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Hunza, Pakistan – A Nature Lover’s Ultimate Pilgrimage

January 6, 2021 Destination Feature, Headline News No Comments Email Email

Staying indoors since early 2020, I finally hit the road, as tourism cautiously opens in Pakistan. Motorway M1 merge newly opened Expressway and we journey the 1300 kilometres Kara Koram Highway (KKH). Traveling the KKH is in itself, a top of the thrill experience to access deeper into broad mountain valleys. Inaugurated in 1978, the Eighth Wonder of the Modern World, KKH originates from Hasanabdal (Pakistan) into China via Khunjerab Pass (Pak-China border).

While regular flights, subject to weather, operate from Islamabad to Gilgit: the gateway to Gilgit-Baltistan district of Pakistan; surface journey of about 500 kms takes nearly 12 hours via the KKH. An optional route is via Kaghan over the Babusar Pass with an overnight stay at Naran (Kunhar River Hotel).

We break the road journey via KKH at a basic abode and continue towards Gilgit early next morning. The scenic drive from Chilas to Gilgit reveal the sheer beauty of soaring black rocks and at the base, meandering Indus River, chucking layers of white sand, causing vast sandy beaches at several stretches. At Thalechi, the vintage point affords an impressive sight of Nanga Parbat Mountain, rising 8,126 meters. A few kilometres farther up, Haramosh peak, partly veiled in clouds, display its sheer stature at 7,409 meters.

Pakistan is the only country in the world where visitors are blessed with the sight of seeing the mountains over 7,000 meters right out of the window while seated in the comfort of luxury vehicle.

Just after sunset we are in Gilgit, a bowl–like town, surrounded by high mountains. Once upon a time, Gilgit poised a significant trading post on the ancient Silk Route, then known as Sargin, which is derived from Burushaski word Geelt; now pulsate in an urbane make-up.

Although archaeologists claim that traces of human life in the region existed as early as 3000BC to 5000BC, evidenced through sketches on rock face, but without concrete record, substantiate pre-historic or ancient history. Modern history narrates that Kirghiz nomads from Central Asia were the first settlers in Chipursan valley, the uppermost valley of Hunza in Gojal near the Khunjerab top. Wakhis from Wakhan (Badakshan province in Afghanistan) entered via Wakhan corridor over the Pamir mountain ranges and became permanent settlers in Chipursan valley. Today, the locals speak Wakhi, a non-written form of language, and even with a 100% literacy rate, higher education and graduation degree, they devotedly preserve their forefathers’ Wakhan culture and traditions.

We check in the Riveria Hotel by Gilgit River and it was time that I retired in my comfort zone. A new day begins with a breakfast in the lush garden of the hotel. The pleasant exterior and interior ambiance of the abode is complemented with friendly hospitality. Each spacious room is equipped with a comfy bed, TV, room slippers and a large attached bath with running hot water. The kitchen dishes out Pakistani cuisines and a few local and Chinese favorites on the menu. hotelriveria@gmail.com

After a rendezvous with old time friends and colleagues in tourism, and under the guidance of Adventure Center Pakistan (Pvt.) Ltd., we head towards Kargah Buddha. www.adventurecenter.com.pk

In the remote wilderness abound broad chasm, we crossed over Kargah Nala (rivulet) via a wooden bridge to access the site of Kargah Buddha (Yshani).

An impressively huge image of standing Buddha (with right hand raised to his chest in a posture of A Bhaya: No Fear or Protection) is engraved on a steep rock-face.

Dating back 7c AD, Chinese pilgrims stopped by to this revered image of Buddha en-route their pilgrimage journey from China to Taxila (then, Taksashila, meaning City of Cut Stones) – then the center of Buddhism. The site has refreshment corner and also houses a museum that portrays local life and agriculture tools used since time immemorial.

