Tourism & Travel

Koh Samui - The Samui Four Season Resort at Bang Po beach

Koh Samui – white sandy beaches.

19 mins read A family of six heads to Koh Samui white sandy beaches. They answer questions on places to stay, beaches, food, tours, shopping, tips and currency exchange.


Destination Khaplu

5 mins read

After a day’s rest we are all set to head to Khaplu – the other Serena property in the region at a slightly higher elevation of 8,500 feet. Post breakfast we laze around a bit, check out and then pack ourselves in the complimentary van and jeep provided by Serena and begin our journey to Khaplu. The Khaplu route from Shigar retraces back to Skardu for a bit and then heads towards Khaplu at a fork in the road that marks the choice of passage to the two Serena properties.

The three and a half hour journey goes by quickly. The roads are empty of traffic because we are now literally in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by large expanses of emptiness. It’s not desolate or bleak, infact the other way round but it is empty. We take a short break by an unnamed riverbank to stretch our legs, dip our feet into the cold water and collect a few mementos.  Grey slit laden water streaming slowly to merge around Raikot with River Indus.  We land at Khaplu late afternoon.

Destination Khaplu – Distant peaks and cloud formations

Like Shigar, Khaplu residences also have two flavors.  The two new block have larger rooms and come with a private garden. They are open, comfortable and a little warm but opening a few pairs of windows fixes that. The older fort based rooms give you the authentic historical experience but require some athletic ability to climb stairs and negotiate corners.  While the fort was built in mid nineteenth century, it was restored by the Aga Khan foundation and opened up as a tourist destination, museum and hotel in 2012-13. Our group has been allocated an entire block so we are all together in one building spread across three floors.

Khaplu Palace – A mid 19th century structure restored for 21st century living

While Shigar Fort is bang in the center of activity, Khaplu palace is a little more isolated. You have neighbors but you won’t notice them till you step out for your morning walk. Both properties have a steady stream of visitors and tourists coming in throughout the day since they represent the highlight of a tourist visit to the Skardu Baltistan region.

Balti architecture at 8500 ft.

If you want to escape from that stream, the private gardens with the guest residences in both properties provide that isolation.  At Khaplu there is also stream but you have to walk a bit uphill to get to it. The stream comes through a system of manmade water works using natural materials and guides that feeds the surrounding village. It creates standing pools of chilled clean water and streamlets that you can easily and safely wash your face and dip your feet in. The running water is both refreshing and soothing, irrespective of your decision to dip extremities in it.

The magical stream that runs by the Palace – Step outside, hang left, go uphill to the bridge

The restaurant serves breakfast, lunch and dinner and comes with covered indoor space as well as open air dining options.  It’s drizzling lightly as we arrive and the weather has suddenly turned cooler. We finally have an excuse to break out all the heavy gear we have been carrying for the past few days.

Our first order after check in is to plan a generous lunch with fresh rainbow trout, locally grown and caught in Khaplu serving as the centerpiece. Serena’s kitchens in both the Fort and the Palace are a breath of fresh air. The chefs are exceedingly friendly and open to recommending dishes based on your personal preferences as well as trying out new recipes.  Before heading out last year for our Gilgit and Hunza trip I had asked a Chitrali friend for advice. His only suggestion was to eat at the hotel kitchens and stay away from local dhabas and road side stands. According to him city folks are not used to mountain water and once you go down with an upset stomach in this part of the world, you are likely to stay down.

Balti wood work – still alive and well.

This time the two garden suites have further upped the stakes. Both rooms open up under multiple apricot trees that are laden with fresh, ready to eat, ripe fruit. More than the kids, it’s the grandparents who go wild with the apricots. It takes them back to their childhood days where cities and towns still had orchards where you could simply pick and eat from the trees. Every morning for the next three days they have a steady supply of freshly picked apricots, cherries and mulberries in their rooms.

