Shangrila de Hunza

By Omar Mukhtar Khan
ABOUT an hour’s drive from Gilgit on the Karakoram Highway, comfortably tucked away in mountains, at a height of 8000 feet is the scenic valley of Hunza. And Karimabad is the traditional headquarters of Hunza Valley.

Hunza has been ruled by the Mirs of Hunza for over 600 years. The Mirs ruled with an iron fist over a vast area extending even into present day China. All trading caravans passing the silk route were supposed to pay taxes to the Mir, otherwise fear loss of life and property.

The state of Hunza also became strategically important during the famous great game between British and Russian empires. Both British and Russian agents were seen sprawling the area and convincing the local chiefs for an alliance during that era (1865-1895). Hunza was finally conquered by the British in 1892. The Mir escaped to Yarkand in China while the seat of power in Hunza was transferred to another member of the royal family, Mir Safdar Ali Khan. So suspicion, jealousies and intrigues were as common in the royal family of Hunza as in any other royalty in the world.

The royal state of Hunza joined Pakistan as an independent state in 1947. However, it was formally annexed to Pakistan in 1947.

The once formidable Mirs have changed considerably with the passage of time. Presently Mir Ghazanfar Ali Khan is the legal heir of an 800-year-old dynasty. He is a popular social figure and is widely respected by his people. The Mir has donated the 800-year-old Baltit Fort, to Heritage Foundation, free of cost. The Mir himself has shifted to a new palace and also owns the plush Darbar Hotel at Karimabad.

Karimabad is a lovely place to spend a whole week of family vacations. Lord Curzon, the former Viceroy of India said, “The little state of Hunza contains more summits of over 20,000 feet than there are of over 10,000 feet in the entire Alps”. Although the surrounding peaks are visible from any place in the valley, but the best view is from the Eagle’s Nest.

Eagle’s nest is a small hotel cum restaurant strategically located at a high vantage point from where one can have a lovely view of the whole valley and surrounding peaks. A jeep takes you to this place in almost an hour for a charge of negotiable Rs800. The drive is hair-rising with sharp bends where the jeep cannot turn without a few reverses.

En route the jeep passes through the small village of Duikar and then to Eagle’s Nest. The best time to be at Eagle’s Nest is a little before sunset. Sitting at the terrace of the restaurant, on your right side is Ultar and Ladyfinger peak, aptly named for its resemblance to a lady’s finger. On your left side are the Diran and Golden peaks, and the prize for an intrepid traveller, the snow covered Rakaposhi (7788 meters) is in your front.

This view is something to remember and if you are lucky enough to get there at sunset, the scene is simply out of this world; Shangrila.

While at Karimabad, a visit to the Baltit Fort is of immense interest. For many years the fort served as an administrative headquarter and home to the Mirs. The porters who accompanied the Balti bride for the then Mir of Hunza, built it more than 700 years ago. The style of construction originates from Ladakh. A maze of rooms serving as living and administrative offices were added periodically, designed with indigenous woodwork. It is strategically located, keeping an immense overview of Hunza and neighbouring valleys. Stilted on massive legs, its wooden bay windows look out over the valley. Currently it serves as a Fort Museum with a good collection of exhibit of artifacts and musical instruments from Hunza. The Baltit Heritage Foundation undertook the reconstruction and re-establishment to its original gander. Another place of interest is Altit Fort, strategically located to keep an eye on invading forces from north.

Besides the scenery, Karimabad bazaar is worth visiting. There are numerous shops offering handicrafts and souvenirs at reasonable prices. But a trip to the trendy ‘Cafe de Hunza’ is rewarding. The small cafe offers wonderful cappuccino, cherry juice, delicious brownies and the most popular delicacy Hunza Musli. The ever friendly Shafqat, the owner of the cafe, loves to narrate the tale of ‘Hunza Musli’.

A Swiss doctor, doing research on the longevity of local people formulated a fruit rich diet ‘Hunza Musli’ as apparently the reason for the long lives of Hunzakuts. The delicacy is actually a combination of dry fruit, cherries, corn flakes covered by an icing of yogurt and honey.

The cafe in addition is a travel bookshop and a handicrafts shop. The cafe is a lovely hangout for local and foreign tourists, especially at night when there is not much to do otherwise.

Just beyond ‘Ganesh Village’ below Karimabad, the KKH (Karakoram Highway) crosses the Hunza River on a large, graceful bridge. Within walking distance from the bridge right on the roadside is ‘Haldikish’ (Place of the Rams), also known as the ‘Sacred Rock’ of Hunza. This large rock has many carvings from different eras and in varying scripts.

The story of Hunza would not be complete without the description of its pristine nights. Sitting at the sprawling lawns of any good hotel, the blinking lights in far-flung valley houses as well as the view of well-illuminated Baltit Fort are simply unforgettable. However, if you are lucky enough, (while you are enjoying this night view) there must be a power break down. The moment the power comes back, the whole valley is illuminated and the feeling is completely unexplainable. While in the moonlit nights the view of snow-covered Rakaposhi overawes you, in the dark nights simply lying under he open sky watching the stars over-whelms the nature lover. The sky appears to be literally studded with stars. The Milky Way is clearly visible and one is able to spot the moving satellites all over the sky, the great bear and the North Star. But the most beautiful view is of course watching shooting stars and making a wish.

Visitors to Hunza are deeply overwhelmed by the rugged charm and the fragrant breeze singing through graceful trees and the luscious green attractively carpeted fields all set against teh background of snow-covered mountains. Tourist facilities are already well-developed and a bit of media projection can do wonders for the development of tourism in the area. A week long vacation at Karimabad in Hunza is strongly recommended.

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