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Places to Visit in Gilgit-Baltistan

Gilgit-Baltistan, spread over 69,930 square kilometers, brings together a land of majestic mountain ranges and deep gorges with raging rivers and a heterogeneous population of a million whose origins are lost in the myths of antiquity. Defining the region are the Karakoram Mountains and the Indus River with its several tributaries, with the Himalayas extending in the south and the Hindu Kush range in the east while the Pamirs cordon the north. It is home to the high mountain valleys of Hunza and Baltistan, located in the upper catchment area of the Indus River and deep within the Karakoram, where nature with its peaks, glaciers, rivers and streams is omnipresent. Terraced fields draw water from a great distance through extremely well-engineered irrigation channels, attesting to efforts to make the best use of nature under harsh living conditions. The location of the region is sensitive and strategic because of its boundaries with Afghanistan (Wakhan territory), with China and with Indian-held Kashmir. The construction of the Karakoram Highway, connecting Islamabad with Kashgar over the Khunjerab Pass (over 4700 meters), added to its importance, while the construction of further roads connecting Skardu with the KKH has given this region even more significance. The hydroelectric power potential of the Indus river system in Gilgit-Baltistan is another reason for the region’s significance. The area may be perceived as impenetrable, but it has historically provided conduits for trade between Central Asia and South Asia, with some of the strands of the Silk Road passing through it. This vast mountainous region is populated by heterogeneous communities and tribes of fairly distinct ethnic and linguistic groups, deriving their origin from Aryan, Scythian, Mongolian, Tibetan, Turanian and Caucasian stock. The earliest forms of religion reaching this region seem to be Hinduism, in time supplanted by Buddhism, before the spread of Islam between the ninth and the fourteenth centuries. The languages spoken in the region are Shina around Gilgit, and Balti, a form of Tibetan in Baltistan. People of Hunza and Nagar speak Buruskaski. Other languages or dialects spoken in Gilgit-Baltistan are Wakhi, Khowar, Turki, Kashmiri and Gujri. Urdu is understood and spoken in almost all areas, while English is gaining ground, particularly with the young.

Over time these peoples developed life styles that meshed fully with local environmental conditions. Frugality, self-dependence, optimal use of resources, and community endeavor emerged as their bedrock. The mountainous terrain is such that barely 1.5 per cent of the land is available for habitation. Water, though running in mighty rivers, was too far down to be readily harnessed. Streams were tapped and brought to parcels of land such as alluvial fans for seasonal crops through ingenious water channels. Only ‘useful’ trees were planted and looked after, with the apricot being a favorite, while quick growing poplar was preferred for use in construction. The insufficiency of precipitation and the consequent lack of natural forests, particularly in Hunza, coupled with the burden of creating stone from huge rocks and the scarcity of available land resulted in the construction of multi-purpose single-room dwellings. These, typically, have a storeroom attached, and are made of mud and stone with no chimney or window, only a square hole in the center of the roof over a fi replace where the cooking was done. Walls are tied in at various levels by wooden beams. A typical Hunza house presents a unique architectural design combining space, security and comfort, with a second story for summer use. These houses clustered together to form settlements built on barren land that was of no use for the cultivation of crops. Their small size helped conserve energy required for heating as well as other resources. The cluster was also intended to provide security, as protective walls and watchtowers witness. The first habitations in Hunza are reported to be those of Ganish, Altit and Baltit (since 1960 Karimabad), where khuns (fortified settlements) were formed, and water from the Ultar was taken to irrigate land. Over time watchtowers were added and the forts at Altit and Baltit took their present form. Skilled artisans from Baltistan reportedly carried out the work. With easier access to and from Kashmir and having historical links with Tibet, Baltistan developed at a faster pace than Hunza. It generally also has bigger open spaces compared to Hunza, and has better resources in terms of land, or tree cover. Of the five valleys of Baltistan, Shigar is perhaps the most attractive. The valley is fertile with abundant water. Situated at an elevation of over 2440 meters, Shigar and the Shigar River drains the waters of the glaciers, feeding into the Indus. The Baltoro glacier, one of the largest in the Karakoram, begins at the north-west end of the valley. This is the main route for mountaineers headed to K2 and the Gasherbrums.

