Sun. Aug 18th, 2019

The Murree-ification of Hunza


By Aasim Zafar Khan

That the cafe is small is not a fact new to me. I’ve been there before. But prior to this latest visit, i had been warned: its not what it used to be. And so, with a sense of renewed wonder, I enter the establishment.

Aasim Zafar Khan

The first floor is exactly how I remember it. Selling traditional Hunzai garb. And as always, it’s empty. Proper tourist trap this first floor, i think to myself and make my way up the spiral staircase.

As i take the final step up and breach the second floor, I am astonished. There is no space. The place is teeming with people. Single travellers and families, all squished together like sardines in a tin can. And they’re all tourists. I push and ‘oh so sorry’ my way to the kitchen window which also serves as the place to order from the menu, and beckon the young man but he is too busy to listen. I respect that and wait my turn. After a good seven minutes, he turns to me. I’ll have a cup of tea and a slice of walnut cake please. In pristine English, he replies, sure sir, but it’ll take about an hour and a half, can you wait? No thanks i reply. As i make my way back towards the staircase, he gives me fair advice: best to make an appointment next time.

 There won’t be no next time, old boy.

 During my last visit in ‘15, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of foreign visitors in Hunza. Japanese and swedes. Americans and Germans. It was the kind of tourist mix a country dreams of, and one rarely witnessed anywhere in Pakistan. But now, a mere four years later, they are nowhere to be seen.

These days, in Karimabad, that’s all you’ll find. Tourists, tourists and more tourists. They’re teeming out of the woodworks. And turning the place into Murree. For those who don’t get the analogy, Murree used to be the crown jewel of the Galiyat, in the times of the British Raj and for a few decades of independence, till the urban tourists arrived. And they brought with them all the uncouthness and disregard for local culture, heritage and tradition, that they could. And today, Murree is a mix of Lahore, Pindi, and Sialkot – all the bad parts, but at a better temperature.

 For the people of Hunza, the enormous number of tourists that the valley is now witnessing converts into hard cash. And for an area that has little to offer in terms of jobs, industry and prosperity, this is cash they need. And so they have welcomed everyone with open arms.  But slowly the discontent is growing.

 ‘The last few years have seen unprecedented numbers of people coming from all over the place’, says Karim, our friend and guide. ‘Take a look around, you’ll hardly see any locals’.

 Incredulously, what sounds like a casually thrown and inaccurate statement, turns out to be true. There are no locals to be seen. Nor the foreigners.

 During my last visit in ‘15, I was pleasantly surprised to see a large number of foreign visitors in Hunza. Japanese and swedes. Americans and Germans. It was the kind of tourist mix a country dreams of, and one rarely witnessed anywhere in Pakistan. But now, a mere four years later, they are nowhere to be seen.

 ‘Most of the foreigners, at least the ones who have some ears on the ground here, don’t come to Karimabad anymore’, says Karim. Instead, these intelligent travellers have found other still isolated corners within the valley where they can enjoy all the beauty and serenity that the valley has to offer. In short, Karimabad has become to Hunza what once Gilgit was, a mere staging post.

 ‘We don’t mind the tourists at all, its just that I wish they could be perhaps a little more sensitive to the norms of the area’, says Javed, a hiking enthusiast. We are on a short trek above Aliabad, and he is continually stopping along the way to pick up debris left over by tourists. ‘How difficult is it to not litter?’, he asks no one in particular.

These entrepreneurs have understood that in most cases, these visiting tourists will not be interested in the local Hunzai cuisine, and will be looking for the usual Karahi and barbeque. It’s only a matter of time before a McDonalds and Pizza Hut opens up.

 Strewn across Karimabad are countless bins and trash cans, imploring people to be kind on the environment. But its just that extra bit of effort required to use these trash cans etc that is missing. If you want to know where the urban tourist has gone, follow the trail of Styrofoam food vessels, cardboard juice boxes, and plastic soda bottles.

 The massive influx of tourists into the valley has also spurred business growth. Entrepreneurs, quick on the take, are opening up small hostels, hotels and restaurants to cater to the visitors. And in a hurry to not miss the boat, not much attention is being paid to aesthetics, in the case of buildings. Hideously designed, RCC built structures are popping up everywhere. Eventually, they will take away from the overall aesthetics of the valley. The same is the case with restaurants and cafes. These entrepreneurs have understood that in most cases, these visiting tourists will not be interested in the local Hunzai cuisine, and will be looking for the usual Karahi and barbeque. It’s only a matter of time before a McDonalds and Pizza Hut opens up.

And wouldn’t that be tragic.

The Hunza valley and its surrounding areas are full of magic and mystery: a postcard of a bygone era, of better times and simpler lives. The recent interest of local tourists is fantastic yet it needs to be handled gently, on both sides. The tourists need to understand that they’re not in Lahore, Sialkot or Karachi anymore, and at the very least, need to show a sensitivity to local people, and their norms and traditions. On the flip side, the people of Hunza must learn from the Murree debacle, and ensure that what happened to the king of the galiyaat doesn’t happen in their backyard.


  Aasim Zafar Khan is a journalist based in Lahore. He tweets @aasimzkhan


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