We came here to spend time with family, trek and hike. It doesn’t take long after the extended lunch session and a short power nap for the first group to venture out for sightseeing.  While we are living in a museum what really interests us is the opportunity to trek.  Step out of the main hotel entrance and hang a left. You will see a paved metaled road heading uphill. That is the one you want. You will pass residence on the left, farms on the right. At the first curve, take a moment to peak between the broken fence on the valley below and the hills in the distance. Sunrise or sunset mixed with cloud cover makes for some interesting sights.  Walk two hundred meters and you will come to the next big curve. There is a bridge over streaming white water that connects your side of the road to the village across. Continue heading uphill on that road and you will find multiple opportunities for short as well as long treks.

Refreshing clean chilled water – free range style.

Over the next three days we go farther and farther up but keep on missing the main path. On our last trek on the last day, just before we are about to head back to Shigar I finally figure out the path I was supposed to take. But it is too late to go exploring. But we are lucky. We have discovered our fair share of wading pools, raging waters, trails off the beaten track and breathtaking views. The isolation and peace that the neighborhood around Khaplu Palace brings with it, unlike Shigar, is refreshing and we try and make the most of it.

In addition to the palace itself there are activities for a day trip that you can plan. You can do a day long combination of trout fishing and hike at a local trout farm where you can catch fish from a pond and have it served to you there and then. While they are marinating and cooking your catch, you can go for a short hike up a hill to work up your appetite. There is the local khanqah and mosque that is being restored and expanded as part of the village and community self-funding program.  The mosque stands on pillar of giant walnut trees and the restoration project is the one of the biggest thing the community is involved in.  There is also a mountain trek at the back of the palace that will take you to the vantage point that provides a 360 view of the entire community. Ask any of the staff at the hotel or the restaurant and they will find a guide for you who can take you on that trek.  If you are lucky and find clear skies don’t miss opportunities for star gazing. 8,500 feet elevation, clear skies, limited light pollution makes for starry nights you would never experience in your city life.  If you have come prepared K-2 basecamp is just 6 days away from Khaplu.

If you are out of ideas, just sit down at the reception and talk to the shift managers or the manager in charge of Khaplu palace for ideas. They are most helpful.

Destination Shigar

6 mins read

Destination Shigar

Just a quick heads up. I have been shooting landscapes for a few years now. Thanks to my friend Jehan, I got hooked on to DSLRs a few years ago. As you may have gathered, I also travel a bit and have been to some interesting corners of the world. Here is the part that I wanted to say before you read on. 

A set of majestic peaks hang over the city of Skardu in the evening.

I have never shot landscapes like these. I know I have seen some amazing places but this stuff just took my breath away. Continues to take me breath away even today as I worked with these images for this post, four months after the trip. And yet they don’t do justice to the images I have in my mind, that we saw as a together as a group. 

A postcard image that riverbeds every where aspire to be.

If you have the travel or nature photography or treking and hiking bug, do yourself a favor. This summer pack your bags and head to Skardu the first opportunity you get. It is a truly magical land where the magic is the slow release kind. You don’t notice it creeping up on you and then suddenly you are gone. 

The road to Shigar. Looks great from a distance but leads to a major tailbone workout.

Destination Shigar – Day Break

Our day started at 4 am. It had been a long trek the day before. We had left home at 2 pm, flown from Karachi to Islamabad at 4 pm, landed at 6, reached the hotel by 8 and only had time for a quick dinner before crashing in our rooms for a short sleepover before our phone alarms started beeping again.

Our PIA flight to Skardu departed Islamabad at 8 am. We checked out from the hotel at 5:45 am and waited for our ride to the airport. Our carefully scheduled prior booked planned van from the night before had been hijacked by another group also rushing to the airport, in a case of mistaken identity.

The transit to Islamabad airport in the morning suffers from a unique phenomenon called the route. It refers to a VIP movement and there are quite a few of those since Rawalpindi is the seat of GHQ and Islamabad is the seat of the government.  When a route is called the road to the airport is blocked to facilitate transit of said VIP’s. Which means you may leave your hotel at 6:30 am but if you get caught in the “route” trap you may still miss your flight.  Routes are likely to be called early morning or late evenings.