Baltistan

The other important valley in the area is Khaplu, which has borders with Ladakh (Indianheld territory). The average elevation of this valley is 2740 meters. Mountaineers on their way to the Masherbrums and the Saltoro range have to pass through Khaplu. Traditional housing here shows a great range in the use of timber, and has larger spaces as well as two-storey structures that use innovative wooden pillars. The palaces and forts are better developed and places of religion also testify to the rich architectural heritage that is regionally standard. A number of these forts or palaces, though relocated to lower sites during the Dogra regime, offered opportunities for restoration and adaptive reuse. Our inventory of important cultural buildings in Gilgit-Baltistan includes eight major forts and palaces and nearly twenty minor ones; forty-fi ve khanqahs (Sufi retreats), 150 mosques, over fi fty archaeological sites, thirty important tombs and fifty traditional polo grounds. Gilgit-Baltistan contains a very rich and pluralistic heritage – representative of Muslim cultures, but also of Buddhist and Hindu influences. As mentioned, strands of the Silk Road passed through the Hunza and Indus valleys. Commerce, art, skills, ideas, religious faiths, languages and technology passed between East and West through these mountains. The cross-fertilization that occurred facilitated an unprecedented exchange of ideas and the development of a unique culture, which deserves to be preserved and shared. The cultural enclaves of central Hunza, Shigar and Khaplu were focused upon for Area Development, as these offered a sufficient level of heritage that could collectively permit a discernible improvement in the quality of life. Landmark monuments provided the centrality while the traditional settlements and the heritage and traditions surrounding these forts or palaces allowed for community-based conservation and rehabilitation efforts. The fact that these cultural enclaves were rapidly being transformed from a rural to an urban setting underscored the need to ensure that cultural heritage and values informed the inevitable transition to modernity. Conservation work started with the most identifiable landmark buildings, such as the Baltit and Altit forts in central Hunza, and Shigar Fort and Khaplu Palace in Baltistan. These forts or palaces, through their gifting by the mirs and rajas, transformed private hereditary assets into public resources that benefit local communities. The experience of conservation of Baltit Fort, and rehabilitation of the traditional settlement just below it, indicated that meaningful restoration work needs to be associated with rehabilitation of traditional settlements as well as promotion of building techniques that can thus have an area development effect. Conservation of the Fort/Palace and the improvement of living conditions in the adjoining settlements was started simultaneously in Shigar and Khaplu, while in Altit, community-based built-environment upgrading and rehabilitation – a process for conserving historic villages and settlements by providing basic sanitation, water supply, electrification and street paving – was undertaken. Community spaces were restored prior to the conservation of the Fort itself. Economic empowerment of the community involving the revival of skills, particularly those of masons and carpenters, and the creation of modern skills, such as engaging young men and women in documentation functions, were part of the process. It became clear that a broad range of activities was needed to complement these efforts, including the revival of arts and crafts through an enterprise process. Meaningful cultural development necessitating the involvement of local partner organizations, such as the Town Management Societies, the Karakoram Area Development Organization and the Baltit Heritage Trust, proved essential to building ownership and sustainability in the future for these projects. Between 1992 and the present, not only have the three forts of Baltit, Altit and Shigar been conserved and put to use for the benefit of the communities, but work on Khaplu Palace is continuing, with completion expected in 2012. Sixteen historic settlements have been rehabilitated, a number of monuments and houses have been stabilized, and seven public buildings built, demonstrating traditional construction techniques and the use of local building materials. Two major enterprises were established: one in Hunza for embroidery and rugs, and one in Baltistan for apricot kernel oil and production of wood products (carving, construction and furniture). These efforts were backed up with the establishment of a number of new institutions.

