Shortly after leaving the airport, our minivan hurtles across a rolling open road in Skardu, one of the great eastern valleys of Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan region. The breakneck driving speeds are the sole reminder of the frenzied chaos we have left behind in the lowlands below. Instead, we find ourselves in a sort of parallel universe, untarnished by any trace of commotion. Passing under gentle skies alongside skinny poplar trees and serenely toiling farmers, one could be forgiven for thinking they had just entered a scene from the works of the old English pastoral writers such as Gilbert White, rather than what is considered to be one of the most volatile countries on Earth.
Amidst a Taliban insurgency and ever-increasing sectarian schisms, Pakistan does not represent an obvious travel destination. Years of turmoil have bludgeoned its international reputation, including its status as a place of tourism. The focus on the unrest, however, overshadows the fact that much of Pakistan can be visited safely – as long as a few elementary precautions are taken – as well as the incredible beauty and riches of the country that await those willing to see beyond the widely enshrined negative perceptions.
Nowhere is this better exemplified than in the valleys of Baltistan, which stand out as havens of peace, all but free from the perniciousness of extremism. Much of the tranquillity of the region comes from high standards of education, relative gender equality and a tolerant religious outlook, stemming from the various moderate forms of Shiism most here follow. This, coupled with incredible mountain landscapes, some of the world’s largest glaciers and a people who have preserved significant parts of their ancient culture, makes this part of the world an unspoilt paradise, ripe for exploration.
And so it is that my family and I find ourselves in Skardu. In those summers where we don’t manage a trip abroad, our family holidays usually take the form of a budget jaunt exploring the northern areas of Pakistan. Part getaway, part desperate escape from the stifling heat of the Punjab, our penchant for adventure means that the tourist-friendly hotspots are eschewed for something off the beaten track, even with two young children in tow. Admittedly, our experience this time around is far more luxe, though it’s still one that is relentlessly hidden away.
Tucked away in the verdant valleys of Shigar and Khaplu lie two old fort palaces that have, in recent times, been converted to first-rate heritage hotels by the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, the local arm of the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme, an effort that focuses on the restoration of historic structures and other urban-regeneration projects. While similarly restored boutique residences are studded across the length and breadth of neighbouring India and China, they are much rarer in Pakistan and even less celebrated. Things are beginning to change, though, and these unheralded gems are increasingly attracting charmed visitors.
Shigar, or to give it its original name Fong Khar (Fort on the Rock), is where we head first for a two-night stay. The original fort was built in the 17th century by the ruler of the Amacha dynasty, from stone and timber to blend in with the rock formations of the mountains surrounding it. The building, a crumbling wreck by the time it was taken over by the Aga Khan Cultural Service, required five years of work and over a million dollars to return it to its former glory before it was finally inaugurated in 2005. Open from March to November, the hotel can delight in the best of the Baltit seasons once winter has given way – from the cherry blossoms of spring and the festivals of summer to the blushing scarlet colours of autumn.
The pampering begins from the moment we arrive, as a waiter greets us with a tray of freshly pressed apricot juice from the hotel’s own orchard, which also boasts walnuts, cherries and grapes. It is just the tonic to galvanise our weary spirits. Already this is not the Pakistan of popular imagination.
As the mood begins to lift, we are joined at our table by Sarwat Majeed, the genuinely warm residence manager at Serena Prestige Club, whose cheerfulness is attuned to the lively breeze blowing into our veranda. Majeed came to Shigar in 2014 after initially working for Serena – part of the commercial arm of the Aga Khan Foundation and the group that runs the hotels – in an administrative capacity, though she was eventually moved into an operational role.
The transition from the capital city, Islamabad, to a more remote surrounding was less strenuous than expected, says Majeed. The change, she admits, was eased by the warm generosity with which the townspeople accepted her into the local community.
“I had no problems at all when I came, and I found the attitude of the people here even better than in Islamabad,” she says. “One of the things I learnt here is that you can be both religiously observant and open-minded at the same time. This was something I had never come across before.”
Although there are more family-friendly options in the newly constructed garden house that opens onto the grounds, we choose to take a room in the fort itself, which instantly transports us to a bygone age of romantic austerity.
Standard rooms in the fort are small and refreshingly simple. Dark walnut floors set the aesthetic tone alongside rustic furnishings that are enlivened with contemporary accents. The original low-hung ceilings only add to the comfy feel. Wi-Fi is accessible only in the garden, but it is a small price to pay for a stay in such a sumptuous setting.
