Travels to Baltistan: Part II

Read Part I here.

On 23 May, we checked out from the Shigar Fort Residence with beautiful memories of the place and the people, and headed to the Khaplu town, the administrative headquarters of Ghanche district. Bounded on the north by the two prefectures– Kashghar and Hotan—of the Xinjiang Uyghur region in China, and on the north-east by the Indian-controlled Ladhak, the easternmost part of the district is the famous Siachen Glacier, known as the highest militarized zone in the world. The Glacier is under the occupation of the Indian troops, while the Pakistan Army controls the western region of the Soltoro ridge located in the west of the Siachen Glacier. A convoy of the army truck taking food and other supplies to the soldiers passed us by.

We reached the sleepy little town of Khaplu in the afternoon. At Chaqchan Road, Sargiab, a sign under an old piece of carved wood with hidden light on a stone wall read ‘Khaplu Palace Complex’. Our vehicle turned left into a narrow lane lined on one side by a couple of shops. We got down and at the end of the lane and entered a wooden gate opening into a wide passage with stonewall structures on both side. On our left, a teak door led to the reception area. A wooden takht with rugs and gao-takyae was placed by the wall at the end of the wide passage.

Khaplu Palace

It is only when you step out of the passage that the majestic structure of the Khaplu Palace itself –made of wooden cribbage, mud blocks and stones– comes into full view. Its magnificent four-storeyed timber balcony—jaroka– at the front, with eight arches at each floor, erected in the shape of hexagonal cut in half, the lattice work at the front, and the exquisite colourful geometric patterns of the ceilings, the Palace exudes a unique aura. Only a few rooms in the Palace are reused as guest rooms. Most of the rooms serve as the Balti Folk Museum housing original artefacts, utensils, personal belongings, furniture and historic documents of the royal family and the descendants who lived in the Palace. The vast front lawn is dissected by a straight smooth earthen path leading to the raised terrace where stands the Palace, white and brown, against the backdrop of the arid, brown mountain range. The three ancillary buildings, reconstructed with natural stone, earthen mortar and timber–comprising the guest rooms, dining hall, open air restaurant and the reception area–blend with the Palace structure.

Khaplu Palace was built in 1840 by the Yabgo Raja, Daulat Ali Khan. In distant times, some of the Uyghurs, originally a Turkic ethnic tribe of Central Asia, migrated from Kashgar to Baltistan, or Little Tibet, as it is still called, and settled in the Hushe and Soltoro valleys in the Ghanche district. One of the warriors, Baig Manthal, it is said, established a state and founded the Yagbo dynasty.

Gifted in 2005 by the rajas Zakria Ali Khan and Nasir Ali Khan to the Aga Khan Development Network, the dilapidated Palace structure’s restoration was initiated with the aim to conserve the cultural heritage in a sustainable way so as to benefit the local community. The process was completed and the facility opened in 2011 under the Serena Hotels. In 2013, the Khaplu Palace Complex won the UNESCO Asia-Pacific Heritage Conservation Award.

Inside Khaplu Palace

The most beautiful element of this unique place for me were the gardens, particularly the one which spread out in front of the room we stayed in. A small veranda attached to the room was canopied under a shady walnut tree. Cherry, almond, apricot and apple trees lined the edges of the garden. Glints of golden sun rays on pink and yellow rose bushes, flowers of various shapes, colours and shades, the blooming white chrysanthemum framed by the majestic peaks and the hide-and-seek of fluffy clouds painted such a beautiful view in front of view that you could sit mesmerised for hours.

Royal Gardens in Khaplu Palace Complex

After we settled down and rested for a while, we came out of the room to have tea and a leisurely look at the environs. We saw a beeline of school children of all ages—from 7 to 17 years—fair and rosy-cheeked, girls in headscarves and dupattas, boys in shalwar qameez or pants and shirts, accompanied by men and women teachers. One of the schools in Skardu city had arranged a tour of the cultural heritage of the Khaplu Palace, we were told. Many schools in Baltistan have a tradition to take children out on cultural and ecology tours to augment learnings of history, culture and the flora and fauna of the region.