Hunza, nestling in the shadows of the Karakorams, first gained notoriety and fame from its location, the possession of which was coveted by the two expanding rival empires during the 19th century in Asia: Russia under the czar in Central Turkistan advancing towards the Indian borders, and the British Indian empire expanding to the north. In 1842 Sikhs who held Kashmir as part of their domain entered Gilgit, opening the way for the Dogra rulers to get a foothold in the region. The latter had acquired Kashmir after the British had broken the Sikhs’ power in the Punjab and the treaty of Amritsar was signed, in accordance with which Kashmir (which included the territories of Baltistan and Astore) was transferred in 1846 to Maharaja Gulab Singh, the Dogra chief from Jammu. Realizing its strategic importance, in 1876 this area was taken away from the maharaja under a treaty by the British. The region was directly administered by the British, while Baltistan continued to be administered by Kashmir State as part of Ladakh, which was conquered by Sikh and Dogra troops before 1842. In December 1891 a successful campaign was conducted against Hunza/Nagar. The main battle was fought at a place called Nilt in Nagir. In 1935 the Government of India arranged with the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir a lease for 60 years whereby all the territory except Baltistan and Astore areas would be administered by the British Raj. In 1947 (independence of India and Pakistan) the whole area was returned under the control of the maharaja of Jammu and Kashmir who appointed a Governor in Gilgit with military garrisons in Gilgit and Baltistan. On 31 October 1947 the control of the Jammu and Kashmir administration was wrested from the maharaja’s representative in Gilgit and his troops were routed by a successful ‘War of Liberation’ in favour of Pakistan. On the request and invitation from the people of Gilgit-Baltistan, the Government of Pakistan took over the administration in mid November 1947, which in 1948 was extended to Baltistan

Attraction in Gilgit-Baltistan
Baltit Fort

Baltit Fort not only towers over Karimabad, but is also the sentinel of the Hunza Valley. Under the protective presence of the Fort, the houses of the traditional settlements of the old Baltit (now Karimabad) Village are gathered along the slopes beneath it. The Fort forms the backdrop and the focus to these settlements. Restoration and reuse of the 700-year-old Baltit Fort as a cultural and historical museum, and the conservation of its context, the historic settlement of Karimabad, are best seen within the perspective of changes that started in the second half of the twentieth century with the independence of Pakistan and accelerated from the 1970s onwards. Many of the traditional social conventions that held the community together in the past had been weakened first with the abolition of peace in 1974 and then when Hunza, which had remained largely insulated from external forces, was opened up in 1979 with the construction of the Karakoram Highway (KKH) that links Islamabad to Kashgar. It was recognized that, if not managed properly, forces of change resulting from development could spoil the impressive natural setting and the cultural heritage that was Karimabad’s major resource. Preservation of the outstanding physical and environmental qualities was deemed essential to the well-being of central Hunza. The peaks of the Ultar, Rakaposhi and others, the terraced fields, the irrigation channels, the clustered settlements, the wealth of historic buildings and the rich cultural heritage needed to be protected and made to act as drivers for development. The rapid change from a secluded rural area into a semi-urban one, with the attendant issues of infrastructure, traffic, commercial activities, tourism and new construction modes, all affected the physical environment and charm of Karimabad. These facts needed to be taken into account as part of the program that had started with the restoration of Baltit Fort. Baltit Fort had been abandoned in the early 1950s and a new palace constructed where the Mirhad moved with his family.

In the 1980s the Fort was fragile and if it had been permitted to collapse Hunza would clearly have lost its major landmark and an important part of its cultural identity. However, before conservation work could be started, it needed to be transferred from private to public ownership. The Mir on behalf of his family graciously decided to gift the Fort and the land surrounding it to the newly formed Baltit Heritage Trust enabling a physical program of works to be initiated. From the beginning it was intended that the conservation should retain the historic character and appearance of the Fort. The restoration of missing features would be based on sound archaeological evidence. It was also realized that if the restored Fort were to enhance and promote cultural values of a living culture it needed to contribute to economic opportunities for the residents and to generate sufficient income to sustain operation and maintenance costs. Accordingly, the main uses selected for the restored Fort were those of a museum and active cultural center. While work started on Baltit Fort, a strategic framework for the orderly physical growth and development of Karimabad, and for the maintenance of its environmental and cultural assets, home to a population of around 5000, was developed, resulting from the analysis of its situation in 1992, and leading to the development of the ‘Karimabad Conceptual Development Plan’. Although the plan for Karimabad, as conceived in the KCDP, is still not enforceable by law, it increased the awareness of the community about the issues at stake, leading to a participatory development process and the need for a community-based institution. In order to anchor this process in the local community, the Karimabad Town Management Society (KTMS), a democratically elected body, was formed and registered under the Social Welfare Societies’ Law. The KTMS promotes community involvement in planning efforts in Karimabad and also exercises influence on development projects that advance the KCDP land use, infrastructure and road planning components. The KTMS has also attracted donor funding for a sanitation project that has enabled full coverage to Karimabad and the lower village of Ganish. This was in line with the earlier pilot project of rehabilitation and sanitation project for a portion of Khurukshal Village that had succeeded in bringing people back to old settlements that were being abandoned. With increased interest from the community and awareness about the need to plan for development and channel change, Karimabad is in far better shape now than it would have been without the KTMS. There is a new attitude towards the local environment that helps to preserve the farming terraces and encourages the introduction of improved standards of health and hygiene, while reviving sound traditional construction techniques.

