Pakistan پاکستان

Lahore لاہور

The 17th century Mughal-era Picture Wall in Lahore had been in a state of decay for over 100 years but thanks to the Walled City of Lahore Authority, international donors and a young team of conservators, the monument is being brought back from the brink.

Lahore لاہور

Architects, art historians, engineers, fine artists, chemists, conservators, and ceramists make up the constellation of skilled young people working for the Aga Khan Trust for Culture on this restoration project; one of the largest in Pakistan.

Lahore لاہور

The first phase of restoration of this UNESCO world heritage site was completed in March 2019 (before and after seen here). The remaining 400 metres of this awe-inspiring structure will take a further two years. The wall contains tile mosaics of both Chinese dragons and Christian angels indicating a meeting point of eastern and western cultural and religious ideas. Thanks to AKTC for use of these images.

Baltistan بلتستان

Built in 1840, Khaplu Palace is the finest surviving example of a royal residence in Baltistan, an autonomous region in Pakistan’s mountainous north east. The palace combines the local architectural style with influences from neighbouring regions including Tibet, Kashmir and Ladakh.

Khaplu Palace, Royal Residence of Baltistan

Built in 1840 by the Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan, Khaplu Palace is the finest surviving example of a royal residence in Baltistan, a provincial autonomous region in Pakistan’s north east. The palace was constructed with the help of Kashmiri and Balti craftsmen and combines the local architectural style with influences from neighbouring regions including Tibet, Kashmir, Ladak and Central Asia.

The site of the palace was chosen, so the story goes, by rolling a large stone down from a nearby cliff; where the stone came to a stop, the palace was built. For over 100 years it remained the seat of the local ruler and his descendants continued to live there even after their kingdom was abolished. The last Raja of Khaplu who lived in the house died in 1983 and the palace began to fall into a state of dilapidation after.

In 2005, with funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture started restoration works; a process that took six years. Restoration was carried out following the Venice Charter; a set of guidelines, drawn up in 1964 by a group of conservation professionals, that provides an international framework for the conservation and restoration of historic buildings.

In 2011, the restored Khaplu Palace & Residence was opened as a 21 room heritage hotel under the Serena Hotel Group. It has since won numerous awards including a UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award.

I’ve stayed there twice and could not recommend it more highly. It’s certainly one of the most unique places I’ve ever stayed and also one of the most romantic. The views over Himalayan and Karakoram peaks are spectacular. I’ve tried to capture some of them here along with different aspects of the residence.

Khaplu palace before restoration. On the exterior, part of the central core roof is missing and much of the stone and wood work is in a state of dilapidation. Photo credit: AKDN
Khaplu Palace after restoration
One of the bedrooms
The view of a Himalayan range from the palace
A close up of those peaks
The peaks are awe-inspiring
Some guests relaxing in one of the balcony rooms
One of the semi-open balcony rooms
Views from one of the balcony rooms
A sunny spot to catch the morning rays
A good spot for some afternoon tea
Some of the architectural details
Khaplu Palace
Views to the east
The Queen of Khaplu. This lady is a descendent of the royal family who used to live in the palace and who oversaw the handover of ownership so that the renovation work and the palace’s transformation into a heritage hotel could take place.

Baltistan بلتستان

For over 100 years the palace was the seat of the Raja of Khaplu but after his kingdom was abolished, it fell into a state of disrepair. In 2005, with funding from the Norwegian government, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture began restoration works. Six years later, the palace was opened as a 21-room heritage hotel under the Serena Hotel Group.

Khaplu Palace, Royal Residence of Baltistan

Built in 1840 by the Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan, Khaplu Palace is the finest surviving example of a royal residence in Baltistan, a provincial autonomous region in Pakistan’s north east. The palace was constructed with the help of Kashmiri and Balti craftsmen and combines the local architectural style with influences from neighbouring regions including Tibet, Kashmir, Ladak and Central Asia.

The site of the palace was chosen, so the story goes, by rolling a large stone down from a nearby cliff; where the stone came to a stop, the palace was built. For over 100 years it remained the seat of the local ruler and his descendants continued to live there even after their kingdom was abolished. The last Raja of Khaplu who lived in the house died in 1983 and the palace began to fall into a state of dilapidation after.

