Pakistan Learning Festival

Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF) 2022 in Skardu, Baltistan by Rumana Husain

Posted by: In: Blog 21 Jun 2022 Comments: 4
The two-day Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF) was held in Skardu, the capital of Baltistan on June 13 and 14. It was for the first time that the festival was held there. This was the 80th children’s festival; founded by the CEO of Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), Baela Raza Jamil, as a flagship educational movement, in November 2011. The first festival was held in Lahore. Ameena Saiyid, the former Managing Director of Oxford University Press Pakistan is its co-founder. She now heads Lightstone Publishers. A board of Advisors of the PLF include Zobaida Jalal, Fauzia Minallah, Peter Jacob, Mahtab Akbar Rashdi, Maham Ali and myself. The PLF was previously known as the Children’s Literature Festival. It has had a unique journey, literally as well as figuratively. Children from public and private schools, as well as from madrassahs and informal schools in large cities and small towns of the plains, valleys, coastal, desert and mountain regions of the country have had the opportunity of not only learning but also interacting, expressing, and rubbing shoulders with some of the best minds and talents of Pakistan, be it in the fields of literature, visual and performing arts, history and heritage, science and technology, environment, and climate change. The list of our Resource Persons is extensive and impressive. Several meaningful and attractive books (a few of them have been written by children) have been published by the PLF. Besides, this, the PLF also organizes the Young Author Award for children living in all parts of Pakistan; runs Kitab Gadi – mobile libraries, and the Digi Kutub Khana – library in a wooden chest, meant for remote areas of the country.

About Skardu

Skardu is a city located in Gilgit−Baltistan, and serves as its capital. The Skardu valley is at the confluence of Rivers Indus and Shigar. Skardu is perched at 7,310 ft above sea level in the backdrop of our great mountain peaks. The main ranges are the Karakoram and the western Himalayas, and the Pamir Mountains are to the north and the Hindu Kush lies to the west. Amongst the highest mountains are K2, which is the 2nd highest peak (28,661 ft) in the world, and Nanga Parbat (26,660 ft), which is the ninth highest and one of the most feared mountains in the world, earning the nick-name ‘Killer Mountain’. There are also other great peaks: GasherBrum I – world’s 11th highest peak, also known as K5, Broad Peak – world’s 12th highest peak, and Gasherbrum II, which is the world’s 13th highest mountain.

PLF Skardu

Balti people are a mixture of Tibetan and Caucasian stock and speak Balti, an ancient form of Tibetan. Besides its incomparable cluster of mountain peaks and glaciers, Baltistan’s five valleys, Skardu, Shigar, Khaplu, Rondu and Kharmang are noted for their luscious fruits, namely peaches, apricots, apples, pears and cherries.

PLF Skardu

The Road Journey from Islamabad to Skardu

From Karachi, theatre actor and friend Atif Badar and I flew to Islamabad, where we were met at the airport by Zainab Umar from Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), and driver Azhar. 

It was just past 9.00 in the morning on Saturday, 11 June, and we immediately hit the road, beginning our long journey towards Skardu.

There was also a bigger vehicle carrying several persons from the ITA Islamabad office, and other resource persons from the State Bank of Pakistan, Science Fuse, and Suno Kahani Meri Zubani, that were a part of the caravan.

On the Hazara Motorway, we by-passed Hassanabdal, Haripur, Havelian, and Abbottabad, before we reached Mansehra. There were tunnels that we went through, including the 3 km long Battal Tunnel which has converted a distance of 1.5 hour to a mere 5 minutes. On the outskirts of Mansehra, we had a lunch break at a place called ‘Khooraak Mahal’ where the 17-18 of us got together.

We then had a tea break after a couple of hours from Mansehra. The child in the picture assured me that he goes to school, but works in the chai shop as it is summer vacation.

We parted ways from the other group then, as our car could move much faster, but since the other vehicle was carrying a lot of stuff that was needed for the PLF, and was tied on its roof, it restricted its speed.

After Mansehra, the motorway passed through the towns of Shinkiari, and Battagram. Finally, the car with the four of us reached Chilas at 11.30 pm. We were delayed by over three hours when we were trying to move in tandem with the others, who reached Chilas at 3.00 am. We stayed the night there before continuing our journey to Skardu.

