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Khaplu — off the beaten path

Updated July 27, 2014

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The historic Khaplu Palace. — Photos by the writer
The historic Khaplu Palace. — Photos by the writer

Cavaliere Filippo De Filippi, the leader of the Italian Scientific Expedition to the Himalayas, Karakorum and Chinese Turkestan in 1913-14 and chronicler of the 1909 Abruzzi expedition to K2, succinctly described Khaplu as “…Perhaps, the loveliest oasis in all the region.”

De Fillipi is not wrong. The tiny village, on the banks of the Shyok River with its apricot and apple orchards, and lush green fields set by rugged mountains, homes set on mountain slopes, and thrilling views of Masherbrum, K-6, K-7, Sherpi Kangh, Sia Kangri, Saltoro Kangri and Siachen, is heartbreakingly beautiful – much like the hamlet Minapin, another picture perfect village in the Nagar Valley.

Over a hundred years later, not much has changed, except that the sleepy little village is now connected to the rest of civilisation by communication networks – a road and cellular towers – and has grown enough to be referred to as a quaint town.

Once the second-largest kingdom and called the Yabgo Dynasty in old Baltistan, and an active trade route to Ladakh, Khaplu is now the administrative capital of the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan.

It is about a three hour drive, some 103 kilometres east of Skardu, with a replica of Chaqchan Mosque waiting at the entrance of Khaplu valley.

The town serves as a gateway for trekking expeditions to the Masherbrum mountains.

Mohammad Ali Saltoro, a climber and a guide, says that for adventurers looking for spots that are not too crowded – like the K2 Base Camp or Ansoo Lake – a visit to Khaplu and the treks it offers is a must.

Those coming from the K2 circular trek, after crossing the Ghondoghoro Pass at 5,650 metres, have Khaplu as one of the stopovers in their itinerary.

“From the town itself, you can go on some excellent hikes, which range from easy to strenuous. There is the Hushe trek, the path that leads to Laila Peak and Gondogoro, K7, Saltoro Kangri 1 and 2, and more,” explains Saltoro.

“You can go to the Hushe village and rent a jeep for going all the way up to the Masherbrum Base Camp. Last but not the least, if you don’t want to walk, you can stay at the Khaplu PTDC Motel or other hotels and just enjoy the calm this place offers” says Ali, insisting that it is one of the best honeymoon spots in the world and equally ideal for those recovering from a breakup.

For those not inclined towards physical pursuits, Khaplu offers many historical attractions, including the painstakingly restored 700-year-old Khanqah-i-Chaqchan and Khaplu Palace.

The area, once a Buddhist stronghold, is now home to a population of Noor Baskshis, the followers of the Sufi order of Islam, as well as Sunnis, Shias and Aga Khanis.

What particularly stands out, here, is that one is free to pray in any of the mosques or khanqahs regardless of sect.

Khanqah-i-Chaqchan, the Noorbakhsi mosque, was built in 1381 by Mir Sayyid Ali Hamadani (783 Hijri), in 1438 by Shah Syed Muhammad Nurbakhsh Qahistani Sufi (842) and in 1505 by Mir Syed Shamsuddin Iraqi (911) – a preacher who came from Iraq and help spread Islam in Kashmir region.

The religious history of Khaplu highlights how Islam came to the region in successive decades and that the mosque was at the centre of the spread of Islam.

According to locals, the building was initially a Buddhist gompa (a centre for knowledge and learning) that was converted into a mosque after the entire population embraced Islam.

However, in his book ‘Messianic Hopes and Mystical Visions: The Nûrbakhshîya Between Medieval and Modern Islam’ Shahzad Bashir states that the general lack of concrete information on the societies of Ladakh and Balitistan for the period means that commenting on the issue of Islamisation in the region is largely a matter of informed speculation.

One of the oldest mosques in Pakistan and listed as a heritage site by the government, the wooden structure is a vibrant mix of Persian, Kashmiri and Tibetan architecture, and has stood for almost 700 years, perched on a shaky foundation which posed a threat to worshippers. The mosque was restored under the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme and is now a major tourist attraction.

Stepping inside, one is transported into a bright sanctuary. The lattice work on the ceiling, the wooden grills and the colourful paint with accents of gilded gold, give it the look of a Tibetan monastery.

The first floor balcony of the mosque offers a beautiful vista of the Masherbrums and Khaplu town.

Another must-see and must-stay spot is the Serena Khaplu Palace Residency, locally called Yabgo Khar (The Fort on the Roof).

Once home of the Raja of Khaplu, the summer palace was built in the mid 19th century, replacing an old fort on higher ground. The ruins of the old fort are still visible.

Between 2005 and 2011, a restoration project was carried out by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture under the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme.

The palace now serves as a boutique hotel and houses a museum which is no less than a time capsule, articulation the history and culture of Baltistan.

The palace tour guide who showed us around shared the story of the palace which was built in 1840 by the Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan of Khaplu.

The site of the palace was chosen by rolling a large stone down from a nearby cliff and the present day construction stands at the point where the stone had stopped.

In her book A Summer Ride Through Western Tibet, author Jane Ellen Dunca notes ‘the people of Khaplu used to live inside this fort and were not allowed to build their homes outside its premises. This practice was changed after Maharaja of Kashmir took control of the area, resulting in a cessation of conflict among neighbouring rulers’.

The old fort, of which now just a few remains are left, had its fair share of battle stories. The Tibet Encyclopedia by the International Institute for Tibetan and Buddhist Studies states: “The former fort was captured by Murad Khan of Maqpon Dynasty, the ruler of Baltistan, in the Conquest of Khaplu in the 1590s by cutting off the water and other supplies to the fort. The troops of Murad besieged the fort for three months, resulting in the surrender of Rahim Khan, the 62nd Yabgo dynasty ruler of Khaplu. The fort again fell to invaders in 1660s and 1674.”

“The Yabgo descendants continued to live there even after their kingdom was abolished in 1972. The last Raja of Khaplu who lived in the house was Raja Fatah Ali Khan, who died in 1983.”

The palace, with its details including the massive Raja’s room, might transport one to the past but stepping into the bathrooms is a pleasant reminder as to how much good plumbing and heating facilities has helped mankind.

The Palace restaurant offers some excellent local cuisine though the beef based broths might be a bit overpowering. However, the must item is the ‘Apricot Mousse’ which is an in-house specialty and will leave you wanting for more.

Talking to Dawn, Khaplu Fort’s manager Abbas Ali Khan said that groups of climbers, trekkers and tourists often walked in to see the hidden gem of the Gilgit-Baltistan region.

“Khaplu might seem remote but visiting the area is an experience that all nature lovers must undertake,” says Khan, who himself is a resident of the town.

Since its restoration and subsequent setup as a hotel, Khaplu Palace has been serving as anchor-point for the town, with some 70 per cent of its income spent on local development. All the staff members working for hotel and museum hail from Khaplu and surrounding villages.

When asked if the area, which is dependent on travel and tourism, was affected by the 2013 Nanga Parbat Massacre, Khan says, “Last year many visitors dropped out after the incident. However, things are looking up this year and we have had foreigners coming in. Also, to attract local tourists, we are offering some nice deals so that families visiting Skardu and Gilgit can also come to Khaplu and have a few days of peace and tranquility.”

Published in Dawn, July 27th, 2014