Monday, December 31, 2012

Skardu: The Shigar Fort Residence

After an amazing two days in Khaplu, our next stop was Shigar...



This fort and palace is about 200 years older than the Khaplu palace, built in the 1640s, and opened as a heritage boutique hotel in 2005, managed by Serena Hotels, after it was restored and renovated by the Aga Khan Development Network.

The room...



... with a stone wall which extended into the bathroom...



... the room opens out here...



... facing this lovely garden...



We dined everywhere it was possible to dine at Shigar. The first day we ate a late lunch on this deck which overlooks the river that runs by...



... and later that night, everybody was in the mood for a lighter dinner, so we ordered this Balti soup, a mutton broth with meat, vegetables and homemade pasta...



This is the dining room...



... and this is the adjacent outdoor seating area. We ate breakfast here most days...




A lot of the food is similar to that in Khaplu but this apricot drink was something new and really nice, it's made by draining off the liquid in which dried apricots are stewed so it has this really intense flavour...



The second day, after breakfast, we went out for a stroll and there were adorable giggly school children out and about everywhere during their break from school...



Later on we headed to the beautiful Satpara Lake. I'm so glad the weather was nice that day because, as I was going through the photos again, it doesn't even look real it's so gorgeous. I mean they look like postcards or something! The water is so blue...



After we had had our fill of photography at the lake, we went to the Shangrila Resort for lunch. This is another popular and beautiful hotel in Skardu and has been around since the 1980s. The main attraction here is the lake that perfectly reflects everything in its surroundings...



We were very hungry and had to wait a while for our food, so we helped ourselves to the apples growing on the grounds (the hotel staff said it was perfectly alright for us to do so). They were even kind enough to give us some apples to take back with us...



They have their own trout farms on the premises and we asked them to prepare some good old Fish and Chips for us...



For dinner one night we ordered this local dish Chicken Fasanjun, a chicken curry cooked in a walnut sauce. All these nutty curries were so rich and delicious...


The Shigar Fort is known in Balti as "Fong-Khar" which means 'palace on the rock'...



... and this is the rock that gives it its name...


Here too rooms in the actual palace have been renovated as suites and you can stay there if you like (I didn't get a chance to take pictures)...



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Shigar is closer to the airport than Khaplu, just 40 minutes away, so it's best to stay there the night before you plan to leave, just in case your flight gets delayed or cancelled. 

We ended up staying at Shigar a bit longer than we originally intended because of bad weather and flight delays but it was a thoroughly enjoyable experience. The weather was clearer while we were at Shiagr and because we had done everything we planned to do in the first two days, the last couple of days we just relaxed, went for walks, read books and ate good food. I have to say that the food was better in Khaplu but we did try some new things in Shigar too, including a wonderful apricot dessert which my mother made once we got back home and I'll post that recipe this week. (For further information, visit the hotel's website http://serenagilgitbaltistan.com/our-collection/shigar-fort-residence/)

I meant to blog about my Skardu holiday before 2012 ends and I believe I have just managed; 2013 is four minutes away in Islamabad.

Happy New Year!

Sunday, December 30, 2012

Skardu: Khaplu Palace & Residence

It seems I cannot manage to get my holiday blog posts on here until at least a month or two have passed by. This one comes very very late. But I had to post it before the year ends!

After visiting and staying at both the Khaplu Palace and the Shigar Fort hotels in Skardu I have been telling everybody I meet that they must go too when they get the chance. I have been to Skardu before and everybody has seen pictures of how beautiful it is but obviously the real thing is so much better. And staying at historically rich and architecturally stunning luxury hotels adds up to a near-perfect vacation.

We landed at Skardu Airport after a pleasant barely noticeable 50-minute flight from Islamabad. The views of the mountains and valleys on either side during the flight keep you occupied and then before you know it you're there...


.... Our first destination was the Khaplu Palace and Residence so after collecting the luggage (and losing a homemade coffee cake) we got into a van (the hotel provides complimentary transportation to and from the airport) that would take us to Khaplu. The hotel is a bumpy winding two-and-a-half hour drive from the airport but this nausea- and headache-inducing drive is also more than worth it when you get there...

