Every morning eight-year-old Asad makes a five-kilometre trek uphill to school from his village home in the suburbs of Karimabad, the capital of the Hunza Valley. His family owns a herd of sheep and a modest plot of land that allows them to store enough meat and grain to last the hostile winter. His father, Gulbaaz, also runs a handicraft shop in the town’s main market, selling traditionally embroidered handbags, wallets and cushions made at home by his wife, Shahnaz, and their 15-year-old daughter, Saima. Theirs is just one of the region's famous local handicraft and gemstone shops. Around them gardens brimming with apricots, apples and cherries are irrigated by a traditional water channel system, fed by the melting glaciers during summer and spring water during winter.
Situated at the northernmost tip of Pakistan, bordering China, the Hunza Valley is enclosed by hundreds of famous peaks, including K-2, the world's second highest. It was at the base camp of the Uttar Peak that I met Asad and a bunch of friendly locals grazing their livestock in the remote pastures around Karimabad, a small town of just over 8,000. Historians say the people of Hunza, with their unusually light-coloured hair and eyes, are direct descendents of Macedonian soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great.
The royal family of Hunza (familiarly known as the Mirs) ruled the region from the 11th century, holding complete sovereignty until Pakistan's independence in 1947, when Hunza was given the status of a semi-autonomous princely state within the country. Reforms in the 1970s later abrogated the royal status of the ruling family and gave Islamabad formal charge of the territory. In the 1980s, a joint Pakistan-China project redeveloped an ancient route that had been used for thousands of years by invading armies and Chinese traders, a part of the Silk Road that was carved through the commercial hubs of the Indian subcontinent. The result: the 1,400-kilometre Karakoram Highway (KKH) linking the Pakistani city of Abbotabad to Kashgar in Xinjiang, China.
Many locals call it the “eighth wonder of the world” as they regard its construction – given the extremely hostile terrain – to be an engineering and logistical marvel. Wonder or not, the KKH certainly revolutionised the Hunza Valley. By ushering in an era of development based on improved connectivity, the highway created immense economic opportunities for the local inhabitants.
Then came 9/11.
The 2001 terrorist attacks on the United States and the subsequent war in Afghanistan dealt a devastating blow to Pakistan’s global image. Tourism in the Hunza Valley, as a result, has pretty much been destroyed.
As hotel and restaurant owners continue to rack up losses, private-sector investment has almost come to a standstill in the last five years. And with a spate of fresh terrorist attacks in the country since 2007, the future of tourism in the region appears bleak. Such is the irony of this ethereal valley. Even during the peak of the tourist season earlier this year, the streets of Karimabad were deserted. Mountain guides and porters kept waiting for that phone call from Islamabad announcing the arrival of an expedition; hotel owners kept checking their e-mail inboxes for new bookings; while the friendly children of Hunza kept staring in the direction of their city’s main road, in search of tourist buses, jeeps and backpackers.
One of the evenings, I sat with the locals. Gulbaaz told me that despite the gloomy times, the spirit of the Hunza people was still alive and kicking. In fluent English, he said he was optimistic that the new educated generation would revive the region’s development.
The local literacy rate exceeds 90% – an amazing feat considering the national average is under 40%. A large part of this is due to the works of the
Aga Khan. The people of the Hunza Valley are overwhelmingly Shiite Muslims from the Ismaili sect, and their spiritual leader is Prince Karim Aga Khan. Based out of Paris, the Aga Khan’s estimated wealth amounts to US$1 billion, making him the richest non-land-owning royal in the world.
As their imam, the Aga Khan has actively worked for the development of his followers throughout the world, especially in the areas of health services and education. The Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) is one of the world's biggest private development networks, partnering governments and international organisations across two dozen countries. In Pakistan, the focus has remained on provisions for the residents of the Hunza Valley.
Over the last two decades, AKDN has developed a vast network of high-standard English-medium schools throughout the valley. The flagship project, the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School in Karimabad, was established in 1986 and is the first residential school of its kind, providing hostel facilities to more than 80 girls. Awareness programmes run by AKDN and the government developed in the people of Hunza a strong belief in the benefits of female education. Here, for the first time in Pakistan, gross female enrollment in primary schools exceeds male enrollment.
The opening of schools not only offers free international-quality education, but also stimulates the Hunza economy through the local teacher hiring policy. After completing high school, many graduates enrol in AKDN-operated vocational and professional development centres, which not only provide technical skills but also facilitate employment in the largest cities of Pakistan. Any potential shortage of teachers in Hunza is thus overcome.
In this respect, the valley is a one-of-a-kind example of an underdeveloped spot in a remote part of the world that has overcome a lack of resources to establish a strong education system. This has only been possible through the active support of the locals, who ignore conservative traditions to embrace modern education without any discrimination of gender.
In a country which is at the fault lines of the ideological battle between religious extremism and enlightenment, this remote valley has demonstrated immense rigour by rejecting radical forces in favor of forward-looking moderation.
Each evening just before sunset, the elders of the town gather at the Baltit Fort for their town meeting where they discuss problems and come to consensus-based solutions. This year, they are worried about the virtual death of tourism, yet they end their discussions by expressing unanimous resolve to overcome the odds. From this tiny locale, encircled by peaks that rise beyond seven thousand meters, with the world's largest glacial region outside of the North and South Poles dancing on its edges, the elders firmly believe that “their” Hunza will soon be back to its glory days.
