The pandemic, the anxiety and fear of the unknown, economic downturn—national and global, lockdowns–total, partial and smart—and social distancing had worn us out by the end of September. What did provide some relief to me and my daughter, the city-dwellers, was a little refuge in nature, a reclaiming of the bond with the sky, the plants (potted) of many hues and smells, and the little flora and fauna left in Karachi. The refuge was the terrace, that many Karachiites took to frequenting during the lockdown. We too spent time in our small roof-top garden, watching the floating ribbons of migrating birds in March, April and May, the ever present crows, eagles, pigeons, mynahs, koels and sparrows the months after–and the delightful species—wild parakeets, wood peckers, thrushes and wagtails—who staged a comeback after many decades.
By Septembers things had eased: family visits, celebrations and funerals in small groups were taking place and inland traveling was slowly resuming. People we know were taking to the road–to the mountains, the lakes and the springs. We decided to take our longed-for and missed summer vacation in early autumn, October 2020 and headed towards Hunza. I had visited the valley long ago. In the summer of 1984 when I was young, we–two sisters and three brothers—had taken a road trip from Karachi to Khunjerab Pass. It was a time to revisit!
As I got down from the twin-turbo ATR aircraft at Gilgit Airport for the first time, I was fascinated by its serenity and its extraordinary location. Set amid a circle of mountains, this small, domestic airport challenges your notion of ‘airport’ which are multi-level, steel and glass super-structures thronging with people. An air field built in 1949, and a new simple, single-storey structure with modern facilities, opened in 2013, serves the passengers now. Outside the airport a car was waiting for us. Kaleem, a soft spoken, shy looking young Hunzukut, drove us to our first destination: Moksha Resorts, Gulmit, in upper Hunza.
A drive on the Karakoram Highway (KKH), one of the highest metaled roads in the world, is remembered forever. Winding through the mountains, it dazzles you with spectacular and ever-changing scenes at every stretch, every turn and bend: undulating mountains–arid but streaked beautifully in many hues–the blue sky speckled with clouds, nestled valleys and serpentine river thousands of feet below. The 1300-km Highway, constructed between 1966 to 1982 by China and Pakistan, widened and upgraded in 2006, and a stretch realigned– partly through 5 tunnels– in 2015 after Attabad Lake disaster, allows a stress-free journey as several points, prone to sliding, I found augmented or tunneled. On the way to Hunza there is a point where the Karakoram, the Hindukush and the Himalayan ranges meet at the confluence of the Indus and Gilgit rivers. We missed that point, though.
I chose Gulmit, now a cluster of small neighbourhoods, because 36 years ago I had visited it when it was a small hamlet and the memories of its people had stayed with me, particularly of a young woman who had discarded traditional head dress because ‘it gave her headaches’ and her 8-year-old daughter whom she named Kaghaz Begum because she valued education for daughters. The name got etched on my memory and I wondered if I might be able to see Kaghaz Begum and her mother again.
At Moksha Resorts, Chaman Gul Village, the Hunzukut owner-couple, Faiz and Saira, who manage the place, welcomed us inside the cottage that opens in to a conical hall, adorned with rugs, wooden artefacts and paintings by local artists and artisans. At the end of the hall that contains the dining area and a traditional baithak, a glass door leads to a deck with an amazing view: tall, silvery poplar trees dancing in the breeze, surrounded by the mountains.
Moksha exudes warmth and friendliness. While we waited for local Duodo soup, made of meat, herbs, spices, and wheat flour strips, we chatted with Saira the chef and the manager. The first question I asked her was: ‘Do you know any woman called Kaghaz Begum?’. I was excited when she said: ‘There are two women by this name. The elderly Kaghaz Begum is my maternal relative, the other now lives in the US.’
