Karimabad - Pakistan's Shangri-La
It’s a long drive to Karimabad along a treacherously bumpy stretch of the famous Karakoram Highway (KKH) – but I’m willing to earn my entry into paradise. And this tranquil oasis in the Hunza Valley, within Pakistan’s remote, northern Gilgit-Baltistan state certainly qualifies.
Everywhere I look there is a glittering, snow-capped peak: in front of me Rakaposhi, behind me Ultar Glacier and Golden Peak, all of them over 7000 metres. I’m staying at the Darbar Hotel, owned by no less than the Mir (the Prince) of Hunza. The lobby is filled with dusty artefacts, and the walls adorned with portraits of his Royal Highness and his guests – among them, Queen Elizabeth II. The rooms are comfortable, the views astonishing, and the restaurant serves up a moreish French Toast for breakfast.
In the village’s pleasant, sleepy bazaar I stock up on pashminas, apricot wood bowls, Hunza honey and browse in the bookshop. Allah only knows how the stallholders stay afloat in these troubled times – foreign tourists being thin on the ground in Pakistan these days, thanks to a stream of natural disasters, suicide bombings, and headlines that focus on little else. Still, the gentle offers of chai keep coming.
I gorge on giant-sized walnut cake and brownies at the Café de Hunza – Karimabad was once a popular backpacker haunt – and fortified, walk through peaceful, winding lanes up to the 700 year-old (ish) Baltit Fort. On the way, some boys sneak into an orchard and throw me a juicy apple, which I manage to catch. It’s sweet and delicious. I pass women who are unveiled and sporting brightly-coloured embroidered caps. They nod and smile shyly. Others are on their flat roofs, sorting dried fruit. Old men hobble past, their faces wizened by the sun and wind and age.
The Fort, high atop a terraced slope, looks an awful lot like Tibet’s Potala Palace. There’s a good reason for this: in the 15th century, Hunza’s then Mir married a bride from neighbouring Baltistan, often called Little Tibet. She, perhaps wanting to allay any feelings of homesickness, brought along a team of Baltit craftsmen who duly renovated the Fort.
For all the intricate woodwork and its maze of rooms, the star attraction in my book (if you’ll pardon the pun) is the building’s secret library – a treasure trove of guidebooks, photography and tomes on the region’s history, culture and customs. Gold for nosy traveller types.
After a late lunch of puri filled with chicken, red berry flatbread and Tumaro tea (made from medicinal mountain herbs) in the bazaar’s rickety ‘Hidden Paradise Hotel’ , I head back to the Darbar for a short siesta.
That night, our local guide Ehsan organises a soiree for us in the hotel’s lounge. As honoured guests (and we do, sincerely, feel more like guests than clients) we all receive gifts. Mine is a colourful Hunza hat and a shawl. I’m deeply touched. A trio of musicians is conjured up, and as per custom, the men get up and dance, fuelled by potent mulberry wine, while we women sit and watch. This proves to be an entertainment in itself as dances that mimic gambolling animals (Marco Polo sheep by the look of it) are in vogue.
Local VIP guests – more men – turn up to shake their booty, and Ryan, the gay, dance-mad American with us proves to be a big hit : the next morning, he emerges from his hotel room grinning and bleary-eyed. He has, it transpired, spent the night in the arms of one his Hunza admirers.
The next morning, on a day outing several miles north of Karimabad we cross the new Attabad lake. Created after a massive landslide in January, it had left whole villages and a sizeable portion of the KKH submerged. Now clever boat owners are doing a roaring trade, ferrying passengers to the other side. A rich turquoise in colour, framed by the jagged peaks known as the Passu cones, it is a Neptunian fairytale. Big too: a whopping 38 km long, the lake takes nearly two hours to cross.
On the other side, beyond more sublime mountain scenery, we hike a trail that skirts the dangerous-looking Passu glacier – rows and rows of serrated peaks, like teeth. We linger and nearly don’t make it back to Karimabad: the lake’s waters are too choppy, and boats have ceased to make the crossing. In the end, we hitch a ride on a cargo boat. Squashed on top of hessian sacks, I shiver, under a moonlit sky that lends the peaks a ghostly glow.
There’s a pair of newlyweds in our party: Saher, 29, a cousin of our UK guide, Sohail, and his wife Huma, 23. Theirs is a rare love marriage, and on the boat, they cuddle and murmur sweet nothings to each other. The couple adore Karimabad, and they aren’t alone: come the summer months, adventurous honeymooners from the cities in the south head here.
I can see why: the next morning, following an irrigation channel beyond the village, I take one of the prettiest walks of my life. The path, lined with poplar trees, takes me along terraced fields, through meadows bursting with wildflowers, and lush apple and apricot orchards, the whole lot framed by those enticing peaks. Shangri-La indeed.
- Jini Reddy travelled as a guest of London-based tour operator Travel Pak www.travelpak.co.uk
- Photo courtesy of Sohail Azhar