Last Updated: July 28. 2009 9:23PM UAE / July 28. 2009 5:23PM GMT
Hotel workers wait for arrivals at Skardu airport in Pakistan’s Northern Areas. Matthew Tabaccos / The National
GILGIT, PAKISTAN // Representatives of Pakistan’s tranquil Northern Areas, a tourism centre bordering China, have petitioned the government to revert to the historical name of Gilgit-Baltistan to distinguish it from areas plagued by militant insurgency.
The five districts of the Northern Areas are situated amid the sky-scraping peaks of the Karakorum mountain range that divides the Indian subcontinent from Central Asia.
Isolated from the rest of the world until May 1978, when Chinese and Pakistani engineers completed the Karakorum Highway (KKH), the world’s highest road route, it is a magnet for tourists drawn by the history of the Silk Route, an ancient trade link between China, the Middle East and Europe.
Western tourists, in particular, are drawn by the districts of Hunza and Gojal, equated to the mythical kingdom of Shangri’la, made famous in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
However, domestic and international tourist numbers have slumped this year because of misperceptions about the proximity of Gilgit-Baltistan to Swat and tribal areas, where Pakistani security forces are fighting to reverse territorial gains made by Taliban insurgents since 2007.
Hoteliers in Gilgit and Hunza said their businesses, which form the mainstay of the regional economy, have collapsed because of generalised diplomatic and media terminology which describes the insurgency-racked districts of the North West Frontier Province and tribal agencies bordering Afghanistan as “northern areas”.
That, they said, has created an impression, both within Pakistan and overseas, that the Northern Areas has a security problem, whereas there had not been a single terrorist attack there until a paramilitary soldier was shot dead in Gilgit on July 25. The motivation for the attack is still unclear.
“We are in the middle of the high season and hotels are empty. We are receiving just two per cent of the domestic tourists that visited by this time last year, and there hasn’t been a single international tour group yet,” said Shah Jehan, vice president of the Northern Areas hotels association. The first foreign tour group, from Spain, was seen in Hunza.
In fact, Gilgit-Baltistan is separated from Swat by 300 kilometres of impassable high altitude desert, connected to mainland Pakistan only by the KKH, while the tribal agencies are on the other side of the North West Frontier Province.
An attempt in April by the Swat Taliban to expand northwards into Kohistan district, which forms a 100km buffer along the KKH, was decisively defeated by hostile tribesmen in three days.
“That is the upside of having such limited road communications with the rest of Pakistan. The Taliban could not reach here, even if they wanted to,” said Rehmat Nabi, the president of the local tour operators association, which has formally applied to replace its existing Northern Areas prefix with Gilgit-Baltistan.
The residents of the region are a distinct ethnic group who have more in common with the Turkic races of Central Asia than the Pashtun tribes of the Talibanised areas of Pakistan and Afghanistan.
There is little appetite for the puritanical version of Islam propagated by the Taliban and its al Qa’eda allies: the population of four districts out of five in Gilgit-Balistan is dominated by the Shiite, Ismaili (followers of the Aga Khan) and Sufi Nurbaskhi sects, according to local journalists.
“My home district of Chilas is the only Sunni area and the people there have taken a collective decision to ensure there is no terrorist infiltration. We have nothing in common with them and want nothing to do with them,” said Farooq Ahmed, a journalist based in Gilgit.
Such strength of feeling about being tarred with the Taliban brush in April prompted the Northern Areas Legislative Council, the region’s elected assembly, to unanimously pass a resolution, calling on the Pakistan government to change the constitution to facilitate the change of name to Gilgit-Baltistan.
It has since been grouped with a wider package of political reforms soon to be unveiled by the federal government, Mr Ahmed said.
However, local stakeholders fear political apathy in Islamabad, the capital, will delay the process for the rest of the 2009 tourism season, which ends in December, and fail to address public misperceptions about the region in time for next year.
They point to the fact the ministry of tourism has since December been headed by a cleric from the Jamiat Ulema-i-Islam religious party, a coalition partner that, in collaboration with Pakistan’s intelligence agencies, groomed thousands of recruits for the Afghan Taliban in its 1990s heyday.
Hoteliers in Karimabad, the tourist capital of Hunza, said the government, by turning the ministry into a political sop, had practically, if inadvertently, guaranteed that there would be no effort to support the region’s failing hospitality industry, a major source of employment, particularly for the emerging generation of educated young people.
“By showing how little it cares about our image and perception, the government has killed off business and delayed some major projects, including the region’s first five-star hotel, and that has made a lot of ordinary people very upset,” said a hotel clerk, who requested anonymity because he was not authorised to speak by his employers.
Water comes to the rescue in northern Pakistan
Tom Hussain, Foreign Correspondent
Last Updated: August 05. 2009 10:13PM UAE / August 5. 2009 6:13PM GMT
Naeem-ud-Din Dinal, a local development consultant with the Karakorum Area Development Organisation, holds sand particles filtered out of glacial meltwater using hydroelectric power plants. Drinking unfiltered water had made residents of the region sick for a century. Matthew Tabaccos / The National
KARIMABAD, PAKISTAN // Residents of Pakistan’s northern valleys are harnessing the natural might of glacial melt to generate electricity in their remote communities, and local officials hope that further hydroelectric projects in the area will have the potential to alleviate the country’s growing energy crisis.
The five districts of the so-called Northern Areas, known historically as Gilgit-Baltistan, are isolated from the rest of Pakistan by the formidable natural buffer formed by the Himalaya, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountain ranges.
The snow-capped region of Alpine valleys has been the source of romantic inspiration for writers for a century, even being touted as the home of the mythical Shangri la in the 1933 novel Lost Horizon by James Hilton.
