If heaven has an abode, it is in Gilgit Baltistan. If heaven is a desert and has a river running through it, it is Skardu. Expansive valleys carpeted with white silt, surrounded by gargantuan, barren mountains. Clear water that allows you to see through to the depths of the lake, and trees bearing fruit like you will never see in cities or farms. There is an untouched purity and simplicity there that will take over all your senses. The real world is a faraway place, and you are finally lost in that magical escape you usually go to within the crevices of your mind.

We owe the Agha Khan Trust for Culture (AKTC) a huge debt for restoring our original heritage and for showing us that nothing is impossible. The Serena Hotel chain has taken over the historic Shigar Fort (locally known as Fong-Khar) and Khaplu Palace (or Yabgo Khar), preserved them in their splendour and added to them modern day touches. The architectural levels of these spaces parallel the layers of one’s own experience here. Thunderous waterfalls contrast with the quite garden spaces, barren hard lands with the softness of fruit trees in courtyards, raw natural beauty against human master pieces; carved ceilings, alleyways, baradaris and more. What better way to immerse yourself in the culture of Baltistan, than finding yourself staying in a 400 year old historical fort? With a glacial stream rushing by their gates and intimidating mountains surrounding them, there is a calming atmosphere to these boutique hotels. Historic artefacts lay displayed in corners to remind you of what once was; the shoes of the Raja, the clothes of the Rani, a black and white photograph of the family. When you see these, you realise they lived simplistic lives in comparison to the opulence of the Mughals. If this was not enough, both hotels have museums dedicated to the history and you can lose yourself in the guided tours. You learn the doors were small so that you may bow your head upon entering, as a sign of respect. They devised a fridge-room by channelling glacial water to run through the building to keep stored food cool.

Those who visit in the near future do take a trip to Haji Mushtaqs fish farm and restaurant in Saling. You may make some of the best memories there; a scenic drive, fishing, climbing the nearby mountain and then feasting on a scrumptious meal of the fish you pulled out.

Both hotels are packed with modern day amenities, pristine bathrooms, fluffy-feathered beds, running hot water, Wi-Fi, car arrangements and delectable meals. The Agha Khans have modestly shown us that nothing is impossible. In their own small way they have exemplified that these areas need only the infrastructure and their development will far surpass those of our current egregious city lives. They have a three pronged ‘responsible tourism’ philosophy which includes i) preserving cultural heritage, ii) snowballing economic development in the area and iii) encouraging sustainability. The area has begun benefitting from sustainable development and eco-tourism. Locals now have job opportunities sprouting from the tourism industry; this has raised their incomes and helped them better themselves. When more income comes in, the area could benefit with further sustainable development. The hotels have also begun their ‘Responsible Tourism Initiatives’ that provide education to children and vocational training to women in the areas. In Shigar, the Abruzzi School Garden Project is a commendable initiative to raise young environmental stewards. Tourists can visit and provide support to these when there.

The district government of Baltistan is working in their own way, as construction has begun on new suspension bridges and dams. How far these go, is yet to be seen. The wildlife/forestry department in particular has sparked ecological conservation. Everywhere there are ‘Do not litter’ signs, and messages to preserve wildlife habitat. What truly amazed a conservationist such as me was to find signs in Deosai National Park and handouts passed at the entrance that gave tourists strict guidelines. Tourists are not allowed to pick a single leaf so as not to disrupt the natural ecology. All of this is a step in the right direction.

It is about time the federal government looked to the development of other cities and districts other than Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi - and provide all Pakistanis with a way of life. There still exists untapped potential, and if we begin moving within sustainable avenues such as solar power, eco-tourism and better infrastructure, the rewards are far reaching. Baltistan is already flourishing with local tourism , when international tourists pour in one need only wait for the immense growth to follow. However, this would have to be a carefully devised plan and not left to the greedy eyes of land mafias and crass development projects. The people of the villages will touch your heart with their smiling faces, their honesty and their love for the simple life. Preservation of their community life is paramount.

A Korean tourist stated, of 106 international trips he made this year, Pakistan made it to number one. Gilgit is not of the material world, it is a land you read of in books where elfin creatures exist. It is where Alexander the Great traversed alongside the Indus. It is where the Hamacha and Amacha dynasties existed and left an indelible mark. The sensation is like taking a boat ride. Slow and long, until you reach your destination. When you go to bed that night, remnants of the journey remain and you sway in the waves. You fall in love. After all, it’s the little things in life.