Featured Image: Lady Finger or Bublimating (6000 metres) and Hunza Peak (6270 m) above Karimabad, Hunza Valley, Pakistan. Ultar Peak (7388 m), Bojahagur Duanasir II (7329 m) are within 5 km. Rakaposhi (7788 m) and Diran Peak (7266 m) although around 27 kilometres away dominate the horizon across the river and the Karakorum Highway, KKH, May 1995.
Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 18 January 2022
This is the fifth article in travelling the Karakorum Highway series. The others are: 1 The Karakorum Highway (KKH), 2 The Lower Karakorum Highway, 3 Besham to Gilgit, the Terrain, 4 Extreme Polo in Gilgit. 6 Rain, Danger in Sust, 7 Passu Paradise., The Kashgar Sunday Market article is also relevant.
The Hunza Valley, Karakorum Highway, Pakistan: Our Trip 4
In my first article about the Karakorum Highway I said that I’d been always fascinated by the Hunza and Nagar Kingdoms since I first heard about them in obscure books about South Asia and 19th century British India, many of them out of print.
However, there are still many terrific books available about the Karakorum Highway and associated areas referenced in my articles, which are either still available in print, or historical books available as downloads on the Internet.
In 1995, this was the only part of the fort not shrouded in scaffolding. The Google Baltit Fort online cultural photos in Further Information give an excellent overview of the fort.
I found Hunza a magic place from my reading and had wanted to go there from quite a young age, before I persuaded Denise to make her first trip to Asia in 1995. The actuality of Hunza was not disappointing. It met expectations and fantasises.
The magic of Hunza, the beauty of Hunza and the idea of Hunza have inspired many since the late 19th century. Books on Hunzakuts’ longevity, health, happiness and pure way of life have continued — mostly by people who only been there briefly and were perhaps unduly influenced by the Mir for his own purposes.
In the Karakorum Highway I posed the question, why write about an obscure trip up and back down the Karakorum Highway in 1995, when some of my readers weren’t even born? I answered the question briefly then, but will answer it again about Hunza and Nagar. Hunza and Nagar now are no longer the same!
As I said about the Kashgar Sunday market, these places no longer exist the way they did. Quick research on the Internet shows that the towns have grown rapidly and they are no longer difficult of access. I’m not bemoaning this, as Wilfred Thesiger did of the Empty Quarter in Arabia, I’m sure that the encroach of civilisation has improved the lives of the inhabitants of the Northern Areas of Pakistan immeasurably.
See how dry it is at the bottom of the valley. You can see a glimpse of the Hunza River at the far right. Without human irrigation the Hunza and Nagar Valley would be as dry as the bare hillside across the river. Nagar is well-watered, but in Hunza the irrigation-channels some from high in the mountains are essential for the crops, pumps did not exist. Maintenance of the channels is ongoing and arduous. That of the high channels dangerous as well!
With Hunza and Nagar, as well as growth and the increasing sophistication of the KKH, the physical environment is also no longer the same:
In 2010 a massive landslide closed the KKH 15 km above Karimabad creating a 22 km potentially unstable Attabad Lake. For a time the KKH was closed except for goods and people transfer on small boats. From 2012 a revised higher route began with five new tunnels and two new bridges. It was completed in 2015. (Karakorum Highway)
The photos of Attabad Lake are amazing as are the tunnels, but they are not the Hunza that I remember.
Population growth world-wide and the massive increase in travel and tourism are responsible. They have made the most obscure places on Earth accessible to anyone with money and have made some places crowded that should be hard to get to. We’ve seen this in many places in the past twenty-five years. There are both positives and negatives.
Ultar Nala (or nullah in India) provides the main perspective view above Karimabad on the same side of the river, without craning one’s neck.
Hunza Valley Overview
The Hunza Valley is at an elevation of 2438 metres (7999 feet) surrounded by numerous peaks of over 7000 m. The valley at Karimabad provides endless views of mountains, including:
Rakaposhi 7788 m (25,551 ft), Ultar Sar [peak] 7388 m (24,239 ft), Bojahagur Duanasir II 7,329 m (24,045 ft), Diran Peak (7266 m), Spantik or Golden Peak (7027 m), Ghenta Peak (7090 m), Hunza Peak 6270 m (20,571 ft), Darmyani Peak (6090 m), and Bublimating (Ladyfinger Peak) (6000 m). [You get the idea!]
