The Gilgit Serena Hotel
Gilgit Serena’s facade is unassuming. The driveway is paved with uneven pieces of slate. There are two security barriers and a guard posted at each. The lobby is standard plush red carpet with a hand woven pattern, the staff welcoming with open and generous smiles. In the lobby I spy an HBL ATM and four small handicraft stores tucked away in the corner.
When you head towards the main entrance, you have no idea that rooms and views on the other side are going to be a little different from what you are used to on your travels. You are focused on getting your luggage inside, checking in and collecting your room keys. Tired after a two day road trip, the first thing on your mind is a long hot shower followed by an extended hot meal. You are thinking about how to make space for a care free nap in between where you can give your bones a rest from the jolts received on the ride to Chilas.
Four majestic peaks lit by the setting sun stand aloof, unmoved by your schedule, your lists, the weather or your weary bones.
You reach for your lens and your sketch pad, put on your shoes and step outside; Shower, food and nap forgotten in a rush to preserve that image forever in your mind’s eyes.
You are curious about their names and the many shades the cliffs take before darkness sets in. No matter how much you tweak your lens or your camera settings, the images you capture fail to do justice to what you have seen with your own eyes.
It takes you a few days, at the least an evening to get used to the set of peaks on whose foothills Gilgit rests. Nothing else holds your eyes. Don’t make any plans for the first evening. The city has nothing that compares with what you see from the lawns of Serena. On the off chance if there was anything, the market closes by sunset, so you can save that trip for the next morning.
As you wander around with your lens like a child in an amusement park, preparations are on for the nightly open air BBQ that features fish tikka, kebabs, beef roasts on a charcoal grill and a few local dishes. For a first night meal it works wonders because post your shower you find that you are hungry and Gilgit’s crisp evening air whets your appetite.
But the Serena and Gilgit are not just about peaks, sunsets and foot hills. The property is set amidst an organic garden that features strawberry bushes, cherry trees, a mulberry jungle, walking trails and a gazebo. It takes a little exploring to discover all the secrets the property holds and it helps that first light breaks at 4:30 am.
As you opt for your morning walk, you can pick the ripe fruit from your choice of trees and have an early breakfast or click away to your heart’s content. One minute focused on the fruit in your hand, the next at shrouded peak 8,000 meters above sea level.
There is a local market called NLI that carries imported and smuggled Chinese goods. It turns out to be a lifesaver as we finally find the iPod Nano charger we have been looking for and pick up a portable board of scrabble. It is not a testament to Apple’s global reach because the charger is made in China and is not an authorized Apple product but certainly a compliment to how far Gilgit has come in twenty years.
The fruit market yields our first haul of cherries. Sweeter and crispier than the ones we sampled in Rawalpindi. We go for a drive the next morning, going back and forth over a wooden bridge that sits across the Gilgit river. There is a plan to visit Naltar valley that gets shot down when we find that the road post the check posts leading to Naltar is subject to closure in early afternoon to late evening. The trip however is not a waste because we stumble across an export quality cherry processing plant that serves sorted, cleaned, chilled, ready to consume cherries in 4 kilo boxes. We pick one box and instantly fall in love with the produce. A pair of keen eyes leads to our road side picnic spot where we park the van and enjoy a lunch comprising of club sandwiches by the Gilgit river.