Skardu calling. The Shigar Khaplu break.

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Skardu calling. The Shigar Khaplu break.

After 2015’s amazing summer escape to Gilgit, this year we wanted to aim for something equally adventurous. Intrepid traveler and globe trotter Afia Salam suggested we take a look at Shigar and Khaplu and put us in touch with her equally fearless friend Sarwat Majeed. Sarwat is the General Manager for Serena and runs the two Serena properties at Shigar and Khaplu.  She is the go to person if you are planning to be in the region and need assistance with planning and arranging your stays at the two restored historical forts – Shigar and Khaplu palace.

On the way to Shigar, from Skardu. Mystical magical landscapes.

While last year was an experiment involving just a single set of grandparents, this year we were planning on breaking new ground by taking three sets of grandparents with their extended families, with half a dozen grand children included. The decision to look at Shigar and Khaplu was driven by PIA’s decision to introduce an A310 service to Skardu. The new airbus not just had more seats but also flew more frequently and more reliably than the ATR service to Skardu from Islamabad.

The road trip to Gilgit is two days of travel time with a stopover at Besham. Gilgit Skardu is another day on top of that. That is three days of travel one way for 16 weary travelers.  If we took that path we would spend most of our post Ramazan summer break coped up in a van, or even worse two vans.  The decision was made to commit to Shigar and Khaplu as long as we could make the logistics work.

In March 2016, I finally picked up the phone and called Sarwat at the Shigar Serena and learnt a very valuable and important lesson. Both Khaplu and Shigar are boutique restored heritage properties. Which essentially means three things:

  1. While they can accommodate small groups easily, a large group would basically take over an entire wing of the two property.
  2. Given what they represent and the experience the Aga Khan foundation has done and the many tweaks made by the current team, both properties are very much in demand.
  3. If you want to plan a summer break at Shigar or Khaplu in July you need to book way in advance in March, latest by end March. You could risk just showing up on the door but that in most cases would only get you to sample the lovely fares put out by Mohammad Ali, the Shigar chef. Getting the room at short notice in peak season is next to impossible.

Sarwat was very gracious and helpful. There was not enough space to accommodate 16 people but we could book what was available and figure it out as we got close to our dates. She also became my guide on navigating the PIA flight schedule from Islamabad and the ability to read the weather reports to see if a flight would fly on time or get cancelled.  While our plan was confirmed, we weren’t sure, how many of us would actually have a room of our own and how many would have to bunk with each other.  Since it was just one large extended close knit family, as long as Shigar and Khaplu didn’t mind, we didn’t have any issues.

A fresh stream runs by Khaplu Palace.

The weather forecast was looking good. Skardu has two weeks of summer in July. We were scheduled to fly in and out within those two weeks. There was a reasonable chance that no cloud cover or storm system would get in our way and lead to flight cancellations.  That was the best case.

Sarwat was upfront.  She said, listen you are coming for a break with a large group. Just make sure that you are all comfortable with moving things around by a day or so at short notice. It’s a lovely place to spend time with family. Come and stay in vacation mode, don’t stress out. We have been here for a while, we will figure out if things ever go south.  Be comfortable and be flexible and most importantly be cool. Leave the rest to us.

The final itinerary looked like this. We would all catch the PIA flight from Karachi to Islamabad the night before. We would grab rooms at a local nearby hotel and sleep in early. Next morning at 8 am was our scheduled flight to Skardu. We would be picked up at the airport by Serena and driven to Shigar, roughly an hour away. We will take a day break in Shigar and then head to Khaplu the next morning. Three days in Khaplu, which was three and a half hours away and then back to Shigar for a day before catching our flights to Islamabad the next morning.

While hotel and flights were booked and locked down by early April, the actual trip was still three months away. Looking up weather reports for Skardu became a routine. The whole point of escaping from Karachi was to escape from the heat so we weren’t sure how we felt about 24 degree weather in Skardu.

Ask and you shall receive. Rivers, flood plains, mountains, streams and grass lands. All in one location.

The plus side was that no rain and hence cloud cover was expected in July. We had all heard good things about the two properties from everyone who had been there and they had been consistent in appreciating Sarwat and her team.

The bigger challenge however was deciding between Deosai, Shangrilla, Upper Katchura and Khaplu. Everyone in our group had heard of the gorgeous Shangrilla and they wanted to see it.

But here was the issue. You go up from Skardu towards Shigar and Khaplu. To do Deosai and Shangrilla you have to come all the way back to Skardu. You could do one not both and certainly not in one day. The Shangrilla voters won the election and we kept Deosai for the return leg of the trip.   The revised game plan was that as soon as we landed, we will check in, freshen up and head toward Shangrilla and the lake at Upper Katchura in two jeeps. Serena would arrange to have the jeeps ready and on standby with packed lunch boxes that we could eat on the drive. The adventurous lot could hop in, while the less adventurous ones could take the day off, recover and get ready for the next day’s drive. We thought all the oldies will most likely stay back and rest and the grand children will take the jeeps for a romp.

On the way back from Khaplu, depending on how we felt, we could check out the Deosai plains. That is if we still had the strength to explore and spend another 8 hours locked inside a jeep.  But that decision was still three months away.

Continued at Destination Shigar