x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

A light lunch with the rajas

Into the wild Eating traditional Baltistani cuisine in northern Pakistan is a lot more tempting than carrying onwards and upwards to K2.

Several hundred miles up the Indus River from its mouth - north of Karachi, Lahore, and Islamabad - beyond the provinces of the Punjab and the North-west Frontier and past the four rivers that feed it, Ravi, Chenab, Jhelum and Sutlej, is a mountain. On it sits a battered, broken fort guarding a valley. This is Kharpocho Fort, in Skardu Valley, in Baltistan, in Pakistan. It is a forgotten fort in a forgotten land.

Just before spring, and before the few mountaineers trickle in during the summer, the valley under the fort is barren. Sand sweeps the land, the trees are leafless, and the river bed is strewn with rounded pebbles, edges smoothed by centuries of work by water. From the perch of the fort, the river, emerald green, like a pretty braid, coils around a rock. This is the magic of perception and some laws of physics. On the west bank was the town of Skardu, beyond Skardu a few lakes, and beyond them still higher peaks till. Somewhere in this jumble was the crown jewel, K2.

K2 is the second highest peak in the world. People die all the time, the caretaker of the fort reasoned. Some die, he said, for very silly reasons, like climbing a mountain. Perhaps we should do something less extreme, he suggested. Like what, we asked. Ghulam Muhammad, the caretaker, scratched his face. He had just given us a tour of the fort, shown us the destroyed throne room, water reservoir, the mosque, and underneath it a torture chamber. His teeth were stained. Visit the rajas, he said.

The rajas lived in the centre of town, behind the telecommunications tower. Earlier, Muhammad, who was a fisherman before he became caretaker, had shown us a genealogical chart of the rulers of Skardu, encased in a cracked glass photo frame. The royals had lost the right to rule, but they were still royals, had land, and owned the fort. Excitedly, he jabbed at the town, pointing out the palace, and we crept down the mountain, once taking a wrong turn and scrambling back for dear life, and then walked up an incline to the palace.

Zulfikil Khan, a raja with a gentle demeanour, met us. We sat cross-legged in his drawing room, on its red carpets and cushions. Members of the royal family lived at the back of the palace; the main building was empty and partially renovated. The palace core was a courtyard surrounded by rooms, sealed to the outside so women would be safe from prying eyes. The palace was serene, empty, and small. After tea and berries, Zulfikil Khan invited us to lunch over the weekend. It would, he promised, be an opportunity to sample Baltistani cuisine; we would have plopu, a traditional dish. Abby, my travelling companion, could even photograph the women of the house preparing lunch; she had to avoid capturing their faces and could only take pictures of their hands. Excited, we left.

Baltistan comprises Skardu and four adjacent valleys, each controlled by a separate royal family and each valley having a fort of its own. Representatives are not elected to parliament, and so there is little political reform or development. The area was ruled directly by rajas even after Pakistan's independence in 1947. In 1976, Pakistani prime minister Zulfikar Bhutto initiated land reform and placed Baltistan formally under Islamabad's control, ending direct rule by the rajas. He also built a road connecting Baltistan to the rest of Pakistan - previously the area had only an intermittent connection by land with the rest of the country.

The road had an impact on Baltistan's main crop, apricots. Jaffar Ali, an official of the Aga Khan Cultural Support Programme, showed us a small shampoo factory where apricot kernels were ground to make apricot shampoo. The shampoo was exported to Islamabad, where it was popular with embassy staff. Before the road was built, people relied heavily on apricots for food, soap, and shampoo. After the road opened to the outside world, people started buying cheaper corn oil from the market, and so apricot oil was used less and less in cooking, and factory-made shampoo sachets replaced the increasingly unfashionable, labour-intensive, apricot shampoo.

Skardu apricots are more than just flesh. Unlike seeds of most apricot varieties, which are bitter and unpalatable, the seeds of Skardu apricots have the taste and texture of almonds. Centuries of selective farming in these valleys produced this unique apricot; the seeds of apricots in southwestern Pakistan are inedible. On lunch day at noon, we sat in the backyard of the palace with Rajah Ealia Khan, Zulfikil Khan's elder brother. Ealia Khan wore sunglasses, smoked a chillum, and listened to two supplicants, adjudicating their land dispute. The leafless poplars stood sentinel; fowl clucked. "I use my knowledge of sharia law to arbitrate these disputes; we are very religious here," said Khan. "People come to me to resolve all sorts of problems - theft, land."

"Have you had any murders?" I asked. "No," he replied. Abby went to the kitchen. She was excited; she had neither seen nor met any women in Baltistan so far. Raja Zulfikil escorted her. Raja Ealia Khan started talking about the palace. The original palace had burnt down and was rebuilt in 1900 by Raja Muhammad Ali Shah, better known as Raja Bedil. Bedil means heartless in Urdu. "Raja Bedil died in 1961," Khan told me with reverence for his famous ancestor. "He was so pure that 40 days after his death pilgrims saw him in their visions at Karbala. He also used to write naats [religious poems]."

The times had changed. Ealia Khan recalled with bitterness the land reforms instituted by Zulfikar Bhutto in 1976. "Bhutto abolished landholdings, which Iranian scholars ruled un-Islamic," said Ealia Khan. "A Kohat scholar contacted Iranian scholars who ruled that if a peasant does not give the title of his land to the raja, then it will be haram to hold any religious gatherings." Most of the people in Baltistan are Shia, so Iranian religious opinion is valued here.

A boy brought in a type of cookie called azooq, dried apricots, and apricot seeds. "We dry apricots for five days in the sun." said Khan. "They last us year-round, and before fridges, this was our way of eating them all year. It still is." Abby returned from the kitchen. "How was it?" I asked. "Nice," she said. "The women were joking with the men. It was really funny. From the outside it does not look like it, but they really seem to control everything."

Initially the women had been acting as if Abby knew nothing, pushing her out of the way, but then the blender broke down. They fussed over it, puzzled. "Apparently they had just got the blender, so they did not know how it worked, and then I looked at it," Abby said. "I just pressed the button, and it started working. " Ealia Khan elaborated. "They were making muskat - apricots and walnuts are ground together. It is mixed into almost all the dishes here. They used to pound it with stone, but now with blenders you get a different texture."

Lunch arrived, a steaming dish of plopu; T-shaped barley nuggets, a Baltistani staple that looked like creamy pasta. However, there was no yoghurt or dairy mixed in; the white grainy feel came from the muskat. So, just as Italians use tomatoes as a base for pasta sauces, muskat is used in Baltistan. We drizzled apricot oil over our food just as if it was olive oil, and dug in. The food was spicy and crunchy, and the barley gave it a mushier feel than pasta.

After the plopu, a young boy brought out a huge kettle and poured us green tea, which was very heavy as it was mixed with hot butter. It was now two in the afternoon. We had to leave for our next excursion, to an organic village. Hurriedly, we left; on the way out we were given a present of home-dried apricots. It was a royal treat.