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On top of the world

By Imtiaz Gul

Friday Times, August 19, 2011

cup of steaming cappuccino, the roar of the Shigar river, the fast breeze made by the gushing water, a huge walnut tree nearby, massive mountains on three sides and the lively company of friends - it reminds me of William Wordsworth eulogizing "a book of verses, a bottle of wine, a shady tree and you beside me" Wordsworth refused to desire anything else if he possessed all these blessings. And this is precisely what I go through while perched on top of the Shigar Fort, the Palace on the Rock, in high-up Baltistan.

Huge Poplar and Cedar trees cover the lush-green Shigar valley at the bottom of huge mountains, offering a complete contrast to the topography of the region. Even the road from Skardu, the administrative headquarters of Baltistan, to Shigar stands out for the contrasting imagery: once across the Skardu river, you travel across a desert of white glittering sand which gradually disappears behind the craggy and curling mountains before descending into the Shigar valley. From a distance, the Shigar valley strikingly looks like a sprawling oasis, with the mighty Shigar river crisscrossing the vast riverbed to the right of the valley, which has a predominantly Shia Muslim population. (The people here recently voted Azam Khan into the Gilgit-Baltistan Assembly.) The valley offers a stunningly contrasting landscape - rocky barren cliffs, cultivated terraces, and orchards all around.

The valley is practically the gateway to some of the highest mountains in the world, including K-2, Mashabrum 1 and 11, Broad Peak, and Tango Tower. It is also the staging post for the Baltoro mountain range, and used to be the most favoured destination for trekkers from all over the world.

f the Shigar Valley is the crown of the Karakorums, the Palace Residence is certainly its centre-piece. Also known as Fong-Khar, or the Palace on the Rock, the site has been restored by Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP-P). It is indeed a unique site in the middle of an oasis; a cultural heritage guesthouse where you experience a rugged 17th Century version of luxury, painstakingly restored to the original, though equipped with all the modern amenities and services of a good hotel.

The complex at Shigar comprises the 400-year-old Fort-Palace and two more recent buildings, the "Old House" and the "Garden House". The former Palace of the Raja of Shigar has been transformed into a 20-room heritage guesthouse, with the grand audience hall serving as a museum of Balti culture and featuring select examples of fine wood-carvings, as well as other heritage objects.

While hosting guests, the Palace also offers a lot of Balti history and culture - a blend indeed of the old and the new.

Azam Khan belongs to the Amacha Dynasty, which claims to have ruled the area for 33 generations. His ancestors brought artisans, carpenters and stone-carvers from Kashmir for the construction of the Shigar Fort-Palace, and that resulted in a combination of Kashmiri-influenced carvings and Balti architecture.

It is extraordinary to be so close to nature in its naked form, and to not have to think of the workaday stresses back home. 

Almost two kilometres upwards of the Skardu valley lies the sleepy Khaplu town, ahead of the Kargil sector, where Indian and Pakistani forces fought their most recent battle over Kashmir in 1999.

Khalpu, too, boasts another archaeological heritage: the Khaplu Palace and Residence, also restored by the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan (AKCSP-P). This palace is from 1840 and belonged to the Raja of Khaplu and was raised after the Sikh Dogras conquered Baltistan and ordered all Rajas to build new residences. Located at a height of over 8,000 feet above sea level, the palace is now back to its past glory, restored with care and passion, with no cement used in the construction or restoration, which took almost six years. This palace also offers several cozy rooms, equipped with modern amenities such as internet, television, clean hot and cold water and round-the-clock electricity.

The Northern Areas - both Gilgit and Baltistan - have many similarly precious archaeological heritage sites, though many are in a lamentably shambolic state. One wishes the government agencies responsible for our heritage would demonstrate the same spirit and commitment as the Aga Khan Cultural Service.

[box13]And now some good news: it is amazing to see the tourist traffic that places like Shigar and Khaplu can generate; the restoration or repair simply opens up the place to inquisitive outsiders. Not only does it become a source of business and employment - it becomes the engine of growth in far-flung places where people don't even think of going.

So if you want a break from stressful city life, or are fed up with the rigorous daily grind of business in crowded city centers, why not check out Shigar and Khaplu for a picnic on top of the world?

The writer heads the Centre for Research and Security Studies, Islamabad

Email: imtiaz@crss.pk