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On the Karakorum: The Hunza

Posted by Hayley Cleeter 4th November 2019
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Blog written by Edward J. Taylor

We'd been told the previous day that we'd unfortunately mistimed our arrival to coincide with Muharram, when Shi'a honor the anniversary of the murder of their third prophet, Imam Hussain Ali.  The main focus of the day is prayer, yet things gradually spiral to the point where the mourning takes the form of self-flagellation.  In this part of the world, traffic on the Karakorum is generally cut off, and in many years, the Chinese border itself is closed.  The actual date of the memorial tends to shift with the phases of the moon, and Imams tend not to announce it until very last minute.  So, we are lucky I suppose, for had it been a day earlier, we'd all still be sitting in Xinjiang, enjoying yet another steaming heap of pilaf. 

As it is, we race past the mosque in the town of Ganish, and twist upward toward our hotel in Karimabad just above.  There seems to be an issue with the power, so our lunch consists merely of large piles of french fries. The view here is the true feast, and I spend the rest of the afternoon on the veranda before our room, dipping in and out of Michener's tragically overlooked Caravans.  Light eventually begins to fill the valley at Nagar across the river, to a soundtrack of devotional music coming from the mosque below.   

Later in the day we'll walk up Karimabad's single street to have a more substantial dinner and a bit of time for shopping.  During my recent trips to India and Nepal, I had searched in vain for a waistcoat, which I hadn't then realized was traditionally worn by Muslims.  I find one made of thick wool, ideal here in the cool of high elevation.  The tailor is a friendly man, whose modesty betrays the fact that he's followed his father in being honored by the Pakistani government for his handiwork, ranked as among the best in the country.  Despite this, his prices are low, enough so that I buy one of those mushroom-shaped hats to complete the ensemble. 

I leave LYL in a gem shop and continue up through the dark to pop in and out of bookshops, in search of a couple titles I'm after. Despite the constant noise coming from the mosque down in the valley, the people are friendly and quick to offer a greeting.  Later though, after we're long asleep, the noise will build into a frenzy, with the mourners marching behind a truck laden with loudspeakers, that rolls up to the town itself. LYL and I had earlier turned on our ceiling fan, whose white noise drowned it all out, so we were barely aware of it afterward. Apparently, it grew in fever, and I found myself enviously of the few of our party who had stood out on their balconies, watching it all go past. By the morning, it was nothing but birdsong.

We start our day wandering the old Baltit fort, which minutes after entering was recognizable as a reconstituted Tibetan-style dzong from the days when Hunza was Buddhist.  The views here are outstanding, and it is pleasant to imagine being a British agent passing a few days here, coordinating with the local mir about the best methods to stave off the Russians. A number of photographs brought history up to the present, the last few showing the local royalty to be jet-set chic. 

Our own group proved equally well-traveled, most having already visited various 'Stans.  I stood looking out over the valley, reflecting on how difficult are some of those travelers that I myself guide, so fixed in their preconceived ideas. And through it all, sound continues to waft up from the mosque, on a day commemorating a killing rooted in religious intolerance.  We travelers wouldn't be here if we had that kind of judgement.  You needed to approach these types of places with a certain amount of awe and respect, drawn at first by what you perceive to be differences, but then further attracted by the similarities.  This is what it means to be civilized I suppose.  To seek out alternative viewpoints, alternative ways of living, with an open mind, and without judgement.  Here, the word civilized, is drawn into closer conjunction with its close counterpart, civilization.            

The landscape here most certainly implies the latter.  Driving into town the day before, our eyes had been directed toward the long horizontal lines of green that seemed to segment the steep mountainsides that they bisected.  This intricate irrigation is what had brought life to the Hunza, and had supported the cultures that have lived here for millennia.  Above these stone channels, all is stark, colored a sort of dull khaki, but below is a landscape of orchards, maize and barley fields, and life-sustaining forest.   We wander these for the rest of the day, strolling beneath the shade-giving poplars, and greeting the ever-cheerful residents of the villages fed by these water systems.  It is no surprise that many believe that the mythical Shangri-la was set here, author James Hilton having passed through prior to Lost Horizon's 1933 publication. 

