Spring in Skardu

Frida Khan goes on a lyrical journey in Gilgit-Baltistan and finds herself charmed even when stranded

Spring in Skardu
I step off the plane and immediately my thoughts arrange themselves into a Facebook post:

Skardu in spring
Is a beautiful thing.
Under silver moon hush
And apricot blush
We meet.

But while my friends won’t be able to read this till later in the day - when I have taken the hotel WiFi password, signed in, typed out the lines, and added a forgiving filter to a selfie - my daughter’s friends on Snapchat are privy to her first impressions almost as instantaneously as the synapses that form them.

And there is much to take in and relay. Baltistan is a geography of elegance. The mountains are imposing but gentle, like a father, cradling clusters of villages in wide valleys. The poplars stand tall amongst them, silvery and sinewy, reaching heavenwards. The mountain deserts stretch softly into the distance, interspersed with trees and streams, positioned with the most delicate artistry. The gentle breeze carries petals - apricot, cherry, almond - upwards to kiss the clouds. In some places the cloud cover is thin and the sun breaks through, its shafts like a spotlight, infusing the whole scene with the golden glow of a childhood memory.

Landing at Skardu
Landing at Skardu

By the time we reach Shigar Fort - the 17th century fort that has been converted with such taste and respect, into a hotel - the clouds have formed a complete blanket, draping the snow-capped peaks in their swirling, shifting swathes. By the time we reach our room, the rain begins to fall and Aisha and I fall asleep to a rhythm older than the 400 year old walls that house us, softer than the centuries of souls watching over us.

The next morning we wake up to a cold, grey day, made warm by a breakfast of buckwheat pancakes, mulberry jam and wild thyme tea, all local specialties. Aisha takes out her phone to photograph the feast but she has trouble posting it on Instagram because her 4G connection is not working. We try and connect to the hotel internet but get the same message - no signal. We ask the waiter what the problem might be and he informs us that though the rain has been kind in Baltistan, in Gilgit it has been torrential, dissolving mountainsides and roads, sweeping away villages and severing the optic fibre that carries the current of phone and internet connectivity to this area. But, he assures us, we should have services restored by the evening.

Upper Kachura
Upper Kachura

Baltistan is a geography of elegance

We spend the day further north in Khaplu exploring the exquisitely restored fort there and the beautiful valley it stands in. The Khaplu Fort and Shigar Fort projects are fascinating examples of restoration and reinvention of historical sites. Both were left in a derelict state when their owners moved out into more contemporary abodes, but rather than clinging on to them, their owners gifted them to the community. The Aga Khan Trust for Culture restored the forts following the highest standards of conservation - training and employing locals from more than 400 families. They turned the forts into hotels, allowing guests to sleep in an atmosphere as authentic as it was many hundreds of years ago, but melded with running hot water, feather pillows and silver cutlery. What is perhaps most unique is that around 70 percent of the profits are put back into the community and spent on its improvement, making it an anchor of social and economic development in Khaplu and earning it the the Virgin Holidays Responsible Tourism Award in 2012. It’s a model the Capital Development Authority would have done well to follow when they were redeveloping Saidpur village as a tourist attraction. They paved the main road and allowed rich restaurants to open shop there, but the model buildings are only pastiches of traditional architecture and the locals get no recompense for the invasion of their privacy and the increase in waste and sewerage. The CDA has planted a few trees around the sewer, which once was a natural stream, and built a faux wooden European countryside style crossing over it, but a bridge over a sewer does not the Seine make.

Terraced fields
Terraced fields

We breakfast on buckwheat pancakes, mulberry jam and wild thyme tea, all local specialties

Night falls and the internet and phone are still not working. I have no choice but to scroll through old Facebook posts uploaded from the day before, even though I have done so several times already earlier in the day - surreptitiously under the table while waiting for our food; with abandon while on the toilet; and absent-mindedly in the car when it became too dark to look outside: Noboru is still having a chat and a cup of coffee with his language partners in a Shibuya cafe, John’s heart is still beating at a healthy 80 beats per minute as confirmed by his new fitbit, and Mehr is still wondering what to cook. I wish I could suggest to her the balle soup that Aisha and I have just had, a rich broth ribboned with flat pasta and pearls of wheat that pop softly between the teeth. I am about to Google the recipe, but then I stop.

