7th September 2016
“In the Bradt guidebook they said that the real Shangri-la might actually be the Hunza valley. But I think the people who wrote that hadn’t visited Shimshal,” said Mike Smith as we drove up the rough track to the village.
I prefer to travel far from the beaten track and Shimshal is certainly that. Until 15 years ago this village had only a path going to it. Back then it took three days walking up the track from the road to reach this hidden place.
For hundreds of years people lived in this remote village at 3,100m, just a few kilometres north of Distaghil Sar (7,885m). Instead of prison, the authorities in Hunza sent people who had committed a crime to Shimshal as punishment.
“Well, that’s better than being sent to Coventry!” said Alec.
The track up to Shimshal runs up a cavernously deep valley with the most amazing rock formations. The track is just wide enough to take one 4x4 and sometimes only with just enough height, as it is occasionally cut into the precipitous cliff faces, with hundreds of metres of vertical rock hanging over the route. Despite the clearance to our sides being regularly just a few centimetres, our drivers handled it all remarkably well as we headed up there steadily in a convoy of four Land Cruisers.
The river was always thundering along somewhere below us, and at times we crossed it on suspension bridges that are not for the faint hearted; their decks are made of wood and they flex and sway substantially when laden with a Toyota.
The engineering and man-hours that must have gone into this road to Shimshal less than two decades ago is incredible. At times we were traversing the biggest scree slopes I’ve ever seen and at other times weaving amongst boulders the size of houses. It is an exhilarating drive.
After four hours (including multiple photo stops) we reached Shimshal. The village itself is beautiful, with a maze of irrigation channels running between the fields full of wheat. Simple one-storey farmhouses are spread evenly throughout, with apricots recently harvested from the surrounding trees drying out on their roofs. Old power lines crisscross the place, sometimes hanging worrying low. Sitting on the power lines and flying between the trees were a plethora of beautiful birds. On the short walk before dinner this evening we saw jays, falcons, golden orioles and a mighty eagle, to name a few.
Although Shimshal now has a ‘road’ running to it, the village remains off the beaten track. People wrongly assume that all of Pakistan is troubled and westerners are at high risk travelling there. This region is remarkably safe and we have found all the locals to be incredibly friendly and welcoming. We all want to return.
“The Galápagos was the best place I have visited in all of my travels. Until today, coming up this valley to Shimshal. It was just amazing.” Tony Kaines said earlier, summing up how many of us felt about it. It really was something else.
Spike is leading our 21 day Majestic Mountains of Central Asia tour, which travels through Kyrgyzstan, China and Pakistan. The aforementioned Shimshal is located along the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) in northern Pakistan’s Hunza District.