The Karakorum Highway (KKH)

For four hours (that seemed like eternity), we drove in pitch darkness on the winding Karakorum Highway (KKH)- the world’s most spectacular highway that traces one of the many pathways of the ancient Silk Road. The KKH is known as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’ due to its high elevation and the difficult conditions in which it was constructed. It was opened in 1978. I had travelled on it before with my family almost twenty-five years ago, when we made a road trip from Karachi to Hunza before our son left the country for college.

PLF Skardu
PLF Skardu

The Kunhar River was our constant companion, with small waterfalls and streams singing for us. With the magnificent mountains on one side, and the river on the other, the sights are simply glorious. The Kunhar River is 166 kilometres (103 miles) long, located in eastern Afghanistan and north-western Pakistan. This river system is fed from melting glaciers and snow of the Hindu Kush Mountains. It is part of the Indus/Sindh watershed. I noticed with serious concern the decreased water flow of the Kunhar River from the past years.


Throughout our tiring ride towards Chilas, Azhar played taped music to keep awake, and Atif and I sang songs – mostly him – as much like Zainab, I also felt that my throat was compromised due to the dust we had unintentionally inhaled during our arduous journey through Dassu where a dam is under construction, therefore making the otherwise not so long route pretty stretched. Sometimes there were bad patches of road, though the all-weather KKH is mostly in very good condition. It is the hairpin bends and the oncoming trucks, tankers and trailers that made our hearts jumpy like crazy.


Chilas town is the headquarters of District Diamer, Gilgit-Baltistan. I recalled Chilas as a small hamlet along the Karakorum Highway where, in 1997, we had stopped for lunch at a place that was nothing more than a shack. It was a sleepy little village back then, but it was surprising to see it so built up. Restaurants, hotels and guest houses are everywhere, but they call for plentiful of improvement in all aspects. With tourism boom in the northern areas of Pakistan, particularly domestic tourism during the Covid-19 pandemic years, a lot of attention needs to be given to training and improvement in the areas of infrastructure and hospitality in order to have satisfied customers.


Chilas is located at a height of about 3000 feet above sea level at the foot of the Nanga Parbat. This makes it very dry and hot in the summer (52 C max) and very cold in the winter (10 degrees with chilly winds). The mighty Indus passes through the valley. With the completion of the Diamar Bhasha Dam, this city might not remain anymore as the area will be flooded with dam water.

PLF Skardu

The Thalpan Petroglyphs

On Sunday morning, after we joined the other group for breakfast, we left quickly as I was most keen to see the petroglyphs, about which I had learnt from architect and edu-tour guide, Zain Mustafa. I felt that even if we could catch a glimpse of just a few of them, it would be worth it.


The petroglyphs are rock carvings made by pecking directly on the rock surface using a stone chisel and a hammer-stone.  The petroglyphs of Chilas are named after Thalpan, a small village on River Indus, located opposite Chilas.  


We started moving on the highway, towards Skardu, and then spotted a couple of lads walking by the left side. We stopped and asked them if they knew where we could look for the drawings on the rocks. “Woh jo bhoot banay huwe hain?” / “those ghosts?!” They asked us, and we almost doubled with laughter, but they said they were a very short distance away.

PLF Skardu

We started moving on the highway, towards Skardu, and then spotted a couple of lads walking by the left side. We stopped and asked them if they knew where we could look for the drawings on the rocks. “Woh jo bhoot banay huwe hain?” / “those ghosts?!” They asked us, and we almost doubled with laughter, but they said they were a very short distance away.

We got down and walked close to the highway, and viewed just a few of the petroglyphs as we did not have much time for exploration. We had almost six more hours on the road before we could be in Skardu.


There is apparently a vast gallery of the ancient art on both sides of the highway, with engravings of ibex, meditating Buddhas, stupas, horses, men, and religious motifs and inscriptions in various languages.

This route, meandering through gorges of the Indus River valley and across high mountain passes, cuts through the Diamer District, and along these pathways, thousands of petroglyphs cover cliffs, rock faces, and boulders. The route was part of the Silk Road for thousands of years. It was used by merchant caravans, military expeditions, pilgrims and explorers who left their marks on these rocks.

