Like many Pakistanis, it’s my routine to drink tea every evening. And during my frequent travels, drinking tea becomes not just a habit but a necessity as it helps me keep up my energy levels and also, as frequently advertised by tea manufacturers, helps provide me with inspiration. My tea habit is something I just can’t compromise on, and if room service or an in-hotel restaurant isn’t available, then I’ll even hoof it down to a nearby Dhaba to get my daily dose of tea therapy.
Perhaps this is what Barkat Mitha, the General Manager of Serena Hotels in Gilgit-Baltistan, sensed when I would unfailingly turn up at the Khaplu Palace and Residence’s restaurant every evening for a cup of doodh patti. Taking note of my addiction, he invited me for a ‘Royal Hi-tea,’ when I was last visiting the area on a work trip, and staying at the hotel (a converted palace) besides the River Shyok, located at an altitude of 2,600 metres in the small town of Khaplu.
The palace, locally known as Yabgo Khar, was built in the mid-19th century and was used as a seat of governance, a grain storage facility as well as a royal residence at the time. The palace has recently been renovated by the Aga Khan Cultural Service Pakistan, and the historically significant rooms that the raja of the time once used are now rented out to tourists.
To a tea and food loving person like myself, the invitation was more than welcome, though I had no idea about the relevance of attaching the word “royal” with hi-tea. That evening, I headed towards the restaurant to find Mr Mitha already waiting for me on the way. He greeted me with a warm smile, and we started walking towards the main palace instead of the restaurant.
As I stepped into the main entrance of the palace and took the old wooden staircase, Mr Mitha cautioned me to watch out for the low ceiling. But despite his timely warning, I banged my head twice, and was forced to hide my embarassment behind a sheepish smile. As we walked, he told me of the history of the palace and how the raja himself would climb these very stairs as he made his way towards the hallway. But instead of paying attention to the history lesson, I kept on wondering why they would construct such low ceilings over the staircase. Was the Raja a really short man?
Reaching the top floor, we entered a corner hall which served as a leisure room for the raja and his family during the evenings. It was a spacious room with wooden arches on two sides, overlooking the royal gardens and the splendid Karakoram Mountains. The architect of the fort had traced the Tibetan-style structure with decorative timber-panelled ceilings, which were in turn strongly influenced by the Kashmiri manor-house typology.
My experience of big-city Hi Teas had led me to expect a typical offering of fried snacks, barbequed items, western-style desserts and, of course, typically brewed tea or coffee. But what awaited me was anything but typical. It was a spread fit for a King, or at least a Raja.
The seating arrangement was made on the floor with a traditional carpet and round cushions. The variety of food was served in colourful handmade crockery and included traditional Balti tea called Paiyu cha. Paiyu, in the local language, means ‘salt’ and cha means ‘tea.’ This is the most favoured drink of the locals, and was introduced by the Dogras during their rule of this region. It is made with butter, goat’s milk, salt, baking soda and different tea leaves. It’s the tea of choice in Baltistan, Ladakh and Tibet.
The tea was served with delicious kisir — a traditional Balti bread made from flour, milk and eggs — which seems much like pancakes. It is a tradition in Baltistan to serve guests with kisir and it is often made on occasions of celebration. It is also served in mosques after night prayers every Thursday.
The Paiyu cha and kisir alone would have been sufficient, but there was also a sandwich-like dessert made with local apricots which was just heavenly. It was the ideal combination of paiyu cha and kisir. The hi-tea also included a sandwich-like dessert made with local apricots, which was nothing short of heavenly.
I asked Mitha what the ‘royal’ part of this tea was, and he explained that this was the exact spot that the royal family would sit in the evenings, drinking the same tea that we poured into our cups and eating the same fare. Like the towering mountains in the background nothing, from the room to the repast itself, had changed over the centuries.
“We try to give our guests the same experience [that the Royals had], so that they can enjoy the unique history and luxury of this far away valley,” he said.
As we ate and drank, Mitha spoke of the history of this palace and the beautiful land it was built in, of life, philosophy and poetry. It was a conversation that could have gone on long into the night, but sadly when dusk fell — as it does with great speed in the mountains — he was summoned back to his rooms and the Royal tea came to an end.
The Rajas may be long gone, but for a few hours I had tasted the luxury and serenity that was a daily feature of their lives. Certainly, it’s good to be the king — if even for such a short while.
Published in The Express Tribune, Sunday Magazine, October 7th, 2012.