The ‘Karakoram Handicraft Development Project’, which was set up to complement the Baltit Fort project, and since 1999 managed by the Karakoram Area Development Organization (KADO), produces small embroidered gift items, sharma (local woollen rugs) and hand-knotted carpets, allowing for increased incomes for thousands of women. KADO also operates a solid-waste disposal program in central Hunza. By mobilizing community resources, providing incentives, and demonstrating evidence of short and long-term benefits, the restored Baltit Fort has transformed Karimabad into a focus of interest in northern Pakistan, while giving local culture a renewed legitimacy in the face of powerful factors of recent change. The project has helped to renew the residents’ pride in their heritage. The restoration of Baltit Fort within its setting of the historic village of Karimabad demonstrates the ability to integrate conservation issues in the larger context of community and regional development.

Altit Fort

Baltit fort

Altit Fort is another of the great landmark monuments of Gilgit-Baltistan. Indeed, the shikari (watchtower) is some three hundred years older than the fi rst phase of Baltit Fort, making it the oldest surviving standing structure in the western Himalayas. Arguably, it is also the most spectacularly sited fort, built on the very edge of the main Hunza gorge. It sits above 200-metre-high sheer cliffs and precipitous slopes that cascade down towards the river. Its importance stems from the control it exercised on the upstream communication routes. The conservation strategy for Altit Fort was to preserve it in its ‘found’, state. Most conservation works therefore related to mending structural defects, stabilizing existing walls, reattaching render to the wall substrate, replacing some roofs, treating wood decay and providing a nominal amount of lighting. However, for the walls that were too unstable, the infill was removed to allow them to be jacked back to more vertical positions and the stone and/or adobe soil blocks replaced in their original positions – making use of detailed survey drawings and photographs. This rather purist concept, an exciting objective in its own right, is significantly different from solutions applied to Baltit Fort, Ganish Village and Shigar Fort. The conservation strategy for Altit Fort also extended to the associated historic garden, to the north of the Fort. Today, the garden is being kept as it is. When one enters the garden it is like stepping back in time. But before starting conservation of Altit Fort, it was decided to first rehabilitate Altitsettlement, in order to allow for heritage-related values to take root more firmly, while reducing negative commercial pressures.

The formation of the Altit Town Management Society (TMS), with a general body including forty per cent of women members and long deliberations about the impact of development, led to a clearer realization by the Altit community of the need to be proactive and involved in the cultural development process. As a result, the interventions in the environmental context, that is, in relation to the historic settlement, the ancient Fort and the built-up or agricultural land, took place under a citizen-managed land-use program, prior to the monument conservation project. Built on rocky, unproductive terrain, the settlement reflects traditional values of land use and conservation in a region scarce in agricultural land. Its historic dwellings exemplify indigenous architectural forms, building techniques and materials well adapted to an environment whose hazards include earthquakes and bitterly cold winters. In addition, the historic settlement, with its compact design and common spaces, supports a culture of cooperation, respect and mutual interdependence that is one of Hunza’s most unique and valuable assets. By the late 1990s, the core settlement of Altit was being abandoned by its residents, largely because of unsanitary living conditions and the inadequacy of houses to support modern life. A consequence of this process was the building of new houses in the surrounding farmland, where families with the financial means could create dwellings with modern facilities and greater living space. The newer houses, with their cement-block construction and rudimentary sanitation systems, contributed to an increase in pollution and a decrease in social cohesion. Moreover, the new construction came at the detriment of the verdant farming terraces and centuries-old fruit orchards that cover the surrounding hillsides. The physical condition of the khun became increasingly dilapidated and its common spaces and historic houses were neglected. Keeping in view the historic, cultural and architectural value of the village, an intervention was conceived that would enhance the value of the old settlement and demonstrate that people can sustain life at contemporary standards in harmony with the traditional built environment. The rehabilitation process included the piping of clean drinking water into each dwelling, the introduction of a modern sanitation system in difficult mountain terrain and the underground electrification of the settlement. In addition, the project undertook the revitalization of common public spaces, improvements to the exterior of the historic houses and the paving of lanes and cul-de-sacs with stone. The project was accomplished with a high level of community participation, and succeeded in changing the attitudes of the people towards the settlement, bringing many families back into their historic residences. It also created a new attitude towards the natural environment, and has thereby nearly stopped the demolition of historic buildings and the random construction of new houses in the scenic farming terraces. In addition to establishing new standards of health and hygiene, it has revived traditional crafts and building techniques developed over centuries.

