The search for Shangri-La.jpg

The search for Shangri-La

b>By Nigel Wright [email protected]

Nigel Wright and his wife Sue moved to Portugal five years ago and live in the countryside near Paderne with their three dogs. They lived and worked in the Far and Middle East during the 1980s and 90s and although now retired, still continue to travel as much possible and enjoy new cultural experiences. His other interests include tennis, gardening, photography and petanque.

Our tour-group’s mini-bus shuddered to a halt in a cloud of dust in front of a huge landslide of boulders from the mountains above. The road was completely blocked. We were travelling the Karakorum Highway (KKH), one of the world’s classic motoring journeys, and were delayed for two hours while the Pakistan Army Frontier Group cleared a route for the traffic.

Entertainment during our delay was provided by a group of entrepreneurial young boys from a nearby village selling local farm produce and splendid woollen hats.

Landslides caused by earthquakes occur frequently here in Kohistan province as it lies at the epicentre of two colliding continents – the Indian tectonic plate grinding inexorably into the Asian plate at the reckless speed (geologically speaking) of 5cm per year.

Our journey, following the ancient Silk Road, had begun in Peshawar, a city strategically important due to its close proximity to the legendary Khyber Pass. For thousands of years, Peshawar was the centre of the Silk Road caravan trade between Europe and Central Asia. We had visited the teeming bazaars of the old town and seen the squalor of the nearby Afghan refugee camps before driving to the peace and quiet of the verdant Swat Valley.  

This valley, famous for honey and green tea, was once the home of ancient Buddhism and is unquestionably one of the most beautiful places we have ever seen. Sadly, there was no time to linger and our route took us over the scenic Shingla Pass before descending into the bleak forbidding Indus Valley. Here we met the KKH for the first time. It is an engineering marvel that stretches for over 800 km from Islamabad through some of the world’s highest mountains to the Chinese border. In one of the many hidden valleys among these mountains, we hoped to find Shangri-La.

Shangri-La in Hunza Valley. Photo: SUPPLIED
Shangri-La in Hunza Valley. Photo: SUPPLIED

The Roof of the World

For a whole day, our expert driver slowly negotiated the bumpy road that clung to the precipitous unstable rock walls of the Indus Valley. Occasionally we would come across the ancient caravan route with ancient petroglyphs and Buddhist symbols carved into the rock. We stopped overnight in Chilas before arriving in a bleak and arid landscape where the barren soil is baked by the fierce summer sun, shattered by the frost of the cold dry winters and eroded by constant gales.

We had arrived at the Roof of the World. Here, the world’s three greatest mountain ranges meet near the confluence of the Indus and Gilgit rivers.

The Himalayan, Karakorum and Hindu Kush mountains – all with peaks above 25,000’ were formed by the buckling of the earth’s crust as the two continents crashed together. The most westerly of the great Himalayan peaks, the awesome snow covered Nanga Parbat, filled the sky to the east.

Mount Rakaposhi and glacier melt waters. Photo: SUPPLIED
Mount Rakaposhi and glacier melt waters. Photo: SUPPLIED

On arrival at Gilgit, a quiet and pleasant town with an airstrip and a famous polo field – the game was allegedly born here – we explored the bazaar. It was full of Pakistani and Chinese carpets, footwear, embroideries and woollen goods. It was not difficult to imagine that for 2,000 years, regardless of the hazards of the tortuous mountainous terrain, traders used this market. Their mule trains would have carried silk, tea and porcelain from China to barter for gold, ivory, jewels and spices from India. Nowadays the town is host to modern adventurers as some of the world’s finest mountain climbing and trekking begins here.

Shangri-La – the Hunza Valley

Our route carried us north from Gilgit along the Hunza River and, as we climbed higher, the glorious Mount Rakaposhi dominated the view. This graceful 25,560’ peak, sublime under moonlight, is regarded as the loveliest of all northern Pakistan’s mountains. We were approaching our Shangri-La, the little town of Karimabad in the stunningly beautiful Hunza Valley. The name Shangri-La comes from James Hilton’s novel Lost Horizon, where he describes a country of peace and contentment.

It is a truly spectacular region. Graceful poplar trees, lush green cultivated fields and fruit orchards are irrigated by glacial melt water and the beautiful valley has an astonishing backdrop of snow-covered mountains, all in excess of 20,000’.

The cheerful, friendly and allegedly very long-lived Hunzakut people, some of whom have fair hair and blue eyes, are believed to descend from wandering soldiers from the conquering army of Alexander the Great who arrived here 23 centuries ago. Most are Ismaili Muslims, followers of the Aga Khan. His excellent charity network, supported by the Pakistani Government, has built health centres and schools in local villages, and developed small businesses and a vibrant handicraft industry. Society in this Shangri-La is ‘co-operative’ rather than competitive with little difference in people’s wealth. The diet is healthy and the local apricots particularly tasty.

An interesting stroll through the town and its picturesque market took us to the Baltit Fort, partly built on huge wooden legs. Its history can be traced back 700 years and its architecture is Tibetan style. The fort, with its fabulous views of the valley, is now a fascinating museum.

Our short stay in this beautiful and hospitable place was sufficient to persuade us that the Hunza Valley was indeed the perfect model for Shangri-La. The construction of the KKH has brought tourists to the region, no doubt providing welcome additional wealth for the local people. Despite the perfection of the scenery, the cleanliness of the air and the fertility of the soil, life is hard for the Hunzakuts, as it is elsewhere in northern Pakistan.

Pakistan’s present problems

Since we made this wonderful journey just a few years ago, there has been a significant deterioration to security for travellers in the Indus region. This year’s ferocious monsoon caused widespread destruction and an enormous landslip has closed the mountain highway between China and the Hunza valley. Unfortunately, due to its close proximity to Afghanistan and activities by militants, all the areas around Peshawar have become unsafe. Access to the Swat valley is not advised due to on-going military operations against the Taliban, and travel along the KKH is not recommended for foreigners! However, the airstrip at Gilgit does give access to this glorious part of the world through daily flights from major Pakistani cities. We are sure that the industrious local travel agents can organise tickets for adventurous foreign tourists, so access to Shangri-La is still possible. It is a remote and quite extraordinary travel destination.