The road from Astore to Deosai gradually descends from high mountains to beautiful lush green valleys. Small villages and fields pass by and the river flows in the opposite direction all along. The more you travel in interior Baltistan the more beautiful it gets. After some four hours on the bumpy road, we reached Chilam Chouki, one of the entrances into Deosai National Park. I had waited for this moment for 20 long years.

Deosai is world’s second highest plateau. In popular culture it is also known as the roof of the world. It is more than 13,000 feet above sea level and spans over a vast area of 3000 square kilometers. Deosai is known for its exotic flora and fauna. It is home to the Himalayan brown bear, one of the most endangered species of animals in the world. Its number was reduced to only a couple of dozen until necessary steps were taken to ensure its survival. Brown bear’s main habitat is the southern part of Deosai. It hides in summer and comes out when the plateau is covered with snow for nearly six months. Deosai itself is a protected area and rules and regulations are in force to save its beautiful environment. Official entrances and campsites are designated by concerned authorities and any activity which could harm nature is prohibited.

Deosai is a world of its own. It feels like you have stepped through a looking glass into a different world which is the stuff of dreams. Irregular plains and hills covered in grass are spread all the way to horizon. There’s a peculiar fragrance in its air, a concoction of the aroma of millions of exotic wild flowers and herbs which grow on its slopes and plains. The phrase “roof of the world” used for Deosai is not just a fantasy. You get an overwhelming feeling that there’s no place higher than this. Deep into the trance of Deosai you may actually try to touch the sky which seems just an arm’s length away. There is such peace and serenity; it feels like the place is suited for congregation of angels. It casts a spell on senses and makes you wonder whether a mere mortal, an insignificant being in the scheme of things, deserve to see a wonder as beautiful as Deosai.

The jeep was traversing through the beautiful green plain. Although there was no tree in the entire Deosai plateau, authorities have made a little plantation near Chilam Chowki. Curvy mud track led us deeper and deeper into the wild. Just a few minutes into Deosai, Sher Ali asked the jeep driver to stop. We stepped out and witnessed an unbelievably beautiful sight. Right in front of us was an all green hill which looked like a school girl’s drawing. Its slope gradually gained height in a perfectly gentle curve. From this point, the mud track making its way at the base of the mountain looked like a thin line drawn over landscape. Just on our right was the stunningly beautiful Sheosar Lake, the jewel of Deosai. From this height it looked like melted blue mercury spread over grass.

We stood there dumbfounded for a few minutes, and then climbed the rocks just beside the track to get a better view of the lake. Little wild flowers of most exquisite colors and textures were blooming in the grass. I made it a point to observe every type of flower and take its picture. There were maroon, yellow, purplish blue, mauve, pink, yellow core and purple petals, green stems and dark red petals and even micro mini white and red ones hidden in a moss matted over a stone. It wasn’t difficult to imagine that Deosai would be a botanist’s eternal heaven. As the legend goes, for thousands of years, jogis and sadhus from far flung areas of the Subcontinent had been travelling to this land of wonders in the lap of Himalayan Mountains in search of rare and precious plants and herbs with extraordinary properties.