However, development workers active in the area said such fairy tales mask the sad truth: until the completion of the Karakorum Highway (KKH), a narrow 1,300-km road between Islamabad and the Chinese border in 1978, its communities were undernourished because of the tremendous difficulties in channelling water for irrigation, and frequently fell victim to cholera because of contamination of the water they did obtain from glacial streams.
A poignant example is the hamlet of Murtazabad in the Hunza Valley, which for some 100 years was the setting for an epic struggle between the community and the sheer, unstable slopes down which cascaded the water they needed.
Veterans of the struggle to tame a 100-metre-long natural channel have passed down stories of how, time and again, the efforts of men working without the skills or tools of modern engineering were frustrated and killed by the temperamental terrain, said Naeem-ud-Din Dinal, a development consultant with the Karakorum Area Development Organisation, an NGO.
He recalled being told by his grandfather about the deaths of 12 men from the village of Altit in a single landslide, their bodies never to be recovered; other stories related how villagers would complete a section of the channel one day, only to awake the next morning to find that subsidence had shifted their project 30 metres downstream.
“People throughout the area advised the residents of Murtazabad to abandon the project, and to request the Mir [hereditary ruler] of Hunza to allow them to settle elsewhere,” he said.
Karim Khan, an engineer for the Northern Areas water and power department, sees enough potential in hydropower to exceed the country’s needs. Matthew Tabaccos / The National
“But diehard villagers determined to farm the unusually flat areas at the foot of the mountains motivated the people time and again, and they kept at it until the subsidence ended and the channel area stabilised.”
The channel was finally tamed in 1890 and some 50 years later, with the help of a surveyor who took measurements by aiming an air rifle and shooting pellets to mark rocks, its gradient was reduced and brought a further 70 metres downstream.
The water, however, was contaminated with vast quantities of sand and other impurities that for several generations have made Murtazabad synonymous with cholera throughout the area, particularly during ebbs in the glacial melt.
The situation was finally brought under control in 1994 when, with technical and financial assistance from Norway, the government erected the area’s first hydroelectric power plant, a modest 1.2-megawatt unit at Hasanabad that required the extension of the Murtazabad channel back to its original high-altitude source to turn its turbines.
The hydroelectric project sparked a number of internationally funded community-based projects, including a filtration plant that changed the health fortunes of the people of Murtazabad.
The villagers’ century-long struggle has taught the Northern Areas’ modern-day pioneers of power supply that the future fortunes of its residents, as well as the estimated 170 million Pakistanis living “down-country”, lie in harnessing the “run-of-the-river” potential of the region.
A boy from Karimabad plays in a stream dug by local engineers as part of the project harnessing meltwater for power and potable water. Matthew Tabaccos / The National
GTZ, the German development agency, has identified sites on small and large rivers with the potential to generate a staggering 40,000 megawatts of electricity, or about double the power shortfall that Pakistan is predicted to suffer by 2020, said Karim Khan, an engineer for the Northern Areas’ water and power department.
“If the government develops that potential, it won’t need to run emissions emitting thermal and coal plants, or nuclear plants that pose a danger to the public,” said Mr Khan, who supervises power plants throughout the Hunza Valley.
However, potential is one thing, realising it is quite another. The area’s largest hydroelectric project to date, an 18-megawatt project built by China in the Naltar Valley neighbouring Gilgit, the regional capital, was commissioned in May.
At the other end of the scale, residents of Ahmedabad village in Hunza Valley worked with the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme, an NGO, to establish a 350-kilowatt hydroelectric unit in April, although the turbine they manufactured locally with minimal technology has kept output down to less than half of envisioned capacity.
But the government has only just begun drawing up plans to transform the region’s tiny water and power department into a full-fledged utility, and to plan the linking of isolated hydroelectric units into a grid so that it power can be shared.
“We are a very small department – I barely manage to visit the sites under my supervision once a year,” said Mr Khan.
Remebering first visit of H.H The Aga Khan to Gilgit – Baltistan
October 23, 2009
In 1960 present Imam of the Shia Imami Ismaili Muslims, Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV, paid his first visit to Hunza valley. His visit was part of a comprehensive tour that included meetings with the Ismaili Jamat in Gilgit and Ghizar as well. Today the Ismailis of Hunza are celebrating this day with religious zeal and fervor.
We wish our Ismaili readers of Hunza and Gilgit – Baltistan a very Happy Salgirah Mubarak of the first visit of His Highness the Aga Khan.
Online Version of the third issue of Karakoram Knowledge Highway-KKH
HUNZA, December 07: Karakoram Area Development Organisation-KADO released the print and online version of the third Issue of Karakoram Knowledge Highway-KKH. KKH is the first multidisciplinary, quarterly published, development and research journal from Karakoram aimed at to generate and disseminate rigorous research manuscripts and scholarly works, on different aspects of the high Asia Mountains and its people, as an impetus towards a knowledge-based mountain society. It publishes research manuscripts, theoretical papers, review articles, lessons learnt in development interventions, success stories on social, economical, environmental, geographical, cultural, technological aspects of mountain communities in Gilgit-Baltistan and the surrounding mountain communities.
The Bicycle Diaries: gunshots in Shangri-La Douglas Whitehead encounters arresting scenery - and gunfire - as he cycles through Northern Pakistan.
By Douglas Whitehead
Published: 10:42AM GMT 15 Dec 2009
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'Seemingly dry and barren canyons opening up to reveal grassy pastures, orchards and ingeniously terraced fields' Photo: GETTY
Excited cries of "Marco Polo, Marco Polo", rose inside the packed minibus. The passengers, a mix of construction workers and small-time traders, were pointing at the snow-covered mountainside; the object of their enthusiasm not a 13th-century Italian explorer, but a sparse flock of curly-horned - and very rare - Marco Polo sheep.
