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xEurasia Odyssey

Pakistan 3: Hunza - Gilgit-Baltistan

PAKISTAN | Wednesday, 13 October 2021 | Views [251]

Pakistan 3 Hunza

Hunza borders on China and the Hunza River corridor formed one of the main arteries of the Old Silk Road.  Sections of the old path zigzagging across the steep arid brown mountainsides are still visible from the new Karakorum Highway. The trade and cultural connections with the western most portion of China are deeply ingrained in the people here. Some of the houses even have red upturned roofs similar to those found in the Middle Kingdom, although the Pakistani houses do not have the intricate symbolic wood-carvings on the beams.  China has been a long-standing friend, while the British and Americans have proven to be untrustworthy.  Given the current political environment, it would be wise for Western diplomats and politicians to learn a bit about local history before starting negotiations with the Pakistani government. China is building and renovating roads as well as helping the country construct a number of new hydroelectric dams. This aide has not gone unnoticed or unappreciated by the people of the region.

 Hunza was its own principality with a King, or Mir, at its head for probably around 700 years prior to the British arrival in the 1800s. Earlier, the Mir may have paid tribute to China, but it doesn’t seem that the region was ever part of China. When the British arrived, the Mir had to at least nominally accept their rule.  Local legend has it that after British troops had conquered the neighboring Nagar Valley they wanted to get into Hunza, but the King had a large cannon, which scared the Red Coats off.  It wasn’t until the cannon was fired, and a spy let the British know that there was only the one cannon ball, that the British entered Hunza.  The troops supposedly only lasted one winter, though, and high-tailed it down the mountains to the plains, never to be seen again.  Clearly, this isn’t what the history books say, which is that the Mir was allowed to remain in his post, but he had to pay tribute to the British.  The Baltit Fort, which was the family residence, shows the influence of the British period with the construction of the top floor. The Fort, which lies above Karimabad overlooking the entire valley, was probably occupied for about 800 years. Their earlier home, the Altit Fort, is visible from both the Baltit Fort as well as the Karakorum Highway. It wasn’t until 1976 that the Mir officially gave up titulary rights and the Kingdom was dissolved. Hunza became part of Gilgit-Baltistan, the contested area with India. As it is contested, the people pay taxes to Pakistan, but have no legislative or judicial representation in the government. This may be one of the reasons electricity, cell service, and hot water are often unavailable.

 The Mir traced his lineage back to Fatima, Mohammad’s daughter and there is a poster of an ancestral tree hanging in the Fort. He was the head of the Shia Ismaili Nizari community.  The Ismaili’s live in broad sections of northern Pakistan, including near the Shandur Pass and down through Hunza.  The Aga Khan is the spiritual leader, and the Aga Khan Foundation has built schools and hospitals across the region.  The education in these schools is solid and similar to that of western countries. All students under 30 are now literate due to these schools, even though some parents still want their children to work in the fields instead of going to school. The Foundation’s programs have helped these communities in countless ways. The Aga Khan Foundation is also responsible for the three University of Central Asia locations and the Aga Khan University in Karachi as well as a number of educational and health care institutions in Africa.

 Life in Hunza is difficult; the winters are so bitter that most people don’t leave their houses and the monsoons in summer cause landslides and floods.  This leaves only the Spring season for planting and the Autumn for harvesting.  Tourism is really only possible in these two seasons as well, although there seems to be a movement for domestic tourists to come up to see and play in the snow in the winter. The schools, however, are closed for the three winter months as the concrete schoolrooms are not heated and the kids (and teachers!) would freeze.