Shigar Fort

The four-hundred-year-old Shigar Fort was selected for adaptive reuse and restoration as a major strategic investment that would re-establish community identity and confidence by conserving and putting into use one of the major heritage assets of Baltistan, in the rugged high desert mountains of the Karakoram in northern Pakistan. The current function of the Fort/Palace complex as a heritage guest house and museum is having ripple effects in terms of economic benefits for the community, generating employment and training, both in artisanal skills and in tourism. The project provides an income stream for future maintenance of the Fort and to sustain local institutions. The value of cultural heritage has become evident in the region. Community-based planning and rehabilitation of the three traditional settlements of Khlingrong, Chinpa and Halapa surrounding Shigar Fort accompanied the restoration, with three additional villages – Giangpa, Chamaqpa and Agaipa – benefiting from similar rehabilitation efforts subsequently. The upgrading of the Shigar public bazaar and the construction of a community school building using traditional techniques and local materials at Sainkhore were also undertaken. Built on a massive boulder, Shigar Fort is locally known as Fong Khar – literally the Fort on the Rock. Located on the right bank of a mountain stream, slightly elevated above the nearest hamlets of Shigar, it is at the foot of a steep rock formation, a hundred or so meters high, on top of which lie ruins of the original fort.

Raja Hassan Khan, the twentieth ruler of the Amacha dynasty, ascended the throne in 1634, but lost his kingdom to invaders. He managed to regain his throne with the help of forces of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan. The raja brought various artisans including shawl weavers, carpenters, goldsmiths and stone carvers from Kashmir to Shigar and proceeded to build the Fort/Palace. Fong Khar was gradually abandoned in the 1950s in favour of more recent annexes, built in its immediate vicinity. Shigar Fort in its ‘received’ state was an abandoned and neglected building that had undergone many changes. But it was also a wonderfully preserved statement of history. The idea of promoting a new type of environmentally conscious cultural tourism was decisive for the reuse design of Shigar Fort, both in terms of providing new opportunities to residents and of ensuring financial self-sustainability for the restored building. The adaptive reuse plan for the Fort was predicated on transforming it into an exclusive thirteen-room guest house with the grand audience hall and anterooms serving as a museum of Balti woodcarving and local living traditions. The guestrooms – some rather small, others having a comfortable suite character – retain the authentic character of the Fort/Palace as much as possible. Modern furniture and equipment in the rooms is minimal. Many guestrooms feature original or restored woodwork complemented by traditional craft objects and artifacts from the region. Accommodation is geared to an international clientele of connoisseurs, who look for a special experience.