We were lucky this morning since the missing van appeared to be the only bad break for the day. Weather was clear in Pindi and the forecast for both Gilgit and Skardu was clear for the day.  Still there was an air of anticipation at the airport because flights to both Gilgit and Skardu frequently get cancelled or rescheduled because of changes in weather conditions. With the introduction of the new airbus service to Skardu, things have improved dramatically but there are still bad days and cancelled schedules. Till you board and are on the runway you don’t know if you are actually going to get to take off or not. The first good sign in the morning is that they have started check in, the second is the loading of the luggage in the aircraft, the third and final one is the boarding call.

7:45 am the boarding call came and we were all set to go. A few minutes after 8 we were heading towards the runaway, waiting for our turn to release the breaks and speed on towards Skardu.


It is a short flight, more so on the new airbus A320. Fifteen minutes before landing you run into the majestic peaks of Gilgit Baltistan – K2 as well as Nanga Parbat. Book a seat by the windows if you can and have your camera ready and focused for instant photography because the sights are truly majestic. You won’t get a chance to click them on the way out because the path is different and camera are only allowed after the aircraft has reached a certain altitude.

Skardu airport sits in the middle of a valley surrounded by smaller peaks and mountains. Which is the reason why cloud cover and bad weather leads to flight cancellations.


As we disembark from the aircraft the runaway is unexpectedly warm. We are at an elevation of 8500 ft but it’s the middle of July. Skardu interestingly enough is one of highest elevation desert on our planet. Which is what makes it even even more magical. Within the span of a few miles you run into dried river bed, overflowing river banks, flowing sand dunes, wheat fields and apricot orchards, barren mountains and an explosion of greenery where the barren landscape meets the river.

The region only gets two weeks of summer and we have decided to land in the midst of those two weeks. It takes an hour for the baggage trolley to arrive from the aircraft and we finally step out of the arrival lounge.

Serena had been kind enough to send a van and two jeeps to pick us up from the airport. The ride to Shigar Fort is roughly 45 minutes. We had landed on a good day and are out early enough so there isn’t too much traffic on the roads heading out of the city.

An old wooden bridge stands with pride in pose for passing photographers and lenses.

If you have been to Gilgit and Hunza, you would understand what I am going to say next. As soon as you cross the Raikot Bridge, leave Kohistan and cross the first tunnel that marks the entry towards Gilgit, the magic starts. You are surrounded on all side by majestic sights, of grey slated river planes  colored rust yellow and green by wheat and potato fields, backed by a canvas of snow covered peaks.

The Skardu side of the province of Baltistan is not like Gilgit. Here the magic take a while to set in. If you are expecting Gilgit you keep on waiting for the peaks to appear so that you can shoot them. And then you suddenly realize that the magic has been with you all along. For us that moment happened at the half way mark to Shigar when we finally woke up to the landscape around us.


Shigar Fort

Shigar Fort is a 400 hundred year old royal palace and fort on a rock that was restored by the Aga Khan Foundation and turned into a residential hotel, a museum and tourism destination site in the region.  Over the last few three years it has become an important source of revenue for the small town that houses the royal palace and fort.

400 hundred year old stone walls?

As soon as you land at Shigar Fort you are greeted by the stream that is running right next to the Palace. There is a dining area roofed in by grape vines that in July have just started to sprout fruit. The dining area opens into what used to be the palace court yard and now serves as a large open ground with sitting chairs and loungers for both hotel guests and day visitors.

Our group immediately breaks into multiple exploratory parties. The setting is intriguing, the history appealing. Sipping our glasses of freshly strained apricot juice we take our seats by the stream and settle in for check in to be completed for our large group.

