Located at the western end of the Himalayas and the northern tip of Pakistan, the region of Gilgit-Baltistan is one of the world’s most impenetrable natural citadels. It also has “an extraordinarily rich cultural landscape”, says Sam Dalrymple in Condé Nast Traveller, having often resisted conquest by neighbouring empires, while absorbing their influence over the millennia along with the other benefits of Silk Road trade. Known to ancient Chinese geographers as the Tibet of the Apricots, it is a spectacular land of snow leopards and brown bears, of “crumbling palaces” and ancient mosques. It has often been closed to outsiders in recent decades owing to the conflict over Kashmir – into which it had been loosely integrated in the 19th century – but it is now open to visitors once more.
Many locals claim that the liberal Muslim society of this region inspired the lost city of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s popular 1933 novel Lost Horizon. The district of Hunza, for instance, is the most literate in Pakistan, with a relatively high level of women’s empowerment. Indeed, an all-female team of carpenters and designers helped restore the Serena Altit Fort Residence, a 1,000-year-old building that is one of three beautiful palace hotels that belong to the Serena group in Gilgit-Baltistan. It overlooks the medieval walled city of Karimabad, Hunza’s capital, in a bucolic valley “where the crisp air is scented with jasmine blossom”, and most new houses are still built in the traditional, timber-framed style.
Driving southwards past the city of Gilgit, you descend into the Indus Gorge, and the verdant valleys give way to an “arid moonscape”. To the east lies Baltistan, a rugged region where an archaic dialect of Tibetan is spoken and yak meat is widely served. It is here that Serena’s other two palace hotels are to be found, in Khaplu and Shigar, not far from K2, the world’s second-highest peak.
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