The “Old House”, located at the entry of the compound, has been redesigned and converted to cater for all service functions, including a reception area and museum ticketing. Inside, the building accommodates a kitchen and ground-floor restaurant with outdoor sitting space and an upper-floor lounge with balcony overlooking the stream, a meeting room and administration facilities. The Garden House, with no historic features, was refurbished and extended to offer seven additional guestrooms that are more ‘conventional’ and modern in character, that is, larger and more practical than the average guestroom in the Fort. However, most of the rooms overlook the garden and therefore have a charm of their own. Offering two alternate accommodations enables the complex to cater for different tastes and types of clients. Beyond its architectural and environmental merits, this project is the first attempt to achieve a wider cultural development initiative in Gilgit-Baltistan based on the promotion of a new type of culturally and ecologically sensitive tourism. The location of Shigar on the access route towards some of the highest mountains in the world and the metalled road between Skardu and Shigar facilitates marketing of the guest-house complex. Guests have the opportunity to engage in short treks in the vicinity, or to indulge in trout fi shing. They can climb Shigar rock, visit the hot springs at Chutron (two hours from Shigar), visit monuments in Shigar and Skardu, or take day-tours to Khaplu, Kiris and Kharmang, or Deosai. The development of local institutional capabilities has been vigorously pursued by the Aga Khan Cultural Services-Pakistan (AKCS-P), resulting in the formation of the Shigar Town Management and Development Society (TMDS), an active partner for all projects and activities in Shigar. The TMDS as an institution that consolidates and brings together the thinking of the Shigar community on matters related to culture and tourism has been an essential mechanism, acting as a bridge and allowing for the articulation and discussion of views, while also allowing for information and news to reach the community in a considered and comprehensive manner. The project provided an opportunity to act as a catalyst for a comprehensive improvement of the local economy, generating direct and indirect employment opportunities. Situated in the immediate proximity of a poor and unskilled village population, it was thought the Shigar Fort Residence project could raise the quality of life in the villages surrounding it, and boost economic enterprises in the bazaar area. This process was accompanied by a proactive village upgrading and rehabilitation program that has reached almost twenty-five per cent of the households of Shigar’s two union councils.

Khaplu Palace

Khaplu is the easternmost part of Baltistan, with the Shyok River, a tributary of the Indus River dividing the valley. The steeply sloped valley has less land available than other valleys in Baltistan. However, in terms of architectural heritage and cultural expression it arguably has more treasures than Shigar, possibly as a result of its proximity to both Leh in Ladakh and Srinagar in Kashmir. In Baltistan, a region rich in cultural heritage, Khaplu Palace is the finest surviving royal residence. Built by the Yabgo Raja Daulat Ali Khan in 1840, it replaced an earlier fort constructed 600 metres above the present location, of which little now remains. As a former seat of royal government, the Palace is exemplary in terms of its building typology and aesthetic and structural qualities. Following the inauguration of the restored Baltit Fort in 1996, His Highness the Aga Khan visited Baltistan where he emphasized the role of culture in development and environmental management in an address to a large gathering, This led to an invitation to the Aga Khan Cultural Services-Pakistan (AKCS-P) to extend its activities to Baltistan. An exploratory expert mission was sent to Baltistan in 1997 to visit over eighty sites. This was followed up by systematic inventories in 1998 and following years establishing that the cultural heritage of Baltistan was worthy of international recognition. Among the pilot projects that were implemented by AKCS-P in Baltistan, in Khaplu the upgrading of a typical traditional house, the construction of a community building and the restoration of the astana (or tomb and shrine of a venerated saint) of Syed Mir Mohammed were initiated in 1998.

The surveys had established Khaplu Palace and Shigar Fort as the two landmark buildings with outstanding historic and architectural merit. While work following a successful dialogue with the raja of Shigar and the community was started on Shigar Fort, in the case of Khaplu the understanding for its restoration was reached when the benefi ts of restoration and reuse of Shigar Fort became visible in 2005. Rehabilitation of the historic settlements of Hunduli and Banpi was initiated in 2002, using simple, low-cost interventions such as improved composting, the creation of community latrines and of places for washing clothes, as well as bathrooms for men and women. Piped water delivery was improved and stone paving of the pathways and streets was put in place. Meanwhile the establishment of the Khaplu Town Management and Development Society (TMDS) as the local community institution, along the same lines as the TMS bodies nurtured in Hunza, allowed for local ownership of the development. In 2005 Khaplu Palace itself was gifted by the rajas Zakria Ali Khan and Nasir Ali Khan to the Aga Khan Development Network (AKDN) and its agencies, the Aga Khan Foundation (AKF) and AKCS-P, to facilitate the conservation of Khaplu Palace as a heritage site. In addition to direct benefit through a share in the profits (30%), the local economy also benefi ts through employment, purchase of local goods wherever possible and the stimulation of tourism services in the town. As was the case in Shigar, increased visitor numbers resulted from this work. The reuse plan drawn up for Khaplu Palace has at its core the intent to operate the site as a guest house and restaurant similar in nature to Shigar Fort. The use of the complex for a number of complimentary purposes is central to the reuse plan and future financial sustainability of Khaplu Palace and Residence (KPR). Khaplu Palace complex can be grouped into four main areas.

