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Small wonder

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, September 16, 2011

Pakistan's northern areas are a tourist paradise. Dozens of towering peaks and high altitude plains are like a magnet for trekkers, climbers and nature-lovers. K-2, Nanga Parbat (the killer mountain), Gashabrum, Mashabrum, and so on are all living testaments to the uniqueness of this region of breath-taking mountain scenery. These are just a few of the peaks above 8,000 metres. Pakistan possesses six of fourteen such peaks in the world.

One tourist magnet is the Deosai Plain. This stunning landscape is beyond description. It is a world apart. Declared as a park, the Deosai Plain is spread over 3,000 square kilometres at an average elevation of 4,114 metres (13,497 feet). This elevation makes it the second-highest plateau in the world, after the adjacent Tibetan Plateau. Only the Khunjerab Pass - the Pak-China border - surpasses Deosai Plain in height. But Khunjerab is a high-mountain Pass - the highest point on the Karakoram Highway measuring some 15,397 feet.

Located about 40 kilometres from Skardu, the Deosai Plains and Deosai National Park in the Himalayas can be accessed through Skardu City or via the road from Astore that starts from Chilum. Part of the Deosai Plains is a lake, which on a clear day reflects the stunning beauty of the Himalayas.

Although the flora-rich spring is almost over by summer, even in the month of August one comes across beautiful flower constellations; wildflowers, a wide variety of butterflies and grazing yaks at these heights are indeed a treat to watch.

The towns of Gilgit, Hunza, Sust, Khunjerabad, or Mahoodand and Kalam (Malakand) are all places that spellbind foreigners with their mountainous majesty; there are also the ice-cold water reservoirs - beautiful lakes filled up by glacial melt - that mesmerize visitors.

But of what use is all this if the government fails in flagging this serene part of Pakistan to outsiders? This natural asset seems to have gotten lost in the singular focus on the counter-terror war. The failure of the authorities to separate the peaceful northern areas from the conflict-hit zones, mostly the FATAs and Malakand, has indeed pushed these areas back by several decades.

Foreign tourism - largely because of the travel advisories to their citizens by major countries - has almost dried up, and the trekking and mountaineering expeditions have gone down to less than ten percent of what they used to be in 2001.

"My invoices to my clients in Europe for the months of August and October 2001 alone were over 3.5 million dollars," recalled Akhtar Mamunka of the Indus Guides, during a recent visit to Khaplu and Deosai Plains. Some other tour operators such as Jamal Panhwar and Khawaja Jahan Zeb also spoke of the "good golden days" when they served hordes of tourists and trekkers.

On this trip I was with a group of about a dozen Pakistanis - corporate and business executives and writers - to see for ourselves how the Agha Khan Cultural Service, with the help of the Norwegian government, UNESCO, Germany and other foreign missions, had restorted some of the 19th century heritage sites in Shigar and Khaplu.

This is a fantastic effort with several missions, including the restoration and revival of cultural heritage and the creation of employment opportunities to help the local community.

But individual groups alone cannot revive and promote foreign tourism and trekking. And they certainly can't do it in an environment defined and determined by the various institutions of a "security state" which hold a monopoly over issues such as visas for tourists, trekkers and mountaineers.

Intelligence agencies, essentially the ISI, MI, and the Ministry of Interior, hold sway over these matters. At times, even the most distinguished tour operators or facilitators of foreign expeditions come to tears while pursuing the cases of their clients.

In the name of "security", these agencies either sit indefinitely on visa applications or hastily reject them, even the most genuine cases, thereby depriving the country of opportunities to project a positive side of Pakistan. They also lose foreign exchange that the country badly needs.

We experienced this outside the town of Khaplu when we tried to cross a military checkpost on our way to an area near the Kargil zone.

We were told we were in a "war zone" and were advised to go to Hunza and other places rather than in the direction of Kargil. (A captain told us this over the phone; he was speaking from his hut on the hilltop.)

He was also concerned about our security, the captain told me when I tried to plead with him to let us go through to Dum Sum, just a 20-minute drive from this military post.

By law the area is forbidden to foreigners only, and we were all Pakistanis who wanted to see the area, our area. But all in vain.

Enraged and frustrated, we decided to turn away from the military post - which does not carry any signboard or warning about the "war zone." One signboard says 'No foreigners allowed beyond this point'. Are we foreigners in our own country now?

Our frustration was made worse by the fact that we had traveled all the way up to this town - nearly 8,200 feet in altitude - to see for ourselves what the place had to offer. And, even while standing here at the military checkpost, we could see that it was indeed a beautiful valley, surrounded by craggy towering mountains.

Following our experience at the checkpost, we came back wondering why anybody would bother coming here if some areas are no-go even for Pakistanis?

While the Indian government has opened the Siachin glacier region to tourists - both Indians and foreigners - the Pakistani Army continues to treat its part of the Siachin glacier as well as the region around Kargil as a "war zone" that is out-of-bounds for all. 

How can foreigners in particular venture out to these distant but idyllic places if state institutions deny them visas in the name of security? Affluent Pakistani tourists do come to Gilgit-Baltistan, they find solace in Skardu, and historical forts and palaces at Hunza, Shigar and Khaplu Palaces, but why can't they move beyond these places?

Well, visitors from Europe in particular have a craving for such natural outposts - where they can enjoy day and night in the middle of nature; gushing rivers and streams, high-rising pine and poplar trees, and mouth-watering peach, apricot and apple orchards.

What a shame that, rather than helping attract foreigners to the breathtaking wonders on top of this earth, our "intelligence" agencies are scaring away foreigners and locals through their stubborn and regimented handling of what ought to be civilian matters.

Let us remember that, despite having its many tentacles all over the place, the Soviet Union's KGB could not prevent its empire from disintegration. 

For the truth is that all the talk of Pakistan's natural wonders such as K-2, Nanga Parbat, Mashabrum, or Trichmir pales in the face of practical measures that simply obstruct or discourage human traffic. These places and their inhabitants - all so dependent on tourism - are craving the presence of people to whom they can show their wonders of the world.

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk