Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Shigar Valley..Tourists' heaven

The north western landscape of the country -- Hunza, Astor, Skardu, Khapulo -- is rich in scenic beauty. Shigar has joined the cluster of these valleys, offering a feast to the eyes of the tourists from afar.Shigar valley is situated in Baltistan which is fed by the Shigar River. The valley, that has an area of about 170 km from Skardu to Askole, is the gateway to the high mountains of the Karakoram and its height is about 2050 meters above the sea level. Askole also serves as a base camp for mountaineers who have the gumption and the courage to conquer the second loftiest peak of K2. Even though Shigar is not quite accessible like Hazara and Malakand, it has nevertheless due share of the tourists in summer, both local and foreigners.Deliberating for about an hour, I finally decided to venture out to the Shigar valley. It seems pertinent to mention that the unpredictable weather and a relatively dicey route to Skardu from Islamabad add spice to the adventure of travelling through the valleys, guarded capriciously by high peaks like K2 and Nanga Parbat. Skardu airport usually wears a deserted look as the only flight that comes there daily is dependent on the weather. The tourists are likely to get stuck there for two to three days more than the planned stay. Skardu is highly underdeveloped despite the rich potentialities.Shigar valley is located in the outskirts of Skardu, the district headquarter of Baltistan. In fact Indus River segregates the Shigar valley from Skardu. The bridge over Indus presents a marvellous site that provides access to the people from Skardu to Shigar. That bridge was built by Chinese almost a decade ago.No offence to the Balti people inhabiting Skardu proper, Shigar valley is the greenest and the most picturesque part of Baltistan with green pines emerging from the valley which can be seen from a distance of about 2 to 3 kilometres. Almost in the middle of that valley exists the extra ordinary tourist attraction; the Shigar Fort. Hasan Khan Amacha, the 20th ruler of the Amacha family is reputed to have built Fong-Khar (the name of the fort in Balti) in 1634 to mark the repossession of Shigar from Abdal Khan Maqpon, the then ruler of Skardu. This was accomplished with the help of a Mughal army. The Mughal annexation of Kashmir, in 1587, had opened Baltistan to greater cultural and political relations with Delhi.The increased cultural interaction with Kashmir and beyond is vigorously expressed in the architecture and the ornamentation of this building, lending it considerable artistic and historic importance. It is said that when Hasan Khan Amacha returned from his exile in the court of Shah Jahan, the Mughal emperor, he brought with him builders and artists from Kashmir. Evidence for this is found in the rich presence of both Persianised Kashmiri and Baltistani idiom in the wooden carving in Fong Khar.The old Fort, Khari-Dong, high above the cliffs, signifies the long and rich history of the area, having been built before the arrival of the Amachas in Shigar under Razi Tham, some 13 generations before Hasan Khan, and well before the advent of Islam. The old site of Khari-Dong is said to be associated with earlier settlements, as is the Buddhist monastery a kilometre to the south. Razi Tham's palace is said to have existed close to the later built mosque of Khlingrong. It was in 1999 that the Shigar Fort was bequeathed to the people of Baltistan by Raja Mohammad Ali Shah Saba of Shigar, enabling the commencement of the conservation projects.In addition to the major financial support of the Government of Norway, financial support for the project also came from the Governments of Germany, Greece and Spain and from American Express. Thus due to a rich historical background, the Shigar Fort was my pick as a holiday spot, this summer. Another fascination was the beautiful stream that flows close to the fort.The manager, Karim Khan, said that Shigar Fort Residence has been open since June 1, 2005, following an intensive six-year restoration work undertaken by Aga Khan Cultural Service, Pakistan (AKCS-P). This 400-year-old fort has been brought back to life by the careful strategy of re-use and restoration. The result is an amalgamation of 17th century architecture and the modern amenities and services of a luxury guest house. The newly constructed Bara Dari is an added attraction for the tourists where they usually sit, gossip and take green tea. Quite adjacent to Bara Dari is a vegetable garden where grow fresh vegetables to be served at lunch and dinner. It was June and the cherry trees were fully laden with fruits.The Shigar Fort Residence has emerged as a new form of cultural tourism in Pakistan that combines guest rooms, facilities, and services of international standard with an intimate first-hand experience of the unique architectural, cultural, and natural heritage of the Shigar Valley. Its setting in the Shigar Valley provides the ideal gateway to explore some of the most spectacular scenery in the world. Here, the magnificent Karakoram and Himalayan ranges meet -- an intersection which results in the most extensively glaciated high mountain terrain on the planet. This includes seven of the world's 25 highest peaks, four of which exceed 8000m, including K-2, the second highest mountain peak in the world at 8611m.Baltistan is home to approximately 400,000 people, whose history and culture stretches back to early Tibetan Buddhist origins. This heritage is still evident in much of the local traditions, architecture and language of the area, offering visitors a rich cultural experience unique in Pakistan.Shigar is undoubtedly a heaven on earth. Despite the fact that it has immense potential to attract large number of tourists, little attention has been paid to its uplift and infrastructural development. More importantly, the point that needs to be emphasised is the peaceful nature of common people. Politeness and courtesy is the cultural insignia that every individual epitomises.

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