After four nights of stay in upper Hunza, we came down to a resort in central Hunza. Central Hunza, the administrative region of the valley with capital Karimabad, is famous for Baltit and Altit Forts and ancient settlement Ganish. Starting from Murtaza Abad, central Hunza region ends at the edge of Attabad Lake. Central Hunza is most populous sub-region of the valley Center where the majority of people speak Burushaski. Central Hunza, I came to know, is impacted by climate change. It is facing drinking water shortage as most settlements depend on two glacial melt streams (at Hassan Abad and Ultar) as their primary source of water. The recent glacial lake outburst floods from both glaciers have reduced water supply.
The resort we stayed in central Hunza was a dome-and-breakfast facility located in a picturesque village called Mominabad, on a terraced site overlooking the valley. Established by an investor from Punjab in 2018, the Hunza Glamping Resort is managed by a small team of local young men and undergrad students who were back home in the valley due to Covid-19 and had taken up temporary jobs. Just off the Highway, the resort is accessed by a descending walkway that goes through a couple of terraced fields owned and tilled by the villagers. The 360-angle view of the valley and the young team’s hospitality and friendly attitude made me overlook the resort’s flaws—difficult approach and lack of professional management.
The young manager of the resort, Sheheryar, who recently finished his graduate studies in Islamabad, speaks Burushaski, a language isolate spoken by the people of central Hunza, Nagar and Yasin districts. Another hotel employee, Imran, also a Burushaski-speaker, agile young man, who served us breakfast, talked about the research carried out by Germans on Burushaski language and the remarkable contribution of Baba-e-Burushaski–Nasir al Din Nasir Hunzai—the local scholar, linguist and poet who passed away in 2017. Nasir Hunzai co-authored the Burushaski-German dictionary and developed the Burushaski-Urdu dictionary published by Burushaski Research Academy Karachi.
I found the young Hunzukuts’ interest in their languages remarkable. They speak their mother tongue and have remained connected with their languages despite the fact that these are not written languages. Though Domki, another language isolate, spoken by a tiny minority in central Hunza, is dying out. “Domki speakers are switching to Burushaski,” Shehryar said. The third majority language, spoken in lower Hunza is Shina. Interestingly, the three ethnic and language groups in Hunza understand each other’s languages.
Shehryar told me about the sit-in taking place at Ali Abad demanding release of 13 men wrongly punished and incarcerated. He was bitter that Gilgit-Baltistan still does not have a constitutional status. “Hunza was an independent state. We had survived before on subsistence agriculture and through trade with China. In 1947 we acceded to Pakistan. What have we got in return? Very little. We cannot raise our voice even on minor issues. If we complain about weak internet connection, we get picked up by the Army personnel.” In Hunza only Special Communications Organisation (SCO), a subsidiary of the federal Ministry of IT run by retired army men, provides telecom services.
Imran told us he joined the protesters when off-duty. “People from all over GB are supporting this movement and the dharna organised by the Aseeran-e-Hunza Rihayi Committee.” Nine years ago in 2011, in a peaceful protest against delay in compensation after the Attabad disaster, the police shot and killed a man and his son. This angered the people and during a protest against police brutality, a police station was damaged. “It is totally unjust that in retaliation the state arrested innocent men, charged them under Anti-Terrorism Act and imprisoned them for life.”
The commercial hub and administrative headquarters of Hunza district, Ali Abad town is located in a wide valley. Known for gems–ruby, sapphire, spinel, mined from nearby rocks—Ali Abad was bustling with a sombre activity when we reached dharna site in the middle of the Karakoram Highway on 9 October 2020. Inside the tent women—mothers, wives and sisters of wrongly imprisoned men–sat silently, many wearing face masks. Men were standing outside in groups and an activist was addressing the people through a loudspeaker.
One of the women told me “My son, then just 17-year-old was picked up from that drug store,” she pointed towards a shop. “It has devastated our family,” tears welled up in her eyes. “My younger daughter committed suicide, so disturbed she was.” Her elder daughter, a young woman, standing nearby told me that her brother had nothing to do with the rioting. “He was not involved in politics. He was a student and working part time.” Another woman, mother of Baba Jan, her head covered with a traditional cap and dupatta, and her forehead lined with anguish and age, sat stoically nearby. Baba Jan, a well-known political activist and a member of the Awami Workers’ Party, was not even present on that fateful day. The stories of wives and sisters of the imprisoned men provided glimpses of man-made ugliness and sorrow that lurks behind the apparent serenity and the beauty of the valley. (Post script: Baba Jan and other prisoners were released on 27 November 2020).