Still entranced by the beauty of flora, I looked up to see the serene blue waters of Sheosar Lake spread across the irregular green plain. I started walking towards the lake. Sher Ali’s voice came from a high rock. He asked me to go near the lake so he could take a picture. Distance between the rocks and the lake was an illusion. With seepage of lake water, its banks had turned into a wetland. A trace of jeep tires was going all the way to the lake so I thought the earth around the lake would be solid enough. The land got more and more wet and unstable as I moved on until I got stuck and couldn’t find a way out. I was taking careful steps and wasn’t sure about any inch of the wetland. Later on, I was told that this side of Sheosar Lake is swampy and dangerous. All others were left far behind and I wasn’t making any progress in any direction to come out of the treacherous wet land. In that desperation, I halted my racing mind for a while and tried to listen to the silent music of nature. I was in one of the most beautiful places in the world, alone with the serene waters and exquisite flowers of Deosai. It was something more than beauty, something divine and above human cognition. Five senses weren’t enough to absorb this beauty and I was feeling a presence of sixth. I took out my phone and made a short panoramic video. Finally, I found a clearing in the grass, an island of rocks surrounded by green wetland, just beside a stream of water running towards the lake. I sat there and realise that water was perhaps running beneath the rocks and I was surrounded by yellow flowers, stirring in the cold afternoon air. I saved a few seconds of that magical moment too in my phone. Turns out, these two short videos are the most beautiful visuals I’ve brought back from Deosai. I did find a way out of course, just in time to catch the jeeps leaving for the campsite of Bara Pani, in the very heart of Deosai.

Deosai seemed more beautiful in the pale light of setting sun. None of us, including the jeep driver Mudassir bhai had been to Deosai before so we were putting our trust in the track and making way to the campsite. It was nearly dark and we were still far from campsite when the other jeep broke down. Drivers tried to fix it but it seemed a complicated case. So we moved on to campsite and the other party waited there for the only functional jeep to come back and fetch them. Later on, they told us that waiting in the night of Deosai was a beautiful experience.

In the dark night of Deosai, Bara Pani looked like Cairo in the middle of the desert. There were a lot of people, a lot of camps and of course some loud music and noise. The magic of Deosai drained away and we were left to face some practical problems. It was an extremely cold night and our warm clothes weren’t enough to counter it. Camps were yet to be erected so there were at least a couple of hours of waiting. I was feeling slight fever thanks to my excursion in the wetland around Sheosar Lake. Nothing was making sense in the dark although there were many lights. The campsite boasted a bathroom but I knew every campsite has a bathroom which no human deserves to use. I made out figures of Dr and Dr Ahmad coming out of the dark and asked them “I need a vital piece of information from you. Where’s this God forsaken bathroom?” They laughed and guided me. The bathroom turned out as expected. Back at the campsite, we had supper and crawled back inside the camps. Just before zipping up, I looked at the sky. My Goodness! I had never seen so many stars, clusters upon clusters of diamonds glittering in the sky leaving very little space for darkness.

As usual, I woke up early in the morning before everyone else. Ayyub and Sher Ali had crawled inside the camp after I had gone to sleep. It was a cozy little camp so Ayyub’s knees were crushing my rib cage. I struggled to make some room and came out of the camp. It was a clear sunny morning. We were in the middle of a plain and a huge stream was flowing in front of the campsite. Bara Pani is less attractive than other parts of Deosai. Presence of a campsite, complete with its tent kitchens, makeshift bathrooms, camps and people adds to its unattractiveness. There’s no grass left at the campsite, just bare earth devoid of any greenery. I walked up to the bridge over Bara Pani. The stream water was crystal clear. There was a little fish colony just beneath the bridge. We had a few hours of sleep but the jeep drivers spent their night repairing the faulty jeep. Mudassir bhai slept at 3am inside his jeep and at 7 in the morning I saw him fashioning the required part on fire and then cooling it down in the stream. There could be no remuneration for this loyalty and kindness.

Out of nowhere, an army of gigantic mosquitoes arrived at the campsite and tortured us until we started the day’s journey. Their protest was justified. We had invaded their natural habitat. Northern part of Deosai was as beautiful as the eastern which we had seen the day before. Landscape became more and more rugged as we were nearing Skardu. Then the horizon turned brown and blue, brown of the great mountains and blue of the waters of great Sadpara Lake and many worlds of beauty and wonder lie beyond those colors.

I had visited Deosai as a child and I came back 20 years later as a man. Twenty years from now, when I’ll be a middle aged soon to be an old man, I’ll visit this abode of mesmerising beauty a third time just to make sure that my earlier visits were real and not just strange and beautiful dreams.

Continued…..