It is only when we get to the rooms allocated to us in the old Fort that we realize how unique the entire structure is. 400 hundred year old design and architecture made livable for our generation with twentieth century amenities.  The rooms are gorgeous.  Since we have three sets of grandparents with us, we have split up into two groups. Grandparents in the new block, also known as the garden suites; parents and kids in the old fort which is difficult and awkward to climb for the elderly. The historical suites have their own magic. The largest two are the old raja and rani rooms and over the next 24 hours we get a taste of the royal life.

While the rooms in the old Fort have their own splendor, the garden suites open into the Royal garden. Entry into the royal garden is limited to house guests only so you won’t see tourist traffic spill into this quiet corner of the hotel.   It’s a large courtyard with a small pool and gazebo in its midst sprinkled with cherry, apricot, pear, apple and mulberry trees. Over the next few days as we check in and out of Shigar on our way to Khaplu and then the airport, the Royal garden becomes the place where grandparents and children hold court together.

The first order of the day is to check in, unpack, order lunch and head out for our first day trip to the Shangrilla resort and Upper Katchura lake. We are only in Shigar for a day on our way to Khaplu and the group wants to make the most of that day.  It is going to be a long two hour drive since we will have to head back to Skardu and then move onwards first to Shangrilla and then Upper Katchura. While the roads are metaled and the jeeps arranged by Serena comfortable, the ride back and forth to Shigar extracts quite a toll from the tail bone.


But the drive and the sights on the backdrop of the setting sun are unbelievable. One minute you are with civilization, the next teleported to a mystical medieval land where rajas plot and conspire with each other, where armies weave their way through snow covered mountain passes, where stone forts and palaces hold sway over kingdoms of fruit orchards and river beds stand witness to battle lines and cavalry charges.

A wheat field closeup

Where despite the passage of time wild wheat still grows in full bloom.

The drive also yields half a dozen boxes of cherries, a few packs of sweet dried mulberries and almonds in paper thin shells (Kaghzi badams) ready for peeling and consumption. But the dozen National Geographic worthy shots with my camera are the real payoff for the day.

Riverbeds, riverbeds everywhere.


Skardu calling. The Shigar Khaplu break.

4 mins read

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

Hunza valley summer escape

5 mins readThe road trip to Hunza via Gilgit, Chilas, Besham and Islamabad continues to its final leg. While the first two episodes documenting the road trip to Gilgit were completed and published in 2015, the Hunza episode remained outstanding. This year we were very fortunate that we managed to cover Skardu with a much larger group. As I sat down to document the summer of 2016, I had to do justice to our Hunza experience.

Gilgit Baltistan is a unique region. Whether you look at ethnicity, culture, heritage, architecture, natural resources, hospitality or beauty, it stands apart from the rest of the planet. Hunza and Khaplu are the two crown jewels of Gilgit Baltistan and if you have the capacity and the ability to visit, you should see both of them once in your life.  Neither words nor pictures can describe what you will find and witness and till you do you will have no idea of what you have been missing.  

Hunza valley – late evening sunset brings out the contrast between the inclines and the greenery.

Once you reach Gilgit, the tail bone wrecking, weary, dusty part of your road trip is done.  By June 2015, the CPEC corridor road had already reached the Raikot Bridge linking Chilas and Gilgit.  Work was under way at numerous rough patches on the old Karakorum Highway (KKH) all the way upto Chilas and with weather and landslides permitting, the ride would be a much more smoother in 2016 and 2017.

Gilgit Baltistan – the region where three mountain ranges meet

Which meant that the rough roads you had experienced upto Chilas, were a distant memory.  The transition between the two highways, the old KKH and the new CPEC is marked by silence as the drone of tires crushing rough gravel is replaced by the quiet hum of the Silk Road.  The river valley below is splattered with splashes of greens across grey slate – settlements on floodplains and old riverbeds; a patchwork of quilts running wild with bright greens of freshly sowed potatoes and golden shades of ripe wheat.