Karimabad and Baltit Village
The capital of Hunza district, Karimabad town, is located on the sloping hill terraces. Earlier known as Baltit (meaning this side up), Karimabad is the most popular point for travellers. Aside its mud and stone houses, alleyways, cafes, craft shops, exotic flora and enchanting views of the valley and the mountains, what attracts outsiders the most is the landmark historical Baltit Fort, now an ethnographic museum. We got down from the car and walked leisurely up the steep street. A unique shop of embroidered artefacts with its owner, an elderly woman, sitting by the entrance under a shady tree enticed us in. Attired in traditional dress, famed artisan Shukrat Bibi was doing needle work, her passion since her youth. She has imparted the skill to many women in the valley. In 1992 she won the Pride of Performance Award for her contribution towards the preservation of a local craft.
Reaching the fort, we bought the tickets and joined a European family for a guided tour. Located at the top of terraced slopes of Baltit village, the fort provides a breath-taking view of the valley. The guide, a middle-aged Hunzukut, tall and graceful, was knowledgeable and he enlightened us on the history and politics, culture and customs of yore through the artefacts preserved in the fort. He told us later that he has been working in this museum since the last 24 years. After the tour of the fort, we had a cup of tea in Serena’s open air café beside the fort, with a panoramic view of the valley.
The 700 years’ old fort served as private residence to the Mirs of Hunza. It underwent 70 construction phases, or extensions, in response to the needs of the rulers. In 1945, the fort was vacated by the Mir and the decay set in. The conservation process began with planning in 1985. The Mir of Hunza transferred the fort to the Baltit Heritage Trust in 1990. Restoration of the fort began in 1992 under the Aga Khan Historic Cities Programme and completed in 1996. It is not just the fort but the entire historic settlement that has been conserved and developed with community involvement through the Town Management Society.
Altit and Ganish Villages
Fifteen km away from Karimabad, lies Altit village at the foot of the 900-years old Altit Fort, the oldest monument in Gilgit-Baltistan. We headed towards the fort, bought the tickets from the museum office, adjacent to a workshop and sales outlet of crafts run by women, and entered the premises. A walkway led us to a beautiful terraced garden of shady apricot trees and a rolling meadow. Left to the garden was the ascending walkway with benches to rest. That morning we were the only visitors to the fort. An elderly guide was waiting for us.
Inside the ancient fort, narrow and intricately carved wooden doors led to a labyrinth of chambers. There were a couple of dungeons too, with narrow openings on the floor, where the prisoners were thrown in. In one of the chambers stood a vertical structure, a closed tower. The guide, who spoke eloquently in Urdu, told us of the conflict for power between two brothers of the ruling family and that the elder got his younger brother interred alive (‘zinda chun wa ya’) in this enclosed structure. Altit Fort was abandoned after the ruler built and shifted to the Baltit Fort.
The guide left us on a terrace of the fort to enjoy the view of the valley. It took us a while to locate the right chamber to exit the fort! We then headed to the Kha Basi Café set in a corner of the garden surrounding the fort. Once a winter residence of the ruling Mirs, it is now a restaurant run by all-women local team—manager, accountant, chef and waitresses under Serena Hotels. We sat on the terrace on a traditional dining platform covered with rugs and gao-takyea to recline. One terrace below, workers were busy finalising a row of cottages being newly built by the Serena Hotels.
The upkeep and the management of the entire complex bespoke of the community involvement and pride in the running of the affairs of the site. I learned that the AK Historic Cities Support Programme was replicated in Altit (2002-07) but with a different sequence: first the village was rehabilitated through community participation then the Town Management Society took reins for the conservation of the fort.
Next in our sojourn was Ganish village, a 1000 years old settlement in Hunza valley. We got down near the boys’ school and were told by a villager that the guide is inside. We entered through the ancient gate. On the right was the Jamaat Khana or Imam Bargah, originally built in 1922 and extended in 2002. At the centre was a large ancestral water pond shaded by an old chinar and willow trees. An elderly man, the tour guide donning an olive waistcoat, asked us to follow him inside the settlement. The village courtyard had a peaceful ambience and on the raised platforms by the sides old women sat serenely. Crossing the narrow alleyways by the ancient watch towers, we reached another open space surrounded by wooden structures on pillars with intricate carvings. Along with another family of tourists, we listened to the story of the historical place from the guide, Shabbir. This traditional communal space is still used by the villagers for gatherings and celebrations.
