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Volume 34, Number 1January/February 1983

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Shangri-La of Islam

Written by Michael Winn
Photographed by S. M. Amin

Legend suggests that the only religions that flourish in high mountains are Buddhism and Hinduism. Actually, Islam flourishes in the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, in the coastal ranges of Yemen and Oman, among the peaks of northern and southern Turkey, in the Pamirs of Afghanistan and Russia and, above all, in the very highest reaches of the world: the western end of the Himalayan massif in northern Pakistan.

In that region, the Karakorum Mountains stand like a clan of giants shrouded in a gargantuan cloak of ice and snow; the average Karakorum peak is above 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), double that of the Alps or Rockies, and higher, on the average, than the Nepalese behemoths surrounding Mt. Everest. It's a forbidding, starkly lunar terrain, and in it, amid glaciers and sub-polar ice fields, lies a lovely valley called Hunza, possibly the highest outpost of Islam in the world.

In some ways, Hunza resembles the fictional Shangri-La in James Hilton's novel Lost Horizon. Its people are famous for robust health and a longevity said to often exceed 100 years - an important part of Lost Horizon. To reach Hunza used to be one of the most difficult feats in the world - another feature of Shangri-La - which probably accounts for romantic legends that have grown up about the valley. The standard point of departure was Gilgit, Pakistan's major terminus for trade with China, and in the old days the road from Gilgit to Hunza was difficult even for a pack animal to traverse. Though the difference in elevation is only 1,525 meters (5,000 feet), the ups and downs through the Hunza river gorge add up to 15,240 meters (50,000 feet), and it once took a good three days on foot. And early British explorers who reached the valley inevitably called its lush green terraces and white spires one of the most marvelous sights in the entire Himalayas - just as Hilton did in Lost Horizon.

The first of the Europeans to penetrate the Hunza sanctuary was a British military spy named John Biddulph, who posed in the 1880s as a gentleman pursuing big game. A seasoned Himalayan traveler, he made entries in his journal on the wonders of Kashmir Ladakh (Little Tibet) and the Pamirs, and described with feverish exhilaration his difficult climb and his first glimpse of the terraces rising up into the clouds at the snow line.

"In no other part of the world," he wrote, "is there found such lofty mountains within so confined a space." He was right. Within 24 kilometers (15 miles) of the main valley there are 21 peaks over 6,100 meters (20,000 feet), five of them higher than Mount McKinley, the highest peak in North America.

The "Hunza Road" is a 2,000-year-old branch of the ancient Silk Road that linked China to Rome, the Mediterranean, Africa and India. It was probably its economic and military value that led Muslim Pathan tribes from Afghanistan to try to capture the valley; they would have wanted to prevent neighboring Tibetans, Mongols, Chinese or Kashmiri forces from controlling the Karakorum passes. And though it took three major invasions in the eighth, ninth and thirteenth centuries, the Muslim forces eventually succeeded and Hunza has been a center of Islam ever since.

Until the 1960s, the Hunza Valley remained almost as isolated as it had been in Biddulph's day. Then, in 1961, a rough track, passable by jeep, was built and by the time I reached Gilgit as Aramco World's correspondent in late 1981, things had changed radically. In less than three hours I drove to Hunza in a pickup truck at 112 kilometers an hour (70 mph) on the now famous Karakorum Highway.

Carved through the Himalayas the Karakorum Highway, stretching nearly 805 kilometers (500 miles) from Pakistan's capital of Islamabad on the plains in the south, is an engineering marvel; even with the aid of tens of thousands of Chinese laborers, it took nearly 20 years to build. And on completion it immediately affected the timeless tranquility of Shangri-La.

In Gilgit, for example, I visited the giant bazaar that serves as the main market for Hunza's goods: dried apricots, fresh mulberries, apples, cherries, peaches and a variety of garden produce. I wandered about, dodging hawkers selling everything from juicy white grapes to smoking shish kebabs, past hundreds of stalls filled with the mixture of goods that give bazaars their distinct character - Mongolian scarves, copying machines, Chinese porcelain, Japanese motorbikes, American tractors, and an array of locally embroidered woolen scarves, vests, and greatcoats hand woven by local craftsmen.

It was here I stumbled upon one of Hunza's leading citizens, Gulam Mohamad Beg, whose shop was piled to the roof with hundreds of books in Arabic, Urdu and English, the remaining space a microcosm of life in Hunza: apricot oil lamps, muzzle-loading muskets, snowshoes, thick blankets and embroidered skull caps, and an array of local semi-precious stones - rubies, garnets, tourmaline and amethyst. Wearing thick rimmed glasses and cap of karakul wool topping his large-jowled robust face, Beg looked his part: a self-educated schoolmaster, a mountain man, an Islamic religious leader and a defender of Hunza culture that, sadly, has been on the wane since the highway was built.