This area must have been a popular place to stop and rest. We had to look hard to find the few that we did. Apparently, there are “over 50,000 rock carvings and 5,000 inscriptions that serve as a timeline from the Epipaleolithic period to the pre-Islamic “golden era” of Buddhism. The earliest petroglyphs, which depict wild animals such as ibex and sheep, were created by groups of hunter-gatherers first drawn to the region in the early Holocene”. Holocene is the name given to the last 11,700 years of the Earth’s history.

There is no formal protection of this heritage, and some of the rocks have recent graffiti painted on them, but this did not seem like a malicious effort to destroy priceless relics. I read that “locally, the artwork is thought of as slightly older graffiti and nothing special”.

Construction of the dam began in 2010, and it will submerge many of these petroglyphs and their cultural landscape, impacting an area of over 100 kilometers. These petroglyphs are remains of great historical and cultural importance; an incomparable rich legacy, which, hopefully, would be preserved through cooperative efforts.

Onwards to Skardu

On and on we drove and viewed more and more scenic landscapes, with the imposing mountains of various coloured stones standing out like giants, and the snow peaks peeking out from behind them.


Nevertheless, seeing deforestation of this scale in the country (one can see only a row of green trees in the above picture) as a sad reality depressed us very much, as the environmental issues related to it are all very real. At the PLF we got a few opportunities to speak to the children (and their teachers) about these issues, hoping that they would pay heed for doing their part as it is impacting them negatively.


Nevertheless, upon reaching the outskirts of Skardu city at 2.00 pm (our flight from Karachi was at 7.00 am on Saturday, therefore it was after a 19-hour journey that we got to our destination), the first grand vista we saw was so magnificent that we felt as if all our fatigue had evaporated. Of course we got down of the car and wanted our pictures taken with the stunning background.

Throughout this ‘expedition’, Baela had been calling us from time to time to find out if we were okay. She wanted us to reach the hotel quickly to shower and rest before we could do some sightseeing. As always, she was there a couple of days earlier with ITA’s advance team from Lahore, for the massive preparations that are required for the festival, be it in any city or town, and the mountain regions have their own challenges.


On reaching the hotel, the four of us first opted to have lunch, then we showered, and while Zainab had to finish some work related to her session at the PLF, Atif and I were picked by Raheela Baqai, Marketing Director at Oxford University Press Pakistan, who had arrived in Skardu earlier in the day, and was staying at the Shangrila Resort Hotel.


Satpara Lake

The Satpara Lake is a natural lake surrounded by a rocky terrain, and it is fed by the melting ice of the Deosai Plains. A tranquil place, it is surrounded by sky-high mountains, and is a major source of water for Skardu Valley.

There is a folklore about this lake, whereby the local people believe that there’s a gold mine underneath the lake, and that is also the reason that the water is so crystal clear and shiny.

The moment we stepped out of the car, we were almost blown away by cold gusts of very strong winds, but we braved those for a few minutes to take pictures, before jumping into the car.

However, before I sat down, I saw a group of young men without any warm clothes, who were dancing close by with abandon, with music blaring from their vehicle parked right next to the car. I asked if they were not cold, to which they responded that they were from the area and this was not a problem for them at all. The three of us Karachiites felt sheepish.

Manthal Buddha Rock

Our next destination was the Manthal Buddha Rock, located in Manthal Village, not too far from Satpara Lake. It is a 9th century relief on a large yellow rock that rests on a platform. The inscription represents the late phase of the ‘Golden Era of Buddhism’ in the upper Indus Valley between the 8th and 10th centuries.


Frankly, the sight of the Buddha Rock was overwhelming, as none of us expected it to be this big and this remarkable. It shows the meditating Buddha in the middle, surrounded by small Bodhisattvas and two standing Metreyias (future Buddhas). This is perhaps the oldest historical site that exists in Baltistan, and it is evidence of Buddhism in Baltistan before Islam. The Buddhist script can also be found on this rock.

PLF Skardu

At the dinner at the Commissioner’s House,  sitting between Adina,
from OUP Hunza, and Baela’s friend Farwa Zafar, who I met after three decades. She lives in Islamabad.

Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF) 2022

The Pakistan Learning Festival (PLF) was held at the Government (Boys) Model High School in Hussainabad. With a lot of enthusiasm, we reached the venue before time on Monday, June 13 - Day 1, to find it already filled with delighted boys and girls from different schools either coming in or already there under the celebratory canopy of rows and rows of small, colourful flags strung across the spacious grounds of the school. This was the first time that an event of this scale was being held in Skardu for children of all ages, studying in public or private schools, and the excitement in the air was palpable for all. The weather too was perfect. In Skardu, anywhere, and in any direction you look, the mountains provide an imposing and beautiful backdrop. While I was looking around, a band of school boys started to take position and play, providing more exhilaration.

PLF Skardu

On a very personal side note, when, a year ago we decided to change the name of the festival from the Children’s Literature Festival (CLF) to the PLF, and I was given the opportunity of designing the new logo, it has been most gratifying to see it printed on every poster, banner, stationery and giveaways. 


We were all headed towards the Auditorium for the inaugural ceremony, for which Raja Azam Khan, Chief Minister of Education Gilgit Baltistan (GB) was expected, along with Ms. Suraiya Zaman, Parliamentary Secretary Education, Mr. Shigri, Director Education, Mr. Fida Muhammad Nashad, Former Speaker GB Assembly, and Commissioner Mr. Shuja Alam (unfortunately he couldn’t make it due to his other pressing official commitments). Ms. Sumaira Kausar, AEO Department of Education, and Ms. Naila Rizvi, also from the Department of Education GB were there. They had both provided a big support in mobilizing the schools, and also the volunteer Girls Guides and Scouts in large numbers.

Of course our PLF host, Mr. Liaquat Ali, Principal Government Model High School Hussainabad was there with his teachers and students.


While the children waited for the Chief Guest and other Guests of Honour to arrive, Atif kept them engaged with his theatrics, poems, and songs, encouraging their participation.

As has been customary, the PLF provides new identities to the spaces in every venue that it has ever held its sessions. The auditorium therefore was renamed ‘Phong Khar’, as that’s what the Shigar Fort is known as in the Balti language.


After the guests of honour were in, the inaugural session began with a Tilawat by a group of girls, followed by the National Anthem in sign language, for which everyone joined in, the heartwarming and provocative PLF Tarana’s words and melody reverberated in the hall. Those of us who know the pertinent words, written by the poet Zehra Nigah, lent their voices to be in sync with Rakae Jamil’s voice who has sung it and also composed its lilting music. 


Sehrish Farooq, Provincial Head ITA, based in Karachi, was the mistress of ceremony, aided by Zainab Umar, Manager Content and Advocacy ITA, from Islamabad, and my travel companion.

Welcome remarks were made by the school’s principal, and PLF Founder and CEO Idara-e-Taleem-o-Aagahi (ITA), Baela Raza Jamil, who gave a brief introduction of the PLF as well as what the children and teachers could expect during the two days of the festival. Baela also said that almost 30 persons have come for this festival from Islamabad, Lahore, Bahawalpur, Hyderabad and Karachi, including the team members of ITA, and PLF partners OUP and Bank of Punjab, as also the resource persons from State Bank of Pakistan Museum, Science Fuse, Suno Kahani Meri Zubani, Khalid Azad, Publication Officer at Sindhi Language Authority, Khurshid Khan, Head Teacher in Elementary and Secondary Education Department, KPK, Atif Badar, theatre actor and teacher, and Rumana Husain, author and PLF Advisor.


She thanked all the participating children, the GB Government, in particular the Education Department, the GBH School, GLOF 2, UNDP, Social Welfare, Forest and Culture Departments, Tourist Police, Technical Education and Vocational Training Authority (TEVTA), Special Education, Progressive Education Network (PEN), Poets of GB, and Alight Pakistan Mobile Library.


I introduced the Young Authors Award, urging children to participate for the next cycle. Baela and I then launched the bilingual book, ‘Pakistan’s Climate Change Heroes’ written by me and produced by SOC Films. Earlier, I gave a short introduction of it. In another session, later on, Mr. Rashiduddin from GLOF-2, UNDP and I had some detailed discussions about the book and climate change. Documentary films by SOC Films were screened too.   

Maria Riaz Tauseef’s triology, ‘Mahol Sahelian’ was also launched at the inaugural these pertinent books on climate change, and saving/redeeming the environment was an important issue that was discussed at the PLF.

