nail color changing from pink to blue to purple! After the last outfit, the shoot was wrapped up and we managed to take a single group shot before Sanam spent more than an hour in front of the heater with a hair dryer blowing away!

DAY 5: A piece of heaven called Satpara

We finally had the luxury of sleeping in and so everyone stayed in bed till 8 a.m. only to wake up for breakfast and check out, because we had a flight to catch from Skardu Airport. Another three hours of attractive sightseeing and we were at the airport. Much to our dismay, not only was the flight to Islamabad cancelled, the airport was locked down!

Once again, we put our heads together to devise a plan B. We were faced with two options: either we could go back to Shangrila Resort and return to catch the flight the next day or we could go see the Shigar Fort. Although Wardha and I wanted to go see the Shigar Fort, the majority opted for the first option. The drive back was abundant with green pastures and snowcapped mountains, and soon we reached the recently completed Satpara Dam near the piece of heaven called the Satpara Lake. Even the ghastly dust storm blowing over the lake couldn’t mar the beauty of the lake and its surroundings. We got off in the fiercely chilly breeze for a few photographs before rushing back into the jeeps. After reaching the town again, the two jeeps separated, as one of them went with us girls to fetch Nida, who was visiting her relatives: the royal family of Skardu. While Tapu and Nubain were busy checking into the Shangrila Resort, we were meeting the extremely generous and charming royal family.

When we got back at the resort, Tapu informed us about the Shangrila Lakeview Point that was a few meters uphill and had a striking view. While Nida and Anam trekked the path, the rest of us chose to travel on wheels. Once on top, we could see half of Skardu town! Naturally, ample selfies and photographs followed!

DAY 6: The 21-hour

road trip

Our morning started with panic: there was no sunlight and dark clouds hovered over the mountains. Sure enough, we reached the airport only to be told that flights for the entire day had been cancelled once again! Almost immediately, we all gave up on the idea of ever being able to take the flight and decided on going to Islamabad by road. We couldn’t afford to waste a single minute anymore because Sanam had to be home on Sunday for personal reasons. Lo and behold! We set off on a 21-hour road trip on the eighth wonder of the world, the Karakoram Highway! During the first eight hours of the journey, we crossed the jaw dropping settings of Besham, Patan, Jaglot, and finally after sundown, Chillas became our single pit stop. We checked into the Shangrila Resort in Chillas, where rooms were interestingly made to look like clay houses in rural villages. After taking a much needed shower, we met up at the in-house restaurant and feasted as if there was no tomorrow!

Clockwise from left: A scenic view of the breathtaking Shangrila Resort; the very adventurous team in the pretty gardens of Khaplu Fort; icy winds blow over the Satpara lake and Sanam Saeed poses in front of the majestic Khaplu Fort.
Clockwise from left: A scenic view of the breathtaking Shangrila Resort; the very adventurous team in the pretty gardens of Khaplu Fort; icy winds blow over the Satpara lake and Sanam Saeed poses in front of the majestic Khaplu Fort.

DAY 7: Back in Karachi

Another 4 a.m. wake-up call set us in motion. You might think that the area’s visual wonders were over but they were not.  Enroute Islamabad, we witnessed the spectacle that is Gilgit and Dasu! Words cannot describe driving past the great Nanga Parbat; it was extraordinary! Slowly and surely, we got past the lush, scarcely populated towns and into the urban cities of Mansehra, Abbotabad, Rawalpindi and finally Islamabad. We reached the airport just in the nick of time to catch the 9 p.m. flight back to Karachi. A huge sense of relief washed over us the instant our boarding passes were handed to us. We landed in Karachi around 11 p.m. only to find ourselves engulfed by mixed emotions. We were ecstatic to be back home, but at the same time the absence of exquisite natural beauty and great weather was poignant. Top that with saying goodbye to the incredible team who were part of this awesome journey and unforgettable memories that we will be rejoicing for a long time to come. William Shakespeare hit the nail on the head when he etched the phrase, ‘parting is such a sweet sorrow.’

-- Photographs: Tapu Javeri


What to-do and not to-do in Skardu

1.       There are two different routes for a road trip from Skardu to Islamabad. The first one (that we took) is as mentioned above and the second one involves travelling through Naran, Kaghan, Astor, Deosai and Babusar Pass. The latter is only open during the summers when snow doesn’t block the path.

2.       Do not rent a hi-roof van for the road trip; it will cause inconvenience at check points. Also, hi-roof vans are not allowed inside the Benazir Bhutto International Airport in Islamabad. Opt for the NATCO buses, which are cheaper and convenient.

3.       Don’t forget to carry a deck of cards, board games, torch, WiFi device, iPad, wireless speakers and a MP3 player with hours of music to play! Also, it goes without saying that a camera is a must-have item!

4.       For city dwellers, Baltistan and other northern areas will feel cold almost all year round. So, pack some warm clothes like jackets, scarves, ear muffs, gloves and boots.

5.       It is imperative to carry a lip balm and moisturizer (preferably with sun block) at all times. If the cold winds won’t dry and damage your skin, the hard water will.

6.       It is said, ‘In Rome do as the Romans’. So do keep a pair of joggers with yourself because a lot of walking, trekking and mountain climbing will be involved! And girls, drape a chaadar when you head out.

7.       Since hard water is only available in these areas, be sure to let your server know your meat, be it chicken or beef, should be cooked for 10-15 minutes more than usual. Also they rarely make use of spices in their food, unless told to do so.

8.       Don’t be surprised to see that tetra packaged milk has found its way in the remotest of areas and fresh milk cannot be found anywhere!

9.       If you like lemons, put a dozen or more in your bag because you will not find them anywhere!

10.     If you are a chain smoker, carry your packs with you because you will not be able to locate a stall/shop that sells cigarettes. If by chance you do, you will never get your choice of brand.

Ps. If you’re a chain smoker then we recommend you take this opportunity to give your poor lungs a good old airing with pure oxygen that the mountains offer. --Ed

7 days in Skardu