Deep in the heart of the Himalayan and Karakoram Mountain Ranges lies the picturesque land of Balitistan, Also called Little Tibet, the land is known for its scenic valleys, mighty towering peaks rising from 1000-8000m, and is also the source of the mighty River Indus that flows down to the Arabia Sea. The land of Baltistan consists of six major valleys: Skardu, Ghanche, Shigar, Kharmang, Rondhu, and Gultari. It is the largest apricot producing region in Pakistan and some of the world’s best and finest apricots are grown in this very area, particularly Ghanche.
It is a common sight to see mountain roads lined with beautiful apricot trees, with branches bending with the heavily laden fruit during the summer months, adding to the enchanting beauty of the valley. The capital of Ghanche District is Khaplu and is considered one of the coldest places within Pakistan. It is often termed as the Third Pole with temperatures reaching below -20C in the winter, thus providing the ideal conditions for growing apricots, also termed as “gold of the snow” by Zulfikar Ali Bhutto, the former President of Pakistan. In Baltistan, the apricot tree is the primary source of income for the people of the community. Apart from the fruit, the wood from the trees acts as fuel for fire in the harsh winters and is also used for making utensils. Locals also produce apricot oil and depend economically upon its extraction which is used for cooking and is also exported to other cities.
The desire to work for the preservation of apricots originated in 2010 after the trekking team of University of Lahore, during a visit to Baltistan, witnessed the fruit wastage due to lack of drying facilities and almost no means of transporting the apricot produce to other areas. The trip aided in developing a strong affinity with the locals of the area and it was upon a distress call from a local guide named Muhammad Ali “Abduhu” in 2010 that a surveying team was established by University of Lahore Relief Program and sent to Skardu to assess the apricot trees and the preservation techniques used by the locals. The team members noticed that despite the capacity for increased production, the primitive practices of rearing the trees were not proving sufficient, leading to a drop in sales and thus influencing the overall economic conditions of the local community.
Beside the harsh weather conditions and terrain, the locals have to meet with many challenges. The fruit has to be plucked manually. Owing to its juicy and ripe nature, the fruit cannot be exported to other cities in its original form. Hence, to preserve the fruit it is a traditional practice to leave dozens of apricots to dry on roof tops after removing the seed and kernel. The old and conventional methods have over the years affected quality, quantity and taste, and a departure from local techniques is not readily welcomed by the farmers especially the older generation. Transporting the dried product to other areas especially metropolitan cities requires a lot of time thereby affecting the sale.
UOL Relief Program is a non-profit organization that has been working towards human development for many years and particularly focuses on helping underprivileged communities grow and sustain. The community in Ghanche District, Skardu heavily relies on apricot production, thus the objectives are manifold: