The magnificent Hunza Valley has had people like me waxing lyrical for centuries. Known for its epic mountain views, the longevity of its residents and its apricots, it was here that James Hilton set his Shangri La in the novel Lost Horizons. And a very special place it is, too.
The people of Hunza have a saying, ‘A house without a view is like a house without a roof,’ pretty useless in other words and from pretty much anywhere in the valley, looking in pretty much any direction, you will be privy to a stunning view.
But for the best sight of this almost mystical place, you must drive up to a small settlement of Duiker, five hundred metres above the valley floor, climb up a short distance to a rocky knoll and from there look south. In front of you, the land drops away to the twin villages of Karimabad and Altit, both with spectacular forts perched on rocky outcrops, and passes over the Hunza River to where Mount Rakaposhi rises 7,788 metres before you.
Looking to the west you will then see the needle-sharp peak of Lady’s Finger, next to Hunza Peak and Ultar 1 and Ultar 2. Now looking north towards China, you will see Golden Peak, otherwise known as Spantek, before looking east at Durran Peak. In all, you can see seven 7,000-meter peaks from the valley, which is accessible by car. I am not sure there is anywhere else on earth that can claim that.
Having arrived here from Gilgit yesterday, we checked into the Durbar Hotel – owned by the ex-Mir (or ruler) of Hunza – and then drove up the Karakoram Highway towards China. In January 2010, a massive rockslide blocked the valley, thus forming a natural dam to the Hunza River which over a five-month period filled the valley into a stunning new turquoise lake. By doing so, it submerged 20kms of the Karakoram Highway, destroyed two villages and cut off trade between these two neighbours. It also swallowed up the famous old rope bridge that once spanned the Hunza River, a photo of which once adorned the front cover of Lonely Planet Pakistan.
However, unable to survive for long without trade coming in from China, the Pakistan authorities first brought boats up from the Indus in Sind Province to ferry cargo from one end of the lake to the other. But being obviously a very inefficient process, the Chinese quickly got to work building a route around the lake, taking in three long tunnels and a number of impressive, elevated road sections. What I hadn’t realised is that they also rebuilt the rope bridge, which has now become something of a tourist attraction.
From here we had a traditional lunch at the charming Moksha Café in Gulmit, owned and run by Saira Ali and her husband Fez. Set up five years ago, Saira and her all-women team, prepare fabulous local dishes with fresh and organic ingredients from the local area – much of it coming from their own garden. We tried three local dishes, ate local apricots and cherries and then headed back to Hunza.
I am now writing this blog at 6 am in my hotel bedroom. If I look up out of the window, I can see the famous Baltit Fort, behind which rises Ultar 1; the sun has just hit its peak. It’s a clear day and the world looks good. Later, we head to Skardu.