Hidden kingdom

Every morning eight-year-old Asad makes a five-kilometre trek uphill to school from his village home in the suburbs of Karimabad, the capital of the Hunza Valley. His family owns a herd of sheep and a modest plot of land that allows them to store enough meat and grain to last the hostile winter. His father, Gulbaaz, also runs a handicraft shop in the town’s main market, selling traditionally embroidered handbags, wallets and cushions made at home by his wife, Shahnaz, and their 15-year-old daughter, Saima. Theirs is just one of the region’s famous local handicraft and gemstone shops. Around them gardens brimming with apricots, apples and cherries are irrigated by a traditional water channel system, fed by the melting glaciers during summer and spring water during winter.

Situated at the northernmost tip of Pakistan, bordering China, the Hunza Valley is enclosed by hundreds of famous peaks, including K-2, the world’s second highest. It was at the base camp of the Uttar Peak that I met Asad and a bunch of friendly locals grazing their livestock in the remote pastures around Karimabad, a small town of just over 8,000. Historians say the people of Hunza, with their unusually light-coloured hair and eyes, are direct descendents of Macedonian soldiers from the army of Alexander the Great.

The royal family of Hunza (familiarly known as the Mirs) ruled the region from the 11th century, holding complete sovereignty until Pakistan’s independence in 1947, when Hunza was given the status of a semi-autonomous princely state within the country. Reforms in the 1970s later abrogated the royal status of the ruling family and gave Islamabad formal charge of the territory. In the 1980s, a joint Pakistan-China project redeveloped an ancient route that had been used for thousands of years by invading armies and Chinese traders, a part of the Silk Road that was carved through the commercial hubs of the Indian subcontinent. The result: the 1,400-kilometre Karakoram Highway (KKH) linking the Pakistani city of Abbotabad to Kashgar in Xinjiang, China. Complete story at 

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