THE people of the Hunza valley are immensely proud of their heritage. As I stumble through the doors of the Marcopolo Inn, Raja Hussein Khan, the general manager, ushers me past a rank of inviting-looking lounge chairs to inspect a prominent poster which traces the 452-year dynasty of the royal family of Hunza.
I am out of breath from the uphill scramble through terraced orchards of apple and apricot that has led me to the village of Gulmit, some 40km from Sust. But a reviving cup of tea is out of the question until homage has been paid to Hunza’s ancient mirs. The dynasty ends abruptly with Mir Jamal Khan in 1974. “Democracy. Times change,” shrugs Mr Khan, himself a descendent of the royal family. There is a note of nostalgia in his British public-school-accented voice.
As part of Gilgit-Baltistan, Hunza has a confused constitutional status. After partition and Pakistan’s war with India in 1948, the area was determined by the UN to be part of the disputed region of Kashmir. It is still not officially part of the federation of Pakistan. In 1970 Hunza and the princely state of Nagar, on the opposite side of the Hunza valley, became part of the Northern Areas, along with Gilgit to the west and Baltistan to the east. After a controversial “self-governance” act in late 2009, the Northern Areas were renamed Gilgit-Baltistan.
Over a dinner of local daudo soup, curry and paratha bread, Mr Khan explains that the Hunzakuts elect no representatives to Pakistan’s national parliament. Nor do they pay taxes to the national treasury. Instead elections are held to a local assembly, known as the Gilgit-Baltistan Legislative Assembly, which in turn elects a chief minister and has some powers to levy taxes and make laws.
The self-governance act provoked widespread criticism. The Indian government protested that it was an attempt to conceal Pakistan’s “illegal occupation” of the area. Demonstrations erupted in Muzaffarabad, the capital of Pakistani Kashmir, where local Kashmiri politicians denounced the act as an attempt by Islamabad to appropriate their territory into Pakistan proper. Meanwhile, some Gilgit-Baltistan politicians criticised the act for failing to make the area a fully fledged province of Pakistan.
Far from resenting their exclusion from national politics, the Hunzakuts I meet appear to embrace it as a sign of their distinctiveness within Pakistan. The national language, Urdu, is widely understood in Hunza, but the main languages here are radically unrelated: Burushaski, Wakhi and Shina. Hunzakuts are Muslim, but they are mostly followers of the Ishmaili branch of Shia Islam. A portrait of the revered Aga Khan, the spiritual leader of the Ishmailis, has pride of place in Hunza homes. There are no minareted mosques, only community centres. As in the rest of Pakistan, alcohol is strictly prohibited, but after dinner I am invited to drink a glass of “Chinese water”.
Mr Khan, the Marcopolo’s general manager, waxes nostalgic for an earlier period, when Hunza’s mirs travelled up from their ancient capital, Karimabad, to spend the summer months of the year at a palace overlooking Gulmit’s polo ground. But the mir‘s descendents do not appear to have fallen on hard times. When he is not in the national capital, Islamabad, Ghazanfar Ali, the son of the last mir, can still be spotted in the valley, being chauffeured from his grand home at Karimabad in a white Toyota Land Cruiser, number-plated “Hunza 1”.