II – HUNZA & BEYOND . . . A NATURE LOVER’S ULTIMATE PILGRIMAGE
PART II OF MY JOURNEY THROUGH PAKISTAN’S GILGIT BALTISTAN
Words & Pictures By:
Saifuddin Ismailji / Founder: e_Travelers Club travel update
A call takes me
Away from the whirlwind of life,
Where nature invades my daydreams.
Seas of mountains, wave after wave, embrace each other
Endure Time and wind
In the rage of the curves – drown centuries
Inflamed in fiery colours
Autumn applaud November’s calming breeze
Dancing away the Karakoram valleys
We welcome the self-indulgent warmth of your dance,
Look in the crispy light of Autumn
The mien of nature in blue and gray
Attired in spirit festival of colours
Burn in my memories till eternity
I felt gratitude,
Bliss in countless blessings
After a hearty breakfast in the lush gardens of the Riveria Hotel Gilgit, we pack up our load and move on toward upper Hunza via a stopover at the Paradise Rakaposhi View Hotel and Restaurant on the Kara Koram Highway (KKH) right opposite Mount Rakaposhi (7,788m) across the road.
Faisal Movers offers direct bus service from Islamabad to Hunza, via Babusar Pass (Naran) and Gilgit. Recently inaugurated, travelling on this new Luxury bus has introduced a new level of comfortable journey along the KKH. Google Faisal Movers for details and information.
I return after about 20 years and am overwhelmingly disappointed with the sight of ugly concrete structures that has ruined this superlative spot. Too much concrete and an ugly gate with no artistry so very abusively obstruct the view of this marvel of nature – the River of Ice flowing down the base of the Mount.
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, otherwise travellers, after hours of arduous hike, soak into the delight of such natural wonders in countries like Nepal, Peru and China. These concrete structures give a clear picture of money, greed, corruption why such an unnecessary concrete structure is allowed to be erected in front of the scenic view! It is prayed that a law be passed in a category of Crime against Nature and the authorities practice a sense of responsibility in the preservation of natural treasures and get enforced before it is too late.
At the Paradise Rakaposhi View Hotel, I meet Danish, an enthusiast young entrepreneur, having had just taken over the hotel and is committed to bring some pleasant changes in the hotel ambiance and services. www.facebook.com/Rakaposhihotelnrestaurant
Near the hotel, walking past a mini souvenir market, a shop: Rakaposhi Dry Fruit Supplier pulled me to learn what they are selling. I got excited to see Hunza Chocolate, and on the shelves, Hunza organic jams. I tried this Hunza chocolate. I learn that it is made by threading walnut and mulberry and soaking it in grape juice. But it has no cocoa ingredient. And so I suggested a bit of innovation as to why not topping it up with liquid cocoa to seep it in before drying process so this could be uniquely a real Hunza Chocolate! They also have in stock local roots and plant based beauty remedy. Not to miss, take home organic honey, jams and Hunza chocolate. www.facebook.com/abbasturabii.abbasturabii
Danish drove me to Minapin Village in Nagar and on return, after an exhilarating view from the top; I am introduced with a few gurus in Nagar tourism, including Israr Shah MD Osho Thang Hotel-Restaurant & Yurts. http://www.facebook.com/Osho-Thang-Hotel-Minapin-Nagar-Valley-1828031220786956 The kitchen served us traditional regional menu and here we are served with Mutton Gorkun with local style paratha (bread).
Mount Rakaposhi hid in a thick veil of clouds and early next morning, the peak still unseen.
Well, HE (my maker) seems to tease me with HIS ways of trying my patience and passion at work. And HE knows, I will never leave my job half done; so we decided to continue to upper Hunza with a commitment to return on the way back.
Cloudy morning in dull lighting condition had curbed my pursuit of imaging the autumn colours and with just a few photo-stops along the KKH, we arrived Shishkat (Nazim Abad) in Gojal, upper Hunza region, passing through world-class 7 kilometre-long 5-tunnels, named Pak-China Friendship Tunnels, parallel to 20 kilometre long Atta-Abad Lake. The lake was formed in January 2010 after a series of land slide that brought mayhem for the local villagers. Nature has its way of creating a thing of beauty after a disaster and its unfortunate that a very few cash in on the scenic beauty at the expense of threatening the natural environment and causing deprivation and losses to the locals.
Desperate for a bite after this early cold morning stretch, we knocked on the door of my old time friend Abdul Bari at Gulmit Tourist Inn. Sad to know that he passed away, the abode is now operated by his sons. Some of the rooms are done in a traditional expression, while the modern rooms afford view of mountains and the broad valley. firstname.lastname@example.org
Finally, we are in the domain of my host at the Marco Polo Inn Gulmit, a superb place at a scenic location and here I settle down for a few days to explore Gojal valleys in the upper Hunza. At the borders of China and Afghanistan, Gojal is the largest sub-division of Gilgit-Baltistan region of Pakistan and Gulmit is the administrative mountain settlement of Gojal.
Some 20 years ago, I had been visiting this place frequently, accompanied with my guests. Then, I became acquainted with the soft spoken Raja of Gulmit, who founded this abode next to his Palace residence, perched above the KKH. Raja sahib is no more with us and his sincere son, Raja Hussain seems articulate in his commitment on values of hospitality and tourism, now runs the place in his father’s foot-prints, with a passion to serve.