Saira earned her master’s degree from Peshawar University. Then she went to Arizona, US, for a one-year diploma in Hotel Management. Her husband, shy and quiet, told us he was interested in the valley’s surroundings and had been hiking with tourists in the valley since early youth. His parents offered their traditional house to paying guests, so he grew up amidst hospitality services. The idea of opening Moksha, which means ‘eternal liberation’ in Sanskrit, materialized in 2016. Soon Moksha got its fame through word of mouth, the documentaries made by foreign tourists and the social media. With just five rooms, Moksha was doing pretty well till Covid-19 onset in March. ‘Local tourists have slowly started trickling in now’, says Faiz Afzal. Moksha is also popular for its cuisine and ambience hence locals, non-locals and tourists staying at other places come to enjoy food and the company of the couple. Afzal belongs to an enterprising family: his elder brother Faheem Afzal is a well-known documentary film maker who won international awards and acclaim for his film The Last Wakhi Shperdess. His younger brother Kaleem Afzal takes care of transport needs of those staying at Moksha.
Anwar Khan Badshah, a shy young man, who served us diligently at Moksha, belongs to Ghizer District. “Ghizer is more beautiful than Hunza valley but we don’t have many tourists, because you have to travel on mules to see its beauty,” he told us one morning while serving breakfast. Anwar’s dream job is of a tour guide in his home town, Ghizer valley. “I am taking a course in tour guiding skills. I hope in the coming years the government improve the infrastructure in our district.” It was refreshing to come across young people in this distant valley who have dreams and who are pursuing their dreams.
It was a pleasant surprise to meet Ibn-e-Sajjad (son of famous, late sculptor Shahid Sajjad) whose mother Salmana is a friend. Tired of the fast pace of life in the big cities, he and his wife Amna and their 8-year-old twin son and daughter were in Hunza to experiment with a different way of life centered on sustainability and community integration. “Capitalist extraction of resources and exploitation of labour is not sustainable,” Amna said while talking to us about the idea of living in the valley, “Humans are not created just for work. And why solely be dependent on cash economy? We can exchange skills and services.” In the architect-couple’s view, pursuing permaculture–a holistic approach that relies on design principles and ethics found in nature—is worth giving a try. These principles can be applied to every aspect of life—agriculture, architecture, technology, education, says Sajjad.
The first experiment in their search of sustainable community living is the support the couple is providing—in exchange to services–to Moksha’s owner, Faiz, in designing a central heating system for the resort that could be replicated by the community. Winters are harsh. Most of the dwellings in Hunza are still traditional, with the cooking space at the centre with a small opening in the ceiling. Majority of people use wood for fuel. Faiz, who served as a local councilor between 2005-2010, says the German model of district heating, with renewable energy sources, and available local material, could be a good option if made cost effective. Next morning, we heard the two men had gone to look for soapstone in the valley. Soapstone can absorb, store and evenly radiate heat and is fire-resistant. Its mines are found in Abbottabad, Mansehra and the adjacent region.
We decided to explore Chaman Gul and accepted Faiz’ offer to drive us to the Telenor tower, a landmark Saira had mentioned to locate Kaghaz Begum’s abode. We got down on a paved street. The air was crisp and the village, with twisting, unpaved alleys, clean. Small plots, containing fruit orchards owned by each household, were bordered with low stonewalls. We asked a young man to direct us to Kaghaz Begum’s house: he told us Kaghaz Begum is his mother but at the moment she has gone to pay condolences to a death in the village. “She will be back soon,” he said, “come with me”. We followed Ikram and walked past by Al-Amyn Model School built by the community, led by the Gulmit Educational and Social Welfare Society who laid its foundation in 1992. “The Society built a girls’ hostel in 2013 and upgraded the school to higher secondary level”. There are government higher secondary schools for boys and girls in the village too, we were told.
Ikram proudly showed us a modest guest house built by his family a couple of years ago, equipped with a modern kitchen and other facilities. “Due to covid-19, this year we did not have tourists.” Ikram told me that since last few years many people in Hunza are taking initiatives in tourism for additional income. Prior to the building of the Karakoram Highway, the Hunza valley had subsistence agriculture system with average landholdings of one to two canals per household. In the last four decades, people have gradually shifted to cash crops, small agri-businesses and off-farm employment, particularly hospitality industry.
Ikram then took us to a nearby lane to his parental house. Inside the main door, there were two low entrances. A pink-cheeked girl child was playing with the mud. Her mother, a young woman standing on the doorway, told us Ikram’s family has rented this portion to her. Noorshad holds a Master’s in sociology from Peshawar University. “My husband runs a camping site at Borith Lake during tourist season. I manage a small farm here,” she said.