On the road to Gilgit – living side by side with the river

Compared to the effort required to reach Chilas, the Gilgit Hunza ride is a barely noticeable 90 minutes on a dual track asphalt highway built to Chinese specifications.  The drive is a joy and both the driver and the Grand Cabin we have been using for transportation swoon as soon as they get their wheels on it.

An ideal schedule should allow you to arrive in Gilgit and rest for a day before heading out to Hunza. While you cross the view point Rakaposhi on your way to Hunza, the Gilgit Serena sunrise and sunset with the back drop of the snow covered summits is an experience that should not be missed.

Rakaposhi view point – On the way to Hunza from Gilgit.

The most common destination in Hunza is a small village / town called Karimabad, home to bed and breakfasts with breath taking views. Compared to the Serena in Gilgit, Hunza properties are a step down but they more than make up for it by their hospitality, their food and the scenic wonders you wake up to every morning.

Rakaposhi at sunset

The one day break is also recommended to acclimatize yourself to higher elevation. While Gilgit proper is just under 5,000 feet (1,500 meters), Karimabad takes you over 8,200 feet (2,500 meters). If you are a heavy smoker, over weight or have had issues with breathing, either with your heart or lung capacity or asthma, you may susceptible to altitude sickness and vertigo at that elevation. If the sickness hits you it takes about a day or two to recover and catch your breath.  Standard prescription is to chill, rest, sleep and consume as many liquids as you can without throwing up.

If you are travelling with the elderly or not game for intense physical activity, treks or uphill climb, Hunza may represent a bigger challenge. We still managed to travel with one set of grand parents who were quite taken with our final destination.

We had picked the Serena Baltit Inn in Hunza for our three day break. A cozy Serena property that looks down on the Hunza valley with decent rooms, great food and most importantly warm water. From the courtyard of the Inn you can see the two restored historical forts, the hotel orchard, a family of magpies and the valley itself.

The black billed magpie – A multi colored bird unique to the region.

You will see stepped fields all across Gilgit and Hunza but they present a completely different perspective up close.

Agricultural fields on the valley floor

Grab a cup of hot coffee or chocolate, your board of scrabble or your favorite author and let your eyes imprint the view.  Hunza is a U shaped valley with bronzed and rusted mountain slopes that have been domesticated by the local population. You see a mix of colors – inclines and drops with multicolored thatched roofs, towering trees and freshly sowed fields.

Baltit Fort – Hunza valley – The crown jewel

The valley has three historical forts. Two have been restored by the Aga Khan cultural foundation in collaboration with the Norwegian embassy  in Pakistan.  Both are strategically located but the Baltit fort sits like a ruling crown on one end of the valley.

Hunza valley – Baltit fort – backdrop

I still remember my first impression when we drove into Karimabad twenty five years ago with our college tour.  We were a group of 40 odd rowdy teenagers who had been on the road for two weeks by the time we made it to Hunza.

Hunza valley – contrast, contrast every where.

We were all left speech less as we came across the valley the first time. Despite the passage of two and a half decades and the many changes brought about by those years, the valley is just as breathtaking and isolated today as it was in the early 90’s.

Hunza valley

Things to do in Hunza.

Given Hunza’s central location, you do organize day trips and drives to Atabad lake, Khunjarab pass and Sost if you are interested in long drives and touching the China Border. If you would like a flavor of local history and pick some background on the old sultanate head to the Altit and Baltit forts. They both represent an experience you are unlikely to come across anywhere else. While the Altit fort is somewhat accessible for all ages, the Baltit fort is a challenge for grand parents.


Nagar valley is great for cherry hunting trip, river side picnics, and treks, trails and hikes. If you have come prepared do look at the multi day hike to Rakaposhi base camp. But it’s perfectly all right to just chicken out for a few days, lay low under your warm quilts, enjoy a hot beverage, polish off those scrabble skills and just enjoy the views. You would want to take them away with you in your mind by the time you are ready to leave.