Friday, July 25, 2008

Ain't no valley

The Hunza valley is the most populated part of the Northern Areas, and there are lush green shelves of land that stick out into the valley, fed by water channels from on high, giving a dash of colour to an otherwise harsh and barren landscape. Below them roars the frothy cappucino river. Here in Karimabad the tap water is a dirty grey colour, full of mica, which gives the green tea a bit of texture, and your hair a sheen after it's washed. After the market town of Gilgit, and the fields of Minapin, this village is a challenge on the legs - it sits on a narrow ridge high above the KKH with roads that only go up or down in large serpentine bends. The main street has a clutch of tourist shops and hotels, and high on the hill above is the Baltit Fort - the restored palace from where the local Mir once ruled. Hunza only became fully part of Pakistan in 1974. One local shopkeeper says he'd have preferred to join China, for the lack of development and investment in the area since then. The people here are mainly Ismaili Muslims, a more liberal strain, and women are more visible, literally, because they don't cover their faces with their scarves. And although some may feel they are neglected by their government, the Ismaili leader, the Aga Khan, has provided schools and health clinics through his foundation across the area.
The cloudy rainy weather continues for a couple of days, obscuring the views of the bigger mountains, and forcing us to take it easy. We take a walk through Altit, a 1,000 year-old settlement below Karimabad. A young woman invites us into her house for a cup of tea. The house is a single room with a TV, a two-ring gas stove, microwave, cupboard and a pile of bedding. There's a tap outside. We chat a little whilst she carries out the tea-making ritual - milk heated in a pan with tea and water and a little salt to taste. Salt? Yep, in these parts the locals add salt to their chai, not sugar. It's an interesting flavour, let's say. Not wishing to be rude, we polish off our mugfuls and try to turn the conversation to her children, but she's not distracted and gaily fills our mugs up again. It's truly an awful drink to our untrained tastebuds. We finally say our farewells - the salty taste lingers, but the memory of this woman's kindness to strangers remains longer.
There's a stunning walk up behind Karimabad which we do the following day with Johann and Maja from Switzerland. It leads up through the fields to a water channel that has been built in the cliff face of a gorge. The channel hangs over a mighty drop and takes an age to traverse. Finally we reach the glacier that feeds it and climb up alongside up to a meadow where animals graze. There is a circle of mountains around us, and a high pass which we aim for to get views over the valley. The climb seems endless, but the views are stunning. We eat our lunch on a rocky perch and watch a clutch of big birds spiral up towards us on currents. Before us lies the Hunza valley and a range of big snowy mountains. We gaze in awe.

Diran and Rakaposhi peaks

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