Piled on the bus's roof and between its aisles were white goods, rugs, children's clothing, carpets and anything else that might conceivably fetch a profit in the bazaars of Pakistan.
Our vehicle had just crossed the Khunjerab Pass that marks the end of Chinese territory. With that 5,000-metre natural barrier behind us, we were steering steeply down towards Sost, Pakistan's most northerly town.
The One Star Hotel had awarded itself far too many stars but it was cheaper than most; and if it didn't have electricity or hot water, then neither did anywhere else in Sost that evening. We - the plural including Emilio and Maria, a cycling couple from Spain I met in Kyrgyzstan - handed over £2.50 for a cell-like room with three beds.
We used naan bread to mop up the mutton curry served at a nearby transport cafe. Groups of workmen bunched around the other tables in the candlelit gloom. Wrapped in woollen blankets and wearing baggy shalwar kameez trousers, they were drinking rounds of sweet tea and shivering.
The next day, just before setting out, the Spaniards discovered a problem with Emilio's bike, so I cycled off alone, having arranged to meet them again further down the Karakoram Highway.
In China the road was a pristine strip of asphalt, scarred only by the occasional rockfall. Here it had deteriorated so badly that I could often overtake the fabulously ornate "jingly jangly" wagons - Bedford lorries imported from Britain in the 1960s and still in service.
Gangs of workmen - Chinese, as well as Pakistani - were carrying out maintenance along the route. Some of the Chinese had armed police guards.
Miles from anywhere or anybody, a group of three men were walking up a hill. They wore no uniforms but carried machine guns.
"What is your country?", one called out.
"Britain", would have been both the correct and the courageous answer. My answer - a nervous "I don't know" - was pitifully stupid.
As it would transpire, there was little need to be so wary, but to fully appreciate that fact would take me a few more days.
This region of Pakistan, known as the Northern Areas, is almost flamboyantly beautiful. Traveling through its deep mountain valleys is like crossing half a dozen tiny countries, each with their own distinct languages and customs.
Nearly everyone is Muslim, but in an equally diverse patchwork of Sunni, Shi'ite and Ismaili variants; the latter being a more liberal form of Islam, where the women go unveiled and are less secluded.
Prior to 2001, the Northern Areas were attracting a steadily growing stream of Western visitors. Nowadays, the tourists still come, but in far fewer numbers, and their money is sorely missed. Stopping in the small settlement of Gulmit, my signature inside the hotel guestbook was the first for nearly three weeks.
The sadness of the situation was underlined the next day. I've cycled through some gorgeous parts of the world during the last nine months, but the Hunza Valley stands out above them all. Shangri-la was the name that novelist James Hilton invented for his hidden land of paradise. The Hunza Valley lays claim to have been Hilton's real life inspiration.
Its setting was superb: a natural amphitheatre formed by a series of snowy peaks, with seemingly dry and barren canyons opening up to reveal grassy pastures, orchards and ingeniously terraced fields. It looked glorious even in winter.
The town of Karimabad, which offers panoramic views over the valley, is the centrepiece of the Northern Area's tourist industry. Some visitors hang out here for months during the warmer seasons, either trekking or sampling the local herbal substances. However, after just a couple of days, I was on my way again.
Karimabad, like many other settlements, relies heavily on melt water from the nearby glaciers to provide hydro-electric power. So its problems in Winter can be simply stated: very cold outdoors = no melting = no electricity = very cold indoors.
When the hotel's only gas heater was conscripted for use at an election polling station, we decided to depart as well - the plural, this time, including myself and Alex, a Dutch cyclist I first met nearly three months ago in Uzbekistan.
Right along the Karakoram Highway everyone was gripped by election fever: the minibus passengers had been arguing amiably about it; all the villages were festooned with political posters; every other car seemed equipped with a tannoy.
The vote was the first in the Northern Area for five years and the stakes were high. Some of the myriad parties wanted greater autonomy for the region; others were campaigning, more in hope than expectation, for complete independence from Pakistan.
With the outskirts of Gilgit in sight, we were stopped by a policeman. He was waving a mobile phone and motioning across the valley towards the region's biggest town. "Big problem", he said.
We told him the name of the guest house in Gilgit where we were intending to stay. He then made several calls, before finally pronouncing: "No big problem".
The gunfire began later that night. Big problem.
Shooting rang out continuously. From the vantage point of the Medina Guest House's roof, it sounded like it was coming from every corner of the town. I was relieved that the hostel staff had bolted the door and were refusing to let anyone out; it spared me from any absurd journalistic notions of going to investigate.
Finally, after a couple of hours, the gunfire petered out.
Children were going to school the next morning; shopkeepers were keeping shop; cows and dogs were feasting on the town's rubbish tip. It was just another day.
The election results announced the night before had been controversial. Two Shi'ite Muslim candidates had won in Gilgit. Their opponents were claiming that they had gone back on a promise not to campaign upon sectarian issues.
"These two men are acting crazy," laughed a middle-aged man who I met in the street. "They will not be able to go anywhere now without bodyguards."
The gunfire had been of the harmless variety, aimed up into the air. The victors were celebrating, the losers were letting off steam. No big problem, after all.
View over the majestic Ghiza River in the Hindu Kush. Photo: Henry Dallal.