We had amongst us a young sports hero, the 4-year old who is an ice speed-skating silver-medalist, Mahnoor Sharif, and who melted our hearts. Wearing her skating shoes, she was ‘flying’ from one end of the auditorium to the other, and also on stage. Her father is her coach, who started to teach her ice skating on the Satpara Lake during the winters.


Slightly older than Mahnoor, the quiet Mehak Zehra, who has won international Taekwondo championship in 2021, was wearing innumerable medals around her neck. Both these sports heroes are ample example of their family’s support and encouragement, in particular of their fathers, who also train them, and are very proud of their daughters’ achievements.

After the key-note speech by the Chief Guest, Raja Azam Khan, we came together for the unique PLF style of declaring the festival open!  

For the rest of the day, concurrent sessions of book launches, storytelling, theatre, music, STEM activities, digital and interactive learning, various other activities, discussions and presentations, such as on numeracy, heritage, inclusive education, the art of book-making, from manuscript to a book, creative writing, folk stories, art and craft, including origami, etc. were being held in the auditorium and classrooms that were renamed as ‘K2’, ‘Satpara Lake’, ‘Manthal Buddha’, ‘Basho Valley’ (located in Roundu Divison), ‘Mandoq Khar’ (it means ‘Palace of Flowers’, and was the residence of Gul Khatoon, wife of Ali Sher Khan Anchan). The corridor leading to all the classrooms had innovative science and technology experiments and models operated by the students.

With Raja Azam Khan, Chief Minister of Education Gilgit Baltistan and Ms. Suraiya Zaman, Parliamentary Secretary Education

The main ground of the school was named ‘Byarsa’ (local term for Deosai National Park, meaning ‘summer place’), where several interesting stalls were set up by school children, NGOs, as well as by book publishers.

A little girl endeared herself to us with her pertinent questions and comments in the session, “From a manuscript to a book” conducted by Raheela Baqai and  Tooba Malik from OUP, to which I was invited as author.

Children with coloured eyes and a shy demeanour explained to each visitor to their stall whatever it was they were displaying. We found the girls more forthcoming than the boys.

The way tea is prepared by the locals and how bread is ‘branded’ with motifs, by using wooden blocks, was an interesting discovery.

At the end of Day 1, an hour long concert was organised by some local musicians.

I was joined in the auditorium by old acquaintance, actor Rashid Sami, who, many years ago, started his theatre career with Sheema Kermani’s Tehreek-e-Niswan. He was also in Skardu as he is constructing a few resorts in GB. Besides acting, Rashid Sami has written plays, and has been a film producer and director. An engineer by profession, performing arts is however his first love.  His mother, Malika Baltistani, was a well-known political personality of GB, who led a lifetime of struggle for achieving the rights for the people of Baltistan. I remember seeing her photographs in newspapers, at first perhaps in the late 1960s. She passed away a year ago.


Raheela invited him to the dinner that OUP was hosting later that evening for the PLF participants, and so we ended up catching up with each other’s news.


After the end of the Day 1 programme, most of us had plans to explore the Shigar Fort, so off we went.  

Sarfaranga Katpana Cold Desert

On our way to see the Fort, we made a slight detour, to Sarfaranga Katpana (Biama Nakpo in the local language) – a high altitude cold desert, at an elevation of 7,303 feet above sea level. This is one of the highest deserts in the world. It felt rather strange to see this desert surrounded by the snow-mountains. Apparently, overnight stay at a camp there is a treat. Besides having trout fish and barbecued yak meat, one can listen to several mesmerising stories while getting a clear view of the Milky Way. A jeep rally is held in the cold desert in the month of August.  Power paragliding, horse riding, and sand buggy rides were in full swing when we reached there. A few food stalls were also doing business. But it was windy, and we were pressed for time as we wanted to reach the Shigar Fort before it closed down, therefore after only a few minutes there, we again jumped into the cars that had to be pushed out of the sand.

Shigar Fort

After passing through a few gorges, we entered the green oasis of Shigar, on the banks of the Braldu River.