The fairy-tale-like castle of Baltit, above Karimabad, is a Hunza landmark built about 800 years ago. Stilted on massive legs, its wooden bay windows look out over the valley. Originally, it was used as the residence of the Mirs (the title of the former rulers) of Hunza.
Hunza Valley is also host to the ancient watch towers in Ganesh, Baltit Fort and Altit Fort. Watch towers are located in heart of Ganesh village, the oldest and first settlement on the ancient Silk Road in the Hunza Valley.
Baltit Fort stands on top of Karimabad whereas Altit Fort lies at the bottom of the valley. Dating back to the 8th century AD, a huge Buddha figure surrounded by small Buddhisatvas is carved on a rock. Pre-historic men and animal figures are carved on rocks along the valley. (Wikipedia)
The north faces of Rakiposhi and Diran Peak are directly across the river, the KKH and the valley from Karimabad. Although they are not as close as the mountains directly above Karimabad, they dominate the skyline.
Mountains seen from Karimabad
Hunza Peak and Lady Finger (Bublimating) are directly above Karimabad.
A more helpful view of the mountains viewable from Karimabad than above, with Hunza Peak at the centre, gives heights in metres and distances in kilometres:
|Mountain||Height (Metres)||Distance (Km)|
|Lady Finger Peak||6000||0.0|
Algernon Durand & John Clark on Hunza (1899 & 1956)
Algernon Durand in the final years of the 19th century says of Hunza:
The rulers of Hunza were rich compared to those of Nagar, and secure in the fastnesses of their mountains they snapped their fingers at China and Kashmir, and with fine impartiality plundered caravans to the north and kidnapped slaves to the south. But brigands by profession as the people were, they appear to have acted always on the orders of their chief, and the admirable cultivation of their ground, the immense and persistent labour spent on their irrigation channels, and on the retaining walls of their terraced fields, showed that they were worthy of better things.
The country itself is some hundred miles in length: from Chalt to Hunza, a distance of about twenty-five miles, it lies entirely on the right bank of the Hunza river; above Hunza, as far as the passes of the Hindu-Kush, it embraces both banks. It is bounded on the north and east by the Hindu-Kush, which separates it from the Pamirs and the valley of the Yarkand river; to the west, by a range which separates it from the Karumbar or Ishkuman valley; and to the south, by the Hunza river which divides it from Nagar.
The total population probably amounts to some ten thousand souls.
John Clark’s strange book of his year staying in Baltit Fort in 1950 gives a good view of the harshness of the environment in Hunza in winter: the cold and lack of clothes and resources to stay warm; the Spring famine where everyone goes hungry; and the ill health and disease which ravage the population. Clark gives the lie to the modern day Rousseauians who talk about the healthy noble savage. Clark says in winter: if Hunza is bad, what of water-rich but gloomy Nagar across the valley. They never get the beautiful sunny days of Hunza and many writers have made the link between this and their melancholy disposition.
Although this is only a small part of Nagar across the river, and you cannot see that it is agriculturally richer and better-watered, you can see that it is hard against the south face of the mountains and inevitably gloomier than Hunza.
Algernon Durand on Nagar
Algernon Durand says of Nagar:
Nagar… is a smaller State than Hunza, The population is about the same…
There is considerably more cultivation than in Hunza, the land is better watered, and the main slopes of the mountains enclosing the country face north, and are consequently covered with forest. The land has the full benefit of the summer sun, and the crops are splendid. The untold profusion of the apricots, and the quantity of gold which can be washed out of every stream, has gained the country amongst the Nagaris themselves the name of “the land of gold and apricots.”
