Ancient bamboo rafts have returned to Gilgit-Baltistan as dozens of young people paddled the Indus River earlier this week to promote winter sports and tourism in the north Pakistan region.
The mountainous area bordering Afghanistan and China is Pakistan’s favorite tourism destination and was listed by Forbes among the ten “coolest places” to visit in 2018. Largely dependent on tourists, Gilgit-Baltistan and was badly hit last year as outbreaks of COVID-19 and travel curbs deterred visitors from flocking to the region’s glacial lakes, valleys and 8,000-meter-plus peaks, including as K2, the world’s second highest and deadliest mountain.
In the two-day “Zakh Rally” that started on Sunday, 20 teams traveled through the waters of Indus and its tributary Shigar River on 5-foot rafts, or zakhs. They paddled 70 kilometers from Gulap Pur valley in Shigar to cross the Indus River and reach Skardu, the region’s largest city and a gateway to the nearby Karakoram mountain range.
One of the organizers, Zulfiqar Ali Khan said:
“We organized this event for the promotion of winter sports for the first time in the history of Gilgit-Baltistan north Pakistan. We made 20 teams for over 60 people. If such events are held at different places in Gilgit-Baltistan, the tourism industry will boom in the region.”
The event was welcomed by Gilgit-Baltistan Tourism Minister Raja Nasir Ali Khan who took to Twitter to praise the initiative, saying:
“These local rafting enthusiasts have commenced the winter sporting activities in the region. This aligns with the government’s aim to promote winter tourism.”
Qasim Nasim, a senior Skardu-based journalist said:
“In its traditional form, the zakh was a raft of blown-up goatskins tied to a loose bamboo framework. When there were still no bridges, local communities used the rafts to travel from one village to another. Nowadays, rubber tires instead of hides are attached to the wooden frames of rafts, the main source of transportation in Baltistan. Italian climbers Lino Lacedelli and Achille Compagnon — the first mountaineers to summit K2 — also crossed the Indus River on zakhs to reach the peak. Those who took part in the weekend rally see the event as both an adventure and return to their local tradition.”
Mumtaz Shigri, one of the participants, said:
“Here it’s extremely chilly weather in Gilgit-Baltistan nowadays and to travel on the boat in the river was a big challenge for us. But when we started the journey, we didn’t realize the cold and finally we reached our destination in two days. Zakh is part of our culture, that’s why we took part in this event.”