The tour of the Baltit Folk Museum inside the Khaplu Palace turned out to be enlightening about several other aspects of the Balti society and its people, aside from the historical objects and the lifestyle of yore. The museum guide, a graceful, knowledgeable, articulate and cheerful Balti man, donning a traditional cap with a feather, spoke eloquently about the collective spirit of the people of present-day Khaplu, peace and harmony among the three Islamic sects—Nurbakhshi, Shia and Sunni. “Islam does not differentiate between sects. Islam is vast, like an ocean, and the variations in our beliefs and rituals are drops that mingle and merge in the great oceanic current of Islam”.

Students from Skardu on a Field Trip to Khaplu Palace

Originated in the 15th century Iran as a branch of Kubrawiya Sufi order,  Nurbakhshiya order, founded by Sayyid Muhammad Nurbakhsh (1392-1464), was introduced in the valleys of Kashmir and Baltistan by Shams-al Din Iraqi. A belief system that combines elements of both Shi’ism and Sunni Islam, Nurbakhshiya order has miraculously survived in Baltistan–perhaps due to the remoteness of the region and the resoluteness of the people–despite sectarian tensions in surrounding areas and the missionary efforts of both Shia and Sunni ulema to win them to their own strand of Islam. “A religious belief system of a people is something close to one’s heart; it is core of your being. It is personal as well as communal. Collectively we gather in masjid and khanqah for prayers, learning and spiritual training, and discussions. But nowadays people argue about religion in every gali, koocha (every nook and corner),” he observed. He was of the opinion that religious debates should take place in mosques, khanqahs and imambargahs and not on the street. Religion is sacred and should be contemplated in sacred spaces.

According to an estimate (based on the Pakistan 1981 Census), by a German scholar Andreas Rieck in his 1995 study, the population of Baltistan is 70% Shia, 25% Nurbhakshi and 5% Sunni. Almost 80% of the Nurbakhshi population is concentrated along the river Shyok and Thalley, Hushe and Soltoro valley with Khaplu as its administrative and intellectual centre. A young man, working in the hospitality sector, told us that inter-sect marriages are accepted in Baltistan. “I am a Shia but my wife is a Nurbakhshiya. We don’t have any conflict. We each practice our own faith,” he told me.

The young Balti told us how much education is valued by parents in Baltistan. He studied up to class 8 but has high ambitions for his children. “I get very little per month. During Covid-19, I was paid half of that salary,” he shared. He has three sons. “I send two of my boys to a private school and the eldest is enrolled in an army school. Everything gets expensive in winter. Since the Corona-19 pandemic and the closure of schools, tuition centres have increased fees which people pay in instalments.” Like the rest of the country, parents do not want to send their children to government schools, which are in bad shape.

The young man told us about a Welfare Association formed by young parents of Khaplu who do not want to compromise on their children’s education. “Many parents send their children to Rawalpindi for better schooling. But accommodation is expensive. So these young men are developing a fund to buy a small piece of land there and build a mini-hostel for children. Rich parents are not interested in the project as they have houses or assets in Pindi,” he said.

Cherry Trees in the Royal Gardens

I was told by other people there that during the Covid-19 pandemic when the tourism and mountaineering came to a standstill in the valley and impacted adversely the households, some did receive cash from the state to tide over difficult times. However, they alleged that most of the money under the state-initiated Covid-19 social assistance programmes (i.e., Ehsaas Emergency Cash, Ehsaas Kaqfalat, BISP) was gobbled up by the local rulers. The army’s involvement is also suspected. Unlike other parts of Pakistan where people either love or hate the army, in Baltistan, I could feel an ambivalent, love-hate relationship of the people with the army: army protects the borders of their remote land; army grabs the prime land and the money…

