2006, November 04
Times Online UK
News Article
From Alan Hamilton in Shigar, Northern Pakistan

Royal tour ends on a high in Pakistan

VISITING the roof of the world yesterday, the Prince of Wales was presented with a 23-stone yak, and the Duchess of Cornwall with a woolly hat. It was as well that it was not the other way round.

On the last of their five days in Pakistan, the royal couple flew by helicopter into the spectacular snow-capped scenery of the country’s mountainous far north, where the Himalayas, Karakorams and Hindu Kush meet in high and rugged terrain. Far from the bustle of its southern cities and the dangers of its Afghan border, they had come to witness village life at 2,500m (8,000ft).

For the local population it was a red-letter day, not least because the visitors were accompanied by the Aga Khan, spiritual leader of 20 million Ismaili Shia Muslims worldwide, many of whom dwell in the remotest valleys of his native country. He wished to show the royal couple that he too understands organic farming, not to mention the empowerment of women.

Reached by a flight that offers breathtaking views, the village of Altit, with a population of 4,000, turned out to a man, woman and child to welcome the Prince, who they decided was important enough to receive a yak. He was led to the vast, shaggy beast and asked whether it was male. The answer was indistinct.

He patted its hairy nose and invited his wife to do the same. She did so tentatively. He accepted the beast with fulsome thanks. Fortunately, it is the local custom for the visitor to hand it straight back.

While the Prince and the Aga Khan went off to tour a restored 900-year-old fort, the Duchess talked to a group of women who have become a power in the community through an initiative of the Aga Khan’s charitable foundation. Unusually in such a male-oriented society, they grow and sell most of the village’s agricultural produce, take decisions and often make enough money to send their children to school.

Altit and the local area is known for the longevity of its residents. When the Prince asked the secret, he was told that it was fresh food, hard work and plenty of apricots — stones and all. The point seemed to be proved when the village elders, none aged under 80, performed a dance for the visitors.

A picture of tranquillity, with the apple and mulberry trees below, and the white-topped Karakorams above, the village is in danger of being invaded by tourists drawn to the fort. Tourists, but only the most intrepid, also make it to the tiny village of Nansoq, ringed by the first of the Himalayas on the banks of the River Indus, again nearly 2,500m up. The royal party arrived in a helicopter dust storm. All others had to endure a 45-minute walk on a perilous path cut into the mountainside. It is not the sort of walk for exercising the dogs.

Nansoq grows only organic food, and was chosen by the Aga Khan’s rural development experts because it is several miles from the nearest road, and untouched by chemicals. The Prince and the Duchess nibbled some bread and had a dried apricot each, but gave a wide berth to the goat soup. It is more popular with residents of the nearby town of Skardu, who enjoy the walk round the cliff on Sundays to buy the food and take a picnic.

Women in the village make the woollen nating, a traditional wedding hat, which they presented to the Duchess. To the joy of the assembled cameramen, she put it on. Had it been the Prince, he would have been accused of undertaking yet another silly-hat tour, like the one on which he wore a Rastafarian wig backwards when visiting Bob Marley’s birthplace in Jamaica.

The couple left Pakistan yesterday at the end of their third overseas tour together. It had begun shakily, with diplomats fearing that it would be overshadowed by Tahir Hussain, the Briton on death row. That issue evaporated when the Prince had to cancel a visit to the North West Frontier province. The Pakistan Army raid on a madrassa, which killed 82 people, so heightened tensions that it was deemed unsafe for the Prince to go.

British officials were last night breathing easier. The tour was deemed a success, the Prince and the Duchess were warmly received and the Duchess is much the more appropriate person to wear a silly hat.


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