Pakistan won't be at the top of everyone's bucket list when it comes to holiday destinations. Long-running safety and security issues often overshadow the country's tourism potential but, with its natural beauty and historical riches, it's a place that has plenty to offer visitors.
Just a three-hour flight from the UAE, Pakistan's Skardu is one such treasure and a city where elements of nature collide. From snow-capped mountains to freshwater lakes and pristine deserts, this destination in the northern Baltistan region is a nature lover’s dream.
Skardu lies about 2,500 metres above sea level, and is nestled amid the Karakoram mountain range. This rugged terrain is home to some of the tallest peaks in the world including K2 – the world’s second-highest mountain and Pakistan’s highest mountain – and Nanga Parbat.
Long a hub for mountain climbers and adventure seekers, Skardu also has plenty to offer holidaymakers who are seeking a scenic family getaway rather than looking to scale a summit.
Getting to Skardu
Getting to Skardu involves a short flight from Dubai to the Pakistani capital of Islamabad, the northernmost major city in Pakistan. After the two-and-a-half-hour international flight, a short domestic flight of 45 minutes gets you to Skardu.
The flight itself offers incredible aerial views of the snowy Karakoram mountain range, and is widely considered one of the most scenic air routes in the country. Landing in Skardu is not for the faint-hearted, however, thanks to the narrow airstrip surrounded by gargantuan mountains.
Once the plane has touched down on the tarmac, tourists have the chance to step outside and soak up the scenery, snapping obligatory mountain-background selfies before being whisked away in a bus to the city's tiny, hutlike airport building.
Recently upgraded to international status, Skardu airport can receive up to five flights a day during peak tourism season, which is from June to August. Off-season, these numbers are heavily reduced and during the winter months there are often no flights due to excessive snowfall on the runway.
What to see and do in Skardu
No matter where you are in Skardu, you’ll never lose sight of that towering mountain range, which is an epic backdrop for the city of about 200,000 people. It's a sight that elicits a fresh sense of awe each time you see it. But mountains aside, there’s plenty to see and do in Skardu.
A highlight of the trip is a visit to the Sarfaranga Cold Desert, also known as Skardu Cold Desert.
Located at an altitude of more than 2,000 metres above sea level, it’s one of the highest deserts in the world and offers unique photo opportunities of pristine, untouched sand dunes with a backdrop of snowy mountains and rocky terrain.
Baltistan Adventures is a tour company that offers myriad activities in the area, including horse-riding, paramotoring, quad-biking and the region’s first dune-bashing trips.
Muhammad Asif Mehdi, Skardu resident and managing director of the company, was inspired to add dune-bashing to his company's roster after visiting the UAE in 2017 and enjoying a similar experience on Dubai’s popular desert safaris.
“I remember thinking to myself: ‘We have all this in Skardu, so why can’t we do this here as well?’” says Mehdi who adds the activities have proven popular with locals and tourists alike.
“It makes Skardu more than just about sightseeing. There is now something for visitors to actually do when they’re here,” he says.
According to Mehdi, the city welcomes about a million tourists every year, the vast majority of who are from across Pakistan. His company is now working on bringing Skardu’s first ever zipline to fruition, a project he hopes will be ready before the end of summer.
Adrenalin-fuelled activities aside, Skardu is home to an abundance of natural lakes and rivers. During our trip, we visited about half a dozen different beauty spots and the two most memorable were Kachura Lake and Satpara Lake, both well worth a visit.
There’s something in Skardu for shopping enthusiasts as well. The bustling city centre is a great place to pick up a bargain on local specialities such as carpets, clay pots and spices.
Where to stay
The first three nights of our trip were spent at the Serena Shigar Fort hotel, a boutique residence in the picturesque Shigar Valley. The 400-year-old fort, which was the palace of the raja of Shigar, is as comfortable as it is historic. The property is embedded in nature, surrounded by rivers and lush forest, offering great views of north Pakistan’s snow-capped mountains.
We also stayed at the much more modern and central Byarsa Hotel Skardu that, despite having a Swiss Andermatt-like vibe, lacked a little when it came to service.
Other options for accommodation in Skardu include the Shangrila Skardu Resort, a serene retreat located around a heart-shaped lake, and Hispar Hotel on the upper edge of the valley.
What to eat
With the Chinese border only 450km away, there is a subtle Chinese influence on the local cuisine in this elevated city. Noodles and sweet and sour soup are popular, and are often served with classic rice and curry-based Pakistani dishes like karahi.
Trout is also very common as it is abundantly fished from the many freshwater lakes that offshoot from the Indus and Shigar rivers. One of our most memorable meals involved freshly barbecued trout at Kachura Lake served with a side of roti, French fries and apricot juice. The city is renowned for its apricots, with the juicy orange fruits usually beginning to blossom in spring and then harvested throughout the summer.
When is the best time to visit?
The best time to visit Skardu is during the spring and summer season. My family and I visited in April and were treated to some gorgeous weather with the days reaching highs of about 20ºC, with chilly early mornings and evenings.
Because of its elevation and proximity to the mountains, the winter months here are harsh with temperatures averaging about -10ºC. Many residents in Skardu temporarily move to second homes in Islamabad or Karachi to escape the cold months, returning again in the spring. The air in Skardu is generally very dry, so it’s a good idea to pack some lip balm and moisturising lotion no matter what time of year you visit.
Is it safe to visit Skardu?
Despite prevailing perceptions that Pakistan is unsafe, we felt completely at ease on our visit to Skardu.
All of the local people we encountered were incredibly hospitable and generous, with many offering us dawats – invitation to dine with them at their homes, the majority of which we had to regrettably decline.
The hospitality we witnessed is nothing short of what you’d expect from people lucky enough to call this very special part of the world home.