Baltistan, also known as Little-Tibet, situated between the Karakoram and Himalayan mountain-ranges, Chinese Sinkiang in the North, Indian Ladakh in the East, Kashmir in the South, Hindukush and the Silkroad in the West, is a remote high altitude region.
Skardu is the principal town and capital of Baltistan district, one of the districts making up Pakistan's Gilgit-Baltistan Province. Skardu borders Kargil district (within Indian-administered Kashmir) to the east, Astore to the south, Kashmir and Azad Kashmir to the south east and Gilgit district in the west. Skardu is located in the 10 km wide by 40 km long Skardu Valley, at the confluence of the Indus River (flowing from near Kailash and through neighbouring Ladakh before reaching Baltistan) and the Shigar River. Skardu is situated at an altitude of nearly 2,500 m (8,200 ft) and the town is surrounded by spectacular snow covered mountains.
Nearly 500,000 people live in the valleys of Shiger, Braldo, Arandu, Hushey, Shyok, Khaplu, Skardu, Indus and the Indus gorge down to Gilgit, in the midst of terraced fields and orchards, or graze their goats, sheep, yaks and dzos on the Deosai Plains (4,000m) between Nanga Parbat and Kashmir, and high-altitude valleys of the Karakoram, where winter reigns from October till June.
Geographically this is a far flung part of Pakistan accessible only by the Karakoram Highway, approximately 28 hours drive from the capital, Islamabad or can be reached by a spectacular one hour flight from Islamabad. The area of Baltistan spreads over 10,118 square kilometers. Agriculture based on terraced farming is the mainstay of the people. The monsoon rains do not reach the area. Thus in the absence of rain, glacial water streams and rivers are the main source of irrigation. There are no industries or factories, hence no source of employment except for government jobs which are far and few and to some extent tourism. Thus unemployment is the norm.
The area essentially consists of valleys in the mountainous ranges of the Hindukush, Karakoram and Western Himalayas. These valleys are spectacularly beautiful and rugged. They start high in the mountains lying on both banks of large mountain streams called Nallahs, which start by melting of the glaciers high up in the mountains and flow down and join the Indus River which is one of the longest rivers in the world and eventually after several hundred kilometers journey joins the Arabian Sea at Karachi, Pakistan. Eight of the highest mountain peaks in the world exist in this area including K2, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum, Broadpeak and Concordia.
The people of Baltistan are gentle and friendly. Crimes like murder and theft hardly exist and the jails often remain empty. In the modernized world that we live in today, these qualities are considered precious and hard to find. Luckily, religious extremism does not exist here and therefore in a way it can be called a haven in today’s troubled world. However, the place has not been promoted enough for its tourist attractions. Some of the old palaces, forts and heritage buildings are being restored or converted into boutique type hotels which should economically benefit the region. Mostly foreigners who are part of mountaineering expeditions are seen in this part of the world. The people speak Balti which is an ancient form of Tibetan and the region was entirely Buddhist until the arrival of Islam in the fifteenth century. There are interesting Buddhist stupas and relics in the region and the architecture of older mosques have strong Buddhist influence. In this poorly developed part of the third world, health in official circles is hardly considered a worthwhile priority. People even die of simple illnesses for which cure had been found many years ago.