We entered the other entrance leading to Kaghaz Begum’s house. Her daughters-in-law welcomed us. Shagufta, the elder one is a graduate from Gilgit University. “Since last 9 years I have been working as a chef at the girls’ hostel after I got training from AKDN training institute. At present 20 girls are staying at the hostel. They come from distant villages, mostly from Shimshal valley from where daily commuting is impossible.” Shagufta’s husband was at the field to collect the potatoes. The younger woman, Noor Jehan, was also a graduate. “I wanted to enroll for my Master’s but I got a baby”, she indicated towards a cot covered with blanket, where her 4-month–old son was sleeping peacefully. Her husband works in AKU Karachi as maintenance manager and was currently at home on leave.
Kaghaz Begum, wearing traditional cap, dupatta and eyeglasses looked graceful. She spoke Wakhi and her son translated for me. Their house was built 72 years ago. Thick walls built with mud and stone provide insulation from cold. The main structure comprises four carved wooden pillars. The roof supported by wooden beams is decorated with symbols painted with flour. The floor has raised platforms of different heights for different purposes such as sitting, eating, sleeping and storage. Small rooms were added for married sons over the years.
We were treated with delicious home-made snacks and tea. Shagufta then left for the girls’ hostel to cook meal for the girls and Kaghaz Begum invited us to take a stroll to the family orchard where apple, apricot and cherry trees are grown. She said the produce from orchard is not sold but meant for the household and shared with relatives and friends. She was warm and had welcomed me. I wondered if it was the other Kaghaz Begum whom I had met!
The main street in the village was lined with a few small grocery and services shops. We entered in to a shop where Parveen has installed a locally made apricot oil extraction machine. Previously women extracted oil manually through a time- consuming process at home, and many still do. Now villagers can bring apricot kernels to the shop for oil extraction. I was told that apricot, fresh or dried, its oil, and kernel paste are used in daily cooking; roasted seeds are eaten, while broken shells are burnt as fuel. “Nothing is wasted, or thrown away,” she said with pride. Sparse merchandise was neatly stocked on the shelves at the grocery store run by Bibi Zain. We came to know her daughter worked as a nurse at the AKH and recently has been transferred to the Covid Centre at Aga Khan Health Services for three months.
On the way we came across Bulbulik Heritage Centre, another project of Gulmit Educational and Social Welfare Society, the first Wakhi/Pamirian Music School established in 2016. The school has trained around 74 young men and women artists on traditional musical instruments like rubob, ghazxek, stor, gabi, tutke, surinaye and dorya. It has also documented 150 folk songs in Wakhi language. At the time we passed through it was closed: ‘next time I must visit it’, I told myself.
Our last last visiting point in the village was the Gulmit Carpet Centre Korgah Weaving Diversity adjacent to an old traditional house. Shamim Bano told us the workshop established in 1998 by Karakoram Area Development Organisation, is now collectively owned and run by 13 women artisans trained in weaving, designing, dyeing, cutting and marketing. “Several of us work from home”, she said as her two co-workers spread out colourful rugs of different sizes and other woven artefacts. Covid-19 has impacted the business but the women were optimistic.
Many of the young Hunzukut men and women I came across were educated. Among the ten districts of Gilgit-Baltistan region, Hunza has the highest literacy rate—72%—compared to the average 53% in the region, according to a 2017 multiple indicator cluster survey carried out by the GB government and Unicef. The young men after finishing education, do not find many options for employment if they decide to stay in the valley, except teaching and tourism. “Young educated people do not want to pursue agriculture, and of course they avoid hard labour. We have a labour shortage in the valley and that’s why you will find workers from Chilas, Shangla and other areas working on construction sites and farms”, Kaleem had told us.
