In the cold desert of Pakistan….

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When you’re travelling to the North of Pakistan, the topography you come across is just as the way you expect it to be, with green lush trees, mountainous and rocky terrain, streams of water flowing alongside the mighty mountains, clear blue sky and the cloudy patches presenting a picturesque view. What you do not expect to see is a desert high up on the mountains.

Cold desert sandy land with blue sky

The Katpana Desert- a wonder in the North of Pakistan. The fascinating thing about this desert is that it is a cold desert with strong winds bashing the sand dunes. The sand that is white, granular and very fine is as spectacular as the desert regions in any part of the world.

Cold desert cloudy mountain in clouds with trees

The soil pH, temperature and the moisture content limits the plant growth to unique vegetation which is why this region is floristically distinct from the surrounding areas of Skardu.

Cold desert people walking on the sandy trackHaving travelled with a tour group, I had to follow an itinerary which was well planned and organized beforehand. We departed at 11pm from Lahore on 23rd July. After a night stay on Sunday in Chilas city, we camped at Rama Meadows on Monday and Deosai plains on Tuesday from where we departed for Skardu on Wednesday morning. Skardu is a town and Capital of Skardu District, in Gilgit-Baltistan. Skardu is a 10 kilometres (6 miles) wide and 40 kilometres (25 miles) long Valley, located at the confluence of the Indus and the Shigar Rivers. Skardu is at an altitude of about 2,226 metres (7,303 feet). The town is surrounded by greyish-brown mountains. Skardu Valley, which is 10 kilometers wide and almost 40 kilometers long, is located on the confluence of the famous River Indus and Shigar River. After exploring quite a lot of localities in Skardu, we finally reached the area Sundus on Thursday, from where the Katpana Desert is accessible on a walking distance.

On reaching our destination we stayed in a nice and cosy hotel Hargissa Hut which is owned by a lady from Islamabad. This hotel is just 20 minutes away from the Skardu airport. If you flying to Skardu, staying at Hargissa Hut is a good option since the Katpana Desert is just nearby plus the hotel also provides pick and drop services from the airport.

Cold desert dull blue sky and desert

The Katpana desert which is famous to be known as the highest cold desert in the world. The desert is a sort of patch of land on and across mountains. Its temperature ranges from a maximum of 27 °C and a minimum (in October) 8 °C, which further drop to below -10 °C in the December-to-January, while the lowest temperature that can reach -25 °C. At this high altitude and cold region, this desert holds strange a attraction.

If you ever plan to tour any areas in Pakistan, do visit the Cold desert and many other sightseeing places in and around Skardu. As for traveling,

The largest area of Katpana Desert is found in Skardu and Shigar Valleys. It is called Biana Naqpo and Katpana Biana, in local language. Katpana Desert is located near Skardu city while Shigar Desert is located on the way to Shigar Valley. Katpana Desert is situated at an elevation of 2,226 meters above sea level. This is one of the most beautiful tourist attractions of Northern Areas in Pakistan. It is called Cold Desert of Skardu Region. Its mesmerizing cold nights and magnificent sandy view makes it a majestic place to visit. There are large sand dunes in Katpana Desert, which presents a spectacular sight. It is located at an elevation of more than 7, 303 feet. It is one of the highest deserts in the world.

Cold desert women sitting

I’d like to share that since my tour group was traveling back the very next day (Friday) and I was the only one who was flying back from Skardu to Islamabad, I had to decide whether to travel back by road with the tour group that was leaving early morning, or stay back alone for my flight which was a noon. This was a risky task since flights from Skardu airport were getting cancelled for 2 days and although the weather forecast for the next day was sunny with clouds, still in the Northern Areas you cannot tell when it could get cloudy or rainy and once your flight is cancelled you could get stuck for no wonder how many days. The tour operators and the hotel management was quite supportive, thus the next day I decided to stay back and let my tour fellows depart. In 3 hours, luckily I got my flight confirmed and got dropped off to the airport by the hotel GM, from where my return journey began. I have always been taking risks during my trips and luckily we do have a lot of responsible, hospitable, and caring people. What my experience has always taught me during travel is to be nice and respectable and all will be well. I really wish that my story of travelling alone inspires a lot of women travelers who intend to travel to Pakistan alone and are afraid. I believe danger is just in your mind. Being a women, I can state this clearly that not all Pakistani people are dangerous and not all Pakistani men intend to harm you. Be nice, do well and have well. It also depends on how strong, confident and well determined you are in your thoughts, personality and plans.

Cold desert with two men standing

Paksitani tourism is on the boom and I strongly believe that there will be a time when tourists from all over the world will be pouring into this country and enjoying the festivities, luxury and charm that this country holds and the hospitality that it offers.
The means of traveling to Skardu are by air and by road only. There’s no option of traveling by rail. Skardu airport is the nearest airport to Katpana desert. This desert region is approximately 30 minutes away from Skardu airport. By road if you plan to Katpana desert, you can take any of the following routes:
Islamabad—>Mansehra—>Basham—>Dasoo—>Chilas—-> Deosai—>Skardu
Islamabad—>Mansehra—>Balakot—>Naran—>Babusar Top—>Chilas—>Jaglot—>Skardu
Islamabad—>Mansehra—>Balakot—>Naran—>Babusar Top—>Chilas—>Deosai—>Skardu

It is also possible to reach Skardu from Gilgit by road too. It is a 256 kilometres long route.
If anyone wishes to travel to this cold desert, pre planning is important since there is a lot of uncertainty about the weather conditions, but if the planning is perfect, then I believe it could be the best trip of one’s life.


Saira Ali has graduated in Mass communication, studied photography from NCA and is currently pursuing her MPhil degree…

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