The people, though of identically the same stock as those of Hunza, show marked differences. They are less warlike than their neighbours; they were never implicated in the raiding of caravans, owing principally perhaps to there being no outlet to the north or east leading to caravan tracks; they are, on the whole, better off, owing to the better agricultural conditions, and the possession of splendid grazing grounds; and last, but not least, slavery is unknown amongst them, that is, they would not brook their king selling them or their children, and the exile of the present ruler’s eldest son is said to have been caused by his attempt to introduce the custom from Hunza.
The men are not so bright and cheery as their Hunza cousins; they strike one as more sedate and morose, and their reputation for dash and gallantry is far lower. The reason they themselves assign for the difference, and the one generally accepted, is that in the winter, when the sun is in the south, the great mountains backing their valley shut out all the light and warmth, of which Hunza facing south enjoys the full benefit, and that the depressing effect of passing day after day in the cold and darkness of their uncomfortable houses leaves an indelible mark on the national character.
It must be remembered that a house in the Hindu-Kush has no glass windows, no comfortable fire-place and chimney corner. … If it is very cold, or raining and snowing heavily, the skylight is shut, the room is in pitchy darkness but for a sputtering torch, and the atmosphere horrible. It is no wonder that an existence under these circumstances should be rather depressing, and in Nagar the people get the full benefit of it, for there are several villages which during December and January only get twenty minutes’ sun a day; some, I believe, get none. The men having no agricultural work on hand… there is practically nothing for them to do during the winter months but to sit idly round their smouldering fires for about sixteen hours out of the twenty-four.
Shangri-La, Health and Food
The valley is popularly believed to be the inspiration for the mythical valley of Shangri-La in James Hilton’s 1933 novel, Lost Horizon.
As with many supposed Shangri-Las, the longevity myth and the health of the people are overstated. Longevity myths abound in areas where birth records are poor or non-existent. Health is over-stated. In reality up until recently life in Hunza was a hard struggle — a constant need to keep the water channels in good repair and to grow sufficient food, crops and fruit to tide the community and the animals through the long hard winters.
Dr John Clark the author of Hunza: Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas 1956, who spent 20 months in Hunza in 1950 reported that overall the people are unhealthy.
When we were there in 1995, it seemed that spring famine was not a thing of the past. And, despite the KKH, food for tourists was basic mostly carbohydrates and dried fruit. No meat.
When we stayed in Chalt (the Gilgit end of Hunza) after our return from China. I remember lovely fields of green beans and other vegetables, but there were none available in the local ‘Hotel’ (men’s café). We asked the young boys (with good English) who accompanied us and they said that none was for eating, it was all to be dried for winter. We didn’t see any cash crops in the region.
A more recent 2018 study, of food systems and the resilience of the inhabitants of Nagar, makes it hopeful that general food shortage in the region may be a thing of the past.
The ethnic origins of the Burusho peoples of Hunzar/Nagar and the surrounding valleys near Gilgit and their language Burushashki are unknown but ancient.
Their language and genetic make-up are somewhat distinct. They are probably indigenous to Northern Pakistan and may have been pushed into their current mountain fastness by the movements of Indo-Aryans around 1800 BCE. The other peoples making up the populations of Hunza/Nagar are the Shina of Indo-Aryan origin (more widespread in the northern areas of Pakistan) and the Wahki of Iranian origin. (Wikipedia mainly)
The Thum or Mir of Hunza and his People
The Thum or Mir was the absolute ruler of Hunza in similar manner to other small kingdoms of the northern areas of Pakistan. He may at times have had absolute sway over his subjects particularly those at the bottom of the hierarchy, but above the occasional slaves.
I remember reading that Captain Francis Younghusband writing in travelling with some Hunza escorts down the pass from Yarkand into Hunza that one of them said he was owned by the Mir and had to do everything he was ordered. I cannot find the reference. But have the following from Younghusband Heart of the Continent 1897 referring to the same incident and his escorts complaining of being sent on bandit raids on caravans in Yarkand:
They complained much of the hardships they had to suffer on the raids, and the little benefit they got from them. Everything they took, they said, had to be handed over to the chief, and all the raids were organized by him. If they were suspected of not having given up all they had, or if the chief wanted to squeeze more taxes out of them, they were stripped naked and kept for hours in a freezing glacier stream. They were in abject terror of their chief, and during their conversation they were constantly discussing the probabilities of their heads being cut off. If they did this or that they would lose their heads, and they would illustrate the action by drawing the edge of their hands across their necks. They wore always a grave, hard look, as of men who lived in a constant struggle for existence, and were too much engrossed by it to think of any of the levities of life. I afterwards found that down in the lower valleys of Hunza the people are fond of polo and dancing, but these I first met were men from the upper valleys, where the struggle is harder, and where they were frequently turned out for raiding expeditions.
