Khaplu the 700 years old kingdom, in the heart of Ganche valley, Skardu is an ideal summer retreat for city people. I mean, I haven’t even seen so much fresh water in the dams surrounding Pindi — so its pleasing to the senses. Tall green trees line up alongside the road — as if to welcome us. This town is at a 26 hours’ drive from Islamabad. It’s advisable to stop over at Chilas to get there in one piece.
Khaplu is just 100 km from Skardu, on a metalled road that takes you through a picture-perfect landscape of blue rivers, snow-clad mountain, sporadic thick vegetation and endless streams. The first thing you notice is the Tibetan and mongoloid look of the locals there. Their womenfolk still carry braided baskets on their back, while tending to their crops — just like their ancestors. There are many waterfalls a short distance from the main road as well as in the adjoining Kharmang valley. Manthoka waterfall (1.5 hours drive from the main road), and another one higher in the mountains, is accessible through a dirt road, so better hire a local jeep.
Ganche means ‘snow covered’ and Khaplu is its crowing jewel. It is the last stop before Siachen Glacier and Turtuk town on the Line of Control. The madding crowd has not discovered the place yet — so this summer is the time to go there. Khaplu appears suddenly on the right bank of Shyok River, the moment you cross the last turn on the road. The river bed opens up here and the water slows down, just to salute the town folk. Khaplu is a terraced town that climbs several kilometers into the mountain behind the town. This town’s extensive farm land, trees and vegetation appears in different hues of green, yellows and orange.
Khaplu has various historic sites to see like the 14 century Chaqchen Mosque which was once a Buddhist monastery (it still has the Buddhist monolith stone in its foundation). It was built by Sufi preachers who came from Iran and Iraq to spread Islamic ways. Their message was so powerful that their Noor Bakshi Sufi order now has a massive following in the Baltistan region, even across the LOC. The wood carvings of the mosque reflect symbols of interfaith harmony—exactly what the Sufis’ preached. Khaplu also has the royal palace that was built in the 1800s by their royal family — who trace their lineage from Central Asian Turkistan. The real deal is hiking to the top of a mountain to the rear of Khaplu to the fort of the royal family — which they kept stocked and ready — to be used during times of siege by raiders from Skardu. This fort also has an open graveyard, with remains of long forgotten royals / holy men. Khaplu even has the tombs of the original artisans from Kashmir valley and China, who built the city. Then there is an ancient script inscribed on a rock face, short walking distance from the Chaqchan mosque, that hasn’t been deciphered yet. Then we have the Khaplu Khanqah, which doubled as a worship place and a resting place for weary travelers. Here all sects and even women are permitted to worship. Who said these people were ignorant, right? A holyman’s astana (tomb) adjacent to the Khanqah is a woodcraft marvel in itself. A two-hour track from a fish farm takes you to the ancient Buddhist rock carving site deep in the mountains. For adrenaline junkies, there is cliff jumping too. In the Khaplu bazar, the antique shop has wonderful pieces of old arts and craft— even better than the ones in the museums.
The temperature at Khaplu never goes beyond 30 0 C, and that is a God’s special bounty. Pitching a tent beneath walnut trees, on perfectly leveled terraces with clear water streams around you is just magical. The people there are very accommodating and friendly. It’s a good place to catch up on reading and writing. You can get all the food essentials from the local bazar. June-September is a good window for campers.
Khaplu has an ATM, mobile connectivity (Mobilink), and WIFI — essentials for modern day living. The hospital is ok too. In any case CMH Skardu in not too far away.
From what I’ve gathered, the tourist volumes have picked up this season, so I suggest you go there when there are no public holidays. It is a religious but tolerant society. The Tibetan influence from across the LOC has made these people very peace-loving. You’d find ladies tending to shops as sales women. Their only complaint is that they haven’t enjoyed the fruits of democracy as development work is very slow here. This is by design, as the Pakistani PM is under no pressure to win the hearts here.
There was another royal fort of the same family in Turtuk— a trading post right on the Line of Control— on the Khaplu-Leh road. Unfortunately, it was stolen from Pakistan by the Indian army in 1971, when our chips were down. Pakistan had to ratify this humiliation in the Shimla agreement. I hope our government builds a road right upto the LOC and permits tourism, like the Indians’ have— to support the locals. I pray one day the roads are good enough for an adventure drive alone the LOC, from Turtuk to Neelum valley.
Anyways we still have a lot of Paradise to us still— so go there now!