Luxury, though, does not mean an absence of rigour. Indeed it would be remiss to idle away the days in what is known as the gateway to K2, the world’s second-tallest peak, and after settling in we gather the necessary accoutrements and foray outside the hotel.
Being keen hikers, we decide to get a feel of the place by walking up the Shigar Rock to see the ruins of Kari Dong, the first ancient fort of the valley dating back to the 11th century. It is a short and steady march up to the final approach, but getting to the top requires a difficult scramble over an almost vertical wall of boulders. With both our children willing in spirit but apprehensive in thought, we forgo the climb and content ourselves with surveying the landscape from a less elevated vantage point. A late meander through the town builds the appetite for dinner.
Our meal, taken in the quaint courtyard of the hotel restaurant, consists of chicken ginger curry and palak paneer (a gravy of puréed spinach and cottage cheese) scooped up in neat slices of tandoori roti. The bread is delicious and soft, and both the main dishes make for reasonable fare. If there is a complaint during our trip, however, it was the overall quality of the food. For one thing, it is exorbitantly expensive, even for a luxury resort. The local Baltit cuisines on offer are also limited and there was a lack of rusticness and subtlety of flavour, normally associated with food born of a rich melting pot of influences.
The next morning we rise at a comfortable hour and fortify ourselves with a breakfast of local apples and sweet brownies. With plenty of time at our disposal, we meet our guide for the day, Shabbir, and head towards the 14th-century Amburiq Mosque, another Aga Khan restoration site and Unesco World Heritage Site. We take the road through the town before crossing onto a narrow pathway that curves through trees and scattered cottages.
Shabbir is a loquacious guide in the very best sense of the term – informative, friendly and engaging. In the kilometre or so it takes us to reach the mosque he has, among other things, whisked us through 700 years of local history as well as considerably increased our botanical knowledge of the region.
For all the weight of its history, the mosque is a petite structure built in the distinctive Tibetan-inspired Baltit style, and our stay there is a short one. Next up is an hour-long ascent up a nearby hilltop, which is home to several ancient Buddhist rock carvings and a picnic spot for our lunch.
In the summer months, local polo matches are held on Saturdays and Tuesdays. Having held a long unfulfilled dream of visiting the famous Polo Festival in Shandur, the opportunity of watching a local contest is too good to pass up, and our afternoon is spent perched on a stone wall watching a rip-roaring spectacle high on intensity and skill, but seemingly lacking in order.
Early the next day, we bid our farewells to Shigar and its wonderful staff, and drive three hours through silver-grey sand dunes to arrive at Khaplu, once home to the Yabgo dynasty, which presided over the second-largest district in Baltistan.
For all of Shigar’s charms, the Khaplu Palace or Yabgo Khar (Fort of the Roof) is a structure of pure poetry and is so indescribably beautiful the only way to appreciate it is by inhaling its ethereal grace. The half-octagon timber entrance is an especially stirring sight, as spectacular as the desolate mountains that cradle it and a fitting seat of government for the old kings, who used to rule over the territory from within its cavernous chambers.
Once we are here, we do not want to leave and what is left of the day after our arrival is passed by drinking hot chocolate in one of the jharokas (traditional overhanging balconies) and surveying the gardens before a light dinner and an early sleep.
Khaplu, like Shigar before it, followed a similar trajectory of rehabilitation and restoration. It also undertook the same commitment to responsible tourism as its sister hotel, and a significant slice of the fort’s earnings go back to serving the needs of the local community.
For the rest of our stay, the hotel acts as an excellent base for discovering the local area, including a much-heralded trout farm (which is a perfect spot for lunching on an array of fried fish), more ancient heritage sites and another polo match, all met with warm welcomes and generous hospitality.
One thing that is noticeable is the unexpectedly large number of sightseers who visit the hotels. The upturn is a relatively new phenomenon explained in part by the popularity of a current television drama serial, Diyar-e-Dil, based on the novel by Pakistani author and screenwriter Farhat Ishtiaq and filmed almost entirely at the residences. There were five families this year alone who came over from the UAE for a holiday after seeing the hotel on TV.
One evening, Abid, a gentle giant of a guest-relations officer, calls me over to show a clip of the show on his phone in which he appears in a brief speaking role. He chuckles as the video finishes, but then laments the fact that because the setting of Diyar-e-Dil is meant to take place near Peshawar, the region and the people are not getting the full recognition they deserve.
He has a point. But slowly and surely people are coming. And as we found out for ourselves, those who do are in for a wondrous time, which no account can fully encapsulate.
Read this and other travel-related stories in Ultratravel magazine, out with The National on Wednesday, March 23.