Hunza Valley – Pakistan
Paradise: A word often used to describe white sand, blue water and sitting in a lounge chair with your favourite beverage with no worries at all. This may be paradise for many, but not for me. For me, paradise is a place far removed from the fast paced life we live today. A place where the landscapes are like no other on this planet. It’s a place where you can meet people who live long, happy lives and their concerns are more to do with the simple necessities of life rather than high politics or the affairs of the world. This is the Hunza Valley in Pakistan.
I am staring into a mountain vista from my hotel balcony. It’s the kind of view that makes you question everything you know. I have never seen such beauty as this before. The valley bottom is carpeted with green, spire-like trees that are flecked with red, orange and that quintessential golden colour of fall, while jagged, monstrous, white peaks above surround the valley like a fortress. The clouds, so high up on the mountains, appear static. The human eye cannot comprehend the movement of these clouds, as they are almost 8000 m up. The setting is like a painting. It’s perfect.
Getting to the Hunza Valley
I entered Pakistan via the Khunjerab Pass at the Pakistani/Chinese border. The border town on the Pakistani side was called Passu, and a little further along was Gulmit. I stayed with a Wakhi family there who introduced me to Northern Pakistan’s culture and beauty. A little over a week later, I arrived in the Hunza valley.
It is possible to get to Hunza directly from the Khunjerbad. It takes about three hours from the border. Three absolutely amazing hours. You will pass by some of the most dramatic scenery you have ever seen. The new road tunnels directly through the mountains, diverting around a large lake, making the ferry ride obsolete and the journey much shorter than it used to be.
If you are not coming from China, then your other option is to come from Islamabad via the Karakoram Highway, or, as the locals call it, the KKH. It takes a long 14-18 hours just to get to Gilgit, the first major city in the north. Do not be surprised if armed soldiers tag along with you for part of the journey through the Kohistan region. Crime here happens often. Suicide bombings, and violence towards westerners has happened, but is uncommon.
Continuing north along the KKH from Gilgit, you are only a few hours away from Hunza Valley.
The Capital of Hunza Valley, Karimabad.
Karimabad, also known as Baltit, is Hunza Valley’s ancient capital. Sitting high above, atop a green hill overlooking the valley, is Karimabad. Karimabad is filled with trinket shops, hiking shops, and decent accommodation, all left over from when tourism was an actual thing here. The shop owners are indeed optimistic that the tourists will one day return, as they should.
I sat on my hotel balcony in Karimabad, looking at the sun rising over this pristine valley. My hotel is appropriately named the “World Roof Hotel”. It does feel like you are on the roof of the world here. The owner, a man in his thirties, is the hotel manager, staff supervisor, head chef, and arranges tours. He presides over his hotel as though it’s his kingdom.
After tea, leaving the hotel, along my world class view, my friend Jacob and I set out to explore the town. Karimabad is nothing like a typical western city by any means. It’s a network of stone pathways leading to mountain passes and small nearby farm communities. Ultar Nawa looms high above the town. This 7388m peak has long been sought after by adventure seekers and dare devils for its incredibly dangerous ascent.
Today, I have a goal to accomplish in Karimabad; to acquire my own traditional Pakistani Shalwar Kameez, made by a local tailor. You will see this outfit everywhere in Pakistan. It comes in many colors (usually pertaining to the region of which the wearer is from). It’s easy to identify this outfit; baggy, Aladdin-like trousers that are paired with a long shirt that falls below the knees. Here in Hunza, a special wool vest and cap is also worn with it.
My tailor, who was incredibly surprised to see tourists here, was very happy to make Jacob and I each a Shalwar Kameez. I opted for a black one, while Jacob went for blue. The shirt and trousers only came to $20 US. We were informed that it would take three days to complete the outfits, as he made everything himself. The tailor then directed us to his cousin’s shop that sold wool vests. I also purchased one of these.
As for the Hunza Pakol, a pancake style hat, I went uphill to a man who’s been making them for over 50 years. The elderly man showed me the different kinds of wool of various quality. My shopping was now complete. In a few days I could look the part of a local.
Visiting Baltit Fort – Karimabad
At the top of Karimabad town lies Baltit Fort. This is where the monarchs ruled over the Hunza Valley. Officially, kings and queens walked the halls of this fortified mud fort since the early 13th century. Locals will tell you that the fort is even older than that. They will tell you tales of politics, family squabbles and war that occurred long beforehand.
The walk up from Karimabad to here is pleasant. You will pass through farms and neighbourhoods of mud houses. It gets fairly steep the closer you get to Baltit. All foreigners entering the fort are required to have a guide, who, in fact, does not expect a tip. The guides, who are all proficient in English and multiple other languages, are thrilled to show you Baltit.
Ticket in hand, acquired from the moustached, bad-ass security guard, we entered the fort. The inside, surprisingly, is not very royal looking. The walls were made of mud, with handmade carpets on the floors and wooden beams supporting the entire structure. Our guide explained to us that the Hunza Kingdom was in fact a Buddhist Kingdom at one time. Baltit shows many signs of this. The wooden beams had Buddhist symbols carved into them and the rooftop mosque was a Buddhist temple long ago.
Heading deeper into the fort, our guide showed us multiple escape routes for when invaders came and, finally, the rooftop throne where the king sat. From here you could see all of Hunza. I understood why the king of Hunza preferred this vantage point.
Altit Fort and Village
From Karimabad, the dirt road winds down into the Hunza Valley. Following this road for a pleasant walk by waterfalls and, of course, more mountain views, you will find yourself in Altit Town. It’s hard to miss Altit, because there is another large fort here.
Altit town is a labyrinth of alleyways and ancient buildings. The government came in here and told the locals if they wanted to stay, then they would have to keep it traditional. Not much has changed here in a thousand years. Walk around this community and see older men playing backgammon, kids darting past you into the next alleyway, and elderly, traditionally dressed Hunza women, who tend to be quite shy of your camera.
In the center of town is Altit fort. It is similar to Baltit in many ways, but older, much older. Here you will again have to be accompanied by a guide who will give you free information with no expectation of a tip. They treat you like you are from here. The guide pointed out more Buddhist symbols, and where soldiers would prove their bravery to the king by jumping onto a platform surrounded by a 500 m drop to their death.
On top of Altit, looking upon the beautiful valley, out guide told us a tale of two brothers. They were the sons of the king. When the king died, both brothers wanted to be the heir to the throne. The fighting that resulted from this saw the Hunza kingdom split into two. One brother, creating Altit fort to protect his side, and the other brother who resided across the valley in Nagyr. It ended, like all stories of this nature, with bloodshed. In the end, the brother ruling the Altit side gained control of the entire Hunza valley and the Kingdom was made whole again.
The views are great and Altit seems more traditional than Karimabad. Come for the scenery, stay for the stories. Well worth the visit.
Duikar, and the Eagle’s Nest
After Baltit, I wanted to enjoy more views over Hunza. Ask any local here where the best view is, and they will tell you “The Eagle’s Nest.”
What do they mean by Eagle’s Nest?
Even higher above Karimabad is the small community of Duikar. To get here it’s a tough two hour slog straight up hill from Karimabad. If you’re not into hiking until your thighs explode, then I recommend taking a shared cab. Jacob and I decided we would walk. Halfway up, out of breath, and on the verge of death, I stuck my thumb out to hitch-hike. Luckily for us, Duikar is frequented by Pakistani tourists often. After about ten minutes a car of Pakistani students from Gilgit picked us up and drove us the rest of the way.
Duikar itself is only comprised of a few small cow and barley farms. The highlight of Duikar is, of course, the Eagle’s Nest. To my surprise, the Eagle’s Nest, is actually a fancy hotel, used by the odd tour group that comes here. The hotel is not used to seeing solo travellers here, so when visiting you will be treated with the utmost hospitality. The hotel restaurant has wide windows overlooking the mighty 7788m Rakaposhi Mountain. The food is also fantastic, Apricot chicken curry, and herb stuffed bread were recommended to us, and yes, the dishes were as outstanding as they sound.
When the sun begins to set, head outside the hotel and follow the trails along the hill. They lead you to more fantastic views over this beautiful Valley. Here Jacob and I stayed until we caught a ride back to Karimabad with some more Pakistani travellers.
Hiking Ultar Meadows
Total Time: 5-6 hours return
Gear: Sturdy Hikers (I used the Merrell Travelers), Hiking Pole, Lots of Snacks.
Water: I drank from the streams in the first valley. You should purify. Try the Life Straw
Ultar Meadows is not for the faint of heart. This painful, high altitude hike takes you high above the Hunza Valley to the foot of Ultar Peak. The trail is confusing and in terrible condition. Parts of it are completely washed out. This is why Ultar makes for such a great adventure! Be warned that this hike is difficult. It’s steep and, to be honest, quite dangerous. Those who risk it will be rewarded with a hike you will never forget!
The trail begins right behind Balitit fort. There are signs that say “Ultar Meadows”. Follow these signs, and if you get lost in the alleyways around Baltit, just say to someone “Ultar?” and they will point you in the right direction.
After you leave Baltit, the terrain begins to get very steep. You will walk past small, stone houses and water channels. Nearing the top of Karimabad Hill, you will be awestruck by incredible views over the Hunza Valley and Baltit Fort.
The trail is more defined at this point. It’s clear where you have to go, but you will hesitate, as the decaying stone trail runs across a mountain side ridge. The ridge is about four feet wide, and drops about 500m straight down. There are black pipes beside the ridge, follow these pipes as they indicate that you are in the right place. These pipes channel water to Karimabad.
Roaring water channels begin after about 600m up this ridge. The ridge also begins to dig deeper into the mountain providing a rock canopy over the trail. From here you will get views of Ultar and Ultar Glacier below. Watch out for falling rocks that result from the moving ice.
Finally, the sketchy mountain side trail ends and leads you into a beautiful green valley with gushing streams and butterflies. You will tell yourself it is nearly over, but you could not be more wrong. The trail continues up the gruelling hill at the end of the valley. Much of the trail here is now gone, leaving you to scramble through the landslide. If you lose the trail here do not worry. Just head straight up. To your left is a mountain side, and to your right is another long drop to the glacier. Getting lost is impossible. Look out for geodes and other interesting rocks here.
After another two hours of painful uphill struggle you will see the Ultar Cabin, and Ultar Valley. The views of the glacier from here are absolutely spectacular. It almost seems like a fairy-tale setting… which could be the result of the lack of oxygen to your brain and complete exhaustion. After enjoying the Valley, it’s another three hours back down, so make sure you time it carefully, as walking in the dark would be very dangerous.
Location: Hunza Valley, Karimabad, Altit – Northern Pakistan
Visa: Obtain your Pakistan Visa easily from your own country
Camera I used: Sony A7, Gopro Hero 4 Black
Transport: Tiny trucks populate the highways here. You can hop in, hop out whenever you want. Average ride costs $1 US. Getting here from Gulimt or Gilgit, take the mini vans usually found in the market. They run all day and cost around $5 US for a three or four hour drive.
Costs: Hotel in Karimabad – World Roof Hotel, $10 -15 US. Average Pakistani Meal, $3 US.
Hiking Gear: Merrell Travelers Hikers, Life Straw, Hiking Pole
Recommended Guide: Lonely Planet Pakistan