The wide expanse of Deosai — only interrupted by occasional flower-beds and lakes — plays tricks on the eye of the traveler. As I approached the second highest plateau on Earth the clouds above appeared to be toucing the highlands and the hills seemed to be caving in on the plateau. Though as I stood in the midst of the Deosai plains, the sky above seemed higher than ever before and the mountain peaks studded the furthest possible horizon.
The famous occultist and mountaineer Aleister Crowley said, “It (Deosai) has a devilish reputation for inhospitality” and indeed, these high plains remain covered in beds of snow for most of the year save a few months of summer. Though summer nights too see layers of frost every now and then around the lakes. Shunned by civilization, the sole human presence in the plains consists of travelers on foot crossing from Skardu to Astore during the short summer or occasional jeep-driven tourists. As snow begins to melt, few Gujar herders use this path to cross regions with their sheep, goats and cattle. There are hardly any permanent settlements in the area, though the air of desolation that surrounds this immense landscape gives it an aura of mystique if nothing else.
The Deosai Plains can be visited most reliably between early to mid July and late September. It is also noted for sporadic windstorms that are certain to test the sturdiness of your tent. Nowhere lower than 13,000 feet in altitude, the rolling grasslands support no trees or shrubbery and the Deosai’s ruling denizens are scattered colonies of large marmots. Surrounded by snow-capped peaks of the Himalayas, these plains give a unique combination of absolutely leveled ground and steepest of hills. It is not simply a plateau offering a scenic view of the mountains; it is an immense stretch of land that has to be witnessed to be believed.
We started our expedition to the plains from Skardu in our rugged jeep, along the road that lead up to Satpara lake through Satpara nala, Burji lake and the exquisite Seosar lake. This was a five to six days long trek which gave us an excellent panorama of the central Karakoram range (including K2) and let us walk along the Deosai Plains. The route followed a valley just west of Satpara, crossed the 15,700 feet Burji lake, debouched onto the plains and circled back, following the seldom used road connecting Skardu and Astore. You could walk this route instead but be sure to do so only after you have trekked a few kilometers in the region and know how to plant your feet on steep terrains.
The view from here is once that has enthralled visitors for centuries. In 1912 the English physician and hiker Ernest Neve when writing about the Burji Lake said: “The view from here looking northward is one of the most magnificent in the whole of the Himalayas.” The same is true today.
This track eventually joined the rarely travelled road near a rock cairn. We then followed the road across the 14,000 feet Chachor Pass, where a wide lake sparkled just before the high saddle that comprised the pass. Here we bid farewell to the compelling Deosai and entered the Das Khirim Gah – a clear stream that drains into the Astor River. In the distance we could see forests of mixed pine and a valley seeping into the first village, with its small rectangular houses made of stones and logs. Continuing down the valley, we entered a realm of tall, scattered pines and finally had our first view of the majestic Nanga Parbat towering over the ridge to our left. We could not stand here for long though as we were still searching for the ideal spot for viewing the mountains.
We continued down the road to the mouth of Das Khirim Gah, where it joined the main Astor River at the western base of Nanga Parbat. The 26,660 feet mountain was spread out before us just a few miles to the west. At this ridge we could see the infamous Rupal valley at the southern base of the mountain. We scrambled down the hill in search of water and a flat piece of land to pitch our tents. And then came the sight that made our entire trip worthwhile … the spellbinding sunrise on the Nanga Parbat seen from this steep, deserted hill. We sat there for a while, simply staring at this miracle of nature.
We then continued down the small trail on the hill to the famous Rupal Valley which eventually leads to the village of Rampur – the hub of trade and culture during the 20th Century which connected India to Central Asia and Tibet. The Rupal Valley did not disappoint my imagination. Surrounded by some of the world’s highest mountain faces, the valley is nothing short of a traveler’s dream … but that is a story for another day!
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, July 17th, 2011.