The Gilgit – Baltistan have the unique distinction of being the converging point of three of the mightiest mountain ranges in the world, namely, the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindukush. These ranges have many of the world’s highest peaks and the world’s largest concentration of glaciers outside the Polar Regions. In the Karakorum’s alone 30 peaks soar over 24,000 feet (7,500 m) and culminate in the 28,250 feet (8,612 m) high K-2, second only to Mt. Everest in elevation. Sheer rock walls and ravines, plunging thousands of vertical feet down to the rivers flowing below, mark the scenery.
This astounding landscape is the result of the collision of the Indian tectonic plate with the Eurasian plate in this region about 40 million years ago; which is quite recent in geological history. The youth of the Gilgit-Baltistan is reflected in their jagged peaks and continually rising elevations. Nanga Parbat is rising at a geologically dizzying rate of 7 mm per year, which is one of the highest in the world.
These lofty mountains and valleys boast a spectrum of wildlife such as the snow leopard, brown bear, Marco Polo sheep, Himalayan ibex, Astore markhor, golden marmot, woolly flying squirrel and other species, some of which are rare or endangered. Substantial deposits of various minerals and semi-precious stones add to the natural wealth of the region.
Glacial and snow melts are the source of fresh water in this arid region. Water flows into the valleys in the form of nullahs (streams) and makes human existence possible.
The remoteness and limited accessibility of the Gilgit-Baltistan until now have meant that people here have had a high dependence on the natural environment, without access to many modern facilities. Traditional modes of living ensured harmony between the natural environment and human beings. But growing population, greater communication links and infrastructural and developmental interventions are changing traditional lifestyles and increasing the pressure on natural resources.
Amazingly, one of the wonders of modern infrastructure is found precisely in this very tough terrain. The 800 km long Karakoram Highway (KKH) or Shahrah-e-Resham, completed in 1980, starts in the federal capital Islamabad and runs through Kohistan and the Gilgit-Baltistan, past all the way north to the Chinese border at the Khunjerab Top. Most of the way it follows the ancient Silk Route to China and Central Asia. This highway has dramatically opened up the Gilgit – Baltistan, not only facilitating trade and commerce with both down-country Pakistan and China, but also bringing in a greater number of outsiders. The uniqueness of the region still remains, but its inaccessibility is no more.
In addition to the trading importance of Gilgit and its environs, its location at the doorstep of China and Central Asia, with Afghanistan and India also close by, makes it a very strategic area culturally and geopolitically. The people of this area not only share the mountainous terrain with their neighbors to the north and west, but also ethnicity, history, religion, culture and languages. Faces in Gilgit reflect the kaleidoscope of ethnic groups that make up the population of the entire Gilgit-Baltistan. Its geopolitical importance was evident during the British era when the Gilgit Agency was a vital arena in the Great Game politics between Britain and Russia. Today it is still an important strategic link between Pakistan and China and the Muslim countries of Central Asia. The valleys and mountains of the Gilgit-Baltistan present exceptional challenges and opportunities.