Hushe Valley

The next morning, we were up early for our visit to Hushe Valley in the Central Karakoram, termed by scientists as one of the most rapidly rising and forming areas on planet Earth. In a 2020 research article, Ane Zabaleta, the Spanish geologist and her team, identified 13 landform types associated with ‘glacial, fluvial, gravitational and mass wasting processes’ in the valley. According to these scientists, this geodynamics pose a great threat to the people of the valley and could affect the infrastructures along the lower valley and agricultural areas. We witnessed some indication of the land forming process—rockfalls and landsliding– on the way. As our vehicle traversed the flatlands by the Shyok riverbed, passed by small villages and zigzagged the mountain range, we came across several long patches of dirt and rocky pebbles on the rough road. At a few places, road construction and repair was in progress, leaving very little room for the passing vehicles to negotiate the dangerous path. Luckily we came across only a few four-wheelers carrying villagers and some motorbikes driven by local young men on the road. Our driver-guide, a shy, soft spoken, humble young men drove his vehicle with skill and dexterity. We had been told his father is the ex-Raja of Khaplu, one of the two Rajas who gifted away the Palace for the benefit of the community. Fond of trekking and polo, he contributes to his family through the provision of transport to tourists.

Our destination was Hushe village, the last village of the Ghangche district, located at an altitude of 3130 meters. Surrounded by peaks of 6000 meters, with the Masherbrum (7,821 m) up close in the north, and K-2, Broad Peak and Gasherbrum I and II, all above 8,000 meters, the village serves as the launching site for many trekking and mountaineering expeditions to various peaks and glaciers.

Tourists Leave Behind Messages on Rocks at the Mountain Lodge Refugio, Hushe Valley

Finally, after an almost four-hour ride astride the 40 km long valley, the road ended and we entered the Mountain Lodge Refugio in Hushe village. The lodge was built in 2010 under a Spanish-Pakistan cooperation project through the efforts of an amazing journalist, Sebastian Alvaro, who created adventure documentaries, and directed and organised more than 200 expeditions and explorations. Sebastian was so enamoured by the people of the Karakoram mountain that he kept visiting Hushe valley for 30 years, made more than 30 expeditions and coordinated several humanitarian aid projects in the valley. During this period, Sebastian struck a lasting friendship with Little Karim, the famous high altitude-porter of Hushe Valley. In 2001, Sebastian, with the support of the Sarabastall Foundation, a not-for-profit organisation in Spain, built a modest hotel—the Lodge—which opened in 2010. The Foundation also helped built a school and trained local health workers. The earnings from the Lodge goes to improve community education, health and agriculture in Hushe village.

Poster of the documentary made on Little Karim’s Adventures

We acquainted, albeit briefly, Gulshan, daughter of the famed Little Karim in the Refugio Lodge while we were having tea in the backyard with a view of the peaks, the terraced fields and the valley. Gulshan had studied up to 12 level. “Then I got two years of training in Gilgit as a lady health visitor and now work at the Khaplu Tehsil Hospital,” she told us. A mother of two kids—a boy and a girl—Gulshan was in Hushe for a little while as her husband who works as a cook in Lahore lost his job due to Covid-19 pandemic and had returned to his home town. “We have a three canal plot of land and we grow wheat, potato and green peas. The boys in my village do not want to study. They are happy to pursue a career in trekking and mountaineering, assisting foreigners as porters and guides, or in the tourism sector. Perhaps the easiest way to earn money but it has its own pitfalls. Now in these days of the pandemic, there are no trekkers, mountaineers, just a few tourists,” she shared. We looked at a foreign couple sitting nearby, talking to their driver-guide. We came to know the couple was based in Islamabad.