 Luckily, my trip was at the beginning of the Fall and the weather was perfect. Amyn and his brothers own and run the Mountain Inn in Karimabad (named for Prince Karim Aga Khan), which is situated on a hillside overlooking the Karimabad Bazaar, Baltit Fort, Victoria’s Seat and the Ultar Nala 1 and 2 glaciers. The first day I just wandered around the village, visiting the Fort and strolling along the water channels, sourced from the glaciers behind the village, through lush orchards with apple trees laden with ripe fruit. The villagers I met along the way were intrigued with the lone foreign woman and always very friendly.  A couple of older wizened women, actually give me blessings when I stopped to greet them, and a couple of other younger women working in the orchards gave me a whole bag-full of delicious apples. The day was simply perfect for photography and there are photos in the gallery of both Diran and Rakaposhi across the valley that I took from on my walks.  There is also a picture of Lady Finger, which Reinhold Messner scaled with his brother in 1970 before Günter died on Nanga Parbat that year. The next day the threesome was back intact and we headed in the trusty Corolla down the mountain, across the Hunza River to the Nagar River Valley and the Hoper Glacier. The British influence in the region is apparent in the name and the spelling differs from Hopper to Hoper depending on which sign one reads. As with many of the region’s mountain ranges the slopes are steep and barren. The peaks play games as if they were musical chords with some rounded harmonious sections interlaced with jagged tones that remind one to pay attention. They hide in piano behind clouds and then come with a forte glistening to the forefront. Combined they make for a wild and fascinating score. The Hoper Glacier ice stream extends for quite a way back to the actual glacier, and Amyn and I decided to hike up to where we might be able to see the origin. The ice stream was covered in silt and dirt and is often black, so by getting higher we hoped to get a better perspective. We did. It was fabulous!  On the way back to the car we detoured across the sparse meadows where a few somewhat malnourished cows were trying to graze before wandering through walnut orchards and then actual pastures with well nourished cows and sheep. The fields in Hoper Valley were filled with cornfields, magpies and a few falcons competed for airspace, and streams brought life-giving water from the glacier to the villagers and livestock. On the return drive we saw some nomad children in a local brightly colored van, stopping at their community tents by the river. Nomads pan for gold in the Nagar River in summer and autumn and there were three separate tent sites situated along the shoreline. Unfortunately, we didn’t have the opportunity to interact with them. Before heading back to the hotel, we stopped at Hunza Rock, which has petrogylphs that I really wanted to see. This rock art is probably from pre-historic times, and I was surprised to find the same deer motifs here that I saw across Central Asia. The cultures that made these inscriptions clearly traded along very ancient paths and worshipped along the way. The rock inscriptions face southeast and in the middle there is a hollowed out section of rock that could have functioned as an altar. This is pure speculation, but the setting did seem deliberate. Amyn’s older brother has spent a fair amount of time on Nanga Parbat and has seen the petroglyphs there; he said those are the same as those on Hunza Rock. As I wasn’t going to have time to get to Nanga Parbat, I was glad he was able to answer my questions.

 The following day we headed north to Borith Lake. On the way we stopped at Attabad Lake, which was formed from a landslide damming up the river about a decade ago.  Since then the lake has become a tourist attraction with boats and a couple of harbors. When the slide happened, it destroyed sections of the Karakorum Highway and a new road with tunnels had to be built. The Chinese helped with this road as well and there are signs on the hillside attesting to the friendship between the two countries. There are indications, however, that the lake is starting to dry up and if it is anything like what is happening around Lake Powell on the Utah Arizona border, then the commercialization that is taking place will only be temporary.

Near the turn off to go up the mountain to Borith Lake is the Hassani Suspension Bridge. I saw an elderly local man scramble across it and run up the opposite hillside. The Punjabi tourists and I, on the other hand, had to place one foot carefully in front of the other, watching all the time where the foot was going in order not to fall through the foot-long plus spaces between the wooden planks/steps. One false step and it would be easy to fall through to the crashing cold glacial waters below. Needless to say, I survived.

 Generally, mountains are thought to be solid and stable; fixtures of the horizon. The mountains behind Borith Lake are shale, and shale is fragile.  The hillsides were covered with fallen rock.  The lake itself is quite small, but the views from above it are spectacular.  Glacier ice streams meet on the backside of a hill at the end of the lake and pour into the river below.  Crevasses in the ice streams make it seemingly impossible to walk on, but they create jagged peaked waves of white, grey, and soot on their way to melt into the flowing waters below. Amyn and I walked up to the end of the path on the side and the views were simply stunning. 

The last day in Hunza was spent reading and then in the afternoon going up to Victoria’s Seat.  This is normally a short, albeit steep, hike, but for some reason I was having more trouble on this one than on any of the others. I’m still not sure what was wrong with me.  Amyn did choose to take the straight path up, over boulders and scree, which I don’t care for with my knee, (I’ve had a couple of knee surgeries and just don’t want to damage it again), but that shouldn’t have accounted for my huffing and puffing. I did make it up, though, and the views were simply amazing.  Rakaposhi (7788m) and the entire Gulmet glacier sparkled across the valley with Diran in the distance. Behind us the pointed summits of Ultar Nala 1 & 2 and Golden Peak tried to poke out of the clouds as did Lady Finger. The wind was blowing fairly steadily which meant that while we waited we could see the peaks play hide and seek until it was getting near dusk. It was unfortunate that we didn’t have time to go the meadows under the glaciers, but that would have added probably four hours to the excursion. To be safe, on the way down we took the switchbacks, which may have been somewhat longer, but much easier.

 We needed to head down to Islamabad the next day as it wasn’t possible to get the PCR Covid test that I needed for the flight anywhere in Hunza. It was sad to say goodbye to the spectacular mountain vistas. On the way, the impermanence and adaptability of the material world was repeatedly evident. Just below Karimabad is a 1,000 year old community called Ginesh.  This was once a sacred site dedicated to Ganesha. When the country changed religions, the village had to adapt.  Near Chilas there are some wonderful rock art Buddhas and Bodhisattvas from the Gandharan period; they are now partially white-washed. The government has placed barbed-wire around the archeological sites, including Hunza Rock, to protect them, but those bent on destruction seem to always find a way.  Barbed-wire is also around all the schools, universities, health care and government facilities as a precaution. While I was in the country, IS-K conducted a targeted terrorist attack in South Waziristan, and there was an indiscriminate earthquake in the south.