Taking a photograph while sitting astride a horse is no small feat. Taking one at full gallop is quite another matter. It is, however, a talent that has been perfected by world acclaimed photographer, Henry Dallal. A keen horseman, Dallal has been taking photographs since he was nine years old. Specializing in equine cultures and pageantry from around the world, Dallal has travelled worldwide to remote areas to pursue his interests in mountaineering, adventure and experiencing different cultures.
A different sort of beauty, a young Ismaili girl from the area around Mastuj
When he was invited some years ago to join an eight man expedition on a horseback journey through the Hindu Kush Mountains in the Northern regions of Pakistan, he did not hesitate. Dallal says, “what better way to experience the unspoilt nature and beauty of the mountain and the local culture than by travelling in good company on a loyal and dependable steed.”
The high point of the trip - the Shandour pass at 13,000 feet. The Ghiza river sometimes flows calmly through magnificent mountains, valleys and occasional villages. Photo: Henry Dallal.
The expedition members rode on superb Marwari and Badakhshi horses from Gilgit along the banks of the blue-green Ghiza River Valley (also known as Ghizer River, or the Gilgit River in some areas) and cut through some very impressive mountain scenery over the Shandur Pass and down to Chitral, travelling a total of 450 kilometres.
In many parts of the mountainous regions of the Hindu Kush and the Pamirs, women are said to do significant amount of agricultural work. Here a very old Ismaili woman is seen husking. Photo: Henry Dallal.
The local inhabitants in the Ghiza district are mainly Ismailis. During the journey, members of the expedition team experienced glowing and welcome hospitality from the few people they encountered in the surrounding villages where they camped.
Ismaili women commuting across the Ghiza Valley in the Hindu Kush. The majority of the inhabitants in this district belong to Shia Imami Ismaili community, followers of His Highness the Aga Khan. Photo: Henry Dallal.
An Ismaili woman hard at work cutting down stalks of corn in the Hindu Kush. Photo: Henry Dallal.
An Ismaili boy photographed in the Ghiza Valley. Photo: Henry Dallal.
Dallal observes: “This is the way to witness it: by horseback deep in the country, at a pace that permits you to see and feel the local culture and magnificent scenery. The mountain folk desperately clinging to survival in the long and harsh winters and short summers used for growing all the food for the following winter. A delicate and balance of nature and survival for these, the nicest of peoples.”
Article publication date: August 13, 2010
About the photographer: Henry Dallal was recently in Ottawa, Canada, to photograph Her Majesty the Queen on Canada Day. During his visit to Canada, Henry Dallal also worked on a book on the RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police). We invite you to visit his Web site Henry Dallal Photography to view a collection of some of his photographs from around the world.
Specializing in equine cultures and pageantry from around the world, Dallal has travelled worldwide to remote areas to pursue his interests in mountaineering, adventure and experiencing different cultures. As much as he is passionate about travelling, he is equally passionate about sharing his photography with others. Simerg is deeply indebted to Henry Dallal for sharing with readers of this Web site some of his photographs of the mountaineering trip he made to the Hindu Kush. The Ghiza river valley and district, where he took the photographs shown on this page, are mainly inhabited by Ismailis.
By Salman Rashid
Published: October 28, 2011
The Express Tribune
The writer is author of eight books, most recently The Apricot Road to Yarkand (Sang-e-Meel, 2011) and a Fellow of the Royal Geographical Society
In August 1861, the explorer Godwin-Austen was camped on the Panmah Glacier when he met four travellers coming down the icy slopes of the glacier above. They were Balti men returning home from Yarkand to meet friends and relatives. Godwin-Austen noted that they were very well-clothed and equipped and guessed that living in Yarkand had done them well in economic terms.
Though the explorer already knew of the depredations of the men of Hunza, he got first-hand information on the subject from his Balti visitors: the robbers from whom no one was safe were all over the place. The road across the glaciated Great Asiatic Divide to Raskam and beyond was within their reach. As well as that, they also prowled along the great trunk road from Leh that we today sometimes know as the Karakoram Route over the pass of the same name.
The Hunza men robbed and killed ruthlessly. Anyone spared was captured to be sold into slavery in Bokhara. The robbers were the bane of travellers on those lonely trails. The four Baltis had been fortunate because they had taken all precautions. They travelled by night and hid away among the rocks during the hours of daylight. They did not light a fire for fear of giving away their position and ate only pre-cooked food they carried.
By the 1870s, the caravans plying on the Karakoram Route were carrying British goods. This was also fair game for the men of Hunza. Rankled by this carrying on, the rulers of India Britannica sought a way of bringing this brigandage to an end. Now, the route over the Karakoram Pass lay no less than 250 kilometres east of Hunza. In between stretched a most terrifying wilderness of bleak river valleys, high peaks and glaciers. So, which way did the Hunza men travel between their mountain country and the trade routes?
British explorers pretending to be traders were sent out across the Great Asiatic Divide to find out. But it was only in 1889 that a young lieutenant named Francis Younghusband discovered the Shimshal Pass and told his masters in Delhi of the route used by the Hunza men. Shimshal, stretching in a west-east direction east of Hunza, is a tight and narrow vice-like gorge; the route through it being no picnic stroll. Here are scree slopes to negotiate, scree slopes so terrifying that simply looking down to the river far below makes one breathless. Here are paths that only ibex can use.
Having crossed the Shimshal Pass at the top of the valley, they descended to the Braldu River. They now had three choices. Across the river, they could negotiate the Wesm Pass to enter the Skamri Glacier and reach the road coming down the Muztagh Pass by the Sarpo Laggo Glacier. Or they could go upstream along the Shaksgam, cross the pass of the same name and reach the trunk road coming down the Karakoram Pass. They could also go to the junction of the Braldu and Yarkand rivers, follow the latter to its junction with the Raskam and then go upstream to Raskam village.
