Home > Uncategorized > [Press Review] Earthly matters: Welcome to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’

[Press Review] Earthly matters: Welcome to ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’


Rina saeed khan

I found myself back in the Northern Areas of Pakistan recently — not to be confused with the vague sounding ‘north of Pakistan’ where the army is currently fighting the Taliban. The Northern Areas territory is far away from Swat and Buner and is an oasis of peace in these troubled times. In fact, the people of the Northern Areas are lobbying to have their territory renamed ‘Gilgit-Baltistan’.

Thanks to the community development pioneered by the Aga Khan Development Network in the early 1980s, the local people have learnt about community participation first hand and since there is a large, progressive-minded Ismaili community living here, there is no sympathy or support for the intolerant and backward Taliban.

I was invited by the Aga Khan Cultural Service-Pakistan and our mission was to visit the renovated forts in Shigar, Khaplu and Hunza (all projects undertaken by the AKCSP in recent years). A veritable treasure house of ancient forts, the Northern Areas of Pakistan lost most of their heritage in the 19th century as a result of destructive attacks by the Maharajah of Kashmir (who eventually ended up ruling this area until the partition of the subcontinent when the local population rebelled and decided to join Pakistan).

In fact, the fort we visited in Khaplu near Skardu was actually moved down the mountain to its present location on the insistence of the Dogras, who ruled from Kashmir. They compelled all the mountain rajahs to bring down their forts and live in the main towns so that they may not be able to revolt against them. Hence, the Raja of Khaplu had to rebuild his fort as a palace at the present location in the town with little modifications. The AKCSP is now renovating this dilapidated fort and turning it into a hotel along the lines of the Shigar Fort Residence Hotel, which is also located in Baltistan.

We met up with several ambassadors (of Norway, Germany and Argentina) and the Aga Khan network officials in Shigar earlier. I was accompanied by Masood Khan (the lead architect responsible for most of the renovations) and travel writer Salman Rashid. We reached Shigar from Islamabad in the Aga Khan’s new helicopter and there is no better view of the mountains than out of the window of a chopper as it weaves its way through the Indus gorge up to Skardu. The journey takes an hour or so and the helicopter soon touched down in a rocky field located near the river — all around us were rugged peaks. Shigar, a picturesque valley around thirty minutes’ drive from Skardu, the capital of Baltistan, lies on the way to the Baltoro glacier and K-2.

In Shigar, the AKCSP has restored the local Raja’s fort palace, converting it into an exclusive hotel. But unlike other commercial hotels, the Shigar Fort Residence ploughs back its profits into the local community. Already, Shigar Valley is benefiting from this project as locals are trained and employed (20 out of the 22 employees are from Shigar) and local handicrafts are sourced for use in the hotel. This up-market hotel had great success last year when it was turned over to the Serena chain of hotels for their experienced management. The hotel is now doing very well and continues to attract tourists to this culturally rich region, which is also home to some of the tallest mountains on earth. Recently it was given the UNESCO award for excellence for preserving heritage as a “living thing… for future generations with the participation of the local communities”.

From Baltistan, we flew over the mountains to Hunza, landing in a terraced field below the town of Karimabad (the capital of Hunza). The mountain kingdom of Hunza became a part of Pakistan in 1974 and the Mirs’ (rulers) traditional seat was the Baltit Fort in Karimabad, which has been renovated and converted into a museum. Prince Karim Aga Khan initiated the restoration efforts for Baltit Fort in 1991 when Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan (now the Chief Executive of the Northern Areas) agreed to donate the fort to the Baltit Heritage Trust, a public charity formed for the purpose of owning and maintaining the fort. The AKCSP carried out extensive work on the fort, which took six years to complete. Baltit Fort was inaugurated in a glamorous ceremony that took place in 1996, with the Aga Khan and President Farooq Leghari in attendance.

Baltit Fort was the property of the Mirs for several centuries and it was certainly a wise decision by the current Mir of Hunza to hand it over to the public, for now it is the main tourist attraction in the area. Unfortunately, there are not that many tourists in Hunza these days. Mir Ghazanfar told me on this visit, “You must tell people how peaceful this area is. There are no Taliban here”. The lack of tourists (both foreign and domestic) has affected the economy of Hunza, and the hotels and bazaar lie empty. The last time I was here, Karimabad was full of Japanese tourists!

Hunza is in fact, the perfect get-away with its affordable hotels, stunning views and plenty to do during the day. Aside from visiting the well-maintained Baltit Fort and the bazaar where one can buy goods from China, there is also the lesser-known Altit Fort, also located in the valley. Perched high above the valley on a precarious cliff, the Altit Fort is older than the Baltit Fort. Indeed, Altit was about to topple over the cliff when its owner, Prince Amin Khan (Mir Ghazanfar’s brother) donated it to the AKCSP in 2001. They carried out immediate emergency repairs and now they are restoring the fort, which they plan to hand over to the community to use once it is ready later this year. In return for the fort, they built Prince Amin a new house in the picturesque orchard just below the fort. The AKCSP will soon be opening a café in the orchard where visitors can have tea and rest under the old, shady trees.

Altit Fort is over 800 years old and is said to be the birth place of the Hunza kingdom and the first fort of the region — it is also much smaller than Baltit. The fort clearly has its own natural defence system. When the capital shifted to Karimabad, Altit fort was only used in the summers, and during the British era it became a guest-house. Then around thirty years ago, when the kingdom of Hunza became a part of Pakistan, it was completely abandoned. Like the other forts, it would have decayed and crumbled had the AKCSP not stepped in. Now these renovated forts are helping to revitalise the region. Source

Categories: Uncategorized
  1. Engr. Farman
    August 26, 2009 at 5:00 am

    A great fabric of description clubed with real facts of the region,,,,,,,,,

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