The Palace (Yabgo Khar) is four storeys high including the basement, and has been used as a seat of govern ance, grain store and royal residence. From the outside, the building appears to be one structural unit but detailed examination of the internal structure suggests that it was built during a number of different construction phases. Its form and internal organization are strongly influenced by the Kashmiri manor-house typology, with rooms arranged in a rectangular grid around a central courtyard. Given its significance, the Palace is being treated as a Grade 1 listed building. Six rooms at the rear of the fi rst and second floors are being adapted with minimum compromise of conservation standards, to provide guest suites with modern comforts. The more historically signi cant rooms at the front of the building that were used by the raja as living and reception spaces are being incorporated into an interpretative museum open to the public. There are also ceremonial gardens (Chaoni Tzar, Ra Tzar) – two formally organized garden spaces adjacent to the Palace – and historic landscape. The Chaoni Tzar, which forms a key part of the ceremonial entrance sequence, was (according to an account by the raja) formerly laid out as a chahar-bagh Persian garden, with geometrical areas separated by watercourses. In more recent times it was used as a ceremonial gathering space beneath the Palace where the raja could preside over celebrations and hold court.

Hunza valley

Hunza valley

A British General and a garrison of solders on horseback investigated the Hunza River Valley in the 1870s. Hunza was a tiny kingdom located in a remote valley 100 miles (160 km) long and only one mile (1.6 km) wide, situated at an elevation of 8,500 feet (2590 m), and completely enclosed by mountain peaks. These peaks soar to a height of 25,550 feet (7788 m) and belong to the Karakoram Range, broadly known in the West as the Himalayas. Hunza is now part of Pakistan in the northern section bordering on Afghanistan, Russia, China, Kashmir, and India. The Kilik Pass leads to Russia and the Mintaka Pass to China.

The pass to reach Hunza from Gilgit, Pakistan, was 13,700 feet (4176 m) high, a difficult and treacherous trail. Upon entering the valley, the British found the steep, rocky sides of the valley lined with terraced garden plots, fruit trees, and animals being raised for meat and milk. The gardens were watered with mineral-rich glacier water carried by an aqueduct system running a distance of 50 miles (80 km) from the Ultar Glacier on the 25,550 foot (7788 m) high Mount Rakaposhi. The wooden aqueduct trough was hung from the sheer cliffs by steel nails hammered into the rock walls. Silt from the river below was carried up the side of the valley to form and replenish the terraced gardens. The average annual precipitation in Hunza is less than two inches.

Ultar Peak rising above Baltit, the capital of Hunza, is spectacular. The Old Palace is on the hill above the village. The difficult trail into Hunza kept the people isolated. As late as 1950, most of the children of Hunza had never seen a wheel or a Jeep even though airplanes were landing at the airport in Gilgit, Pakistan, only 70 miles (112 km) away. John Clark reported in his book, Hunza – Lost Kingdom of the Himalayas, that he could see three peaks above 25,000 feet and eleven glaciers all at once from Shishpar Glacier Nullah (canyon) overlooking the Hunza valley.

The Hunzakuts, as they are called, had signed a peace treaty with their neighboring communities about 10 years prior to the arrival of the British. They had been a warrior community preying upon the Chinese trading caravans as they traveled the high mountain passes between Sinkiang and Kashmir. The Hunzakuts profited for a time by their thievery, plunder, and murder, but they were hated by their neighbors. According to Hunzakut folklore, a peace treaty was signed because the Mir’s son convinced his father to end their murderous ways. Burushaski, the language of the Hunzakuts, is much different from other languages of the region and appears to be a mixture of the languages. However, the people also learned to speak the written Urdu language of Pakistan and other languages of the region.

