Skardu city in the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan is perched 2,438 metres (8,202 feet) above sea level. The city is an important gateway to the eight-thousanders of the nearby Karakoram Mountain range. The town is located on the Indus river, which separates the Karakoram Range from the Himalayas. The name Skardu is believed to be derived from the Balti word meaning a low land between two high places. The two referenced high places are Shigar city, and the high-altitude Satpara Lake.
The climate of Skardu during the summer is moderated by its mountain setting, the intense heat of lowland Pakistan does not reach it. The mountains block out the summer monsoon, and summer rainfall is thus quite low. However, these mountains result in very severe winter weather. During the April to October tourist season, temperatures vary between a maximum of 27 °C and a minimum (in October) 8 °C. Temperatures can drop to below −10 °C in the December to January midwinter period. The lowest recorded temperature was −24.1 °C on 7 January 1995.
Pakistan International Airlines flies daily from Islamabad. However, since the pilots fly by sight with no computer navigation the flight only goes on clear days. During the flight it's possible to catch a glimpse of Nanga Parbat, the 9th highest mountain in the world and K2, the 2nd highest mountain in the world. The air journey is full of thrills and could itself be regarded as the highlight of the visit. After following the same air route, which connects Gilgit to Islamabad / Rawalpindi, the plane turns right and flies over the gorge of the Indus River.
Skardu's Airport is situated at an elevation of 2,230 metres (7,320 feet) above sea level, though the mountain peaks surrounding Skardu reach elevations of 4,500–5,800 metres (14,800–19,000 feet). Upstream from Skardu are some of the largest glaciers in the world, including the Baltoro Glacier, Biafo Glacier, and Chogo Lungma Glacier. Some of the surrounding glaciers are surrounded by some of the world's tallest mountains, including K2, the world's second tallest mountain at 8,611 metres (28,251 feet), Gasherbrum at 8,068 metres (26,470 feet), and Masherbrum at 7,821 metres (25,659 feet). The Deosai National Park, the world's second highest alpine plain, is located upstream of Skardu as well. Downstream from Skardu is located the Nanga Parbat mountain at 8,126 metres (26,660 feet).
Skardu can be reached by bus from Islamabad. The drive takes you all the way over the Karakoram Highway (KKH). It's also possible to get to Skardu from Gilgit. Though it's less than 200 km the journey takes close to 8 hours by public transport. Most places in Skardu town are within 30 minutes, walk. It's easy to get a taxi or hire a driver for trips outside of the town.
Skardu has an ancient Fort known as Kharpocho Fort (King of Forts) situated on a hill overlooking the town. It was constructed by Ali Sher Khan Anchan, who ruled over Baltistan till the end of the 16th century. The mighty Indus snaking along just a few metres beneath your feet among the silvery white sands is an awesome sight.
The Cold Desert, also known as the Katpana Desert or Biama Nakpo, is a high-altitude desert located near Skardu. The desert contains expanses of large sand dunes that are sometimes covered in snow during winter. Situated at an elevation of 2,226 metres (7,303 feet) above sea level, the Katpana Desert is one of the highest deserts in the world. The desert technically stretches from the Khaplu Valley to Nubra in Ladakh, but the largest desert area is found in Skardu and Shigar Valley. The portion most visited is located near Skardu Airport.
Satpara Lake About 8 km north of Skardu and 20 minutes by jeep lays Sadpara Lake, surrounded by glacial mountains, which are mirrored in its crystal-clear waters. The lake has a fairytale island in the middle, which can be reached by country boats that one can row. This lake also abounds in fish and provides good fishing.
Shangrila Lake About 32 km from Skardu and 1 hour by jeep lies the shimmering peaceful deep Shangrila lake, also called Kachura Lake, teeming with brown trout. During spring many exotic and colourful flowers adorn its banks, while peach, apricot and apple trees are laden with blossoms in April. Later in the summer one can taste the apples, which are a delicious variety.
The gateway to the great mountain peaks of the Karakorams, Gasherbrum, and K2, is only 23 km away from Skardu via jeep road. Shigar valley's gentle, irrigated slopes are filled with terraces of wheat, maize and barley. Its orchards of apricots, mulberries, peaches, plums, pears, apples and nuts are unique to Baltistan. The wooden mosque in the middle of the town was built by Kashmiri carpenters several hundred years ago.