In 2005, with funding from the Norwegian Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Aga Khan Trust for Culture started restoration works; a process that took six years. Restoration was carried out following the Venice Charter; a set of guidelines, drawn up in 1964 by a group of conservation professionals, that provides an international framework for the conservation and restoration of historic buildings.

In 2011, the restored Khaplu Palace & Residence was opened as a 21 room heritage hotel under the Serena Hotel Group. It has since won numerous awards including a UNESCO Heritage Conservation Award.

I’ve stayed there twice and could not recommend it more highly. It’s certainly one of the most unique places I’ve ever stayed and also one of the most romantic. The views over Himalayan and Karakoram peaks are spectacular. I’ve tried to capture some of them here along with different aspects of the residence.

Khaplu palace before restoration. On the exterior, part of the central core roof is missing and much of the stone and wood work is in a state of dilapidation. Photo credit: AKDN
Khaplu Palace after restoration
One of the bedrooms
The view of a Himalayan range from the palace
A close up of those peaks
The peaks are awe-inspiring
Some guests relaxing in one of the balcony rooms
One of the semi-open balcony rooms
Views from one of the balcony rooms
A sunny spot to catch the morning rays
A good spot for some afternoon tea
Some of the architectural details
Khaplu Palace
Views to the east
The Queen of Khaplu. This lady is a descendent of the royal family who used to live in the palace and who oversaw the handover of ownership so that the renovation work and the palace’s transformation into a heritage hotel could take place.

Baltistan بلتستان

It wasn’t only artistic ideas that travelled to this region from Tibet but also religious ones. Buddhism was the dominant religion in Baltistan until the arrival of Islam in the 15th century. Depictions of the Buddha and Buddhist symbols can still be found dotted about this region.

Gilgit region خطہ گلگت

Located where the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindu Kush mountains meet, this is a seismically unstable region prone to natural disasters. Earthquakes, avalanches and rock falls are common occurrences. These disasters are exacerbated by a changing climate that disproportionately affects mountainous communities.

Gilgit region خطہ گلگت

After a violent glacial lake burst in 2015, partly caused by rising temperatures, much of Singal village was destroyed by flooding and the rock avalanche that came with it. With the support of the Aga Khan Agency for Habitat, these men are using the rocks from the landslide to build protective walls that channel the river’s flow away from property in the event of another glacial burst. It is a herculean task.

Gilgit region خطہ گلگت

The protective wall the men are building with their bare hands to protect their village from climate related disasters.

Gilgit region خطہ گلگت

The Agency for Habitat works with communities across the region to mitigate the effects of disasters like this and improve access to clean water.

Hunza ہنزہ

Salahuddin, the security detail at Baltit Fort which overlooks the legendary Hunza Valley in northern Pakistan.

Hunza ہنزہ

The valley is also home to the 900-year-old Altit Fort, once the seat of the Mir (king) of Hunza. Both forts have been restored by the Aga Khan Trust for Culture and are popular tourist destinations.

Hunza ہنزہ

As part of the Aga Khan Trust for Culture’s restoration work, local women had the opportunity to train in carpentry, stone masonry, surveying and other skills relevant to the works. With the support of the Trust, they have since set up a social enterprise – Ciqam (a local word meaning “prosperity” or “greenery”) – that produces furniture and other wooden products.

Hunza ہنزہ

Ciqam helped build the nearby Leif Larsen Music Centre. Run by the Aga Khan Music Programme, the Centre teaches traditional music and supports young aspiring musicians to develop their skills.

Road to the Pakistan-China border پاک چین سرحد تک سڑک

The main overland trade route that connects connects Pakistan with China is called The Karakoram Highway or KKH. This 1,300km long road, which at points runs parallel to a branch of the old Silk Road, connects Gilgit-Baltistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab in Pakistan with Xinjiang province in western China. Due to the difficult conditions under which it was constructed and as well as its altitude, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Eighth Wonder of the World’.

Road to the Pakistan-China border

To cross this border you must travel through the Khunjerab pass, the highest paved border crossing in the world. At 4,700 metres above sea level the air is thin and it can be a struggle to breathe.