We know from 18th century travellers chronicles that the Hunza men terrorised on all these roads. One only has to travel in the Shaksgam River to understand the topography and physical conditions of this region. Then one can only admire the courage and mountaineering skills of the Hunza men: this is a high altitude utterly uninhabited region of raging rivers that make travel in high summer nearly impossible. The slopes are treacherous shingle or sheer rock. Because the river occupies the floodplain in summer, the window for travel is short: between May and June and then again from September to November when the river is low and the frosts have not yet set in.
The men of Hunza who set out from their idyllic valley to traverse this terrifying desolation in order to lie in wait for passing travellers were a breed apart. Today, the descendents of these same doughty mountaineers are among the most cultured and sophisticated people in Pakistan. Their salvation: the education programme of the Aga Khan Foundation.
Published in The Express Tribune, October 29th, 2011.
Karimabad (Urdu: كريم آباد) is the capital of Hunza in Gilgit-Baltistan, northern Pakistan. Karimabad is also known as Baltit. It is named after Prince Karim Aga Khan, the spiritual head of Shia Ismaili Nizari community. The Guardian ranked it as the 12th Best Tourist Site in Pakistan.[
Karimabad is the capital of Hunza in Pakistan’s Gilgit-Baltistan province. Karimabad is also known as Baltit, it’s ancient name. Today’s name stems from Prince Karim Aga Khan, who's name the town has taken! He is spiritual leader of the Shia Ismail Nizari community (more on that later). Since the arrival of KKH Karimabad has prospered and the bazaar has filled with hotels, restaurants, and travel agencies (although recent the political situation has significantly reduced tourist numbers!)
High up on a Pakistani mountain, a success story for moderate Islam
Heaven on earth in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley
As a model of moderate Islam, the idyllic valley has emerged as an oasis of tolerance, security and good schools.
KARIMABAD, Pakistan —Visitors to this stunningly beautiful valley, towered over by five snow-capped mountains, sometimes feel as if they are standing at the edge of the earth — or, maybe, at the middle of it.
Either way, they often don’t feel as if they are in Pakistan, a country that struggles with poverty, pollution, Islamist militancy and a lackluster education system, especially for women.
Once a hardscrabble Himalayan town where residents barely had enough to eat, Karimabad, in the Hunza Valley, is now one of Pakistan’s most idyllic spots — an oasis of tolerance, security and good schools. That standard of living can be traced to residents’ moderate interpretation of Islam as well as the considerable support from one of the world’s largest charities.
Many parents in the valley say that if they had to choose, they would send their daughters to school over their sons. Nearly all families own at least a small plot of land. Residents say they cannot remember the last murder in the valley. And unlike in other parts of Pakistan, streams are not polluted with plastic bags, human waste and decaying appliances.
Such views — and protection of the surroundings — have allowed the Hunza Valley’s population to become a bulwark against Islamist extremism, despite its relative proximity to militant strongholds in Pakistan’s tribal belt and Kashmir, a disputed region that Pakistan and India have fought wars over.
[Leaders of India and Pakistan make gestures to calm tensions]
“Here, we have facilities, we study, and there is no terrorism,” said Haider Ali, 18, watching classmates play soccer as the sun set behind Mount Rakaposhi, elevation 25,551 feet.
Men ride past on the Karakoram Highway at a viewpoint of the Rakaposhi Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan in the Hunza Valley on June 26. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
Not everything is perfect, of course. Electricity deficits can keep the lights out for days at a time. A once-vibrant tourism industry collapsed after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. Deforestation has led to a shortage of firewood, so families must huddle in one room to stay warm when winter temperatures plunge toward zero.
And some local leaders worry the community has become too dependent on charitable organizations, leaving it vulnerable to a sudden reduction in aid. Such concerns are growing more pronounced as the Pakistani government, which temporarily expelled Save the Children last month, implements strict new licensing requirements for international aid groups.
But for now, Karimabad is an example of what’s possible in rural Pakistan when residents accept support from international charities and stand firm against the threats posed by militancy.
“This is the real Shangri-La,” Lars-Gunnar Wigemark, the former European Union ambassador to Pakistan, said in an interview after seeing the Hunza Valley for the first time last year.
Indeed, over the decades, the valley has been cited as one of several Himalayan locations that might have inspired the mythical Shangri-La in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, “Lost Horizon.” Even if it didn’t, the valley’s enormous cliffs, 20,000-foot-plus peaks and turquoise Hunza River would certainly make a spectacular backdrop for a Hollywood movie.
More than 90 percent of the residents of Karimabad identify as Shiite Ismaili Muslims, among the most moderate sects of the Islamic faith. They are followers of the Aga Khan family, viewing it as directly descended from the prophet Muhammad’s son-in-law.
Prince Karim Al Husseini, a billionaire philanthropist who lives in France and goes by the title Aga Khan IV, is the Ismailis’ spiritual leader — and a major benefactor of the Hunza Valley.
Husseini’s Aga Khan Development Network has an annual budget of $600 million and operates in more than 30 countries. Over the past four decades, it has worked with other charities to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the valley, paving roads, opening schools and establishing health clinics and water treatment centers for the 65,000 residents of the Hunza Valley.
About 16,000 of them live in Karimabad, which was the capital when Hunza was an independent state prior to the creation of Pakistan in 1947.
During the 1980s, in a bid to expand the local economy, the Aga Khan network helped persuade farmers to grow cherries and peaches along with the traditional cash crops of wheat and potatoes. Now, much of Karimabad is an orchard.
