Before 9/11, there used to be so many foreign tourists in Hunza throughout the year that there would be no room to accommodate local tourists. Then came a period of drought for the tourism industry.
However, two years ago someone posted pictures of their travel to Hunza on social media, and what followed was a landslide of thousands of tourists flocking to visit this piece of heaven on earth. Now Hunza is again humming with tourists, and the locals are delighted. They have had to convert private homes, schools and colleges to guesthouses to accommodate this influx and not turn away their guests.
According to local tour operators, there were 35,000 local tourists last year, mostly from Karachi and Lahore, breaking a 20-year record. This year, Hunza has already received more than 10,000 tourists.
Every season is a reason to visit Hunza
Part of Hunza’s charm, besides the locals who greet you warmly, is that every season holds some dramatic splendour — in spring there are the heavenly blossoms, in summer there is fruit and greenery, in autumn there is stunning fall foliage colour and in winter it is a wonderland of snow.
We chose to experience the blossom season in April and May. There are many fruit trees in Hunza including apple, pear, walnut, cherry, peach, apricot and almond. Each fruit tree has its own blossom and flowering time, so there is an almost daily kaleidoscopic colour change of pinks, peaches and whites as the trees take their turn centre-stage for their 15 minutes of fame and glory, and then take a bow and make way for the next blossom to glow. On a separate note, the mountains are strewn with wildflowers, completing nature’s symphony of colour.
The mighty mountains in Hunza Valley put up a ringside show of muscle power, encircling the valley with peaks with heights of more than 7,000 metres: Rakaposhi, Ultar 1 and 2, Diran, Spantik (also known as Golden Peak), Hunza Peak, Lady Finger and Dastgil Sir. Guides are ready, willing and able to take you up to any mountain range, glacier or meadow of your choice for hiking, trekking, camping and paragliding (weather and safety permitting). It is like a giant amphitheatre where the blossoms perform and the mountains look on as spectators.
While you are in Hunza you can visit the 1,000-year-old Ganesh settlement which has received a Unesco Heritage Distinction Award; the 1,200-year-old Altit Fort and 700-year-old Baltit Fort; the small cobbled streets lined with old curiosity shops selling apricot, walnut and cherry wood handicrafts, rugs of every sort, Hunza’s famous needlepoint work and more; and Eagle’s Nest perched on Duikar Peak, from where you can see the sun shine gold on the snow-capped mountains when it rises and sets. Even if you do not stay at Eagle’s Nest, do take the enchanting drive up to it.
Ganesh is said to be the ‘mother’ of civilisation in Hunza Valley and the ‘mother’ of the Silk Route too — Chinese traders would arrive in this settlement, tie their mules in the stables here, and stay free of cost at the caravanserais. In return they would teach some skill to the locals, such as wood-carving. The carved beams in Ganesh are the handiwork of Chinese traders. Altit and Baltit Forts, the residences of the local ruling family, are well-maintained, earthquake-proof wood-and-stone buildings for which guided tours are available.
Between the valleys of Hunza and Nagar, the emerald green Hunza River gushes through, unfazed by the towering Karakoram Range, and meets the muddy Nagar River which is full of silt from the melt-water of dirty glaciers. They converge and fall into the Indus River flowing down from Skardu. Rickety, daredevil suspension bridges — wood planks strung together by wires and linked to land by chains — hang over these green and muddy rivers at various points.
From Nagar the highway leads through dramatic landscape to the foothills of Spantik, from where the Hopper Glacier, black from the mud of the mountains, inches its way down.
There are many tour guides offering to drive you around in comfortable 4x4s, on single or sharing basis. From Hunza you can drive up the KKH to the very end of Pakistan, to its border with China at the Khunjerab Pass, crossing the immigration and customs check post of Sost on the way. The plateau here looks like an ice palace, with the snow shining like glass where the sun hits it. If you are lucky you can see the border guards opening the gates for incoming and outgoing traffic.
On the KKH, the mountains spill their load of landslides, glacier-melt floods and avalanches. The roads and railings have taken a pounding and are smashed where giant boulders from the mountains have crashed into them. In some sections there are roadblocks where massive glaciers have slid down from the mountains. Drivers keep one eye on the road and one on the mountains for signs of impending landslides. They also stop on the sides for each other to pass, then wave to say hello and thank you. It is advisable to travel on this route in the early morning, before the sun rises high and starts melting the snow.
The Khunjerab National Park is home to a wide variety of birds and animals, including snow leopards, Marco Polo sheep, markhor, ibex, and yak.
Enroute Khunjerab is the famous greener-than-green, bluer-than-blue and colder-than-ice Attabad Lake. It was created in 2010 when a massive landslide engulfed a whole village and many parts of the KKH, blocking the path of Hunza River and forming a lake with a depth of more than 450 feet near the blockade. There is a point for boating on the lake, but the beauty of this point has been marred with boat fuel leaks and garbage thrown by tourists. How or why anyone can litter this piece of heaven is beyond comprehension. After parts of the KKH were submerged, a bypass route was built with Chinese assistance, including five tunnels carved inside the gigantic mountains, and these are marvels of human engineering and perseverance.
On the way to the distinctive Passu Cones or Cathedral Cones, there are many peaks and their meadows, glaciers and passes, including Passu, Minapin and Diran. Batura Glacier is the world’s fifth longest glacier at 57km. Here the river becomes muddy as it flows from glacier melts. There are many appealing lodges and restaurants for trekkers and climbers.
Close by, off the KKH and on a rough track is the ethereal and surreal turquoise-blue saltwater Borith Lake. It is an ideal and secluded picnic spot. Hopefully the guesthouse being built on its shore will not pollute this beauty. A short distance away is the hiking track to Passu Glacier with panoramic vantage views of the valley.
Hunza Valley itself is famous for its stone-lined terraces of lush green grass, dotted with trees with deep pink and the palest peach blossoms set off by dark brown trunks, and flanked by tall, stately poplars, gnarled junipers and full-bodied chinar. The colour palette is as delicate as a Japanese water colour depiction. In the terraces are also fields of crops such as wheat and Hunza’s special potatoes for local consumption and export. The icy melt-waters that feed this hinterland are rich in minerals.
The crisp, glacier-chilled air blowing down from the mountains carries the sound of birdsong and the heady smell of rich, damp earth and fresh pine sap. Strains of stringed instruments float in the air.
Vultures, snowcocks, partridges and doves are just some of the birds that abound. Eagles soar and circle in the cradle of Rakaposhi. There are so many magpies that the valley can be renamed Magpieland.
Loose gems are strewn amidst the rocks, and make you realise that these are actually huge mountains of gems: ruby, garnet, aquamarine, quartz, tourmaline and even gold. You can pick what you spot for a small collection of gleaming gemstones.
With all this to offer and much more, the highway to Hunza is simply a highway to heaven on earth.
Published in Dawn, EOS, May 14th, 2017