The terraced gardens were extensive with up to 50 cascading levels. The people lived in communities below. It was a considerable distance to walk to work in the fields. They had no roads or wheeled carts. All the grain and other produce was transported to the homes on the backs of men and animals. Everything in Hunza valley was always in short supply except crumbling rocks. Fuel for heating and cooking was severely limited, and fodder for feeding the animals was precious. Animal dung was used for garden fertilizer rather than fuel for fires as was done elsewhere. Supplies from outside of the valley were limited by the difficulty in bring goods over the high mountain pass. Highly prized goods brought in from the outside included guns, knifes, tools, metal pots, stoves, lamps, cotton cloth, silk cloth, thread, needles, matches, mirrors, glassware, and some construction metals such as bolts, rods, sheet, and plate. As late as 1951, these items had to be carried on the backs of men or animals. In past centuries traditional dress and bedding were made from sheepskins and other animal hides.

The original valley was mostly bare rock with a very limited amount of indigenous plant life. The sudden appearance of the vegetation in contrast to the surrounding barren rock earned the valley the description of being Shangri-La or the Garden of Eden. Given the hard work required to tend the gardens and animals, the description of Garden of Eden certainly did not apply to the Hunza River Valley.

Mir Muhammed Ghazan Khan I ruled from 1864 to 1886. Folklore stories say he sent his brother a gift of a cloak impregnated with smallpox and murdered his uncle and other brothers, but the facts are rather unknown. He was murdered in 1886 by Safdar Ali Khan who became the new ruler of Hunza. Mir Safdar Ali Khan is shown in the picture at the left. Click the picture to see an enlargement. In 1891 an expedition of 5,000 men lead by British Colonel Algernon Durand was attacked by the Hunzakut leader, Mir Safdar Ali Khan. The Mir fled to China and was replaced by his half-brother, Muhammed Nazim Klan. Mir Nazim Klan died in 1938 of mysterious causes, and it is highly suspect that his son, Muhammed Ghazan Khan II, was involved in his death. He died in 1946 and was replaced by his son, Muhammed Jamal Khan. Mir Muhammed Jamal Khan was deposed in 1974 by Pakistan although he maintained his property in Hunza. He died in Gilgit, Pakistan, in 1976 were he also had a residence. Mir Muhammed Jamal Khan could also speak perfect English because he had been educated by the British as a boy. His descendents maintain their royal titles but have no ruling authority in Hunza.

The Original Hunza People.

Hunza village

The members of the Hunza Communtity, consisting of 87,000 people live in the mountains of northern Pakistan with an average life-span of about 120 years. In some rare cases they even live until the age of 160, often without experiencing problems for the first 120 years. In fact, Said Abdul Mobudu, a member of the Hunza community confused immigration officers in London a few years ago because his passport stated his birth year as 1832.

The history of these people is even more fascinating. The Hunzas claim to be the descendants of Alexander the Great. Their community came into being at the time of the conquest, as they settled into the village and consequently married among themselves. A community rarely mentioned in mainstream discourse, the Hunzas are actually a perfect example of how following the healthiest form of a diet, can increase life-span and improve health conditions. It seems they are from another planet, but in reality they just have a different lifestyle. According to a post published by healthisportal.com, they rarely fall sick. In fact, there hasn’t been a single case of tumours reported amongst them. Thanks to their healthy way of living, the Hunzas look very youthful even at an advanced age and most interestingly, the women give birth till they are 65!

Their diet consists of food they have grown themselves, including raw fruits and vegetables, nuts, a lot of dried apricots, a variety of cereals (mainly millet, buckwheat and barley), legumes and less cheese, milk and eggs. Apricot seeds are rich in vitamin B-17, which explains why they are unknown to tumours. The vitamins in apricot seeds have anticancer properties and the Hunzas are known to use those seeds to make oil. Meat consumption is not common amongst the Hunzas and they would probably indulge in it just a couple of times a year, mostly consisting of lamb or chicken generally consumed for breakfast or lunch. Reportedly, they also walk 15-20 kilometres a day, a far more gruelling workout than the average 3 kilometres of cardio many of us resort to in gyms.

They also follow a religious tradition, where, for a period of four to five months they do not consume anything but only drink juice from dried apricot. This takes place at the time of the year when they are waiting for their staple diet-fruits, to be ripe again. Some doctors believe that their diet of raw, fresh food combined with exercise is the key factor contributing to their long and healthy life-span. Unfortunately, the impact of globalisation has managed to permeate through to their community thus introducing unhealthy industrial foods. This has also resulted in the appearance of caries and gastrointestinal problems, illnesses that never existed in the community before.

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