Day 9: Gilgit to Skardu/Shigar along the Indus River
We had another early start today as this was going to be one of our longest days yet. The plan was to follow the Gilgit River downstream to where it meets the mighty Indus River. From there we were going to turn off the KKH and follow the Indus upstream for around 200km to Skardu and Shigar, our destination for the night.
Our first stop was a notable one. Where the Gilgit joins the Indus River is the point at which three of the great mountain ranges meet: the Karakoram to the north, the Himalayas to the south-east and the Hindu Kush to the west. A short drive further on took us to a point where we could see the entire Nanga Parbat massif some 30km to the south of us – thankfully free of clouds and visible. Nanga Parbat marks the western end of the Himalayas and this historic mountain at 8125m is the 9th highest mountain in the world.
A short time later we entered the narrow Indus valley and so began six hours of driving along some hairy, gravity-defying roads that give you some idea of what the KKH used to be like: single vehicle width, patchy road surface with a crumbling shoulder at the cliff’s edge, etc. All the way along the valley the muddy brown Indus churned away far below us – a frightful sight.
Apart from the dramatic scenery there were a few interesting things to see along the way. Patches of green marked the small villages with their terraced fields clinging to the mountainsides, and those villages on the opposite side of the valley were connected to the outside world via suspension bridges, or even more archaically by a single wire strung hundreds of metres over the river with a metal basket to ride in – a jhula in the local language. At one point we saw some rudimentary mines that followed the quartz veins through the rock walls, where all sorts of gemstones are unearthed.
A basic lunch at a roadside PTDC and a few photo/toilet stops were all that broke up the trip, along with a few times we had to pull over to allow some large brightly-colored and decorated Pakistani trucks to pass.
We emerged at the other end of the narrow gorge in the late afternoon, and crossed a temporary looking suspension bridge constructed like a giant Meccano set which could only take one vehicle at a time – the amount it flexed and contorted when a large truck went across it was frightful!
Forty-five minutes later we drove through Skardu (similarly disappointing, given its mountaineering heritage I was expecting something a bit like the Thamel part of Kathmandu), crossed another bridge north over the Indus and headed into the Shigar valley. Ten hours after our departure from Gilgit we arrived at our destination: the stunning Shigar Fort hotel.