 The road below Gilgit was partially very good and partially a mess. Not far from Gilgit, at Jaglot, the three mountain ranges meet.  There is a modern nicely laid out viewing area of the Hindu Kush on the left, the Himalaya in the background and the Karakorum to the right. There are paths that are carefully laid out going down to the river. Further down the road, though, huge boulders, some the size of a VW Golf, were in the middle of the road, which had a middle strip of asphalt bordered by erosioned dirt ditches on the sides. There was construction work going on to improve the road, but they weren’t putting in a water channel, so the destruction is doomed to take place again next summer. One village we drove through was near the epicenter of the 2005 earthquake; new colorful houses lined the road.  Villages affected by earthquakes and floods had to be moved with the diversion of the rivers. Amyn’s father said that the entire Babu tak Nala valley was once covered with forests, but as we drove through most of the hillsides had been deforested as the houses were made not just out of the abundant rocks but also out of wood.  Wood is also the only source of heat. The hillsides and mountainsides are now threatened with erosion, which will cause more landslides that will again cause problems for the villagers.

 We finally made it to Islamabad around ten at night and headed straight to the hospital for the CPR test. It was quick, efficient and I had the results by 2pm the following afternoon.  Amyn’s cousin worked in the hospital, so it is entirely possible that the quick turn around was due to family connections. From the hospital we drove back to Rawalpindi for the night. There is a major difference between Rawalpindi and Islamabad. The first is typically sub-continent with teeming masses of humanity, while the latter is modern and orderly. It reminded me of the discussion I had with a few people about the class structure in the country; they said that there is a small upper class, i.e, like Islamabad, and then the rest of the country, i.e. like ‘Pindi’. As we had to be in Islamabad the next day in order to get the results before my flight to Karachi in the evening, we went on a few city excursions.  The first was to the Faisal Mosque, which is a beautiful structure, then to the Danan-e-Koh park in the Murree Hills above the city.  The park has resident monkeys and baboons and what would be an amazing view of the city if the sky had not been so hazy. The last stop was at the Heritage Cultural Center, which was a perfect conclusion to the trip. This museum has dioramas with explanatory plaques in English and Urdu of all the different ethnic groups in the country and surrounding regions. It was fun to see the ones we had visited and recognize some of the clothing and household tools.

 Before heading to the airport, we stopped for a final lunch. I had my usual, rice with a piece of meat. Pakistani food is generally way too spicy for me, so I had to stick with something bland, i.e., rice. – and even that was sometimes a bit too hot. Amyn and Iqbal generally had dal and a stewed vegetable mix.  For breakfast there was almost always chapattis. Sometimes these were fried, but most often they were lightly baked and quite tasty. The best food, at least for me, during the trip was the fruit. The freshly picked apples, pears, and grapes and the street-side bananas were simply delicious. Tea was the main drink, both green tea and milk tea. Green tea was kept pure, but the milk tea was either a Nepali tea, i.e., with sugar, or with salt and/or pepper. They also served it without anything added, although that had to be specially requested. Throughout the trip we ate at roadside stands, although not at the carts that line the highway on the road to the airport.  Cars pull off to the side to get their roasted corn and then merge right back into traffic.

 It seems Pakistan, at least the portions I saw and experienced, is a land in transition. The seemingly stable mountains have rocks and boulders that cascade down the slopes as do the glacial waters and ice streams . Rivers change course, lakes are created and disappear.  Hydrodams are being built, roads are being both reconstructed and newly built. Schools and health care facilities are becoming more available and education is now mandatory up to the fifth grade. Yet old traditions die hard and previous injustices – real or perceived – live on. Jinnah’s dream, the hope of the founding father of the country, for a free and equal Pakistan has not yet become a reality.  According to Amyn, his friends and family, change will take time, but the current government is moving in the right direction.  I hope so.

 Jinnah's remarks to the people of Pakistan in 1947 after Partition: “You are free; you are free to go to your temples, you are free to go to your mosques or to any other place of worship in this state of Pakistan. You may belong to any religion or caste or creed – that has nothing to do with the business of the State.” 

“Religion should not be allowed to come into politics – Religion is merely a matter between man and God.”

 My deep thanks to Amyn, Iqbal and to all those at Concordia Expeditions Pakistan who made my trip such a wonderful experience.  I will hold the peace of the mountain air, the sounds of the wind, magpies and falcons, rock slides on the slopes, and water rushing under the glacial ice streams, and the friendship you have shown in my heart always. Thank you!






Tags: history, mountains, on the road


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