I remember when I visited Hunza valley in 1982, I was told about the hostility between Nagar and Hunza. Divided by a river, Nagar and Hunza valleys were both princely states that acceded to Pakistan in 1947 and were dissolved and merged into Northern Areas in 1974. Till 2015, Hunza and Nagar constituted one district. Bifurcated for better administration and governance, the two districts have gone through development changes at a different pace. This time around no one talked about ‘hostility between the two valleys’. In fact, when we showed our interest in autumn hues, Saira of upper Hunza told us to visit Hoper valley in Nagar. “Minapin is also beautiful. In fact, the entire Nagar is as beautiful as Hunza, but more people visit Hunza.” When I wondered why, she said with a laugh, “Perhaps because they like us!”
That is one of the reasons indeed– people’s warmth and friendliness–why Hunza attracts more travelers. Another reason is the smooth Karakoram Highway which runs along the entire Hunza valley up to the China border. The road that leads to Nagar is metaled but under repair in some sections. The inhabitants of the Nagar valley who speak Burushaski and Shina, and are Shia Isna ‘ashri, in general happen to be rather conservative when it comes to women empowerment and external influences. However, Nagar has its share of visitors–mountain climbers and hikers—because the Rakaposhi and Diran peaks are both accessed through Minapin village in Nagar.
Rakaposhi is the highest mountain (7,788 m) in the Karakoram range. Its base camp at 3,500 meter is accessed from Minapin village. The trail to the base camp is considered one of the most beautiful in Pakistan. The 7,266 m high Diran peak in the Karakoram range is also accessible from Minapin. “We host many local and foreign expeditions who come to scale these peaks. Many more come for trekking”, Syed Israr Hussain, owner of the Osho Thang Hotel and Restaurant and president Nagar Hotels and Tourism Association, told us. Knowledgeable, enlightened and eloquent, Hussain shared with us his vision of tourism he has been promoting in Nagar:
“I believe in a tourism which benefits locals rather than big hotels who earn profits and let the community suffer the waste and the consequences.” Tourism should provide incentives to the communities to conserve bio-cultural diversity, he believed. “I would like people in Nagar to go for ecotourism, to mingle with travelers, host tourists in their homes and provide an opportunity to them to learn about our culture and traditions. But here people are still very conservative,” he said. In his opinion Hunza valley is different. “Mir of Hunza played a big role in promoting tourism. He welcomed foreigners and travelers and made them stay at his residence. Nagar did not encourage foreigners.”
According to Hussain, the Aga Khan Rural Support Programme did a lot of work in Nagar as well, in agriculture and livelihoods and in health and education. “But I must say, people here have not been that receptive to educational interventions as in Hunza, though we have a high literacy rate for both women and men.” Initially there was resistance from local religious leaders and conservative people against new ideas which were labelled as ‘western’, but the success of newly introduced farm and irrigation initiatives made the people adopt the new ideas. Minapin is a small village with adequate natural resources. It is fed by the Minapin Glacier’s melt waters. I learned that due to the climate changes, the village’s source of melt water had dried up in the 1970s. But in 1990s, the villagers built a new irrigation scheme to bring water from a distant glacier melt water stream.
Our last venture was a visit to Hoper valley where we saw autumn in all its magnificent colours. On the way to Hoper valley, on the wide and dry Hunza riverbed, we spotted a number of gypsy tents. A few children sat on the rocks by the road side. These were the miners’ families who make a living through panning of gold particles from the river sediments, our driver told us. According to an estimate there are 11 gold deposits in the GB region besides a number of precious and semi-precious gemstones deposits that Nagar and Hunza valleys are famous for.
In Nagar valley, we did not come across women walking on the road as we had seen in Hunza. While passing through the Hoper village, we saw women covered in black veils coming out from majaalis as it was Safar, the second month of grief after Muharram. We headed towards a point where we could view Hoper Glacier. The point was accessed through an open café set amidst beds of beautiful wild flowers. After a cup of tea, we went up a rocky terrain with a small plateau. On the left was a gem and jewelry shop run by an old man: what an amazing spot for a shop, I thought. We learned that different mines are owned by different villages and the money made from small-scale mining at high elevation rocks benefits all the villagers. Sumayar village is particularly famous for its gem deposits. Outside the shop, the panoramic view of the valley was stunning: Hoper Glacier, a broad sheet of black and white spikes, looked strange. Some of the young male visitors were getting down the rocks to trek the glacier, a feat I could not dare!
On our way back, the driver dropped us at a sloping meadow lined with poplar trees and covered with yellow, crunchy, fallen leaves. It was a fascinating sight but the ground was wet, muddy and dangerously slippery from stream waters trickling down the slope. We took pictures and strolled down cautiously wondering at the mountain people who navigate the terrain with agility and dignity. We got on the car and made way to Gilgit city for the last night stay to catch our flight in the morning.