Walk through the entrance (below) and to the right is the main reception which leads to the guest rooms. The reception is where the palace stables used to be...



... walk across, out the doorway on the other end and the palace, originally built in the 1840s, comes into view...




The traditional architecture in Baltistan is like nothing I've ever seen before and, surrounded by mountains, it's such a picturesque and serene place.

This doorway leads from the guest rooms back into the reception...



The room...





... the bathroom doorway...



... and, just to be thorough, the bathroom...


I wasn't prepared for how beautiful the hotel would be and I definitely didn't anticipate how amazing the food would be.

The chef is very good at what he does and they use as much local produce as they can, much of it growing on the hotel grounds. For breakfast (or whenever you want) you'll get fresh apple and peach juice made from fruit growing in their own garden. The salads are made with red, yellow and green tomatoes, which are hard to come across in Pakistan, also grown in the garden. 

Our first foray into the wonderful world of Balti cuisine included Chicken Badshah and Feyuk Shaa Moskut, a mutton curry cooked in a delicious sauce made with crushed almonds, walnuts and green herbs. (The dining table was lit with candles hence the dim lighting.)


Next morning's breakfast was such a regal feast! There were so many new things to try and everything was good!

These are savoury buckwheat pancakes called Kisser...



There was a table laden with cereals, fruit, jams, honey and of course butter...



... cheese omelette atop a buckwheat pancake...



... and Zerchoon, a deep-fried mildly sweet cross between cake and bread. I couldn't stop eating these!


After breakfast, we headed out to a viewpoint...


... The view of the mountains was incredible but it was cloudy and I imagine it's even better on a clear day...


After taking some pictures, we went on to the Gulzaar Fish Pond...


I very quickly realized I don't have the patience for fishing so I settled down to drink the fragrant sunshine-yellow saffron tea we were served while we waited for the fish to be caught...


... then we brought our spoils back to the hotel and asked the chef to prepare them for our lunch, which we ate here. This is apparently where the prince used to address his constituents...





For lunch, a cucumber and tomato salad...



... and the trout we caught. I really should have asked how it was cooked but I was too busy eating to think of that at the time. It was quite simply prepared though, not too many spices or herbs, just a simple batter and it tasted especially delicious because it was so fresh...


... Furus Fulka, a chappatti roll filled with a mixture of homemade cottage cheese, tomato, spring onions, coriander, mint and sweet apricot kernel oil...



... and for dessert, a peach mousse, which was good...



... and a dried apricot mousse that was amazing!



We also got to watch a polo match. Polo is a popular sport (of Persian origin) in Gilgit-Baltistan and even though the field is barren, the horses look tired and the team doesn't have proper gear, they play every Saturday. The field is just down the road from the hotel and it seemed the whole town had turned out for the weekend match...






The palace looks just as beautiful lit up at night as it does in the daytime. This is the view from the first floor veranda...




The day we were leaving for Shigar we were given a lengthy tour of the palace and its many rooms, some of which have been renovated as royal suites. The locals call the Khaplu Palace "Yabgo Khar"...


... a beautifully carved wooden door (below) in the palace. There are are many more like this and, remarkably, each room's wooden ceiling has a different pattern...


... the Raja's kitchen (or what's left of it)...


If you want you can even stay in what used to be the Raja's and Rani's rooms! Below are some of the suites inside the palace...





We made our way all the way up to the roof where apricots and almonds were laid out to dry...


All in all, I had a fabulous time in Khaplu. The hotel provides every modern luxury you need for a relaxing holiday while preserving the historic architecture and cultural heritage of the palace. What's even better is that after the palace was donated to the people of Baltistan by the Rajas of Khaplu in 2005, it was restored by the Aga Khan Foundation and then opened as a heritage boutique hotel managed by Serena Hotels in 2011, with the bulk of proceeds going to development projects in the region.





For more information visit the hotel's website: http://serenagilgitbaltistan.com/our-collection/khaplu-palace-residence/

Tomorrow: The Shigar Fort Residence in Skardu!