The last boat that could have taken me back to Karimabad had already left. With little money in my pocket, I could not afford to hire an expensive private boat for a 40-minute journey over Attabad Lake. The only option was to stay the night over in Gulmit and catch the first boat to Karimabad the next morning. I had to borrow some money from the appropriately named Karim, my guide, to pay for the hotel and food for a night in Gulmit.
It was a classic case of losing control over your journey. I have learnt through experience that in such a case it is best to let the situation take control, which in the end often offers you something exciting. Travelling takes you to places that are known, talked about and full of tourist spots. But that is not always the case; there are many places that are far off, less known and less accessible; and somehow it is the lesser known and hidden places that attract me more. On this journey I chanced upon discovering an exciting place — the Gulmit Cultural Museum.
I had gone to Gulmit for a day trip on an assignment and was supposed to return the same day. Gulmit is a beautiful town located further north of Karimabad in Hunza and surrounded by high snow-capped mountains of the Karakoram Range Lake. It was completely cut off on both sides from the rest of the country when, in early 2010, a massive landslide blocked the flow of the river Hunza and formed a lake that submerged the settlements and some part of the main Karakoram Highway. The submerged buildings and flooded land show the harsh side of nature, which is disheartening and more than a little frightening. It can now only be accessed by a boat ride over Attabad Lake, as this body of water is now known.
Since I had no option but to spend the night there, Karim took me to a hotel called Marcopolo Inn, one of the few hotels that was not swallowed by the lake in 2010.
The main entrance leads to a garden full of flowers. The lobby was sparsely furnished; there were some posters of mountains and a small bookshelf with a collection of travelogues and travel guides. I noticed the huge window in the lobby with stickers of travel expeditions from across the globe. “They are pretty old,” said a voice from behind. “A lot of tourists used to come here before the formation of the lake, but not anymore. The lake has taken away our tourists.”
It was Raja Hussain Ali Khan, who introduced himself as the general manager of the hotel. He asked if I have seen the cultural museum. Thinking that it would be somewhere far from the hotel, I replied in the negative. I had never even heard about the Cultural Museum of Gulmit despite the fact that I have been visiting the region for quite a few years now. The only two museums that I knew of in the region are the Baltit Fort and the Altit Fort in Karimabad and Aliabad respectively. Maybe they were famous because these two were always well advertised.
The museum was right next to the hotel in an old traditional Wakhi house with walls made of mud and a well-carved wooden heritage door. The name of the museum was painted in Urdu and English on the wall.
In a typical Wakhi house the middle section is the main living room; the stove is on the opposite side from the entrance, with a ventilator hole on the roof; the left side is for the men and the right side is for the women. The family sleeps in the same room during winter as the house typically has only one stove and one room. The front portion of the house, which is a bit elevated, is used for guests.
Raja Bhadur Khan, the father of Raja Hussain, built the museum in the mid-1980s when he felt the need to preserve the cultural heritage of the region. The artefacts were donated by the people of the valley and some came from his own family collection.
The entire Wakhi house has now been converted into a museum. Wooden shelves lined the walls of the traditional house wherein weapons, jewellery and traditional cloths are placed. Artefacts of war, musical instruments, cooking utensils, traditional clothing used for trekking, etc. could be seen all over the place. On one pillar hung a huge horn of an ibex, a symbol of pride for hunters. There were traditional carpets all over the floor.
Raja Hussain approached a table in front and opened the creaky drawer. He took out a copy of postcards and presented me a Rs100 post-card, which is also used as the ticket.
There is no recorded history of a few items placed at the museum, but the owners claim that they are unique historical artefacts. Out of all the artefacts there, the most important is the five-gold-star matchlock gun, which is said to have injured a British commander in 1891 at the Battle of Nilt — fought by the British troops against the princely states of Hunza and Nagar.
Another item with a legend behind it is the tea kettle from the Mughal Queen Nur Jahan, which was part of the dowry of one of her daughters who was married to the prince of Hunza-Nagar. The kettle is made of copper and polished with silver, with the words “Sarkar Nur Jehan Begum” embossed on it.
Raja told me that with the passage of time, a lot of artefacts have been stolen from the museum. Unlike the other two museums in the region, the Cultural Museum of Gulmit does not receive any funding from anywhere and is entirely run by Raja Sahib and his family. Irrespective of whether the artefacts, as claimed by Raja Hussain, are authentic or have been placed there merely for attracting tourists to the museum, it is quite a cultural treat. Previously, the place was easily accessible by caravans and tourists who would travel along the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan, but not anymore as the road is submerged in lake water.
The discovery of the museum made me forget the disappointment of missing the last boat and having to spend the night there. After spending some time there going through each and every artefact, and some black and white photographs related to the region’s history, I came back to my hotel, browsed going through the books in the hotel lobby under candle light, had dinner and went to bed early so that I could catch the first boat back to Karimabad.