If you ever fancy going to Concordia and treating yourself to the magnificent cathedral of four 8,000-metre high peaks in one go, chances are that you will pass through the ancient kingdom of Shigar.
You may not be required to pay tax to the Raja of Shigar anymore, but a nice lunch at the grapevine-covered restaurant at the Shigar Palace is definitely worth a thought.
About half an hour drive out of Skardu, you take a left turn and cross the bridge over the wide basin of the Indus River to enter the Shigar Valley.
As soon as you cross the bridge, you find yourself in the world’s highest cold desert. Locally known as the Katpana or Sarfranga Desert, it continues on both sides of the Indus and into Ladakh on the other side of border.
After passing through a few gorges, you enter the lush green oasis of Shigar, an ancient principality on the banks of the Braldu River, which comes straight from Braldu glacier at the base of the 8,611 metre-high K2, the second highest mountain in the world.
If you continue on the road beyond Shigar, the road becomes a trek along the roaring Braldu River and takes you to the last frontier: Askole, the final village on the trek to K2.
From Askole, you need to start trekking for 3-4 days over dangerous alleys, paths, rope bridges, moraine and ultimately over glaciers to reach Concordia, from where you can view four of the world’s fourteen 8,000-metre peaks together: Gasherbrum I, Gasherbrum II, Broad Peak and K2.
I must confess, I had to turn back a few hours before reaching Concordia due to a medical emergency in our group, and since then Concordia has been a dream.
Back to Shigar
Shigar’s historic fort was converted into a heritage hotel by the Aga Khan Development Network and is now managed by Serena Hotels. The fort was constructed by Raja Hassan Khan, the 20th Raja of the Amacha dynasty, in early 17th century.
The Amachas arrived in Shigar around 11th century after fleeing persecution from the Ganesh in Hunza. The elders travelled for days through foot-deep snow over the Hispar glacier and braved storms and finally landed into the Shigar Valley, where they built fort Khar-i-Dong.
The original fort was on top of a cliff, but after a few peaceful centuries, the Mughals arrived and in a battle that lasted many days, the Amachas were uprooted and the fort destroyed.
However, once the Amachas submitted, the Mughals left them in peace. The 20th ruler of the dynasty then built the current fort on top of a huge boulder and named it Fong Khar — Palace on the Rock. The new fort remained the seat of the Raja until a few decades ago.
In the 1970s, Pakistan merged all the states within its boundaries, with the Rajas losing their official status, though they still hold local influence, as is true of the current Raja, Muhammad Ali Saba.
K2 and apparently many other 8,000ers, including the two Gasherbrums and Broad Peak, were once part of the Shigar state.
The fort and the palace within the fort were constructed with great love by the Raja, and craftsmen from Kashmir ensured that it is one of the best architectural feats of its time.
The fort is surrounded by lush green orchards and lawns, and you can find cherries, apricots, apples and grapes all around in season.
Numerous small water channels traverse the lawns with a very soothing sound which gets louder as the sun goes down and the surroundings get quieter.
There is a beautiful central baradari with a marble base surrounded by a pool of fresh springwater, which seems adapted from traditional Mughal baradaris.
The palace’s original aesthetics have been preserved and part of it is open for guests, while part of it is a museum with relics from the era gone by.
The grapevine-covered terrace restaurant provides a lovely view of the valley with a gushing white stream — and of course, a mouth-watering menu.
Shigar also proudly owns the 14th century Amburiq Mosque, which was awarded Unesco-protected heritage status in 2005. The mosque was built by the Persian artisans accompanying Syed Ali Hamdani, a travelling Persian scholar and poet who preached Islam in the Kashmir Valley.
Shigar has the 1614-built expansive Khanqah-i-Muallah, or mosque and travel-lodge, as well. The exquisite wooden work on balconies and ceilings leaves one impressed with the masterful craftsmanship.
The Khanqah was built by Shah Nasir Tussi, who came from Tus in Persia, and laid its foundations in 1602. Both the Amburiq Mosque and the Khanqah appear to be built in a similar pattern to Khaplu’s Chaqchan Mosque and Khanqah; apparently the same artisans travelled from one town to the next, leaving behind marks of their craftsmanship.
There is a 7th century Buddha and other ancient rock carvings in Manthal nearby, besides hot springs and lakes — but you can always choose to just stay at the Palace and unwind in its lush green gardens and recharge yourself before the start of another work year.