Nestled between the mighty Karakoram and Himalayan mountain ranges, Skardu district of Baltistan is a traveller’s paradise. From trekking on tricky trails fringing enormous mountains to lazing in the green fields dotting the roads or watching a polo match at the local stadium, the trip is never boring.
A testament to the strength of the people of Baltistan, Skardu city’s crown jewel, Kharpocho Fort stands at a height of nearly 1,400 metres above the city. A brute fist of stone and rock, the rough edges of the fort make it seem like it was forged out of the mountain itself.
(Above) A bird’s eye of Skardu city from the Fort’s parapets. PHOTO: SUZANNA MASIH/EXPRESS
The climb to the ancient citadel dating back to the 17th century is steep. Jutting rocks check your approach at each turn and twist. One side is the unforgiving mountain and on the other is the vast nothingness of empty space.
A 30-minute trek takes you to almost on the top of the hill where you look down at a bird’s eye view of the city on one side and the mighty Indus River on the other.
The entrance to the fort is through a small window-like opening just wide enough to fit one person at a time. Once inside, the view is mesmerising. Even though time has not been kind to the fort and preservation attempts are nowhere to be seen, the sheer enormity of the structure throws you off.
The reception of Kharpocho is a nearly 30-feet-high ceiling held together by huge tree trunks and ancient stone. The architecture is intelligent—even when the sun is shining brightly on the hill, the rooms remain cool.
An ancient mosque stands on a wooden structure in what appears to have once been the courtyard of the fort. It is locked, prying visitors are not allowed.
In Balti, Kharpocho means the King of Forts, a suitable title for a structure inaccessible to anyone unwilling to make the difficult climb.
(Above) An ancient mosque stands in the courtyard, locked for visitors. PHOTO: SUZANNA MASIH/EXPRESS
The fort was built by Ali Sher Khan Anchan (1560-1625 AD), who ruled the region in the 17th century.
Locals say the rajas of the time had built a secret tunnel under the mountain which they used to travel between the city and the fort. It is believed no one except the royal family knew of the tunnel’s existence and they would use it in times of war.
Without the mythic tunnel, travellers just have to navigate a trickier downward journey. One wrong step and the rocks threaten to slip from under your feet. Fear of the deep fall below though tends to keep one as sure-footed as a goat. Of course it helps to keep in mind; once at the bottom, there is so much more to see in Skardu.
Published in The Express Tribune, September 2nd, 2014.