Lady Health Visitor Gulshan, With Her Children

The next day we stayed put in Khaplu and ventured out on foot to visit Chaqchan Khanqah Mosque nearby. We crossed the bazar with shops lining on both side of the ascending Chaqchan Road. Full of men, we did not spot a single woman in the bazar. The grand mosque stood at a vantage point, on a raised hill tract, overlooking the valley. We climbed up the steps inside a wooden door topped by a stone arch which read in Urdu خانقاہ چقچن. We took off our shoes and entered in the arched veranda that surrounds the structure on four sides. The wood carving and jali work above and below the arches was exquisite. The ceiling of the veranda and the prayer hall, supported by four pillars, was decorated beautifully with vivid-coloured floral and geometric designs. On one of the doors that led to the prayer hall was inscribed جامعہ مسجر صوفیہ نور بخشیہ چقچن. The mosque has two storeys. I was told the upper floor is used for prayers in summer and the lower area in winter and as a lodging for religious retreats. At the top of the mosque is a pyramidal spire with a hexagonal qubbah or dome. One of the four verhandas gave an overview of the built-up area—the haphazard concrete structures spring up without proper town planning, typical of the mountain settlements in the country, indicating a growing population and its impact on the land use patterns.

Chaqchan Khanqah Mosque

Khanqah-e Moualla Nurbakhshiya, located in Khaplu Bala, was a bit away from where we were staying. So we got on a vehicle which zigzagged its way in to the centre of the town. Said to be the largest original surviving khanqah among the ten found in Baltistan, the khanqah was undergoing repair work when we visited. The main entrance was cordoned off, the street all dust and dirt, was constricted with the presence of compactor and dump tractor. A local man guided us to the side door of the khanqah. Said to be largest khanqah in Baltistan, its interior hall has huge columns with square bases and many smaller columns to support the timber beams and the beautifully designed wooden ceiling. It has eight small rooms, or hujras, and a wide veranda with arches topped by wooden jail work. The khanqah serves as a mosque, a learning centre, retreat and imambargah, we were told, and it welcomes all—Shia, Sunni and Nurbakhshi.

A Mosque Near Khaplu

In the afternoon, we strolled down the road to the Khaplo Polo Ground to watch a match. The oldest equestrian sport, polo is indigenous to the Karakoram region, being played since the 17th century. The game is played between two teams of four players each on horseback who use a long stick, or mallet, to drive a ball down the field. In Khaplu the Jashn-e-Ghangche Polo Tournament is held annually in June in which different teams from all over Baltistan (Skardu, Rondu and Shigar) participate. The polo ground was a vast rectangular field at a low level. The natural raised platforms on two sides served as stadium where spectators sat. The match that day was, perhaps, a practicing event for the upcoming tournament. There were young and old men and male children and no women aside from the two of us. We watched the players for a little while as they tugged on their horses to run faster chasing the ball.

Polo Match at Khaplu Polo Ground

We drove to Thalay Valley the next morning. Like Hushe, Thalay valley also falls within the buffer zone of Central Karakoram National Park. Straddling the bank of Shyok River, Thalay valley is famous for its alpine pastures and meadows (it is also known as Mini Deosai, to highlight the similarity between its meadows an those of Deosai Plains). We passed by a number of settlements which appeared after small deserted stretches in between. Wheat farms, vegetable patches, fruit orchards, followed by a few shops by the roadside, some closed, some open, several men of different ages sitting silently in a row on the boundary wall, or squatting on the road, a few men going about their tasks were the signs of a village. We did not come across women on the road: we saw them washing clothes and the beddings on the river bank or carrying haystack on their back in straw baskets, walking alone or with a child or two trailing behind. The valley, about 35 km long, extends from the lower village at 3,000 meter elevation to the top village at 3,500 meter. The single metalled ribbon road that traversed the valley was mostly rough and pebbly.

Thalay Valley

We got down at the last village, Ormong Chhumik, where the valley ended. It was a flatland, a vast pasture which has started to turn green, along the river bank, surrounded by arid mountains and snow-covered peaks. There was a mosque, the traditional square structure on a raised rock and stone platform, and three small houses nearby. The mosque looked newly painted and repaired. Liaquat Ali, the young caretaker, showed us the mosque. He said the mosque was old and dilapidated. “The villagers did not have the resources to repair it. A few years ago an officer from Punjab visited our village and offered prayers at the mosque. It was him who provided the fund to strengthen the structure,” he said.