The beautiful Khaplu valley of the Shyok River is 103 km east of Skardu. Khaplu is the starting point for most trekking and climbing expeditions. Many famous mountains such as Masherbrum, Saltoro, Sia Kangri, K-6, K-7 are located here. Chaqchan Mosque is one of the earliest mosques in Baltistan (1504 AD), attributed to Syed Ali Hamdani. There is a Palace of Raja of Khaplu and remains of Thors.
In the Narsok village, you will find a large pure spring flowing from the base of the monolith. Dating back to 8th century AD, a huge Buddha figure surrounded by small Buddhisatvas is carved on a rock, three kilometres from Skardu across Sadpara Nullah on Skardu-Sadpara Road. Pre-historic men and animal figures are carved on rocks along Kachura Lake. Some rock carvings and diagram of a monastery near Perkuta (Mehdi Abad) Nalah are also found.
The area is ideal for mountaineering, trekking and hiking. Permission for mountaineering and trekking for restricted zone is issued by the Ministry of Tourism, Government of Pakistan, Pakistan Sports Complex, Kashmir Highway, Aabpara, Islamabad (Telephone: 92-51-9203509). Fishing permits are issued by the Fisheries Department at Gilgit and Skardu for fishing at Satpara Lake (8 km) and Kachura Lake (32 km) from Skardu abound in trout.
Flora and Fauna:
Roses, lilies, pansies, willow, pine and fir trees are found in abundance. Apples, apricots, peaches, plums mulberry, walnuts and grapes are available from June to October and almonds from October to March.
Baltistan boasts of wildlife such as Markhors, ibexes, snow leopards and birds, namely Chakors, partridges and ducks. Most of the animals and birds are protected but limited shooting is allowed. Hunting permits are issued by the local administration.
A stroll around the eastern end of the Skardu rock will take you to the nearby village of Narsok, where you will find a large pure spring flowing from the base of the monolith. To reach Narsok, walk to the far end of the Skardu Polo field and pick up a trail that skirts the rock slopes beneath Zowar Singh's fortress. The mighty Indus snaking along just a few yards beneath your feet among the silvery white sands is an awesome sight. on the west bank of the Satpura Nala is a tall rock with a vertical, beige-colored northern face. Carved here circa A.D 900 is a lovely image of a meditating Maitreya Buddha framed by Bodhisattvas.
The area is known for its Pattu, a hand-woven woollen cloth for jackets and coats. Also, colourful intricately embroidered 'Chugas' (Baltistani gown) and wooden spoons at Skardu bazaar. The shopping Centres are; Naya Bazar, Old Bazar, Botto Bazar, Hussain Chowk, Alamdar Chowk, Kazmi Bazar, Gamba Bazar, Benazir Chowk, Yadgar Chowk etc.
The first mention of Skardu dates to the first half of the 16th century. Mirza Haidar (1499–1551) described Askardu in the 16th-century text Tarikh-i-Rashidi Baltistan as one of the districts of the area. The first mention of Skardu in European literature was made by Frenchman François Bernier (1625–1688), who mentions the city by the name of Eskerdou. After his mention, Skardu was quickly drawn into Asian maps produced in Europe.
At an average elevation of 4,114 metres (13,497 ft), the nearby Deosai Plains form the world's second highest alpine plain. The Skardu region was part of the cultural sphere of Buddhist Tibet since the founding of the Tibetan Empire under Songsten Gampo in the mid-7th-century CE. Tibetan tantric scriptures were found all over Baltistan until about the 9th century. Given the region's close proximity to Central Asia, Skardu remained in contact with tribes near Kashgar, in what is now China's westernmost province of Xinjiang.
Following the dissolution of Tibetan suzerainty over Baltistan around the 9th-10th century CE, Baltistan came under control of the local Maqpon Dynasty, a dynasty of Turkic extraction, which according to local tradition, is said to have been founded after a migrant from Kashmir named Ibrahim Shah married a local princess.
