Recently, a group of about a dozen well-placed Pakistanis – corporate and business executives and writers – suffered an indignation at the hands of young captain and his colleagues at the check post immediately after the Khaplu town, some 80 kilometres north of Skardu.
This is a war zone and we cannot let you beyond this point, was the curt reply from one of the captains manning the post under a brigadier and a colonel.
Why don’t you go to Hunza and other places rather than wanting to go in the direction of Kargil, the captain told one of the enraged members of the group.
We are also concerned about your security, the captain told this writer , when we tried to plead him to let us go through to Dum Sum, just about a 20 minute drive from this military post.
Our please fell on deaf ears. In fact, in one of the most brazen acts, the captain told the guards at the post to let two of us walk up to his office – an almost 300 metres long ascending stretch- to discuss the matter. When we went up, the captain was missing and another of his colleagues greeted us.
Sorry sir, you need the permission of the divisional headquarter to cross the check-post. But Captain, I said, one carrying some of our colleagues has already been allowed to move on. Sorry Sir, the SOP (standard operating procedures) prohibit any non-local from crossing this point.
We asked for the SOPs , but there were none. We also asked for a meeting of the acting GOC. The captain disappeared with the promise of conveying the message to the commandant but never returned.
Enraged and frustrated, we all decided to turn away from the military post – which does not carry any signboard or warning at the site or before it. One sign-board says. No foreigners allowed beyond this point. But no word about non-local Pakistanis.
But still we experienced – in blazing sun – some of the rough moments ever, exchanging arguments with the soldier on the ground and his superior top of the hill – all in the name of security.
We felt embarrassed, ashamed and were all angry; here were people – most of whom have traveled extensively across the globe, people who were on a mission into Khaplu and Shigar – towns with awesome natural beauty. We all were there to see for ourselves how the Agha Khan Cultural Service, with the help of the Norwegian government joined hands to restore an mid 19th century Palace in the heart of the serene Khaplu town.
This is a fantastic effort driven by a combination of factors – pain-staking restoration and revival of cultural heritage, creation of employment opportunities to help the local community -. The old palace and the new residences for tourists is a beautiful combination of the old and the new; all the rooms are equipped with modern amenities – phone, internet, moder washrooms – all in structures either old or replicas of the old ones – with no cement used for construction or repair.
The intense altercation with the soldiers at the Khaplu checkpost took away some of the fun that the visitors’ group had at the Khaplu palace. We had all traveled up to this town – nearly8,200 feet in altitude – to see for ourselves as to what the place offers to outsiders. It is indeed a beautiful valley and we all agreed that despite the stressful environment, this can still be promoted.
But after our experience at the Checkpost before the Kargil terrain, almost all of us came back wondering as to why would somebody come here if some areas are still off-bound even for Pakistanis?
While the Indian government offers the Siachin glacier region to tourists – both Indian and foreigners , the Pakistani army continues to treat its part of the Siachin glacier as well as the region around Kargil as “war zone” and thus out-of-bound even for Pakistanis.
Our visit to Khaplu and eventually to Shigar – another scenic village on the way to the majestic K-2, left us with no doubt that Pakistan’s northern areas – without a shred of a doubt – boast one of the best collection of mountains and lush-green valleys at their feet – being fed by the glacial melt of the Karakorum and the Hindukush.
But 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 Shigar and Khaplu Palaces, stay there and also want to move around. So do the foreigners. In fact visitors from Europe in particular have a craving for such natural outposts – where they can enjoy day and night in the middle of the nature; gushing rivers and streams, high-rising Pine and Poplar trees, and mouth-watering Peach, Apricot , Apple orchards.
Somehow, the paranoid about “national security” and the refusal of visas to foreigners or reluctance to issue them visas for the suspicions of espionage basically stand out as the major hurdle in attracting foreigners to places such as Shigar, Khaplu, Skardu or Deosai plains – all breathtaking wonders thousands of feet above sea level. But if the state institutions, largely the ISI-led security apparatus remains obsessed with “security” and keeps turning back visa applications, all the talk of Pakistan’s natural wonders such as K-2, Nangaparbat, Mashabrum, or Trichmir is useless. Neither will the world come to know about the historical, architectural heritage that lies scattered all over Pakistan – including the Northern Areas – which are a real haven on earth , and places like the Khaplu or Shigar Palaces are simply living examples of this combination of heritage, natural beauty and a diverse ecology. KGB could not prevent the Soviet Union from disintegration. Nor will Pakistan’s security apparatus achieve anything for this wonderful country if it continues to treat Northern Areas at par with FATA, and keeps either sitting over visa applications or rejecting them.