Religion & The Kingdoms
The inhabitants of Hunza were originally Buddhist but were converted to Islam after the medieval period (15th century) and today are mainly Ismaili with some Shia.
Hunza/Nagar were originally one kingdom but split into two. Algernon Durand says:
Hunza and Nagar were, according to tradition, ruled by the same chief till some centuries ago, when the ruler of the day divided the country between his two twin sons, who were deadly enemies.
Our Trip in 1995
We left Gilgit in the rain as explained in the previous article Extreme Polo: Our Trip 3. We arrived on Saturday 27 May 1995 and left in the rain again on 31 May.
Later we returned to Hunza from China on 14 June (Sust) and then stayed in Passu for three nights, in Karimabad again for two nights and Chalt for three nights to 21 June. I’m going to quote mainly from my journal.
27 to 31 May, 1995
Saturday 27 May
The weather was beautiful when we reached Hunza with only a few clouds on the peaks of the mountains. The Hunza Valley at Karimabad is one of the most magnificent vistas on Earth.
There is the river with its cliff-like banks and scree slopes. On the right bank is the green of Hunza with its intricate water channels. This green merges into the huge landslips streaked with yellow that mark the end of the valley we can see from Karimabad.
Brown mountains create a low horizon. And above, black and snowy peaks, with the greatest of all, Rakaposhi (7788 metres), looming above you white and perfect.
An Australian, Adam, who’d been studying in Nanjing took us to the Mountain Refuge (the same as in Gilgit), though we’d been planning to stay elsewhere. We accepted our fate.
The building is a typical Hunza building of mud like concrete over stone. There are three rooms of three beds each. Our room is dark but moderately comfortable. The roof has beams and wood planks bent by the weight of the mud overhead and perhaps snow in winter. While you sleep, a light rain of mud grains falls on you. At either end of the verandah are two dingy toilets. The European one, with a shower that doesn’t drain (the water sits in a cold pool for hours), has a European toilet bowl buried in a mud platform (very like the surround of the typical mud cooking stove here). It is difficult to use ‘for number twos’, you have to squat precariously above it and even pissing is a bit ‘hit or miss’, so to speak.
Sunday 28 May
A really beautiful day at the most beautiful spot on Earth our ‘hotel’ has a mud terrace with the perfect full one hundred and eighty degree view up and down the valley. If you turn around you can see the remaining one hundred and eighty degrees of gigantic mountains towering over the slope above you. At 5.30am there was not a cloud in the sky and at 9am it was even better. The views of the peaks are indescribable.
Keay’s reaction to Karimabad must have been similar, he says caustically: ‘…Townshend [later of siege of Kut notoriety in 1915-16] shattered the serenity of the loveliest view in the whole world with a rousing chorus to the accompaniment of his beloved banjo.’
The positive things about the Mountain Refuge at Karimabad are that the cook can actually cook and make average ingredients quite palatable. Porridge for breakfast was even and not lumpy.
Baltit is a medieval stone city on a mound or mud and stone ridge dominated by the thirteenth century, Tibet style, Baltit fort at its peak that John Clark stayed in 1950 on a year’s development adventure.
The fort is now surrounded by scaffolding but the restoration is nearing completion. Above Baltit Fort is a huge rock buttress in brown biscuit rock to the left with a grooved and whitened natural water cascade channel down the middle, to the right is a massive steep ridge and in between is the narrow gorge called Ultar Nala with the Lady’s Finger (Bubelimating) and Ultar Peak (7,388m; 24,235ft) towering over it at the back inside the rock buttresses. Further to the left is the Hon Ridge, like a breadknife (reminiscent in much smaller scale of the Warrumbungles in NSW).