The rooms in the old block are now nicely refurbished and the new block has rooms with modern amenities including electric blanket, to keep you warm and comfortable for a sound sleep. On checking in, the lobby, lively with guests, had clear signposts in compliant to follow COVID-19 SOPs and most of the guests are seen wearing mask. Among the guests, I met a musician from Lahore and we had an absorbing dialogue on life in the mountains compared to a rat race in urban living.
Marco Polo Inn also rent jeeps and luxury limo to explore Gojal valleys. A guided tour can be arranged for an absorbing experiential travel. www.marcopoloinngulmit.com. Mobile/ WhatsApp: +92346-5431267
My host accompany me on a tour of Gulmit village. Walking past old houses, some dating back 200 years, our first stop is at the Al Amyn Model School. The Principal graciously invites me to his office and I learn the story of the school, firsthand. Founded and owned by the local community in the 90’s, the philosophy of the school was to rid red tape and to providing high standard education in English. Initiated in a rented house with 70 students at Nursery level; the present site, since 1998, is an example of Community based progress; each local resident made contribution from Rs. 1,000/ with some funds raised from external support. Today, the school provide co-ed from Nursery to Class X level to 335 students, with 40% girl students. Montessori school is based on Parent attending the child. To send any contribution to the School that may come into use for building extension you may contact: email@example.com
Nearby, is the Agha Center Health Centre which also provides health service to child bearing mother.
Unable to find traditional regional cuisine in Gilgit, I am much eager to give my taste buds a taste of local eats. And so my host takes me to the right place – Bozlanj Traditional restaurant, which serves authentic Wakhi and Pamirian cuisines. The place is run by ladies and is highly recommended by gourmands. To check this out, I experienced a few of their specialty including Apricot juice, Giyaling (pan-cake) served with thick mulberry sauce, Chumos Moch (apricot Soup), Ghilmindi with apricot oil. The local dessert menu lacks a variety and seems the pancake is popular in many local restaurants. www.facebook.com/Bozlanj
Opposite the restaurant, we make an entry to the Bulbulik Wakhi Music School and Museum, an initiative by Gulmit Educational and Social Welfare Society with an aspiration to breathe life into the dying traditional music of the Wakhi people. It was rather quiet; otherwise musical classes are conducted in season. The Museum area has on display traditional Wakhi musical instruments. www.facebook.com/bulbulik
Enjoy a Wakhi song on youtube: http://www.facebook.com/rozi.shah.165/videos/1995806467240726
A short walk meandering through narrow alley take us to the Korgah weaving centre, 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 a contribution in local economy. Korgah – a Persian word meaning loom, the centre employs 30 women trained in working on 12 loom machines to produce fine quality products in local colours and design including carpets, rugs, caps, wallets. The Centre has received accolades including 1st position at an exhibition under Trade Development Authority of Pakistan. On the way back to the hotel, we visit a traditional local family home. I listened to my host sing a Wakhi song while playing the local Pamiri Rubab, an indigenous Wakhi string instrument.
Back at the hotel, we had traditional hot Dao-do soup with ingredients comprising of wheat pasta, meat and carrots, Yak curry with local bread (paratha) and followed by a musical evening with Wakhi singer and musicians playing a Badaksha Rubab and bongo-tabla.
At the lobby, I found a book on Gojal by a local writer, comprising of everything that I had been looking for, authentic information and facts about this beautiful valley steeped in fairy-tale like history.
Although archaeologists claim that traces of human life existed as early as 3000BC to 5000BC, evidenced through sketches on rock face, but without concrete record to substantiate pre-historic or ancient history of Gojal.
Modern history narrates that Kirghiz people from Central Asia were the first settlers in Chipursan valley, the uppermost valley of Gojal near the Khunjerab top. Kirghiz nomads used this area for their livestock as winter grazing land but left after the Wakhis from Wakhan (Badakshan province in Afghanistan) entered via Wakhan corridor over the Pamir mountain ranges and became permanent settlers in Chipursan valley. Thus, 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.
After a couple of cloudy days, I am finally gifted with a sparkling day. Soon at the first streak of dawn, without having breakfast, we wasted no time and hit the road towards Khunjerab Pass, travelling from Gulmit at an elevation from 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 their snowy beauties in sheer ruggedness, and I stop frequently at several points to capture the 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 hues of 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. www.facebook.com/glacierbreezerestaurant
Nearby, on the road, 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, wishing I had more days to return here and try more local favourites like yak steak and soups. The innovative Chef is trained overseas and is keen to introduce more dishes to his gourmands. www.facebook.com/Yakgrillpassu
This 135 kilometre journey is a nature’s spectacle of mountain grandeur in all its extreme shapes, forms and colours, simply out of the world and incomparable to any other part of our world. At the border of Pakistan and China on the Top of Khunjerab Pass, I dared taking a walk on the lake, however into a frozen state.
We got back to the hotel late in the evening, although, non-stop with a couple of tea breaks, it should take about 6 hours, return (Gulmit-Khunjerab-Gulmit) journey.
I have seen reviews by nature pilgrims recommending other travellers and nature lovers, in taking up this journey a must, once in a lifetime. For me, having travel to more than 40 countries – simply put, there is nothing like it.
Words and Pictures (except for Map):
Saifuddin Ismailji Founder/ EIC e-Travelers Club travel update
No part of the content or any picture (edited or non-edited) not for use or share without the written permission of the publisher.