I spent one more night at the Canopy Nexus Hotel on the Gilgit River. A refreshingly beautiful abode with a vast garden looking over the river. The rooms are very well appointed in 4-star ambiance. The Executive Suite, with all the luxurious amenities has a view of the garden and the River. Even the standard rooms are well trimmed for a comfortable stay with running hot water in the bath. The menu offers some regional specialties including trout, dowdo soup, a variety of Pakistani and selected Chinese cuisines. Green Tea is made from flowers and herbs found in the mountains. https://www.facebook.com/canopynexus

After a hearty breakfast, we pack up our load and move on toward upper Hunza, Gojal district of Gilgit-Baltistan and settle down for a few nights in the domain of my host at the Marcopolo Inn Gulmit, a friendly place at a scenic location. The rooms in the old block and the new block well equipped with modern amenities including electric blanket on the bed. The tour desk here rent jeeps and limos and can arrange guided tours to the many attractions. The hotel also promote local musician and stage musical evening by bonfire, Wakhi singer and musicians recite on Badaksha Rubab and bongo-tabla. www.marcopoloinngulmit.com.

Gojal is the largest sub-division of Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan and Gulmit is the administrative mountain settlement of Gojal. My host accompany me on a tour of Gulmit village.

Walking past old houses, some dating back 200 years. The Al Amyn Model School is an example of Community based progress; each local resident made contribution and some funds were raised from external support. Today, the school provide co-ed from Nursery to Class X level, with 40% girl students. To send any contribution to the School that may come into use for building extension you may contact: alamyn.org@gmail.com

Nearby, Bozlanj Traditional Restaurant, offers a culinary journey into local gastronomy. This eatery is run by ladies and is highly recommended by gourmands for authentic Wakhi and Pamirian cuisines. I experienced a few specialty including Apricot juice, Giyaling (pan-cake) served with thick mulberry sauce, Chumos Moch (apricot Soup), Ghilmindi with apricot oil.

Opposite the restaurant, Bulbulik Wakhi Music School and Museum is an initiative to breathe life into the dying traditional music of the Wakhi people. The Museum area has on display traditional Wakhi musical instruments.

A short walk meandering through narrow alley take us to the Korgah Weaving Center, a project under the Karakoram Area Development Org. (KADO), with an objective to improve socio-economic condition in small villages, focused on training and creating working opportunity, involving women and disabled people in making make a contribution in local economy. Korgah – a Persian word meaning loom, the center employs 30 women trained in working on 12 loom machines to produce fine quality products in local colors and design including carpets, rugs, caps, wallets.

At the first streak of dawn next day, we wasted no time and hit the road towards Khunjerab Pass, travelling from Gulmit at an elevation for 2,408m (7,900 feet) to the highest paved road in the world at the Khunjerab Top at 4,714m (15,466 feet). Along this picturesque stretch of my journey, every nook and corner give way to snowy beauties in sheer ruggedness. We stop frequently at several points to capture mountain grandeur including Shispare peak 7,611m. (the Swiss Matterhorn of Pakistan), Batura Sar (7,795m – the 10th highest peak in Pakistan), the far-fetched mesmerizing Tupopdan (Passu Cathedral) peaks (6,106m) and other snow covered mountains rising from 5,000 metres to over 7,000 metres, draped in autumn hues of green, gold, rust and red.

This full day journey towards the first village of Yarzerich (Aminabad) from Gulmit take us through to the villages calling Ghulkin, Hussaini, Shimshal, Passu, Khyber, Jamalabad, Gircha, Khudabad, Rashit (one of the oldest), and Sost – the last settlement along the KKH. Chipursan and Misgar (stone nose) villages off road the KKH North-west of Khunjerab.

At Passu, we discovered some unique cafes and restaurants. Glacier Breeze Cafe & Restaurant floats on a saddle above the KKH, a popular place for its Apricot and Walnut cakes. They also cook local food including chicken with apricot curry.

Nearby, Yak Grill Passu is a unique place that prepares delectable Yak meat dishes. Here, for the first time during my travels, I tried Yak Burger, an unforgettable culinary delight.

This 135 kilometre journey to the border of Pakistan and China on the Top of Khunjerab Pass foretell a nature’s spectacle of mountain grandeur in all its extreme shapes, forms and colors, simply out of the world and incomparable to any other part of our world.