"Hunza is not the same since the Karakorum Highway invaded our quiet lives," Beg said. "Before, no one even locked their doors. Theft was unheard of. Before, the social pressure to be honest was strong. Besides, there was little money to steal. Now everyone chases after money to buy or ruin their health eating canned food from Karachi. Every year there is more crime. Only 10 years ago we had no jail or police! But the saddest part is that Hunza people are forgetting their own culture. We used to share everything.

Everyone in the valley got married on the same day - December 21 - and spent a week together feasting. We passed the winters by dancing all day for hours on end. Our life was communal and that was enough."

Actually, the impact of the modern world has been more complicated than that on Hunza. It has, for example, simultaneously stimulated a resurgence of religious interest and generated a faith in "science."

Beg's 26-year old son, for example, scoffs at "rozhis" or "spirits", which play a role in Hunza folklore. A medical student visiting from Karachi, Ikram says that the younger generation in Hunza does not believe "in spirits" anymore but "in science."

"But don't you yourself have faith in God?" I asked. "Yes, of course, but that is different," Ikram replied, "That is religion." Beg grinned tolerantly. "If science will keep you young in your old age, I will believe it... For youth to believe in science only is to follow a blind man."

From Gilgit, I drove to Hunza along the Karakorum Highway, chiseled out of cliffs of solid gray stone. It was monotonous and oppressive, like driving through a giant quarry. Even though paved, parts were covered with dirt from fresh landslides; the Karakorum mountains are geologically young and still very active so earthquakes and frost heaves make maintenance a full time job and a frequent cause of delay to travelers.

The road banked and suddenly Hunza hove into view, with the white-blanketed Mount Rakaposhi reigning with queenly splendor over the valley below from a 7,620 meter (25,500 feet) throne. Several miles distant, and bathed in sunlight, the valley was a vision of greenery between the snowy heaven above and barren rock below. It was a September afternoon, the air was as clear and as hard as a diamond, with brilliant leaves of autumnal gold splashed across the hillside.

Beg had arranged for us to stay in his friend Babur's home, a modern four-room villa unfurnished, in typical Hunza fashion, but made comfortable with an ample assortment of bright cushions and carpets. Servants appeared immediately and served us tea and a platter of fruit freshly picked from an orchard in the front yard.

Babur, a man of 70, looked as if he had a good chance of becoming another of the famous Hunza centenarians. He dressed in the local "choga," a woolen gown tied at the waist, topped by the rolled felt cap worn by nearly all Hunza men. "This house was built with money my son earned in Saudi Arabia," Babur told us. He estimated that there were several hundred Hunzakuts working in the Gulf area, a tiny fraction of Pakistanis who work there, but a significant number from a 97 kilometer long valley (60 miles) with a population of some 78,000.

Most of these people are still impoverished. They live in huts of stone and wood, caulked together with mud, and their diet is sparse - mostly potatoes, barley, unleavened bread, fruits, and tea - to which they add the endlessly useful apricot. Its kernel is eaten like an almond nut, ground to make flour, or pressed to make cooking oil. Babies are fattened on a teaspoon of apricot oil a day and the dried fruit is eaten all winter.

Walking with Babur through his village, Haiderbad, I was fascinated by contrasts. Many homes, for example, were filled with smoke because there are no chimneys; yet the Hunzakuts once knew how to build aqueducts 97 kilometers long (60 miles) to provide irrigation for their terraces in a basically dry climate. Their home construction also employs principles of passive solar heating: thick walls and southern exposures. "The winters in Hunza are not too cold," Babur told me, which seemed surprising given the ring of snowy peaks encircling us. "It is because most of the snow is dumped in the Potwar Himalayas 483 kilometers to the south (300 miles). These foothills may get nine meters (30 feet) of snow when Hunza barely has two feet. These big mountains are also like a friend to us. They keep us safe. It is like living in a fortress."

That evening I met Shah Khan, a younger son of the former "Mir" of Hunza and now a colonel retired from the Pakistan Air Force. With his dashing good looks - at 65 he had kept his wavy black hair - it was easy to see why he is revered as something of a local hero; that plus his feats as a mountain climber, soldier and horseman, and his son's memorable achievement: he was the first Pakistani to climb the 7,772-meter (25,500-feet) Mount Rakaposhi which dominates the valley.

"Hunza was an independent kingdom for 900 years," Shah Khan said in his impeccable English. "We have no written history - just songs and tales of brave hunters or great polo matches. Only in 1972 did the central government take over administrative power from the Mir. Most of it was for the better. They built schools and aqueducts and replaced the Mir's court with a system of local magistrates."