We were here to see the historic Shigar Fort, originally known as Phong Khar (Palace on the Rock), which encompasses four centuries of folklore and legends. It was converted into a heritage hotel by the Aga Khan Development Network and is now managed by Serena Hotels. The fort was constructed by Raja Hassan Khan, the 20th Raja of the Amacha dynasty, in early 17th century. I must mention here that Raja Azam Khan Amacha, the Chief Minister of Education who had graced the PLF, is a descendant of the Amacha dynasty.


Perhaps, the most serene section of the entire estate is the baradari, a small pavilion surrounded by flowers and running water. According to the tour guide, the Raja would lounge there after his polo matches as musicians played outside. While some part of the original baradari remains, much of it has been restored and rebuilt. We sat around on the benches there, admiring the beauty of the fort, when the guide urged us to see the inside of the fort – a museum.

After we had explored the fort, and everyone had their pictures taken to their hearts’ content, we drove straight to the hotel
to dress up for the dinner hosted by the OUP!

Even though this is a most unsuitable, bland place to have a photograph taken when there was so much natural beauty all around, this picture will still remain a special one for me!

Day 2 of the PLF was again full of excitement and hectic activities! I was able to attend the theatrical storytelling by the actors and musicians of Suno Kahani Meri Zubani, which was very entertaining.Like me, the children too were most thrilled.

28 Room to Read-ITA Adapted Storybooks Storytelling and activities by ITA’s Javeria Farukh and Inam Elahi was held for these girls from different schools. As team leader of this project, I took a few minutes to tell them about the background process.

At the end of the day, we were most happy at the very successful PLF Skardu, that had ended on a happy note, with a certificate distribution ceremony for the hundreds of volunteer girls and boys, and a vote of thanks to everyone who had worked day and night to organise it, and for all the local individuals and institutions who had cooperated and supported it. Hats off to the young men and women of the ITA team, led by Baela herself! Our host, Mr. Liaquat Ali, the Principal the Government Model High School Hussainabad, with the Forest Department as its partner, invited Baela and me to plant a tree each. We were most delighted, and planted Deodar (called Diyar in Urdu), the national tree of Pakistan.


Baela and I were invited by Rashiduddin to have coffee with him at his GLOF-2, UNDP office. We requested Sumaira Kausar, Assistant Education Officer, Skardu, to accompany us. The charming setting of the office, where together with a great cup of coffee we discussed the climate change challenges in the area, including GLOF. The mountain ranges of Pakistan hold over 7,000 glaciers, supplying water to 200 million people who live amidst them. Due to the rising temperatures, these glaciers are melting and over 3,000 glacial lakes have developed in GB and KPK regions, of which 33 glacial lakes are potentially hazardous, which can cause a disaster downstream.


With mixed sentiments about this heavenly region and its climate change threats, we caught our flight to Islamabad the next morning, which was the most spectacular flight ever! After a couple of hours, I had another flight to catch…for Karachi…home… 

Comments: 4

  1. Posted by Charu Verma 22 Jun 2022 at 5:18 pm

    That’s an immensely detailed and informative travelogue. I’ve only heard and watched some videos of Skardu. Looks like a heavenly and most blessed place! Would love to visit someday although it appears to be a long long and arduous journey. You’re so brave to have undertaken the journey and the tasks related to PLF.
    Congratulations on the success of PLF! I know it sounds like a piece of cake but must have required intense prep for the same.
    You’re doing such inspiring work with PLF Rumana! Wish you all the best in your endeavours.

  2. Posted by Aslam Malik 23 Jun 2022 at 2:08 pm

    We are a world apart! Amazed and delighted to read your travelogue. I wish one day we from India can enjoy those sights . India too has absolutely mindblowing places to visit.
    Just a fond wish that someday we get to experience our common heritage.

  3. Posted by Rumana 28 Jun 2022 at 7:10 am

    Thank you so much for the read and comment. It is indeed tragic that even though we are next door, “we are a world apart”! But there’s always hope…

  4. Posted by Rumana 28 Jun 2022 at 7:14 am

    Thank you Charu! I did spend two days writing it while it was still very fresh in my mind. Thank you so much for reading and commenting. I used to write a lot of travelogues for the national newspapers and magazines but as you can see, this is not the usual travelogue. Hope we can traverse the country borders and see what’s on each side – great natural beauty and shared heritage. One day!

Leave a Comment!

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Related Posts