By Munaza Kazmi
You must have dreamed in your life, of a place in the middle of gigantic mountains, under the dark blue sky filled with numerous sparking milky ways, floating clouds touching your skin, air filled with pleasing smell of wildflowers, the sound of water making its way from the curvy stones, the orchids loaded with fruit-laden trees, heavenly birds flying in the green pastures and the spectacle of beautiful and rarest of creatures within your reach. MAGIC!!!
I always talk about the real magic, the one that is hidden a little far away.
Today am talking about Khaplu, also named “Shyok Valley” and “Little Tibet” which is a wonderful valley that serves as the administrative capital of the Ghanche District of Gilgit-Baltistan, in northern Pakistan. Lying 112 kilometers east of Skardu, however, it was the second-largest kingdom in old Baltistan of the Yabgo dynasty. The valley sprawls along the River Shyok, a tributary of the Indus River, next to the ancient trade route to Ladakh.
With its colorful and vibrant pastures, the awesome views of rivulets, the sight of the world’s highest and most dangerous mountains, and architectural heritage, Khaplu is an unrivaled tourist attraction of Pakistan.
A magical land always comes with fairies, that obviously the local people are not less than, the most compassionate, beautiful and loving…and a Palace.
Khaplu Palace built-in 1840 by the Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan, is the finest surviving example of a royal residence in Baltistan, a provincial autonomous region in Pakistan’s northeast, and a missing mosaic of our jigsaw. The beautiful palace was constructed with the help of then Kashmiri and Balti craftsmen and combines the local architectural style with influences from neighboring regions including Tibet, Kashmir, Ladak, and Central Asia.
However, it is said, the site of the palace was chosen, by rolling a large stone down from a nearby cliff; where the stone came to a stop, the palace was built. For over 100 years it remained the seat of the local ruler and his descendants continued to live there even after their kingdom was abolished. The last Raja of Khaplu who lived in the house died in 1983 and the palace began to fall into a state of dilapidation after.
Luckily, in the year 2005 Aga Khan Trust for Culture started restoration works; a process that took 6 years. Hence, in 2011, the restored Serena Khaplu Palace was opened as a 21 rooms heritage hotel under Serena Hotels. It has since won numerous awards including a UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award.
Serena Khaplu Palace, is a brilliant experience of a lifetime, starting from beautifully appointed accommodations to a diverse range of activities and excursions that capture the history, culture, and natural beauty of Khaplu.
Stepping into the Palace and you will be traveling back in the time, into the world of tranquility, serene atmosphere, an air of royal and elegance, sincere and compassionate faces always ready to assist. The sweetness of the breeze that still I can feel coming from the fruit-laden orchids, the architecture, the furnishing, the artwork of then craftsmen till date speaking clearly the tales of the past and yes, the history…
The magical journey starts through a stay in a precisely renovated 200-year-old palace, considered one of the finest existing examples of a royal residence in Baltistan. Then, an onsite museum that reflects the life patterns of Royals and gives an understanding of how developed and experienced they were, since most of the parts of the palace have been preserved and kept in their original form, with the same furnishing and then Raja’s belonging showcasing, ranging from the art of clothing, paperwork, kitchen utensils some made in a way to detect the poison, spinning wheel, the proper storage, and lighting system and a lot more. Moreover, it is one of the best in Gilgit – Baltistan, featuring several lounges offering stunning views of the valley below. Also, with Palace’s own fruit trees and organic vegetable garden, the Palace provides the guests with an opportunity to taste some of the best cuisines in the region.
Embracing the layout and character of a traditional Raja Palace, Serena Khaplu Palace is a place of tranquil courtyards and fruit gardens around which 21 rooms and suites some dating back to the 1840s, are arranged. Where you will find roofs wood-beamed, and interiors showcase locally inspired antiques, fabrics, and cultural artifacts.
The Palace offers six historical accommodations – Two Royal Suites, Two Heritage Suites, and Two Standard Rooms – that are positioned in the original Old Palace (Yabgo Khar), each offering an exclusive and authentic experience steeped in royal culture. The more contemporary Garden House contains 13 guest rooms and two suites equipped with modern amenities. Moreover, these rooms offer private terraces and views of the surrounding Thoqsikhar (Old Yabgo Fort, Khaplu Pastures, and traditional settlements of Khaplu). Each room has been tastefully decorated with handmade textiles and antique objects. However, keep in mind all rooms are non-smoking.
ROYAL SUITES. The Palace’s two Royal Suites as I have mentioned above, are equipped with a king bed covered with snow-white linens, an anteroom, and an adjoining baithak; a private sitting. The Raja Suite features a “Shah-e-Nasheen,” and the Rani Suite features an airy balcony decorated with wooden latticework and a beautiful baithak. Each suite is decorated with antiques and local artifacts.
Standing on the balcony of the Rani suite you can have a marvelous view of surrounding mountains, rivulets, and the beautiful valley.
HERITAGE SUITES. There come four sophisticatedly spacious Heritage suites featuring a king or queen bed, a sitting area, in-room cable television, and an attached bathroom equipped with all the modern facilities and dramatic views from the balconies.
STANDARD ROOMS. These are the garden rooms, having either double or twin beds. However, the 15 expansive Standard Rooms are decorated with unique antiques and cultural artifacts reflecting the local taste.
SARFA KHAR RESTAURANT
The tranquil Sarfa Khar, is like a time machine, traveling to the past. Designed with much diligence in a traditional rustic Pakistani style, in order to deliver a memorable experience. Sarfa Khar Restaurant offers a delightful menu of freshly prepared Balti, Pakistani, and continental dishes.
The Restaurant also offers an elaborate a la carte menu, outdoor snacks, and a special BBQ in their lush green garden, where you would find yourself surrounded by flowers and butterflies of every kind and color and mountains towering over you. However, I would recommend you to must try their Walnut Tart and Buck-wheat pan cakes.
Located in the Old Palace (Yabgo Khar), Khatamband Loggia, where then Royals have their court, preserved in its original form and color offering a unique experience of elegance and a spectacular view of the surrounding mountains. The Loggia serves local cuisine for snack time and has a capacity for six guests at a time, a perfect place for Family Time.
Moreover, beyond the Palace, opportunities for exploration and discovery are abundant. You can always find an experienced guide for a day out, let’s say visiting 1370’s Chaqchan Mosque, a Tibetan-style village, trekking Masherbrum Mountain, or the Hushay Valley, one of the marvelous, unforgettable, and worth discovering land awaiting.