Over a typical dinner - lentils eaten with thin round chapatis, a spiced vegetable broth and roast chicken - Shah Khan continued, "The Hunzakuts were tough. I know of farmers who would sleep with one arm in a bucket of ice water to keep themselves in shape for turning the irrigation sluices in the middle of the night.

"Another example. On numerous expeditions a total of 39 people had been killed trying unsuccessfully to climb to the top of nearby Nanga Parbat, at 8,126 meters (26,660 feet) the eighth highest mountain in the world. The group that finally made it to the top was the first to use porters from the Hunza.

"You ask, what was the secret of their good health? I will tell you. First, they ate a simple diet of fresh food. No coffee or tea, no sugar, plenty of fruit, lots of minerals in the drinking water, and delicate meat in the winter only, from goats fed on the finest grass and herbs. Second, they worked hard in summer and climbed in the mountains for exercise and danced in the winter. Third, there was little mental stress. We could trust our neighbors to help in a disaster. Our only worry in life was whether the crop would be good - and who can you get mad at if the weather is bad? With such vigor and peace of mind combined, it is no wonder an average person lived to be 90 or 100."

Like every society, Hunza needs some outlet for aggression, and in Hunza it's a rough-and-tumble brand of polo. Polo, in fact, originated in this region - "polo" is Balti for "ball" - and was later taken by the British to the West. In Hunza, however, it was never a gentleman's game. There are virtually no rules, and no substitution of horses or players allowed; contestants play to exhaustion and in olden days the game was used to settle boundary disputes, celebrate the harvest and set a standard of both bravery and bravado.

Another outlet, as travelers in the past few centuries have written, was banditry. Notorious brigands, the Hunzakuts preyed on caravans crossing the Karakorums and as late as the 19th century would cross as many as 48 rivers - generally icy torrents of glacial melt - to swoop down on unsuspecting merchants.

The next day my guide and I hiked from Babur's home to the village of Baltit, which had a large fort built in traditional Tibetan style with thick walls and narrow slit windows for defense. The fort was still in livable shape, but since 1959 has been used by the Mir of Hunza only once a year during the spring planting festival. This is the biggest event of the valley, and the highlight comes when the Mir, still the titular leader in the valley, sows a handful of gold dust to symbolize the riches expected to come forth.

Curiously, I discovered, the Hunza Valley has a split personality. On the east bank lies a people known as the Nagir who, despite their proximity, have none of the qualities the Hunzakuts are famous for: hospitality, communal culture and a festive nature. Though materially more prosperous than the Hunzakuts, with better homes and schools, they seem to lack some ingredient in their lives that makes the Hunzakut people across the river happy.

"They are not friendly to us," said Beg. "There was no bridge across the river so people rarely talked and in the end differences led to competition and even raiding...even though they are more wealthy they are jealous of Hunza culture...God has blessed our side of the valley with sunshine. The Nagir must sit in the shadow of Rakaposhi, where it is very dark and cold."

Those differences, however, are minor. The real problem for "Shangri-La" is the intrusion of the outside world. Despite its idyllic past, Hunza simply can no longer isolate itself from the larger Pakistani society. Hunza's free education and medical programs, for example, and its wheat subsidies, come from the government, the UN or the Aga Khan. And the Karakorum Highway was not built to help the sparsely populated local economies, but for military security against the Russians; the road was built wide enough for two tanks to pass. Since 1981, moreover, when the Soviets annexed the Wakhan corridor in Afghanistan, Soviet forces have been patrolling the north side of Hunza's Karakorum passes.

This, on the other hand, isn't entirely new to the region; it's really the latest in a century-old struggle between Russia and the western powers for control of the Indian sub-continent. In Rudyard Kipling's novel Kim for example, this contest was known as "The Great Game," and even today, is still a force that helps bind Hunza's society together. The other force, of course, is Islam. For example, Babur took me to the site of a new mosque in his village. "The old mosque is too small for our growing people," he said, "so we are building a new one." He pointed at a pile of heavy stone blocks. "You can see how deeply the people here love God. These big stones were each carried by hand three miles across the side of the mountain from the quarry. Everyone in the village is helping. It is the same with schools and clinics. Everyone volunteers to help build them."

Together then, Islam and Hunzakut tradition continue to resist the onslaught of modern life in this mountain stronghold in the high reaches of the western Himalayas, so wisely captured in the ancient proverb, "One hundred epochs would not suffice to describe all the marvels of this Abode of Snows."

Michael Winn is a free-lance writer who recently traced Marco Polo's route to Asia.

This article appeared on pages 30-40 of the January/February 1983 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1983 images.