TRAVEL: HIGHWAY TO HEAVEN

A guard standing at the 700-year-old Baltit Fort | Photos by the writer

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.

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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.

The 1,000-year-old Ganesh settlement
The 1,000-year-old Ganesh settlement

 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.

One of the signboards on KKH explaining the significance of various places
One of the signboards on KKH explaining the significance of various places

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

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Ayzee Baig – Nightingale of Gilgit-Baltistan

Ayzee Baig‘s first music album of Shina language is released. She has a very melodic voice resembling that of a Nightingale at the bottom of a mighty mountain of Gilgit-Baltistan which sings sitting on a branch of the mulberry tree in the enchanting spring. She has not just sung songs rather the message of the song in her first album is universal appreciating humanity, peaceful co-existence and interfaith harmony very much closer to the heart of an Artist like Ayzee.

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One of the best songs of the album.

Song: Ra Mei Asmanei Yoon
Vocals: Ayzee Baig and Nisar Chahat
Lyrics: Nisar Chahat
Presented by: GB Songs

Click here to listen of the most melodious songs of Shina Language

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3QiliMcFeso

Writers and Poetry of Gojal-Hunza

By: Ali Ahmed Ali (Gojal-Hunza);  Writers’ workshop held at Bulbulik Heritage Centre Gulmit to review the research and documentation of Wakhi Folk Poetry being done by Bulbulik. The famous Wakhi poets and writers from allover Gojal participated in the workshop and reviewed the research work. The workshop ended with a musical show at midnight at Gulmit Gojal Hunza.

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Al-Waiz Nasir a prominent thinker of Gojal Hunza is presenting his work

Hunza GB Festival at Karachi

Karachi Desk:

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An eight day 2-10 February 2017 Cultural Festival of Hunza GB had been celebrated at Park Tower Karachi. The cultural activities included traditional Music of Gilgit-Baltistan with Harips (Tunes), dance and prominent feature was Talwar Dance. Besides, the music people of Hunza, Gilgit-Baltistan had also exhibited Handicrafts, Dry Fruits, Honey, Oils and traditional dishes including Harisa, Arzoq, Fiti and Bayu-e-Chai.

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The people of Karachi have given an overwhelming response and the people visiting from Hunza were of highly appreciative of the generous response from Karachihites. Media outlets, in particular highlighted the event in their prime time News.

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Mesmerizing Picture of Hunza

Photography by: Samina Shahid

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Moon Stone of Hunza

The nature is a reflection of the creator. If you will try to find you will what is in the sky on the earth as well.

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Canvas of Nature

The canvas of nature is the most beautiful sheet of the art for the eyes beholding the beauty!

Samina Shahid is a financial analyst  by profession. She is interested in nature photography and writing as a hobby. She is an active social worker too.

For a Lesson on Coexistence, Pakistanis Could Look Up to Gilgit Baltistan

Pakistan is often associated with religious intolerance and extremism. But things are not as bad just north of mainland Pakistan in the Gilgit Baltistan territory. Gilgit Baltistan is one of the most bestowed and beautiful places on our planet. And its people: equally marvelous. Here is a story from Gilgit that should inspire the rest of Pakistan.

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Attabad Lake in Gilgit Baltistan.

In Sunni majority Pakistan, the picturesque territory of Gilgit Baltistan is the only Shia majority region. As such, the sacred month of Muharram has a special place in the region’s annual calendar. Just days ago, during the commemoration of Ashura(reverence of the martyrdom of Imam Hussain, the grandson of Prophet Muhammad), social media lit up with a feat of intra-faith collaboration and outreach that is unprecedented in present-day Pakistan.

Love for All Hatred for none medical camp by Jammat ahmadiyaa for azadaran in Gilgit @R00mi1 @theRealYLH@Ayeshaspeaksnow @KashifMD

The Shia student body of Gilgit – Imamia Student Organization – joined hands with the local Ahmadiyya Muslim Community to organize a medical camp for participants of the Ashura processions in the area. The banner at the gate of the medical camp proudly displayed the official motto of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community: “Love For All; Hatred For None” in the Urdu language.

Though not uncommon prior to the Constitutional amendment and anti-Ahmadi lawspassed against the Ahmadiyya community in Pakistan, such examples of faith outreach are unprecedented in this era. Working with Ahmadi Muslims in a faith-based context is huge taboo in Pakistan. Even government bodies refuse to engage the Ahmadis in interfaith events, claiming Ahmadis are infidels and not a “legitimate religious group.”  Despite all attempts by the Ahmadiyya leadership to build bridges and work on common grounds, no religious group in the country is willing to publicly partner with the community on its numerous humanitarian projects. In such a climate of ostracization, the Imamia Student Organization in Gilgit Baltistan deserves applause for their exemplary outreach and respect for pluralism. As things stand, I doubt a similar Shia organization (not to speak of a Sunni group) in mainland Pakistan could show the same level of tolerance and respect for coexistence.

Intolerance and sectarianism have sadly taken deep roots across Pakistan. And the same mindset behind this radicalization is also responsible for trying to destroy the peace in Gilgit Baltistan. But fortunately, the people of the region continue to resist such bigoted influence and take pride in their pluralistic ideals.

