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Geography, History, and Strategic Significance of Gilgit-Baltistan

Nestled in the heart of the Karakoram and Himalayan ranges, Gilgit-Baltistan is a land of unparalleled natural beauty and cultural richness. Encompassing an area of over 27,000 square miles, it is home to some of the world’s highest peaks, including K2 and Nanga Parbat, as well as crystal-clear lakes, sprawling glaciers, and ancient archaeological sites.

Despite its breathtaking scenery and rich history, Gilgit-Baltistan remains one of Pakistan’s best-kept secrets, largely unknown to the outside world. With a population of approximately 1.5 million, the region is divided into three divisions and ten districts, each with its own unique culture and traditions.

From the bustling bazaars of Gilgit to the remote mountain villages of Baltistan, Gilgit-Baltistan is a place of contrasts, where ancient traditions and modern life intersect. With its pristine wilderness, diverse wildlife, and vibrant culture, this northern frontier is a true hidden gem waiting to be discovered.

Geographical Features and Mountains of Gilgit Baltistan

The area is surrounded by various geographical features. To the north lies the Wakhan Corridor in Afghanistan and the Xinjiang province of China. Indian Occupied Kashmir bounds the south and southeast, while Chitral (KPK) borders the west. The region is characterized by towering, snow-covered mountains that are interspersed with valleys. To the north is the Hindukush mountain range, which separates the Ishkuman and Yasin valleys from the Wakhan corridor. The highest peak in Chitral is Tirich Mir, which rises to 25,289 feet. The Pamirs range meets the Hindukush near the point where the borders of Pakistan, China, and Afghanistan converge. To the further east are the Muztagh mountains of Karakoram, and to the south, the Gilgit, Indus, and Shyok rivers create the southern boundary of the Karakoram range, separating it from the Himalayas. K2, the world’s second-highest peak, stands at 28,251 feet, followed by Gasherbrums, Broad Peak, Rakaposhi, and Mashabrum. The eastern part of the Himalayas lies in Pakistan, with the highest mountain being Nanga Parbat at 26,620 feet. Five of the world’s 14 peaks that exceed 8,000 meters (26,000 feet) are in Pakistan’s Gilgit Baltistan, and four are situated near Concordia in the Baltoro.

Gilgit’s Role in the Great Game of Russian-British Rivalry

The intense competition between Russian and British India for dominance over Central Asian States throughout the 19th and early 20th centuries is widely known as the “Great Game.” In his book “The Gilgit Game,” John Keay explores a part of this rivalry that played out in Gilgit. The region was considered a gateway to India, a strategic focal point in Asia, and critical to the security of British India’s borders. The British were deeply concerned about the possibility of Russian incursions through Pamirs and Hindukush into Chitral and Gilgit. Even before becoming viceroy of India, Lord Curzon visited this inaccessible area to ensure that their northern border remained secure. Field Marshal Kitchener, the Commander in Chief of the Indian army, also visited Gilgit after a Russian military officer’s visit to Hunza. Today, Gilgit-Baltistan has once again become a center of a new “Great Game” involving India, Afghanistan, and the United States due to the initiation of the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC). During a hearing before the Senate and House Armed Services Panel, the US Defense Secretary informed them that CPEC runs through a disputed territory.

The Importance of Geographical Features and Passes in Gilgit Baltistan

The Indus River, which is the longest river in Pakistan, originates from Manasarowar lake in Tibet and flows through Tibet, Ladakh, Skardu, Gilgit, and Terbella. It covers a distance of 620 miles from its source to Skardu. The Terbella Dam, which is the largest earth-filled dam, has been built on the Indus. The river is the primary source of agriculture, food, and irrigation systems, particularly in the breadbasket provinces of Punjab and Sindh. Gilgit Baltistan is linked to China, Afghanistan, and Indian Occupied Kashmir via several essential passes, such as Kilk pass, Mintaka pass, Khunjerab pass, Shimshal pass, Muztagh pass, and Karakoram pass, which connect Pakistan with China. The Darkot pass connects Yasin to Chitral through the Baroghil pass. The Irshad pass connects Chupursan river valley/Baba Ghundi and Gojal to the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan. The Sia la, Bailfond la, Gyong la, Chullang la, Chorbat la, and Marpo la link Gilgit Baltistan with Indian Occupied Kashmir. The Kamari pass, also known as the Gilgit Transport Road, connects Astore with Srinagar via Gurez, Bandipura, and Wular Lake. The Shuntar pass connects Astore with Kel and Neelam valley in Azad Kashmir. The Siachen glacier, situated in Baltistan, holds immense significance.