Though Hunza is the most progressive district in terms of women empowerment, there is still gender parity: compared to 80% literacy among men, 65% women are literate. “Previously men did not allow women to engage in business but since five six years ago, a change has come about: men are letting us in to enterprises and businesses”, said the young modern Hunzukut woman, Mahnaz Parveen, the first woman CEO of Karakoram Area Development Organisation whom we met at a roadside motel under renovation. “This belongs to my father. While I was studying I could not have imagined one day I would be asked to contribute to this enterprise.” She said. I remembered a YouTube video which I saw: a young girl Farhana, of Gulkin, driving a heavy load on a tractor-pulled trolley to help her father with farm work.
In the evening Saira, who was going to meet her mother, invited us to join her. Upward from Gulmit on the Highway, a 3-km diversion to the left takes you to Gulkin, a small village in upper Hunza, through a partly graveled, winding road. We met her mother, an energetic woman, sitting with two women visitors and preparing tea. “She is my role model”, Saira said proudly. “She makes handicrafts. Since my childhood, she has been making trips to Kashgar for trading.” Gojals do not need a visa to cross border to China: they are issued a travel pass by the Chinese authorities. “This year borders have been closed due to Covid”. After taking tea, home-made bread and sweet-filled chapatti, we went out to explore the village.
Situated between two glaciers–Gulmit Glacier and Gulkin Glacier—Gulkin occupies the site of an old glacier-fed lake which silted up through sedimentation. You find the dwellings arranged in a circular form, with farm land and an open field at the centre. Walking down a lane, we came across an old woman with glasses cleaning mud walls of her dwelling. We greeted her and she insisted we must come inside her abode. She told us she now lives alone; her daughters are married; one of the sons works in Karachi and the other has gone to look after the land up in the valley.
Kaleem drove us up to an off-road location near Gulkin. A small plateau, with a few rocks cropping at the edges, called Baam-e-Gulmit, or Gulmit Top, offered us a fascinating view: circling mountains, the valley, the river and the metallic ribbon of the winding Karakoram Highway. Kaleem told us locals use it as a hangout and arrange bonfires, barbecues and folk music. At one side of the clearing was a big smooth circular surface with chalking, a helipad. On our way back, we stopped at a road-side café on the KKH, adjacent to a gushing stream. Run by a young husband-and-wife team, whose child was playing outside, the place was simple and clean. A group of three-some was having a business meeting with a laptop at the centre, while a young tourist couple was waiting for their order. Outside, at the terrace by the stream, I spotted the beautiful bird again which had fascinated me at Gulmit: very delicate, white with grey and black striped tail. Called zarzjh wingas (milk bird) in Wakhi language, we saw this white wagtail at quite a few spots.
Khana Badosh Baithak
The camping resort and cafe in Gulkin, we were told not to miss, was located in a picturesque spot: terraced wilderness, surrounded by mountains, snow-clad peaks and poplar trees shedding leaves that shimmered in sunshine like yellow butterflies dipping towards the ground. The place had minimum built structure: a library-cum-indoor baithak, a washroom and a kitchen. The open air cafe had rustic tables and chairs, three charpoys and gao-takiyea to recline and admire the view. The upper terrace had installed tents of vibrant colours.
The place run by Baneen and Ahmed—husband and wife– and one of their friends, is an experiment based on the concept of wandering and being one with the wilderness and the community. The project took off in 2017. “We put up the Baithak in Shigar valley for 2 years. We came to Hunza in 2019, got this land on lease from a local person for three years and put up minimum structure so that we won’t leave footprint when we wind it up next year,” Baneen told us. “First we explore the area and the community, then with their approval of the concept, we access a site through leasing. We are happy if we break even,” she said.
Discontented with hectic city life, Baneen–an interior designer—and Ahmed and his friend, both engineers, decided to pool their savings for this venture. They had in mind a refuge for people who want to take a break, and to provide temporary space to lay persons, professionals, artists and writers for their creative endeavours. In Shigar, they arranged week-long visits to local khanqahs for those who signed up. In the Gulkin site, they hosted a writing residency, a theatre workshop for local children, a yoga retreat, a Wakhi poetry and music festival, and invited faqirs of Shah Abdul Latif Bhittai to sing Shah jo Risalo in waai raag.