[Pakistan is cracking down on international aid organizations]
Husseini is also a proponent of education, and nearly everyone in Karimabad can quote one of his teachings: “If a man has two children, one boy and one girl, you should educate the daughter first. Because, when she is educated, she can educate her entire family.”
According to Pakistan’s Dawn newspaper, the Hunza Valley’s literacy rate is 77 percent, although Karimabad residents say nearly everyone younger than 30 can read and write. The national literacy rate is about 58 percent, with a sharp disparity between men and women.
A World Bank study published last year concluded that female literacy in parts of the Hunza Valley had reached 90 percent, compared with 5 percent in another mountainous district, Diamer, about five hours away by road.
“When I was in school, few could even speak English,” said Javed Ali, 41, manager of Karimabad’s Hilltop Hotel. “Now, everyone speaks it fluently.”
From settlements at an elevation as high as 9,000 feet, children walk as much as three miles into the valley to get to school each morning.
Students attend the morning assembly at Hasegawa Memorial Public School and College in Karimabad. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
Students attend a lecture in a classroom. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
Students attend a lecture in a classroom at Hasegawa Memorial Public School and College in Karimabad. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
Boys play soccer on the grounds at F.G. Boys Model High School in Karimabad. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
After middle school, some female students enroll in the Aga Khan Higher Secondary School for Girls, which teaches only math and science. Nearly all graduates go on to college, according to Zahra Alidad, the principal and a graduate of the school.
“Even though it’s a remote area, students are motivated to learn,” said Alidad, noting that girls in other rural areas of Pakistan often stop attending school as early as fifth grade.
Another prominent school in Karimabad, the Japan-sponsored Hasegawa Memorial Public School, bills its teaching philosophy as one that creates “global citizens with a cosmopolitan, ethical orientation so that they can survive in any corner of the world.”
Students and teachers are encouraged to discuss sensitive issues, even those that challenge some Islamic teachings, said Nazim Aman, the school’s principal. Ninth-graders, for example, have been assigned this summer to read “The Kite Runner,” a novel about Afghan culture that touches on adultery, rape and homosexuality.
“We are true believers of pluralism,” Aman said. “We believe you, yourself, have to be authentic. We believe in diversity. We value social justice. We love nature, and you must develop that sense for survival.”
That teaching is echoed by the Sunni Muslim leader of one of Hunza’s largest tribes, most of whose members are Shiite Ismailis.
“A dish will taste better the more you mix it with spices,” said Mashgool Alam, 80, the leader of the Kurkutz tribe. “And if you mix many religions, society becomes a better place.”
A night view of the Hunza Valley. The Ultar Peak in the Karakoram mountain range in Pakistan is also seen over the Baltit Fort in Hunza on June 27. (Mian Khursheed/For The Washington Post)
Iqbal Walji, president of the Aga Khan Council for Pakistan, said that sort of attitude has helped shelter the Hunza Valley from the extremist ideology that has taken root in other parts of the country.
“When you have communities improving their own lives, and obtaining education, it prevents easy manipulation of communities and allows them to be resilient against external forces,” Walji said.
Some local leaders complain that residents have become too passive and reliant on the Aga Khan charities.
“Ismailis have become absentee stakeholders,” said Izhar Ali Hunzia, a local political leader. “All decisions are centralized and made in France, and people are just waiting for others to solve their problems.”
For his part, Ali Murad, 66, said he is grateful for financial support that helped free his and other families from the isolating grip of mountain life.
When Murad was a child, he recalled, his family struggled to make money and ate mostly food made from wheat. Now he owns eight cherry trees, 35 apple trees and 40 apricot trees. Two of his three sons have graduated from college. One works as a chef in Dubai and the other as a Chinese interpreter, he said.
“I’ve learned it’s better to own your own trees because, when you get money, you can just buy wheat,” Murad said.
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Some stunning experiences await the traveler to one of Pakistan’s most unique regions.
When the twin towers were hit on September 11, there was panic in Pakistan’s Hunza Valley. Javed Ali was sitting in the lobby of his hotel, the Hilltop, when the news came in. There were shrieks and wails all around him as people watched the attacks unfold on TV. Tourists called their friends and family back home, wanting to rush out of Pakistan, and frantic calls were made to embassies. Everyone left as soon as they could. For years afterwards, Hunza saw few tourists. Restaurant signs in Japanese and Korean have faded, but they haven’t been removed; they offer fond memories of happier times.
Now, more than 14 years later, Hunza is finally experiencing something of a tourism renaissance. In the valley’s capital Karimabad, tourists have scrambled for space this summer. Visitors slept on pavements and tents were pitched on hotel roofs. Most of these tourists were Pakistani. “Earlier, there would only be foreign tourists but after 9/11, they stopped coming. Now Pakistanis have started coming in,” one local told The Diplomat. It’s almost as if the rest of Pakistan has finally discovered this semi-autonomous region, which borders the province of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan administered Kashmir to the southwest, Wakhan Corridor to Afghanistan to the northwest, China to the north, and Indian Kashmir to the southwest.
Hunza is part of the Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan, home to some of the world’s greatest natural treasures. For one thing, it is here where three great mountain ranges meet – the Hindu Kush, Karakoram, and Nanga Parbat. It boasts the world’s second and ninth highest mountains, K2 and Nanga Parbat. Gilgit-Baltistan in fact features five of the world’s 14 “eight-thousanders” – mountain peaks that rise 8,000 meters or more above sea level – and has an astonishing 108 peaks that are over 7,000 meters. Below 7,000, the region has so many mountains that there is neither a definitive count nor have they all been named.