We set off about 10 am to walk to Altit Fort by the high water channel. First we walked down nearly to the Aga Khan girl’s college to take a picture of Ultar Nala.
We climbed high above Altit on a hill the curved gently upwards to the beginning of the snowclad peaks. I loved it, but Denise persisted uneasily until she had a panic attack. She said she felt as if the curve influenced gravity and she was in danger of falling off. Although it was a tough climb, we were actually very safe. Oddly once we began to go down, Denise found it better, even though we were ants on the hill.
We’d climbed about 1,000 to 1,500m and were about 3,500 to 4,000m (11,480 to 13,120). [Karimabad is at 2,500 m]
We visited Altit Fort, Ganesh village (the oldest village in Hunza). We walked with some young boys down to the river, which was in spate with milk chocolate rapids.
The next few days the weather gradually deteriorated, but we still did further walks, met the locals and met other interesting travellers some of whom we would travel with and have adventures with up into China.
Key Words: Karimabad, Hunza Valley, Karakorum Highway, KKH, Pakistan, Hunza, Nagar, Lady Finger, Bublimating, Hunza Peak, Ultar Peak, Bojahagur Duanasir II, Rakaposhi, Diran Peak, Wilfred Thesiger, Attabad Lake, Baltit Fort, Altit Fort, Ganesh Village, watch tower, Algernon Durand, John Clark, Shangri-La, James Hilton, longevity myth, health, food, slaves, brigands, water-channels, melancholy disposition, spring famine, Chalt, Burusho people, Burushashki, Gilgit, Shina, Wahki, Thum, Mir, Francis Younghusband, Ultar Nala
Climbing Forecast Site
Main Climbing Peaks near Hunza Peak
Google Art & Culture’s text and photos on Baltit Fort are worth perusing.
The Language and Genetics of the Burusho people
Luigi Cavalli-Sforza 1922-2018
Luigi Cavalli-Sforza was a wonderful Italian population geneticist who used blood characteristics to define genetic drift in populations across the world. He showed coincidentally that at the genetic level there is no such thing as race in humans. Similarly, in his research he defined three groups of populations that appeared to be genetically distinct. These were the Basques, certain surname groups in Sardinia and the Burusho people of Chitral and Hunza.
The Burusho speakers of the Burushashki language appear to be genetically distinct and their language a linguistic isolate (i.e. not related to other major language groups).
Cavalli-Sforza undertook his work at a time when gnetic analysis was difficult and time consuming. Modern technology, simple techniques of DNA sampling and analysis have made genetic research much easier and we can expect major breakthroughs to continue.
Gold Nomads of Hunza and Gilgit -Baltistan
Durand in his text on Nagar above mentions gold in every stream. There is a group of poor nomadic families called the Sonewal who have been extracting alluvial gold from the streams and rivers of Hunza/Nagar and around Gilgit for centuries.
We came across the Sonewal on the Hunza River just outside of Chalt on our return from China.
Sophie Albert a human rights activist has documented them in a lovely photo essay called Gold Nomad Children of Gilgit-Baltistan.
National Geographic also has a short article about the Gold Nomads of the Karakorum but Sophie’s work is more engaging.
Unfortunately, with the opening up of the KKH and civilisation reaching the region, mining companies and individuals are taking over the exploration for gold and possibly destroying the livelihood of the Sonewal. An article in Dawn 2016 hints at this. Hopefully, they are not ignored and are perhaps receiving education and support. The Agha Khan Foundation does good work in the region, perhaps it is doing something for the Sonewal.
Algernon Durand The Making of a Frontier: Five Years’ Experiences and adventures in Gilgit, Hunza, Nagar, Chitral and the eastern Hindu-Kush, 1899
Durand’s book is a terrific description of the time and the country referred to constantly in these articles. Rather than relying on the Mahraka site which is changing, here is a PDF of Durand’s Book: Algernon Durand, The Making of a Frontier, 1899
John Clark Hunza: Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas 1956
John Clark was one of those can-do American eccentrics.