I feel this is especially true upon arriving at the home of our guide Irfan. His extended family has prepared a lavish meal for us, which we take seated upon an array of sofas that have been arranged out on the lawn.  The array of 7000 meter peaks act as proscenium, the lawn as stage, as the family members appear in time, many of them children, who entertain us in simply acting their age. A sixteen year-old niece delights us as narrator, while Irfan himself seems spellbound by his youngest niece, a wonderful side-act of mutual love and delight.  We spend probably no more than an hour here, but I could easily live out the rest of my days here, the horizon of Shangri-la indeed found. 

Night comes quickly in a valley as steep as this, and in the fading light, the peaks in the foreground all go black.  Rakaposhi and its accompanying snow-covered giants linger awhile, turn purple, then they too are gone.  Down below, upon the valley floor, one can still make out the thin grey stripe of the Hunza river. On its adjacent banks, hundreds of lights begin to flick, like the linger of a smoldering fire. 

That last paragraph was written from the greater heights of the Eagle Nest Hotel, a few hundred meters closer to the ‎7388-meter Ultar Sar, a dramatic peak thought unclimbable until scaled by the Japanese mountaineer Akito Yamazaki, who died during the descent.  We spent a quiet two days up here, mainly resting, though we did do a half day wander following a stone canal out through the hills to an old shrine that had once served as a hermitage for an Islamic holyman.  Climbing beyond this, the views opened up to reveal an even greater stretch of the Hunza.  From these heights the great river looked terribly diminished, as it crept soundlessly through the valley far, far below.  Miniscule figures work to clear their fields of barley, the great peaks above making them look tiny and insignificant as they go through their labors, as insignificant as their ancestors amongst the passage of time, the passage of ice and stone.  A massive poplar makes a more valiant effort in a village we pass on the walk home, its canopy gradually spreading over the past 700 years.  

The remainder of the day is spent at rest.  We all take lunch in the central garden beneath another impressive tree.  As we do a car pulls up, expensive and with a private driver.  Out step a trio of VIPs (Very Important Pakistani), one a businessman, one a judge, one a minister of some sort.  Two of the three now live in the States, and from the car, they'd pegged me as a fellow countryman.  I'm a little taken aback, as I've spent the better part of two decades attempting to lose that particular designation.  They join us for a short while, and after they go, the other two Americans in our group tease me for being a representative of the USA. Lunch is taken slowly, the flow of conversation having more meanders than the river below.  At one point I joke that if I ever publish my write up on this trip, I'd title it "Mits, Gits, and Tits" A Journey down the Karakorum," A title taken of course from our destinations:  Gulmit, Baltit, Gilgit.        

There are meals, a stroll up an adjacent rock at sunset, and the purchase of a native sweater, in which I am unrecognizable to our English tour conductor as I greet her in the dim light of dusk.  It is idyllic here, despite the fickle electricity and hot water, and the nonexistent Wifi.  For the latter the hotel can hardly be blamed, as the authorities themselves have shut the system down, to prevent the rambunctious Shi'a from using it to call in greater numbers.

What's left is the view.  I sit reading Eric Newby's brilliant A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush until the light fades, then my eyes are drawn outward, and down.  Poplars gently sway in the breeze like metronomes. The mountain crows here have wings with the splayed fingers of hawks, swirling and swirling on the thermals.  At sunset there must be a hundred of them, little black dots silhouetted against the white and blue peaks beyond.  And at sleep's other end I sit with the quiet, until the generator kicks in with a low throb, and I try my best to ignore the fumes that waft by on the breeze. 

Before leaving the valley there is one last stop, Altit fort.  Its approach is through a small village, writ with numerous signs asking us to refrain from taking photos.  I'd been warned of this earlier, how people don't necessarily mind having their photo taken, but have issue with them being posted later on social media.  The modern world has indeed reached this, Hunza's innermost sanctum.  Old women sit in the shade of the central square, and children run around them, occasionally singly breaking off to sit in one of their laps. From the fort above, the village is even more picturesque, an almost stereotypical medieval village of squat squares segmented by the chaos of little lanes.  The fort too is beautiful, more rugged than Baltit had been, though that one was restored, while Altit was deliberately left as it is today, both serving as important time-capsules serving different purposes.  The upper rooms have photos of the final days of the Raj, and the ramparts out back drop sheerly down to the bottom of the valley. It was a marvelous view, though appreciated a bit less by those political prisoners thrown from these majestic heights.  Certainly none of these had been buried in an old cemetery out across the river. Looking much like a ruin, it honored the ancient dead in a manner more localized than the adjacent Sacred Rock, which stood in honor of the transient.

And we too moved on...

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