A room with a history - the restored forts at Khaplu and Shigar are a success story for the restoration of historic sites for tourism
A room with a history - the restored forts at Khaplu and Shigar are a success story for the restoration of historic sites for tourism

A serving of balle, a rich broth
A serving of balle, a rich broth

70 percent of profits from the restored Forts go to the community, making them an anchor of development in Khaplu

The next day we are back in Skardu and on our way to the airport to catch the 11 am flight. Just outside the airport, a dragonfly buzz draws our attention upwards to an aeroplane, just as small, circling the azure, blue sky. We expect it to become larger as it approaches the ground but we are puzzled to see it become smaller instead, and then completely gobsmacked to see it fly over the mountains and away!

“The flight time changed” says the PIA officer flatly. “Records show that our operators called you twice and sent you an SMS, but you didn’t reply.”

“How could I possibly reply to something I never received?” I ask, “Don’t you know phone services are down?”

“Yes, I do. But they called you from Karachi. They don’t know over there.”

tft-23-d tft-23-h

The author and her daughter, on finding out their flight had left without them
The author and her daughter, on finding out their flight had left without them

After having been booked on the next flight we decide to make good use of the time we now have. A friend in Skardu, Waqar, takes us to Upper Kachura to marvel at the impossibly green lake and the snow capped mountains it mirrors. On the way back we drive past the Shangri-la resort which, we are told, has been bought by Malik Riaz of Bahria fame. He is due to begin a complete redevelopment of the resort which, I hope fervently, will not involve the installation of plastic cows under the apple trees.

In the evening we reach the hotel only to discover that now, not only are the phone and internet still not working, but the electricity has also gone out in the whole area. Anticipating the cold, dark night in front of us, Waqar graciously invites Aisha and me to his home for dinner instead.

Shigar Fort mosque
Shigar Fort mosque

Over plates of steaming mamtu and pasta in a sauce fragrant with apricot kernels, we talk into the night

Dinner that night is one of the best meals I have had. Waqar, his wife Nilofer, Waqar’s father, Aisha and I sit around the light and warmth of a gas lamp. Over plates of steaming mamtu and pasta cooked in a sauce fragrant with apricot kernels, we talk into the night - of trips to Nepal and Italy, the old architecture of Khaplu, marriage, children, continuing education, dying. We look through photo albums drawing our faces close to the pages to look at small details. Even time seems to stop, pausing to join our circle around the flickering flame, moving back and forth with our conversation.

Suddenly, the electricity returns, bringing the Geo jingle on TV back to life and erasing the soft glow of the gas lamp under the light bulb. It’s as though a spell has been broken. It’s time to go back.

Back in Islamabad I leave my phone turned off for a little while longer. When eventually I do turn it on I open Facebook to find a post from Aisha.

Smtymz my mthr xaggr8s
“You’ll have fun!...
It’s delicious!...
Of course we won’t be late!”
But nw I’ll b more trustful.
Skardu really was 1drful.

Mamtu: steamed meat-filled dumplings from Gilgit-Baltistan

Steamed mamtu dumplings - Image courtesy - mygilgit.com

Steamed mamtu dumplings - Image courtesy - mygilgit.com

The Friday Times brings you a recipe from the mountains to brighten your Eid


  1. Vegetable oil or clarified butter (ghee), 500g

  2. Lean minced lamb or beef, 500g

  3. Onion, 4 pieces, finely chopped

  4. Garlic, 2 tsp, finely chopped

  5. Ground coriander, 1/2 tsp

  6. Ground cumin, 1 tsp

  7. Chilli powder, 1/4 tsp

  8. Shanghai (square white) wonton wrappers, 40

  9. Natural yoghurt, as required

  10. Vinegar, 1/2 teaspoon

  11. Ketchup, as required

  12. Chopped flat-leaf parsley, as required

  13. Salt, according to taste


Heat the oil or ghee in a wok or frying pan and add the lamb. Fry over low heat until lightly browned, stirring to separate the meat. Add the onion and stir-fry until it is translucent. Add the garlic, spices and salt and stir-fry for another 3 minutes or until fragrant. Transfer to a bowl to cool.

Place a heaped teaspoon of lamb filling in the middle of a wonton wrapper. Brush the edges with a little water and draw two opposite corners together to meet in the middle. Draw in the other two corners and seal the edges. You should have a square pouch. Repeat with the remaining wrappers and filling.

Place the mamtu on a steamer, making sure they don’t touch, and steam for 10 minutes. Top each mamtu with a spoonful of yoghurt and a sprinkling of parsley.