Next day we move on towards Central Hunza and arrived Karimabad, the main tourist hub of Central Hunza. The surrounding natural beauty of broad valleys, over-looking Nagar, brushed in hues of yellow, red, rust and green dance away the valley floors in nature’s festival of colors. I meet our old time friend and host at Kara Koram View Hotel, the first hotel upon entering Karimabad. Having checked-in, I settle here for a few days in a spacious room with a comfy bed, attached bath with running hot water. The hotel also caters for family and suite rooms, each with eye-level view of Nagar valley in the shadow of Dhiran (7,266m) and Rakaposhi (7,788m) peaks. The kitchen provides breakfast with tea and coffee in the restaurant. https://www.facebook.com/Karakorumhotel/

Central Hunza history is etched on iconic Baltit Fort (Karimabad).
Located atop a saddle, access via a steep, narrow cobbled road at the end of the down-town strip of Karimabad, on the way to the Baltit Fort, the Ultar mountain range (7,388m) express its eminence in the backdrop. A UNESCO World Heritage Historic Site, Baltit Fort was founded in 8cAD and has been rebuilt with additional features over the time span of more than 700 years. However, after 1945, the fort was abandoned by local Mirs (rulers) of Hunza and the building dilapidated like some tatterdemalion prince until a restoration plan initiated by the Agha Khan Trust for Historic, Cities Support Program.

Completed in 1966, the Fort todays stands majestically and transformed into a museum that echo the history, culture, and lifestyle of the ruling elites of the region.

Altit is the earliest settlement in Hunza after Ganish – a Heritage Village, and the 1.200 year old Altit Fort is the oldest historic building in Gilgit-Baltistan. The stone, wood and mud structure has stood the test of times, however when abandoned, it had been in a dilapidated state until the restoration of the Fort initiated by Agha Khan Trust for Culture, Historic Cities Support Program.

Perched high up on a steep cliff above the Hunza River, the Fort served as a defense strategy looking over activities of visitors and opponents gaining access via the then Silk Road. I am fascinated with the various features of the Fort and the view of the old village from the tower platform.

Now a Museum under the supervision of AKCSP, the Fort received an Award of Distinction at the 2011 UNESCO Asian-Pacific Awards for Cultural Heritage Preservation.
Some of the houses in the old village age up to 400 years and is preserved in the original setting. The back gardens of Altit Fort is beautifully nurtured with fruit orchard and a café serving refreshment to visitors to the Fort.

There are home-stays and comfortable guest houses in Altit village and at Safina’s Café, pamper yourself with local dishes including the signature dish: Chaap Shuroo. In downtown Karimabad, there are a few restaurants that serves authentic Burusho cuisines.

We extended one more night and stayed at the Old Hunza Inn, located in downtown area but in a quiet narrow lane. The room are basic, an ideal back-packer bed down. The lodge offers on the rooftop, themed BBQ evenings with traditional live music around bonfire.

https://www.facebook.com/OldHunzaInn/
Along the many hotels, restaurants and souvenir shops by the downtown stretch of Karimabad, Mulberry Hotel offers an appealing view on both side of the valley looking towards Nagar (Dhiran peak, Rakaposhi) and Hunza (Ultar peak 7,388m). www.mulberryhotel.com.pk. Recommended restaurants nearby including Osho Marak Restaurant at Serena Hunza (try the regional favorite: yak nihari) and Mountain Cup – a Place to Be for delicious walnut cake with coffee and snacks.

https://www.facebook.com/mountaincup/
After few days in Karimabad, we drive about 700 meters higher up from Altit village to Duiker. Once a vintage point – where eagle’s dared; now accessible at ease even in a regular city car. We bed down at the Hard Rock Hunza Resort and Villas.

My spacious room with a balcony, afford 180 degree view of the mountains. The cozy room spelt absolute luxury. The creator has tastefully decorated the rooms and common areas, which has rated this friendly abode a 5-Star serviced resort. The Roof-Top Sky Bar-Café’s appetizing menu served Pakistani and some favorite local and Chinese eats. Not to miss, early morning hike up the saddle for an absolutely dramatic 360 degree view of the Kara Koram Mountains.

hardrockhunza@gmail.com. https://www.facebook.com/hardrockhunza/

My journey to Hunza concluded here and it was time to head homeward via Babusar Pass, passing through mountainous valleys of Naran and Kaghan. Faisal Movers, the new luxury Bus Service operates regularly from Islamabad to Hunza via Babusar Pass. https://faisalmovers.com/

Words & Pictures: Saifuddin Ismailji

Founder-EIC: e-Travelers Club travel update

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