I struck a conversation with two old men sitting on the grass at the edge of the pasture. A young woman, daughter-in-law of one of the men, came to greet us. Aisha, a young mother, had studied up to ten classes and we chatted in Urdu. The three of us walked down the field towards the river bed and sat on the grassy land. Soon three more women of the village came and joined us. But none of them could speak Urdu though they did understand us. I asked if they were married. One of them laughed and said in halting Urdu ‘hum azad hain’ (we are free). I marvelled at her ease and sense of humour on the subject of marital status, a sensitive topic in a conservative society.

Residents of Ormong Chhumik

Aisha went to one of the three houses by the mosque and reappeared with two flasks, cups and snacks on a tray. First she gave us the herbal tea, and when we finished it, from the other flask she poured Kashmiri chai. She told us during winter they go down the valley as it gets totally covered in snow. “We come back in April for levelling the field and sowing wheat and potato crops,” she said. Her husband works in a hotel in Skardu. The time we spent there–sitting on the meadow, talking to Balti women–was the highlight of our trip to Thalay valley. Balti women, generous, welcoming, full of life, refused to be photographed. I wished I was an artist and could draw that scene in water colours! On our way back to Khaplu, we got down at the river bank where a group of women were busy washing rugs and carpets while their children played nearby. A man was washing his shiny motorbike. In recent years the number of motorbikes have increased in the valley indicating perhaps the rising income of some households.

On the Way Back from Thalay Valley

We spent the last day in Khaplu enjoying nature in the Palace garden. In the evening we went to meet Fatima and her family. A Balti woman engaged in the hospitality sector whom we luckily acquainted, Fatima had invited us for tea at her place, located up on a hilly residential area. Our vehicle zigzagged its way through a narrow road with concrete houses of different types and state of development. We got down at a bend and walked on foot. The access to her house was difficult due to the construction on an adjacent plot. When we entered the gate of her house, we saw a patch of vegetable garden in front of the veranda. Sakina welcomed us in a room with a big window that opens to the beautiful valley, the river and the mountain range. Rugs were spread out and we sat down on the floor.

Fatima’s Daughter and Niece

Fatima started her career as a school teacher in a government school where she worked for about five years. “But they kept me on contract. I was not given the position of a regular teacher. So I quit and with my husband’s permission I joined the hospitality sector.”  Fatima told us it is unusual for women in Khaplu to work in sectors other than education and health. Fatima, who was married off at the age of 12 and gave birth to her first child at 15, finished the 12 grade schooling after her marriage. Now doing her BA as a private candidate, she has high ambitions for her children—two girls and two boys. The eldest daughter, 20, is pursuing a B.Sc. degree in agriculture at the University of Poonch Rawalkot, Azad Kashmir. Her son is in Islamabad studying IT, and the younger son and daughter go to local private schools. Fatima’s husband is in a government service. The family owns some land and cultivate wheat, potatoes and vegetable. “It has become very difficult to bear expenses of children’s education. Parents are not satisfied with under-financed government schools and prefer private schools. For higher education, you need to send your children out to other regions. Many parents sell their land or other assets to educate boys. Even with two modest salaries and self-grown grains and vegetables, it becomes difficult to run a modest household,” she shared. Fatima’s eldest daughter was home as her classes had shifted online due to the Covid-19 pandemic. She had prepared and baked an amazing array of local snacks.

Sitting in Fatima’s Garden

Our two-week travel in Baltistan’s high altitude valleys had come to an end. The memories of warmth and hospitality of the mountain people, their sense of community, and their spirit to collectively fight adversity—be it the impact of climate change, the Covid-19 pandemic, or the ambiguity of their constitutional status as citizens of Pakistan — are sure to stay with us for years to come. Though Baltistan has lagged behind in education and women’s empowerment compared to Hunza valley, the change in the people’s attitude is reflected in the value they assign to education of their children, and albeit slowly, to women’s contribution to society.

Thalay Valley, Baltistan

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