Hunza Valley defies many of the usual Pakistan stereotypes. It has a near 100 percent literacy rate, women run factories and cafes, and it remains untouched by the rise of Islamic extremism seen in other parts of the county. Locals insist that it is among the very few areas in Pakistan where women can safely travel alone at night. The people of Karimabad take pride in how liberated this region is, and continue to make determined efforts to provide employment opportunities for women.
KARACHI: Planning a trip this winter? Visit these places within Pakistan before you consider going abroad. Travelling to these cities is affordable, and the experience, unparalleled.
View of Hunza Valley from Karimabad. Photo: Jialiang Gao
One of the most beautiful places in Pakistan and a popular tourist destination, Hunza is a treat for everyone in winters. It is surrounded by snow-capped mountains like Ultar Sar, Hunza Peak and Passu Peak, and boasts breathtaking views along with a rich culture as it was once a princely state.
The Baltit Fort. Photo: Yasir Nisar
Some popular places to visit in Hunza are: Karimabad, Altit, Attabad lake, Baltit fort and Passu. Feeling adventurous? You can also go trekking on one of the mountains.
Attabad Lake. Photo: Shehzaad Maroof
The capital city of the Gilgit-Baltistan region is another beautiful destination spot located near Hunza. Gilgit is surrounded by many valleys like Astore, Naltar, and Haramosh which provide absolutely spectacular views.
Haramosh Valley. Photo: Flickr
Naltar Valley. Photo: Danial Shah
The city is home to delicious fruits and friendly people. It also hosts many cultural festivals. Once you go there, you will want to visit repeatedly!
Apricots of Gilgit. Photo: skardu.pk
Cultural festival in Gilgit. Photo: Travel Pakistan
Photo: Dost Pakistan
Quetta is exceptionally beautiful in the winters. It is known as the fruit garden of Pakistan because of the delectable Pashtun cuisine, fruits and dry fruits it offers. The interesting Buzkashi festival is held in Quetta every year in which two teams on horse-back attempt to snatch a goat from each other.
The Buzkashi festival in Quetta. Photo: Dost Pakistan
Dry fruits in Quetta. Photo: Danial Shah
Abbottabad in winters. Photo: Abbottabad.com.pk
Abbottabad is a city located in the Hazara region in KPK. It is known for its beauty and pleasant weather, and is surrounded by hills. The Pakistan Military Academy (PMA) is located here, which gives additional charm to the small city.
The parade at PMA is something you can’t miss! Photo: Screengrab of video by Pakistan Military
The towns of Nathiagali and Thandiani are very close to Abbottabad and they are both gorgeous places.
Irfan Ally Bahadur: Sounds of Pluralism – Gilgit Baltistan and Chitral
Click to play above, or here to play at the source: fb.com/Irfan.Ali.Fansclub
Irfan Ally – a Composer/Director/Singer/Musician/Live Performer – is a young talent and a rising star of Pakistan. Irfan belongs to the Upper Hunza Gojal, Gilgit Baltistan and is currently based in Karachi. He is a recent graduate of National Academy of Performing Arts, Karachi (NAPA) and received his degree in music.
Gilgit Baltistan represented at cultural show in Muscat, Oman
Muscat: The Embassy of Pakistan in Oman held a cultural exhibition and funfair in Muscat on Saturday 30th April 2016. Founder of Zaib’s Arts and Crafts, and needle artist Zaib R Mir represented Gilgit-Bartistan and displayed her work and handicrafts from Gilgit Baltistan. Creativity and beauty of art and handicrafts from Gilgit Baltistan were showcased in the exhibition.
Thousands of Pakistanis and people from living other countries attended the exhibition and visited the GBL stall and gained knowledge about the culture of Gilgit Baltistan. People showed great interest in the art and embroidery.
Hashmat ullah Performed a local dance on GBL music on stage and amused the audience with his skillful performance.
The best dress award was chosen by voting by audience and gilgit Baltistan dress was chosen as best dress. Families from Gilgit Baltistan living in Oman supported the event and promoted their culture.
Pakistan, Shimshal, village (Credit: Credit: Vanessa Nirode)
The Pakistan village with a unique system of philanthropy
At 3,100m, Shimshal is the highest settlement in Pakistan’s Hunza region; its isolation has likely led to concept called Nomas, which translates as ‘showing concern for humanity’.
In 1995, Muhammad Bashi, Mr Khan’s father, built a bridge as ‘Nomus’ for his father.
Nomus, a Wakhi word that can be translated as ‘showing concern for humanity’, is a unique system of social philanthropy – and an integral part of Shimshal society. Essentially, it’s a system in which the wealthier members of the community sponsor a building project like a bridge, trail or wall by providing resources, food and/or their own labour to honour a relative’s memory (whether they are alive or dead) and to generate blessings of God.
If a person has donated his wealth for the benefit of all, in turn people will look after and guard his property.
Nomus is a Wakhi word that can be translated as ‘showing concern for humanity'
Shimshalis consider Nomus a lifetime assignment, even writing songs in praise of those who have offered their services to the community. It isn’t practiced anywhere outside the Shimshal Valley, and no one is exactly sure how it came into being or when it began – only that it has existed in Shimshal for as long as anyone now can remember.
Most of the Shimshalis I spoke with can trace their families back many generations, and have a long memory of their difficult history as servants, tending livestock and acting as porters for the Mir who controlled the Hunza region when it was a princely state – both as a subsidiary alliance with British India from 1892 to 1947 and as a princely state of Pakistan from 1947 to 1974.
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