The Silk Road

In 138 BCE, General Zhang Qian of China’s Han Dynasty was sent on a diplomatic mission to develop economic and cultural links with the peoples of Central Asia. In so doing, he set in motion the creation of a transcontinental trade route that would shape the world as we know it today.

The Silk Road, as it would later be called, is neither an actual road nor a single route. It refers to the historic network of trade routes that stretched thousands of miles across Eurasia connecting China with Europe. Grain, livestock, leather, precious stones, porcelain, wool, gold and, of course, silk were transported along its network of trading posts and markets. As a consequence, two thousand years ago affluent Romans could garb themselves in silk clothes made in China while gold coins bearing Caesar’s image were spent in spice markets in India.

It was not only goods that travelled these routes but knowledge, religions and people too. Gunpowder, the magnetic compass, the printing press, and advanced mathematics all came to Europe from China and the Islamic world. Buddhism, Christianity and Islam each found new converts in the lands that opened up to the East and West. Along these same routes, Mongol armies swept across Eurasia — as did bubonic plague, travelling with merchants and their animals.

These exchanges had a profound impact on the empires and civilisations through which they passed, giving them political, religious and cultural shape. Many of the more networked cities developed into hubs of culture and learning and, in some, the sparks of a golden age were ignited.

By the late 16th century, the Silk Road had lost its prominence to new maritime trade routes but the legacy of interconnectivity and exchange endured. Today, it is being reimagined on an unprecedented scale. Through China’s Belt and Road Initiative, Eurasia is the focus of the largest and most expensive infrastructure project in history. If realised, a massive network of roads, railways, pipelines and ports could connect as much as 65% of the world’s population and radically alter the flow of global trade. It is already beginning to reshape Eurasia, focusing world attention once again on the exchange of goods and ideas running from East to West. While these investments will bring enormous opportunities, they come with many risks, especially for Central Asia. Regional insecurity, rising inequality, cultural dislocation, resource scarcity and climate change — all these must be mediated if the new Silk Road is to deliver prosperity to all of those who live along it.

The Aga Khan Foundation & The Silk Road

The Aga Khan Foundation and agencies of the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) have been active in countries along the Silk Road for decades. AKDN is a long-term partner in the development of Afghanistan, Egypt, India, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Pakistan, and Tajikistan.

Alongside its partners, AKDN has channelled significant financial and human resources into economic, social and cultural development in these regions. Promoting pluralism, self-reliance and women’s empowerment have been central to those efforts. AKDN’s initiatives are wide-ranging and include agriculture and food security, climate resilience, education, energy, enterprise development, financial services, healthcare, infrastructure, telecommunications and promoting civil society. It has also restored hundreds of historical monuments, parks and gardens and supported some of Central Asia’s greatest musicians to transmit their knowledge and perform on the world’s stage. AKDN’s overarching aim is to improve the quality of life.

This exhibition

The Silk Road: A Living History invites you to take a journey from London to Beijing, encountering some of the people, places and cultures in-between. The exhibition aims to celebrate the diversity found along this route, explore how historical customs live on today, and reveal connections between what appear at first glance to be very different cultures. Ultimately, the exhibition aims to help build bridges of interest and understanding between distant places and challenge perceptions of less well-known or understood parts of the world. The exhibition was created by Christopher Wilton-Steer, a travel photographer and Head of Communications at the Aga Khan Foundation (UK).

This exhibition is not an exhaustive photographic documentation of Eurasia’s people and cultures. It is a record of some of those Christopher encountered over the course of an overland journey from London to Beijing that he undertook in 2019 and therefore reflects only a fraction of the realities of these places. It is one of an infinite number of stories that could be told.

Acknowledgements

I would like to thank first and foremost the wonderful and kind people I met on my travels and who allowed me into their lives. I am grateful to Simon Norfolk, Gary Otte, Andrew Quilty, Sebastian Schutyser and Kapila Productions for allowing me to use some of their photographs of places or events I was unable to visit on my journey. I would like to acknowledge the invaluable travel advice I received from Wild Frontiers and Eastern Turkey Tours, and the support from King’s Cross Central General Partner Ltd. who have allowed for this exhibition to take place in this public space. Lastly, I would like to thank my colleagues across the Aga Khan Development Network for their support and especially the Aga Khan Foundation who shared in the vision for this exhibition.

Christopher Wilton-Steer