Splendid Isolation

A photographic love-letter to the region of Gilgit-Baltistan, northern Pakistan

Feature type Photo Essay

Read time 5 mins

Published Feb 14, 2022

Photographer Christian Burling

Christian Burling

I used to associate the word isolation with travel – the search for places far off the beaten track in search of wondrous and inspiring landscapes – until the events of the last two years that is. Occasionally though, that search would lead to a place with a little more wonder and a lot more adventure. A place where the rigours of daily life are lost. A place so humbling and mesmerising, my eyes and jaws were left at their widest aperture.

The Passu Cones as seen from Hunza River.

Anyone who has spent time in such big mountains understands their ability to completely overwhelm you with their presence, sometimes to the point of anxiety, demanding for your return with reckless abandon. Nowhere else will you find as large a number of towering mountains of this sheer size in such a confined space as Gilgit-Baltistan in Pakistan. Formerly known as the Northern Areas, this region contains five peaks above 8,000 metres, more than 100 above 7,000 metres with countless more above 6,000 metres. 

Journeying to this remote region is not for the faint of heart. And, although the Karakorum Highway – a marvel of modern engineering – is considered to be one of the most spectacular roads on Earth, here spectacular is rarely unaccompanied by a touch of danger. While the landscape might grant you mercy, local drivers might not.

But inhaling bravery with deep, meditative breaths guarantees reward. Many times I found myself silent and in awe, grateful for the opportunity to witness those soaring peaks, deep gorges, ruthless rivers, singing streams, wondrous lakes, and enchanting valleys with their abundance of life. 

In the local Khowar language, ‘phan’ means palm. Flat like a palm in the centre of the steep sided valley earned this place its name Phander.

Here, spectacular is rarely unaccompanied by a touch of danger

Not often are you able to follow the tracks of your favourite author. And it is not often that your favourite author is a great pioneer of mountain exploration. But those of you that have read the stories of Eric Shipton, such as Nanda Devi or Blank on a Map, understand Eric’s exemplary ability to describe landscapes with magical prose. It was his 1937 exploration of the Shaksgam area in Northern Pakistan through Hunza and surrounding regions that inspired both my adventure and photography in the same region. Eric’s ability to define a landscape so effortlessly made me reconsider my approach to photography particularly in these areas, calming and slowing me in my process.

It was whilst I was in Pakistan I realised that in such a remote setting there is no concept of time. And why would there be? Life has been preserved, with little or no expectations and no deadlines to meet. Living today as they did centuries ago. Genuinely happy, they’re free from all the complications faced by the modern urbanite. 

With its distinctive teeth, at 6,106 metres Tupopdan also known as Passu Cones or Passu Cathedral, is the region’s most iconic mountain.

I won’t harp on too much about my adventure, I’ll save that for some other time. Though, what I will say is this: if you’re searching for a place that houses the world’s greatest mountain chains (Himalayas, Karakorum, Hindu Kush), which radiate throughout the country, where hidden amid a network of glorious snow-capped peaks and glaciers are lush valleys, so cut off that previously they each formed their very own small kingdoms, each speaking their own isolated language, Gilgit-Baltistan is the place for you.

A single visit to this region, with witness to these mountains will surely bring you a lifetime of wonder. Their sheer size alone strikes with terror. All sense of scale is lost, as the flatlands below disappear from mind.

All sense of scale is lost, as the flatlands below disappear from mind

Phander suspension bridge.

Pakistan is a place I pine for daily. I find myself harbouring thoughts of my return that are somewhat obsessive. One day I will return. But until then, I’ll continue to dream of the days I searched for Splendid Isolation. When I would lose track days and weeks and find myself detached from the events of the outside world.

As the great explorer and author Peter Matthiessen wrote: ‘It is not so much that we are going back in time as that time seems circular and past and future have lost meaning… that the only real time is that of the observer, who carries with him his own time and space’.

When we find splendid isolation, we fall behind history.

At 7,788m Rakaposhi is the world’s 27th highest peak – also known as Dumani ‘Mother of Cloud’.

Rakaposhi is also the only mountain in the world with more than 5,000 metres height between basecamp and the summit.

Shispare (7,611m) is another mountain notable for its sharp rise above its surrounding terrain. Its nearby town Karimabad for example has an elevation of 2,060m meaning this mountain stands 5,550m higher in just 13km of horizontal distance.

The Rama Valley sits at about 3300 metres above sea level and is snow covered for 7–8 months of the year. In summer, it becomes lush and verdant.

With a summit of 8,126m, Nanga Parbat is the ninth-highest mountain on Earth and the westernmost major peak of the Himalayas.

A village nestled into the flanks of Kala Pani mountain.

Perched high above the Phander Valley where the vivid turquoise river Gilgit meanders gently through.

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