This was very evident as doctors and volunteers from both the Shia and Ahmadiyya sects helped provide free care at the medical camp set up last week. When it was time for prayer, the Shia Muslim student volunteers did not hesitate to say their prayers at the local Ahmadiyya Mosque (picture shows Shia students performing ablution at the Ahmadiyya Mosque).

امامیہ اسکواڈ گلگت بلتستان کے ممبران احمدیہ مسجد میں نماز پڑھنے کے لئے تیاری کرتے ہوئے۔۔
اس ملک کو ایسی ہی مذہبی ہم آہنگی کی ضرورت ہے.

Many Pakistani social media activists took note and lauded the Imamia Student Organization. Riaz Akbar, a human rights activist, wrote on his Facebook page:

“While Ahmadis face the harshest persecution and isolation across Pakistan, they are a widely respected community in Gilgit. This #Ashura, the awesome #Ahmadi community and Shia organisations collaborated during the Ashura procession. Looks like the rest of the country has a thing or two to learn from us. Feeling proud of Gilgitis. Stay awesome.”

Another activist from Gilgit, Mr. Zaeem Zia shared pictures of the medical camp and commented:

“Beauty of Gilgit-Baltistan, Ahmadiyya community and Imamia Students Organisation arrange a medical camp.” #LoveForAllHateForNone #Pluralism #Peace #PeacefulCoexistence #Ashura

Journalist and civil rights activist, Bilal Farooqi, celebrated the intrafaith gesture and hoped for the same level of basic tolerance and coexistence in mainland Pakistan.

This is how it should be! Medical camp set up with Ahmadiyya community’s help in Gilgit for Ashura processions in the area. via @KashifMD

To find out if this pluralistic spirit was the rule in the region or merely an isolated incident, I spoke to a few members of the Shia and Ahmadiyya communities in Gilgit. I was thrilled to see how members from either sect were praising the other for their commitment to preserving pluralism in the region. Shia Muslim students praised the Ahmadiyya community for their peaceful and humanitarian outlook, while Ahmadi Muslim students lauded their Shia neighbors for having such open hearts. One Ahmadi leader told me:

“I cannot imagine being invited to an event at a Shia or Sunni Mosque in mainland Pakistan. Here, our local Shia Mosque invited me to speak on Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) righteous character at an intrafaith event recently.”

And when I asked him about the rampant sectarianism and Takfir (anathematization) across the country, he replied:

“Oh no, not here. We identify as Muslims in Gilgit Baltistan. People here respect religious freedom and we do not have to worry about being thrown into jails for professing our faith.”

A Shia Gilgiti proudly reiterated:

“Ahmadis are our brothers. We will not let anyone hate them. Gilgit stands for peace and love.”

The Pakistani government has often admitted that Takfir is at the root of sectarianism, and sectarianism the precursor for terrorism. But it has taken no steps to curb the sectarian and Takfiri language in the State’s most sacred documents. If we dream of religious harmony and peaceful coexistence in Pakistan, we must look North to our Gilgiti neighbors and try to model their attitudes throughout the country.

Like Gilgit, the rest of Pakistan must also understand the basic principle of “agreeing to disagree” on theology, while embracing friendly community ties. And like them, we must make no exceptions to calls for interfaith and intrafaith coexistence. We must embrace ALL of our neighbors with open hearts. Instead of emulating the Trumps of the world, we should be its Trudeaus – and its Gilgitis.

Meat for all households in Hunza: Eid tradition ensure equality in sacrifice

The much renowned Hunza valley, enveloped in the grand Himalayas and the Karakoram mountain range, carried out its unique tradition of communal qurbani on the occasion of Eidul Azha.

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As part of an ancient tradition, all sacrificial animals are slaughtered at a community centre and the meat is then divided among the local population where all families get an equal share of meat, irrespective of whether they purchased a sacrificial animal or not.

This year around 130 sacrificial animals were slaughtered in the garden of the community centre where volunteers supervised the process. As part of the tradition, the owners of the animals remain anonymous.

“It’s a centuries old tradition,” said Sher Afzal, a resident of Ali Abad area of Hunza.

Afzal leads a group of volunteers which manages the process qurbani and the distribution of meat among local residents.

“We are happy and honoured to be following the practice of our forefathers,” he said.

Explaining the process of qurbani, Afzal said: “Local people have their own animals which they offer for qurbani…the names of people who offer their animals for sacrifice is kept secret.”

Afzal said “this year we had around 5,200 kilogrammes of meat which was then divided among 1,300 households”. Hence every household got 4 kilogrammes of meat.

A majority of the local population cannot afford animals for qurbani yet they are ensured an equal share of meat, he maintained.

The volunteers are tasked to ensure equal delivery of meat to each and every household.

“We divide volunteers into different groups and assign them areas for the door-to-door distribution of sacrificial meat,” said Afzal.

Piyar Ali, a resident of Ali Abad, said “We celebrate Eidul Azha keeping the concept of sacrifice in mind, and equally distribute the meat…this is the actual concept of sacrifice taught by Prophet Ibrahim (PBUH) and Prophet Ismail (PBUH),” another resident said.

“I cannot afford animal for qurbani but every year on Eid I receive meat,” he added.

Volunteer Sher Afzal said people in Hunza were following the centuries old tradition of qurbani, which he claims is also gaining popularity in other areas of Gilgit Baltistan. Source