At Khana Badosh, we came across a woman psychiatrist from Karachi who told us she takes two or three breaks in a year to unwind from the stress. This time she had come on her own, without family or friends. “I find it very peaceful. I am thinking of hosting a wilderness therapy retreat next year at this location,” she said. A young man from Karachi, an MBA, was staying there since summer. Then he ran out of money to pay for the tent. “I help them in the café now. So they let me stay.” I wondered what his story was: a heart break, Covid lockdown, unemployment, existential angst, or just a longing for fresh air, wilderness and solitude!
Borith, Passu, Misgar and Sost
Two kilometers away from Gulkin lies Borith Lake. A saline water body, the lake is nestled between northern and southern parts of Borith hamlet, water-fed by Passu and Gulkin glaciers. The hamlet is facing a crisis due to decrease in glacier waters. Kalim, our guide, drove us directly to the lake via a dirt track. Entering through a beautifully carved wooden doorframe, we stepped down to a lake-side, open air café with a panoramic view. Silver-grey water shimmered in the fading daylight. A family was getting ready for a boat ride. We had a cup of tea and inhaled the crisp air. The lake provides sanctuary to wildfowls migrating via Indus Flyway, a route that stretches from Karakoram down to Indus delta in the south. We did not spot any bird, though. Perhaps they were nesting on the edges of the lake with wild growth, I wondered.
Topographically what I find most fascinating about Hunza, a valley situated at 8,000 feet above sea level, is that you can view so many peaks of the Himalayan, Karakoram and Hindukush mountain ranges—Rakaposhi, K-2, Nanga Parbat, Gasherbrum, Batura, Ultar Peak (called Lady Finger), Hunza Peak, Shisper Peak. And of course, the most amazing is a cluster of conical peaks—Passu Cones–also known as Passu Cathedral due to its resemblance to a multi-spired cathedral. In local language it is called Tupopdan, hot rock or sun-drenched mountain, because snow melts down from the peaks very quickly. Passu Cones are visible from many points. To capture its beauty and grandeur fully you have to trek up to Passu Glacier and stay a night or two at Passu Village which I could not do. Still, a leisurely drive up via KKH till Sost, the last village and town before Khunjerab Pass, provided us several spots to get down and gaze at the Cones, and at every point I thought no picture can capture its magic!
Keen to see hues of autumn, we were advised to visit Misgar valley where trees had already turned yellow and orange. Situated on the edge of Hunza district and bordering with China and Afghanistan, Misgar village is connected through a gravel road with Karakoram Highway. On the way to the village we came across people shepherding cattle—goats and sheep– back from summer pastures. Kaleem told us that in Hunza, pastures are common property owned by groups of villagers. The group members select three grazing areas for summer and winter pastures at high and low elevation and make grazing plans through consensus. They build a hut in each pasture and take turns to take care of the amount of grass and temperature which impact the vegetation.
In the village children were returning from school, all wearing face masks for protection from corona. There are numerous springs in Misgar valley that irrigate the terraced fields. We got off the car near a spring, strolled down, sat on a rock and dipped out feet into the refreshing waters. Three rivers–Kilik, Mintaka and Dilsung—run through the valley, up to the borders with China and Afghanistan. Misgar, a historic village, had served as a farthest outpost of the British Empire in 1892 when the British invaded Hunza. We passed by the post office, still in use, built by the British in 1916. From a clearing, Kaleem pointed to the Kilik and Mintaka passes of the old Silk Route, the only two other border crossings to China, beside Kunjerab Pass. Now closed, the surrounding area is a forbidden territory guarded by an army check post, as “the passes are still attempted by smugglers”, Kaleem told us.
On our way back from Misgar, we stopped at the Sost town, the last town on Karakoram Highway before China-Pakistan border crossing. The town is located by the Highway, lined with shops and eateries, and few lateral streets containing services, grocery stores and shops stocked with local and Chinese merchandise—fabrics, crafts and jewellry, rugs and carpets, refurbishing and bedding materials, utensils—for local use. We had a late lunch—aalo ki bhjujiya and roti— in one of the restaurants. Hunza produces the best variety of potatoes, the locals had told us with pride, and indeed, we found the potatoes exceptionally delicious!