Indian-Pakistani conflict over peaks and glaciers in Gilgit Baltistan

In April 1984, India began occupying crucial peaks in a significant airborne mission known as Meghdoot. The Indian-held sites slope down to the positions held by the Pakistani army and lead to major towns in Baltistan. The Indians fear that if Pakistan takes control of further heights, the Indian line of supply to Ladakh and Kargil would be jeopardized. Gilgit Baltistan is renowned for its magnificent glaciers, which nourish the rivers (River Indus) that account for 75% of the stored water supply in the country. Gilgit Baltistan is home to several vital glaciers, including the Baltoro (63 km long), Batura (57 km), Biafo (67 km), Hispar (61 km), and many others, which are among the largest outside the polar regions. The Karakoram mountain range is home to 40 glaciers.

Gilgit-Baltistan’s Strategic Significance for Trade and Development

Gilgit-Baltistan has a rich historical connection with China through the Silk Road, which had two major routes passing through Muztagh River and Tashkurgar. The ancient trade route connected the region to Hunza and Misger via Kilk Mintaka passes. The construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) in 1979 replaced the Silk Road and increased the region’s importance. With the start of China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC), Gilgit Baltistan has become the gateway to this major project. The CPEC spans almost 500 kilometers in the region, making its success heavily reliant on Gilgit. The Diamer-Basha dam is a massive public sector project located 40 kilometers downstream of Chilas on the Indus River. On completion, it is expected to generate 4500 megawatts of hydroelectric power and provide an additional 8500000 acre feet of water for irrigation. The region is renowned for its stunning glaciers, including the Baltoro, Batura, Biafo, and Hispar glaciers, which feed rivers such as the Indus, providing 75 percent of the stored water supply in the country.

Cultural Bonds and Strategic Implications: The Connection between Gilgit Baltistan and Kargil

The inhabitants of Gilgit Baltistan share close cultural, religious, and linguistic bonds with the people of Kargil, a region currently occupied by India. The majority of the population in the district are Muslims of Balti descent, with Balti and Shina being the primary languages spoken in Kargil and Dras, respectively. During the 1948 war of liberation, the liberation forces seized control of Kargil and Dras. However, Indian troops retook the area after the liberation forces retreated to Olding for regrouping, following the announcement of a ceasefire. Presently, the Pakistani army has a strategic advantage in the Kargil sector, which endangers India’s communication lines to Siachen. The Deosai plain in Baltistan, which is situated 30 kilometres from Skardu, is the second-highest plateau globally, covering an area of 3000 square kilometres, with an average altitude of 3500 meters and covered in snow most of the time. According to media reports from the 1960s, the Americans expressed interest in establishing one of their bases in this area.

“Exploring Gilgit Baltistan: A Land of Natural Beauty and Warriors”

Gilgit Baltistan boasts a wide range of attractions such as mountains, Deosai plateau, lakes, Karakoram Highway, glaciers, deserts, forests, diverse flora and fauna, rich heritage, culture, and traditions. In 2017, more than 1.72 million tourists visited Gilgit Baltistan, and this year it is expected that 2.5 million tourists will visit the region. If managed properly, tourism can become a significant source of revenue generation. The people of Gilgit-Baltistan have a history of being great warriors, as evidenced by their fights among themselves and against the Dogras, the British, and Indian armies. On the night of October 31, 1947, the Gilgit Scouts staged a coup in favor of Pakistan, and the next morning, November 1, 1947, the Dogra governor Brigadier Ghansara Singh surrendered to Gilgit Scouts, and Pakistan’s flag was raised. The Gilgit Scouts later became the Northern Light Infantry (NLI) as part of the civil armed forces. In 1999, due to their outstanding performance during the Kargil war, the NLI regiment was given the status of regular infantry. The soldiers of Gilgit-Baltistan are regarded as the best warriors who have proven their mettle during the 1948, 1965, 1971, Siachen conflict, Kargil war, and the war on terror. Lalik Jan, the recipient of Nishan Haider, is the son of Gilgit Baltistan. The people of Gilgit Baltistan are true patriots who love Pakistan more than any other common Pakistani, and it is because of this love for Pakistan and Islam that, after liberation, they asked the government of Pakistan to take control of the region. Although there is a small group of sub-nationalists who do not enjoy significant support in the area, they are exploiting the issue of constitutional status by polluting and instigating the minds of the younger generation. After independence, successive governments introduced various packages to bring the area into the mainstream. However, these packages have not met the expectations of the people of Gilgit Baltistan. The people of Gilgit Baltistan want their identity linked with Pakistan, which can be achieved by giving provisional status of a province and linking it with the final settlement of the Kashmir issue.




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