Goodreads says: The author, John Clark (1909-1967), was an American engineer/geologist. In this book, he relates his fascinating experiences of life among the remote mountain people of Hunza, a small hill-state on the extreme north of Pakistan-held Kashmir. Illustrated with photographs, maps, etc.
Goodreads only provides two reviews but they give a flavour of the book. Nina Ive said:
What left me feeling somewhat inadequate was his ability to turn his hand at anything. He was doctor, geologist, carpenter, diplomat, financier, entrepreneur and gardener….he really appeared to help the people in the time he was there and would have made a long term impact. I think my skills wouldn’t get much past making a cup of tea.
Clark was a reconnaissance engineer on General Stillwell’s staff in Sinkiang in 1944. His goal in Hunza was to thwart communism by providing another model. But, he was practical enough to realise that the non-political things the Russians had done in Sinkiang during 8-years was the type of framework he was looking for. He was particularly taken by their effort in education.
Back in the States Clark tried to interest officialdom in his ideas to no avail. So he raised money from friends and acquaintances and did a preliminary trip to Hunza in 1948. He returned in 1950 and spent 20 months in Hunza Valley living much as the Hunza did and engaging in development work. The book is a record of these activities.
Here is a PDF of Clark’s Book: John Clark Hunza: Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, 1956
Wilfred Thesiger (1910-2003)
Wilfred Thesiger Arabian Sands 1959, details his travels across the empty quarter in Arabia. He bemoans the disappearance of a nomadic way of life with camels, when he returns some years later and his friends are all driving 4WD and don’t spend months with their camels traversing the empty quarter. Their lives have improved immeasurably.
Wilfred Thesiger Among the Mountains: Travels Through Asia 1998. Wonderful photos of his extensive treks through mountainous regions, including journeys to Chitral 1952, Hunza 1953 and Nuristan (Kafiristan) in 1956. He met up with Eric Newby and his companion on the last trip memorably detailed in Newby’s A Short Walk in the Hindu Kush 1958.
Michael Asher Thesiger: A Biography 1994 is well-worth reading. Wikipedia on Wilfred Thesiger.
Sir Francis Edward Younghusband (1863-1942)
Francis Younghusband Heart of the Continent: A Narrative Of Travels In Manchuria, Across The Gobi Desert, Through The Himalayas, The Pamirs, And Chitral, 1884 to 1894, 1897.
Younghusband is an adventurer’s adventurer, who will be covered briefly later amongst a team of British military men, whose shenanigans in the Gilgit, Hunza, Chitral region at the end of the 19th century at least furthered their own careers, but not necessarily those of the local inhabitants. At least they weren’t as bad as the officials and troops of the Maharajah of Kashmir based in Srinagar. Although those officials and troops frequently suffered from Srinagar’s neglect more than the people they were sent to manage.
posted in Canberra during the Omicron surge
Thank you so much for this post. I, too, dreamed of visiting Hunza ever since the early 1970s when I edited a book about the health of the people there.
I’m impressed Peggy. Though I hope it wasn’t a Shangri La book about 120 yo Hunzakuts dancing around a maypole and chewing dried Ibex with their perfect teeth. Just joking!
I can’t really express how stunning Hunza and Karimabad actually are! I wanted to include some short videos from YouTube but they were really bad. Over-saturated colour and even National Geographic did a very ho hum effort. Hope my photos with an inadequate camera do it justice.
Here are some more resources on Hunza:
1.https://mahraka.com/baltit_hunza/index.html (Pictures from Baltit Fort)
2. http://pahar.in/pahar/1939-language-hunting-in-the-karakoram-by-lorimer-s-pdf/ (Language Hunting in Karakrum)
3. https://archive.org/details/wherethreeempire00kniguoft (Where three empires meet, by E. F. Knight.)
Thanks for the additional resources Mumtaz much appreciated, sorry I’ve been out of touch overseas or I would have replied sooner.
Mumtaz Hussain’s Mahraka website is a fabulous resource on Chitral, Hunza and the Karakorum Highway in general. I recommend it! The books section is particularly good for hard to obtain, especially historical, sources.
I’ve had quite a deal of interest in this article, particularly from Pakistan, which is encouraging for internal tourism.
All the best