Skardu was founded around the year 1500 along the Indus River where it enters a broad valley at its confluence with the Shigar River. Around the year 1500, Maqpon Bokha was crowned ruler, and founded the city of Skardu as his capital. The Skardu Fort was established around this time. During his reign, King Makpon Bokha imported craftsmen to Skardu from Kashmir and Chilas to help develop the area's economy. While nearby Gilgit fell out of the orbit of Tibetan influence, Skardu's Baltistan region remained connected due to its close proximity to Ladakh, the region which Skardu and neighbouring Khaplu routinely fought against. Sikhs traditionally believe that Guru Nanak, the founder of Sikhism, visited Skardu during his second udasi journey between 1510 and 1515.
In the early 1500s, Sultan Said Khan of the Timurid Yarkent Khanate, based in what is now Xinjiang province of China, raided Skardu and Baltistan. Given the threat illustrated by the Sultan Said's invasion, Mughal attention was roused, prompting the 1586 conquest of Baltistan by the Mughal Emperor Akbar. The local Maqpon rulers pledged allegiance, and from that point onwards beginning with Ali Sher Khan Anchan, the kings of Skardu were mentioned as rulers of Little Tibet in the historiography of the Mughal Empire.
Mughal forces again incurred into the region during the reign of Shah Jahan in 1634-6 under the forces of Zafar Khan, in order to settle a dispute to Skardu's throne between Adam Khan, and his elder brother Abdul Khan. It was only after this point, during the rule of Shah Jahan and Aurangzeb, that Skardu's ruling family was firmly under Mughal control. The ability of the Mughal crown to fund expeditions to territories of marginal value, such as Baltistan, emphasizes the wealth of the Mughal coffers.
In 1839, Dogra commander Zorawar Singh Kahluria defeated Balti forces in battles at Wanko Pass and Thano Kun plains, clearing his path for invasion of the Skardu valley. He seized Skardu Fort on behalf of the Dogra Kingdom based in Jammu. Singh's forces massacred a large number of the garrison's defenders, and publicly tortured Kahlon Rahim Khan of Chigtan in front of a crowd of local Baltis and their chiefs.
Dogra forces failed in their 1841 attempt to conquer Tibet. Following their defeat, Ladakhis rose in rebellion against Dogra rule. Baltis under the leadership of Raja Ahmed Shah soon also rose in rebellion against the Dogras, and so Maharaja Gulab Singh dispatched his commander Wazir Lakhpat to recapture Skardu. His forces were able to convince a guard to betray the garrison by leaving a gate unlocked, thereby allowing Dogra forces to recapture the fort and massacre its Balti defenders. The Raja of the Baltis was forced to pay an annual tribute to the Dogra Maharaja in Jammu, while the fort's provisions were provided for by the Balti Raja.
Following the Dogra victory, Muhammad Shah was crowned Raja of Skardu in return for his loyalty to the Jammu crown during the rebellion, and was able to exercise some power under Dogra administration. Military commanders held real governing power in the area until 1851 when Kedaru Thanedar was installed as a civilian administrator of Baltistan. During this time, Skardu and Kargil were governed as a single district. Ladakh would later be joined to the district, while Skardu would serve as the district's winter capital, with Leh as the summer capital, up until 1947.
Under the administration of Mehta Mangal between 1875 and 1885, Skardu's Ranbirgarh was built as his headquarters and residence. A cantonment, and various other government buildings were built in Skardu during this period. Sikhs from Punjab were also encouraged to migrate to Skardu in order to set up commercial enterprises during this period. The Sikh population prospered, and continued to grow, eventually also settling in nearby Shigar and Khaplu.
After the Partition of British India, on 22 October 1947, A tribal invasion of Kashmir was launched by Pashtuns leading to the Maharaja Hari Singh acceding to India. The Gilgit Scouts mutinied on 1 November 1947, bringing the Gilgit Agency under the control of Pakistan. Major Aslam Khan took over the command of the Gilgit Scouts, organised a force of some 600 men from the rebels and local recruits, and launched attacks on the remaining parts of the State under Indian control. Skardu was an important target because Aslam Khan felt that Gilgit could be threatened from there.
The Skardu garrison defended by a contingent of 6th Jammu and Kashmir Infantry under the command of Col. Sher Jung Thapa. The initial attack was repulsed, but the city fell into the freedom fighters’ hands. After holding the garrison for 6 months and 3 days, Thapa and his forces surrendered on 14 August 1948, Pakistan's Independence Day.