It is said that people travel for romance, architecture, history or simply to get lost. At Khaplu, you experience all of that and more
In Fennel Hudson’s Journal No. 1 – A Meaningful Life, a rather entertaining account of his search for peace in rural life, he wrote: “Old buildings whisper to us in the creaking of floorboards and rattling of windowpanes.” At the Khaplu Palace, I felt like they whisper in many more ways, but perhaps I felt so because of the otherworldly aura of the space and the legacy attached to it.
A few months into quarantine, everyone needed a break. In pursuit of an escape from home and self-isolation in a socially distanced setting, I found myself travelling up north. While Naran, Hunza, Gilgit and Skardu are popular choices, I decided to take the less-known route and ended up in Khaplu, the capital of Ghanche district of Gilgit-Baltistan.
My idea of vacation during a global pandemic was nothing adventurous. So I decided to stay at the Khaplu Palace for a weekend and explore it and the surrounding areas. Little did I know that not only would this end up being one of the most memorable and ideal retreats but I also wouldn’t feel the need to go beyond the palace itself, to explore the town. From culture to heritage, from history to cuisine and comfort, I found everything I wanted from a vacation at the 19th-century building.
Surrounded by apple and apricot gardens, amid clouds so low that one can literally feel them and mountains just above one’s head, who would feel the need to go anywhere else? Built in the 1840s by Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan, the Raja of Khaplu, Khaplu Palace was originally known as Yabgo Khar (The Fort on the Roof) and served as the royal residency.
Locals say that the palace replaced an older fort somewhere on the mountains at the back. As the legend goes, one day the Raja of Khaplu threw a stone from the original fort on the mountain and announced that he’d construct a brand new palace wherever the stone fell. The Khaplu Palace now stands where the stone fell. Although the old fort was deconstructed after the new one was made, its ruins can still be seen.
For years the royal family and their descendants lived at the Khaplu Palace. Then it became too old and needed restoration. They built new houses around the area, moved out and handed the palace over to Aga Khan Trust for Culture, who began the restoration process. Between 2005 and 2011, the Khaplu Palace was renovated and then handed over to Serena Hotels to be run as a resort hotel.
What’s most striking and beautiful about the palace, despite it being turned into a hotel that is open for public is, that till date it is unique and holds its old school charm. The hotel houses a museum in the main building of the palace. New wings have been constructed around it to cater to more guests. Yet, there are only 22 rooms, which means even at full capacity, there are only 45 people present at any given time at the Palace.
The main building is a combination of rooms that are reserved for guests, terraces that are spaces for visitors to sit and enjoy, and rooms that serve as parts of the museum holding belongings and artefacts of the royal family that lived at the palace since 1840. From their clothes and shoes to cooking utensils to their property documents and marriage certificates translated in several languages, everything is preserved at the museum.
If there’s one thing I know for sure, it is that this isn’t going to be my only trip to the Khaplu Palace. I will definitely return one day, with some books to read and writing to do.
But besides the rich history and the careful preservation, the palace is magical for other reasons too. Located three hours from the Skardu airport, the palace is less-known among tourists. Since there is less to do in Khaplu besides the palace, most tourists opt to see Skardu, Passu and Deosai instead. For me, the fact that it was so secluded from the rest of the planet made it even more special.
Built with stones from the region, plaster and wood, the balconies and front façade of the palace are embellished with woodwork, most of which goes back in the day. Although there are innovations in woodwork inside the palace, the front façade has been preserved and kept in its original state. Most doors at the palace are also preserved from back in the day, carved by craftsmen in the region.
The ceilings are another highlight. Intricately carved and a wonder on their own, they have been carefully preserved till date. However, what absolutely steals the show at the palace are the terraces. So unique and beautiful with big windows that show the stunning mountains in the backdrop and all the greenery and plantation around the palace, the terraces make a symphony of the beautiful interior and the unparalleled natural views. Open to guests, one can enjoy a book, spend time with friends and family or have a meal at one of these terraces. Thankfully, there are plenty and guests don’t have to share them with strangers, which is what makes the experience even more memorable.
During the restoration, some new wings with rooms for guest were built. It’s interesting to know that one of these wings was originally the horse stable of the Raja, and still has the same basic stone structure, but with modern innovations and newly designed comfortable bedrooms built in the space.
Right in front of the main building is a spacious lawn that welcomes guests inside but a larger garden is present adjacent to the main building, which is somehow secluded and more private. During my time there, I was reminded of Enid Blyton’s secret garden except this one had apple and apricot trees with plenty of fruit, which is used to make fresh juice and tarts for the guests staying at the palace.
No travel experience is complete without indulging in the local cuisine and packing some extra pounds. And so, despite my family’s boring choices in food, I tried most of the local dishes on the menu and just about everything was a pleasant treat for my taste buds. The mamtu, a local version of Balti dumplings, were some of the yummiest I’ve had. Their trout fish known as RingboNiya was fresh, delicious and tender. It is served on a bed of creamy mashed potato. For a while, I forgot that it’s local dish. From trying their mutton and chicken, I could tell local Balti dishes are slow-cooked in oil or cream and are very tender and flavourful. Besides opting to have food at one of the private terraces, there is an indoor and outdoor dining area for guests, both of which offer a unique experience.
I couldn’t have hoped for a better retreat amid a pandemic and was actually upset why I didn’t visit before. But if there’s one thing I know for sure, it is that this isn’t going to be my only trip to the Khaplu Palace. I will definitely return one day, with some books to read and writing to do. Indeed, the Khaplu Palace is a national treasure. I just wish more people knew of the otherworldly experience this place offers.
I read somewhere that people often travel for romance, architecture, history or simply to get lost. At Khaplu, you experience all of that and more. I hope to find myself there again.
The writer is a communications professional, journalist, and photographer