We had come to an end to our stay in upper Hunza, or Gojal, where people speak Wakhi, a member language of the Southern Pamir group of Iranian languages. The word ‘Wakhi’ is derived from Wakhan, the name of the narrow corridor of Badakhshan province in Afghanistan which separates Pakistan from Tajikistan. Wakhi language is unique because it is spoken by isolated groups in four countries—Pakistan, Afghanistan, Tajikistan and China—along the Wakhan Corridor. The Wakhi people of this corridor adhere to one faith: they are Ismaili Shias.
Though Wakhi is not a written language, scholars have developed systems in Arabic, Cyrillic and Latin alphabets to write it. I found the Wakhi people very proud of their language and positive about the development taking place in the Wakhi language. “A Japanese scholar and his daughter are also working on Wakhi,” Saira’s daughter had mentioned. Since 1876, European scholars—particularly German and Russians—have researched the Wakhi language. Among the young generation there is strong urge to document and preserve Wakhi folk songs, oral history and other narratives. Though technically Wakhi language falls under the endangered languages, linguists think it is not because it is still spoken as a mother tongue and is a medium of communication among the group. Urdu is their second language and so is English which is the medium of instruction in many schools. “Our English is better than Urdu, which can be a disadvantage when we go outside Gilgit-Baltistan for education. I had a tough time because most of the teaching is done in Urdu”, Kaleem, who holds a diploma in associate engineering from Polytechnique Institute, Lahore, told us.
We were keen to take a boat ride in Attabad Lake. This turquoise lake, born out of a disaster, fascinated us on the very first day of our arrival in the valley while going up to Gulmit. Once a lively small village, Attabad, upper Hunza, now lay buried under this lake. A massive landslide hit the village on 4 January 2010 blocking the flow of Hunza River. Within five months, rising waters submerged the adjacent villages (Ainabad, Sarat, Shishkat) and 22 km of the Karakoram Highway. Parts of Gulmit, Gulkin and Hussaini villages were also flooded. Though the people of Attabad and other villages were evacuated before the disaster, and only 20 people lost their lives, mostly because they refused to evacuate, about 45,000 people in Hunza were affected by landslide, inundation and blockage of access roads.
“We had to cross the lake by the boat. In winter, the lake froze and local boats could not work. Only a special boat navigated through the ice and transported goods and people,” Kaleem told us. People suffered hardship. Crossing the lake took three hours. Due to immobility, they could not access markets, health and educational services and provisions located in downstream towns, particularly Ali Abad town and the Gilgit city. China provided 18 months of food and fuel for the stranded people, we were told. The households shifted from cash crops to subsistence farming. Many of the affected families relocated to the fringes of Gilgit city. In 2015, re-routed portion of the KKH was opened.
We met a few IDPs of the 2010 disaster at Attabad Lake. Set like a gem amidst the mountains, the turquoise lake has become a favourite tourists’ spot and a source of livelihood to many. There were many boats—traditional motor boats and jet skis—and a row of craft stalls, cafes and dhabas at the lake side. Nooruddin, a middle aged IDP, said that the government compensated 457 families who lost their houses and land, and each was given Rs. 6 lac. “But those who owned only agricultural land did not get compensation. I had 12 acres of land. It sustained my family and I grew some cash crops as well. I am landless now. Now I run a boat ride service,” he said. “Some started small businesses with the cash they received. A few bought small piece of land in nearby areas and worked harder to till the land. Life of most of the affected families changed completely.”
A young man, Zeb Khan, said that the disaster impacted him, a college student at that time, and his younger school-going siblings. “Our education was interrupted. I could not study further as I needed to contribute to the family income.” Another IDP recollected the struggle and the hardship the affected families suffered to access the compensation.
We took a boat ride. Taking in the beauty of the lake and the grandeur of arid mountains was a remarkable experience. The many hues—grey, black, beige, white—and the serrated patterns of the mountain side made me realise that nature reflects the best in abstract art too! “Look,” Kaleem pointed to a hut when our boat reached close to the mountain side, “this is the hut of our Chamangul village pasture. One of us come and stays in this hut during the grazing season”.